Long Beach based fine art photographer Liezel Rubin has been pushing creative limits for years. Her new work, on exhibit at MADE in Long Beach through Sunday, November 29, is a thoughtful rumination on life, and death. Sparked by the unexpected loss of a close friend, the work explores the blurry lines between dream and wakefulness, fantasy and reality, and the transition from life to after-life. Like nearly all of her work, it reflects her wit, and her willingness to gaze deeply at things that make some people uncomfortable.
In this video interview, Rubin speaks about her earlier work, which depicted elaborate stagings of fetish models interacting with clowns and little people, her lifelong fascination with circus entertainers, and her journey to this new way of working.
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my name is Lisl Rubin and I am a photographer so tell me a little bit about what you were doing before you came to the work that you're exhibiting now at made okay sure um so the work that I was doing before is actually completely different than what I am presenting it made I did a lot of photography it's all the same bits photography but my previous work was very on the edge of camp where I had very outrageous characters I had little people that I used throughout my shoots drunken clowns with fetish models and all sorts of zany characters like old ladies and fetish models and and a lot of them were all about different stories but the whole purpose was to push boundaries and to go on the edge of a you know camp to be campy uh not go on the edge of it so you had like a lot of photographers that were pinup photographers erotic photographers well that's what I was but I took it to a different level because I wanted to find the humor and all of it and I wanted to have a good time while doing it also the work was uh kind of you were creating these theatrical happenings these seems he's these moments are these unfolding yes door and they all had storylines I mean they were like you know I had one where it was a midget pimp and all these prostitutes one of the prostitutes was a chick with a dick on roller skates because I thought it was really fun to say that so I wanted to be able to say chick with the dick on roller skates all the time and so as you know all sorts of zany characters um but they all had storylines you know and a lot of it was based on white trash and a lot of it was just based on sexuality like one photo shoot we turned a bus into a whore house on wheels and then we had all sorts of crazy characters within that mixed with in the fetish models and so I mean I remember doing one shoot where it was a clown Party an emmy party they called some strippers stripper showed up and then you know next thing you know clowns are making out with strippers and they're playing twister and it's just crazy so yeah it's you know and the work I do now is completely different you know back then it was a lot of time and a lot of money working with film and having to have makeup artists and set up location shoots and everything that was involved with producing one photo shoot to produce for one show was just it was outrageous as well as the chutes were but it was well worth it i mean i wouldn't trade that for for anything now now the difference between what I do now is I actually started working with people that I know shooting them and some of them it worked and some of them it didn't the ones that it worked with were actually people who are used to doing their character for instance the magician like this is someone who is a costume designer he does the pirate for the Renaissance so he does all that stuff all the time so he's very in tune with who his character is versus friends that are you know we just put clothes on and we tried it it didn't read so I ended up thinking about it and decided why not go to Renaissance Fairs Civil War reenactments dickens festival because all those people they had been doing this for years they've got their characters down their wardrobes everything to a tee so that's what I started doing it saved me a lot in terms of you know all the costs of costume and and makeup and all that because it was already completely handled for themselves so then it was the next step my original photography I used to do was raw like I didn't do any editing to it it is what it is the work are you now is all photoshop so I photograph I go to Renaissance Fairs and all that and I photograph everything I photographed people posing for me I photograph people walking away people doing different movements and i even when i'm visualizing killing someone in a photo I've gone to the extremes of having them do the different poses to ascending or descending and or with the Siamese twins I'll have them do different poses whether they're going to be both sides of the hole so then it's basically a lot of editing and using channels and Photoshop to clip out what I want to use out of each picture and then creating the storyline and then creating it by layering and doing special effects and layering so each piece usually takes that could be around 40 hours give or take and the same with layers as far as Photoshop later layers it could be 60 to 100 layers so I have some some raw the the layered files for some of these are like one gig you know bigger than that 1.2 gigs so and how many images you have in this particular show at me so in the show it made I think it's around 40 around 38 so if you multiply 40 x 40 that's a lot of our well that's not this is like maybe one third of the work right I mean I have a lot of pieces that are not in the show a lot of sites showpieces a lot of ghosted pieces that that just wasn't enough room so what sent you from where you were doing these sort of theatrical scenes where it was all rod and mediate to these very very complicated photoshop based the work that you're doing now what was that transition death so now my new work is really about the other world this world all the different levels of of you know this isn't just dead this can't just be it i mean there's so much more to to existence than this and so it really touches on the different ways that meet we may interact or see spirits and it