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On view today and tomorrow at Lume Studios in New York is an exhibition of imaginative photographs by Jordan Millington. Entitled “Evolution of Innocence,” the show spotlights our evolving idea of innocence and the factors that change its meaning, importance, and actuality from childhood through adulthood. Starring in the presentation’s dynamic images—ranging from childlike fairytale to unforgettable nightmare—is the nightlife impresario and LGBTQ+ icon Susanne Bartsch.
In the dreamlike images, evoking reverie and fantasy, we see Bartsch in both comfortable and uncomfortable settings; a reality she knows well, expressively dressed in larger-than-life costumes, wigs, and accessories daily. But for this specific shoot, Millington melded his idea of life through the lens of his younger self, coupled with today’s reality of his maturing mental health.
Ahead of its opening, Whitewall spoke with Millington and Bartsch about their evolutions of innocence, how they’re creating a world of fantasy for the rest of us, and what they’re working on in 2022.
WHITEWALL: Why was “Evolution of Innocence” an idea you wanted to explore? Did you have a starting point?
JORDAN MILLINGTON: It all started with two concepts that I’ve been playing with for several years! One dealt with having fun and interacting with large shapes covered in comfy fabric, along with other kid-like elements. The other was very dark and heavy. I wanted to make large inkblots and use them to set the tone for the subject matter to let go and lose themself in the dark emotions we can all go through during life. At first I was going to make these two separate shoots, but then I got to thinking that a very interesting narrative could be strung between the two. From there, I decided to make it one shoot and give it the title “Evolution of Innocence."
WW: Why did you want to photograph Susanne Bartsch? Do you feel she embraces this theme?
JM: Susanne is filled with love and joy! Seeing her produce Nemacolin Resort’s Pride Event, I could tell she made everything she did fun! She is also down-to-earth and very real. For this project, I needed someone who could understand both sides of life. The innocent child portion of the shoot came very naturally to Susanne.
In the first shot, she was in a mini house wrapped in green fabric, waving her legs in the air having a blast! On the other hand, Susanne could understand the emotionally heavier side of things, but she is such a happy person that she had to make it fun in her own way. She would give me emotions that ranged from anxiety, depression, envy, and hysteria but would end each shot with a silly joke, or she would bend over and smile at me between her legs! She made the hard parts very fun and light-hearted.
WW: What is your personal evolution of innocence like? Do images in the show reflect that?
JM: As a child, I started out very innocent. I remember going places and feeling a sense of “wow,” and feelings of wonder. I feel like I didn’t have a true understanding of what everything was. I was experiencing and absorbing how it made me feel; I never gave a definition to what was going on or what I was seeing.
As I grew into my early teens, I began to deal with many mental health issues. Life began to become very challenging for me. It wasn’t until I read A New Earth Awakening Your Life Purpose by Eckhart Tolle that my mental health improved. For me, it’s very important to be open about mental health and to take the stigma away. I’ve been working on my mental health for some time now. I feel like I started to feel like my fun-loving childhood self again around the age of 24.
I’m 27 now, and I’m finally able to have new moments of clarity and a feeling of wonderment! I have feelings of a fresh sense of innocence. When I go on a new adventure my body and mind fill with pure joy. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it feels magical!
Throughout the creative process of coming up with the shoot, and shooting the story, I suspended my adult reality. I had fun, I dreamt, I played pretend, I was curious, and was filled with adventure. I feel like everyone on the shoot was filled with this energy, looking at the images I can see the silly fun innocent energy behind Susanne's beautiful eyes.
WW: How would you describe your role as a photographer? What does it help you tell?
JM: I love to be involved with all aspects through the pre-production of a photoshoot and during it. I love to stick my foot in it and get all the details ironed out prior to the shoot so the shoot is fluid. It allows everyone to be creative and play! Being on set, I feel like a kid on the playground. It's a full-out wild time, jumping from the styling room and the glam room to sitting with my producer/manager and working out logistics; going to work on lighting with my grip and gaffer team; working with the production design team; talking with the movement directors; and, of course, talking to the talent to get to know them and dive into the concept so they are fully prepared to be into their character.
Through photos and videos, I’m able to create a new reality in this world. The stories I tell are actually happening in real life. I love to create real props and make new worlds to play in. It may be pretend, but I want everyone on set, and the viewer of the final photo, to be taken to a fantastic place in their mind—to be swept away from their current reality, and to dream and romance about playing with life. To have fun and to see that you can suspend reality and indulge in whatever fantasy you desire.
WW: Susanne, you’ve been a staple in nightlife culture for decades. Can you tell us a bit about your start, and how it has evolved into your career today?
SUSANNE BARTSCH: To me, it’s more than nightlife. It’s bringing people together—from different cultures, sexualities, uptown/downtown. Nightlife is a great platform to do this. Pre-social media clubs were the place where you went to see the fashion and hear the latest music and see how people express themselves. Today still, clubs are an important aspect of this. In fact, today, it’s more important than ever.
Having my career be this was quite unplanned, it started with a celebration of UK fashion here in NYC. We called it “New London in New York.” [John] Galliano was just out of college and took part—and we did it at The Roxy. After that, institutions such as Barney’s started taking a look at London fashion design in a more serious way.
WW: How has the pandemic impacted your work?
SB: At first, of course, it was devastating. We were the first to go and the last industry to bounce back. I have never been unemployed; it was a nightmare. I still wanted to support my peers and cultivate a community, and we were able to host some successful Zoom parties. We did ticketed events that kept me out there, and from that, I have been more active on social media than before.
To be able to put on my outfits and looks was something I did for my own sanity, and the community, and it turned into a positive thing on many levels—from fundraising to giving creatives a platform.
For 2022, I’d like to build on that and just keep going. I have a new show, “New York, New York,” at Sony Hall, which gave people a safe outlet to return to the dancefloor again.
WW: How would you describe your sense of style, and using fashion as expression?
SB: I always mix it up. People usually recognize a sense of style or have a signature look, but I don’t repeat looks. I am always changing up hair, makeup, and clothing styles. It really is my art. You can be anything! A Marie Antoinette punk look one day, a 1930s starlet, or a ‘60s supermodel the next. People appreciate it and feel inspired, and I am inspired by them, too. It works both ways.
WW: What are you working on now or next?
SB: My show, “New York, New York”—a mix of a fashion show meets an opera, meets theater meets cabaret. It’s not burlesque, but twelve acts of different mediums. We’re developing it to make it bigger and better for our next run. Then over NYFW, I will have an exhibition of my outfits and event memorabilia. Also, Bartsch Bazaar is online and a big focus for me right now.