Coco Young: Vanity

Image above: Portrait of Coco Young by Andrea Blanch.


What initially inspired you to pursue photography? How did you begin the transition from model to artist?

There was never a clean break. Before I ever modeled, I took photographs and have always painted and written. When I began to model, I kept a photography practice because I travelled a lot and was alone a lot, so my camera felt like a friend I could take along with me. When I began my studies at Columbia University, I didn’t have much time to make art because my program was very theory-driven and demanding and I needed to devote my whole attention to it. Towards the end of my studies, started connecting my art practice with the things that I was exposed to during my schooling. I don’t know if you can call this a transition more than an organic growth that most people in their early twenties experience.

How does having been on both sides of the camera help you as an artist?

I didn’t learn any technical skills from modeling, but I benefited from the situations it exposed me to by default, such as traveling and being engulfed in the world of persona as commodity. I would observe and make mental notes on the impact of fashion/advertising and on the standards of our culture industry. This has given me a lot of material to work with.

Vanity by Coco Young_06

How has your European upbringing impacted your life or art in any way? Alternatively, how has your time in America also had an impact?

In France we are taught to think in a Cartesian way, so the French side of me is overly critical and analytical. In high school there, I read a lot of French literature and looked at French painting and sculpture. Going to museums often, I was very influenced by 19th century painting like Manet, Cezanne and Renoir. I didn’t realize how “old” France was until I moved back to New York as a young adult. This newness of New York gave me a freedom of expression and of being that I didn’t feel in France. France is very bureaucratic and sometimes people get stuck in the “system.” But there are a lot of French contemporary artists that I am very much influenced by such as Camille Henrot and Pierre Huygues. In terms of practicality, I notice that in America people can pretty much do whatever they want: organize exhibitions without being very experienced, experiment with mediums. It’s easier to do things here. America is also more advanced than France in terms of technology. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. Sometimes I struggle with being half-French and half-American, because I unconsciously apply French ways of thinking to American situations and vice-versa.

Our current issue, entitled Vanity, is the namesake of your latest collection. Some of the images, while beautifully composed, are not necessarily flattering images of the body. Why did you choose to title this collection vanity?

It took me and my publisher a while to find the right title. There were so many options but none felt right. I wanted something simple and catchy, like the title of a movie from the 80s, but also something serious that portrayed the ideas behind the book. I see Vanity as the mask behind which we all hide. It’s a part of the human condition, something that exists in most novels and other works of art. It’s universal and timeless. I came to realize that his natural human characteristic is there as a survival mechanism. We all have to live our lives knowing that we are going to die someday, but our vanity veils the fact that we are perishable. In my book, I chose to include traditionally beautiful portraits of young people next to high resolution scans of their skin to show the two sides of physicality, one of which is rarely shown.

Vanity by Coco Young_02

How do vanity and concepts related to vanity infiltrate our culture and sense of selves? o What comes to mind when you think of the word vanity? I see vanity as an awareness of how you are viewed by others. It’s simultaneously loving and hating yourself, a conversation you have with yourself about your presumed worth. It seems subjective but is actually objective. Concretely, Vanity makes me think of my favorite Greek myth, Narcissus, who falls in love with his own image reflection, inside which he gets stuck. I used this downfall of vanity for my book project, in which I reflect on the themes of this myth such as water, reflected image, and symmetry.

o How, do you believe modern technology and the "information age" facilitated the growth of this perception?

With the way the internet is used today, I think everyone has the opportunity to try to control the way others perceive them. It’s really democratic, which is good but also bad. There is a new self-consciousness that wasn’t here before. There is also a certain amount of transparency that wasn’t there before. Our expected amount of knowledge has increased because of the access we have. This is valid for the distribution of news, but also for gossip and personal life. On the other hand, this transparency is illusionistic, because the norm of reality is different for everyone; people are encouraged to take control of the information that concerns them, and this defeats the purpose of “knowing” in a sense since the objectivity of knowledge is skewed.

Is the way we present ourselves on social media or the frequent use of social media reflective of vanity on an individual level? Is it vain to presume that people are that interested in our lives?

There is something really obsessive about social media that I like. It’s the new consciousness of our society: the forum. Maybe saying it’s “vain” is almost too easy because vanity in social media has been normalized and fully incorporated, so much that the notion of “vanity” might be irrelevant now. I’m not sure these obsessive tendencies are human predispositions but they are a part of our evolution as a species. As we adapt to this new system of constant stimulation, our relationship with ourselves changes too; a quick Google search will give you an idea of how you are perceived by the world.

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As a New York-based photographer, do you believe city life contributes to the perpetuation of prevailing notions of vanity and beauty? Do these ideals vary by locale?

I’m always surprised as to how subjective beauty is. Even in my experience of the fashion industry, I learned that its norm isn’t necessarily based on beauty, but rather on a set of numbers and measurement such as height and weight, and also, on the amount of Instagram followers a model has. Once these numbers are met, the rest is completely subjective to taste. City life is almost a micro version of the social media organism. Simply walking down the street in New York exposes you to as much information as you would take in scrolling Instagram or Facebook for ten minutes. Clothing, faces, words, sounds, cute animals, food, lights, conversations: it’s basically all there, social media is just another mediation of the world we live in.

Is vanity inherently malignant? Do you believe there is the possibility of an up-side or a positive effect of such an infatuation with vanity?

I don’t think it’s malignant, I think it’s sweet, It speaks to the insecurities we all have as humans. “Am I good enough?” Isn’t that a question we perpetually ask ourselves? I know I do. Making art is the most vain thing I can think of; being an artist is the complete encapsulation and embodiment of vanity and I love that about it. The upside of vanity is how it drives individual expression, but on the other hand, this energy can be wasted on counter-productive actions, such as spending too much time on social media, giving the individual only the illusion of accomplishment and self-assertion.

All images ©Coco Young, from the book Vanity by Coco Young, published by Bemojake.


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