came from my best friend growing up she passed away at 39 years old and left I was pretty devastated her ex-husband lives in Sweden and so her three-year-old son who I was helping raise went to Sweden and you kind of left with not just the person dying but kind of losing everything and I went into a dark place and and I really didn't know how he's going to get out of it and it took this work for me to look at this and look at myself and and look at you know communicating with the dead which I've done for you know throughout my life on many occasions whether it's like going to a cemetery and getting orbs or really weird things in my pictures or actually communicating with spirits I mean I've done it but you know when someone that close to you dies I don't know it's it's a whole different story than just you know dealing with spirits or spirituality or whatever that's when I actually looked into my to myself to try and find myself to try and make sense of it to try and because she died really unexpectedly it was like an aneurysm and then she was gone so for me this work really saved my life I mean I was and I and I did it in the dark I worked in the dark I worked through the night you know till three four in the morning slept in the day I didn't I didn't leave the house unless I had to and you know after getting through a large part of it it just kind of was a release to me and it was like it's you know she may be gone but she's always going to be there and she still is there you know and now I have this work that really resonates with within me to really look at how we communicate how we can learn from it how we can evolve ourselves through understanding it you've shown the work a few times I know that you've shown it locally a couple times and and I'm just curious how do people engage with it what does have you noticed how people kind of communicate with and respond to the work you know I it wasn't until this show I I mean you know the first show that I showed that was a gallery in san pedro and I mean people liked it and I sold some work and but there wasn't I don't know it was it was lacking in the experience part of it you know in the people sharing their experience part of it the other show was at portfolio and that was it wasn't really an opening or anything like that it was up there and people really liked it and that's great but there was no like open communication about it and it wasn't made that like it became a conversation it became something that caused people to communicate with each other and share their ideas or feelings can you talk a little bit about a particular piece kind of break it down and explain the process that you went through to bring all of the elements together okay sure what piece well I know that you were saying that the first piece that you worked on the magician was the magician ok so the magician I'm actually expanded from the original piece which was called levitation fantastic and basically that one I was a one I the person I shot him in my studio and so basically I had him do a lot of different poses you know to to be able to do lots of different magic tricks so this one basically he was doing this with his fingers and what I did was I created a stage with different photos that I had clipped out curtains did a wood stage kind of vintage II looking and then I started shooting what objects like a grandfather clock a rabbit in a hat excuse me and other elements that are in it and basically the whole idea was that as he lifted his fingers and made himself float so with everything on stage flow so what I did was I shot all the different elements that I was going to use I went into Photoshop and I clipped him out and and then I'm not going to tell you the tricks on how I make the smoky effects and all that but it's not just one layer it's a combination of different layers with different settings and different opacities overlapping and not overlapping that that create the realistic perspective so like you look at a shadow of yourself on the floor it's not just like people who go into Photoshop and they go okay choose shadow on that layer that's not how shadows work that's not natural a shadow is different different depending on the different aspects of light it's going to go in different directions and maybe this direction it's going to tweak a little and warp this one it's going to be darker and solid closer to your foot or whatever so I did a lot of special effects like that and what I did was like also dropping the shadows on the ground you know that's the thing it's got to be overlapped and and different opacities in different settings so else why don't you give me some more detail about some of the other images that you have in the show okay so let's see well some of the work has ghosts in it some have orbs in it some really look more in spirituality than it does spirits or ghosts so it's kind of covering spirituality spirits ghosts magic and make-believe one of the pieces for example that talks about ghosts it's a civil war doctor it's actually not even the doctor it's a the who's the Dead Guy on the trigger the Undertaker thank you very much so it's a picture of an undertaker standing in morning next to a young man who is dead in a coffin and he's tilted up so you can you know so he's posing like side by side and in that piece what I did was I took other images where I clipped out the boy that's in the coffin and I turned him into a ghost that was coming out of his own flesh belly so it's you know about when the body leaves when the soul leaves the body when the body leaves the soul when the soul leaves the body and and what that could look like and in this instance you know it just I just felt that coming out of his core was the way to depict it other instances another piece that I did that a lot of people once I started doing this work and people were seeing my work and I was you know becoming friendly and familiar with the people at the Renaissance Fairs and Dickens festivals and such someone was telling me a story about Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd Lincoln and how after he died she was very very much into spirits and spirituality and ghosts and would do seances all the time and they told me about a photo sitting she did for herself and that they go stood in Abraham Lincoln's face in the background and how that affected her on such an intense level that she held on to that photo kept it near to her to her death and it just had such an intense impact on her and and how she felt about him dying in and how she felt about her connection with them in connection with the dead that I felt impelled to reenact that photo and so I did it to a level a different level where it was the entire sitting not just the torso and I actually didn't even photograph Mary Todd and Abraham together they were one was photographed in San Pedro at one of their events and the other one was photographed I think Huntington Beach Civil War Reenactment was where I photographed Abraham Lincoln and basically I had she was sitting so that was the easy part and for him I just wanted his hand out so it rested on her shoulder so there was actual physical connection between the two and so that was that was a fun challenge it was something that I really really wanted to do and do it to a more advanced level with technology today versus back then so that was I really enjoyed doing that and there were pieces where I have a boy whose you know fading out in the legs and he's running across the battlefield and that really was to to tell the story about the young kids a lot of young boys died in the war and a lot of them were messengers and in this piece I just wanted to depict that you know he's going to deliver a message and he's going through the battlefields and he never made it yet here his ghost is still trying to deliver that message you also have several images of Siamese twins yes i have Siamese twins i did a recreation that's not in the show of the Elephant Man where he had done a press sitting where they photographed him and stuff him i recreated that I turned normal people into little people I've done a lot of stuff like that and I've just had a connection with the sideshow and freaks since I was young so it was just another way to incorporate that to pay homage to those people who are of course long gone and ghosts now I also did a few pieces on the what's the what's a guy like I killed all the people in London Jackie yeah Jack the Ripper I did a couple Jack the Ripper pieces to that I don't know I wanted to touch on different subjects whether it be a negative versus positive I mean when I was on when I was working for the Queen Mary you know going down the hallway where be 340 actually is the room where this man who killed all these people and then took his own life you know you can feel the energy and it's a negative energy and and when you look at spirituality and ghosts and that kind of thing you know you have to look at everything you have to look at the the negative and the positive and so I mean there's images of you know demons coming through like devilish looking people or or what's ghosted in or in the background of the images of someone standing there is that you know there's some of the pieces I did where people's reflections you know in a mirror come back is I did a which is not in the show I actually was hired to do this Marie Antoinette where I her reflection one of them her head was decapitated and there was like the gallows you could see the gallows in the reflection in the mirror her with her head in a basket and you know I did different ones of her so it's about looking at all the aspects of it and the the the question that I meant to ask you earlier is you mentioned that this was something that you've been connected with since your childhood how did that happen uh you mean like sideshows and oh I just had I just had a thing ever since I was young I had a thing for little people for clowns for the weirdness you know I worked I remember i worked at long beach convention center and I wasn't uh sure for many years when I was 18 and you know that's when the three-ring circus Barnum & Bailey would come to town and you wouldn't find me the week they were in town I would be down at the trains hanging out and like weird zone I mean it was like you ever see one of elephants wear these people stick together these people stick to get all the different you know in all the different cultures all the different groups of people they isolated themselves and they stuck within their own and it was fascinating to go down there and be in that world even till what was it maybe four five years ago four years ago maybe there was a Italian circus that came to town I ended up meeting one of the contortionists and I spent the entire weekend at the circus and it was that was incredible that was like a experience in a lifetime just like hanging down at the train tracks with the others was but it was the matriarch of the family passed away and he ran the circus so it was a said there was this whole service of it passing down to the next generation and they had the table going across the ring with the white cloth on it and bread and wine and the head it was a big feast it was incredible experience um I don't know I mean I was a clown for eight years so I don't know I've just always had a thing and then where do you you've done this amazing amount of work that with all this this time and thought and an artistry what's what's next for you where are you planning to go from here more death well no I mean yeah yeah more death I I have so much work that I've already clipped the people out and just haven't had time to start those pieces because again one piece takes a long time but you know hopefully in the next few months I'll be able to get back to that and start working on some new pieces I like what I'm working on now I'm don't object to like shooting with little people and fetish models any you know i'll still give that to like i'm open to everything um I definitely like to do lots of road trips I have a whole series I've done for many many many years where everywhere I go whenever I go on vacation or road trips I always stop in in cemeteries and generally they're really off the wall cemeteries or historical cemeteries and so I have years and years and years of documenting cemeteries all over the place as well well thank you so much thank you