In Conversation: Alana Celii on “Paradise Falling”

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Alana Celii to discuss her first monograph: Paradise Falling. Paradise Falling is published through Aint-Bad with orders shipping out later this month. Alana and I spoke about the work, process and her future plans as an artist and a maker.

Alana Celii is a photo editor and photographer based in New York. She graduated with a BFA in photography from Parsons the New School for Design in 2009. Currently, she is a photo editor at The New York Times. Prior to her work at The Times, she was a photo editor at The Wall Street Journal and TIME. Her personal work has been exhibited in the US, and abroad. Most recently, she completed a residency at Vermont Studio Center, and NES in Iceland.

Paradise Falling

By observing and making imagery of the natural world around me, I have become a collector–I am gathering together images whose subjects are often scattered or widespread. Like Jazz, these images exist through improvisation, syncopation, and rhythm. Their meaning is developed through their own fluidity and abstraction. But also, this imagery is rooted in memory and my desire for the past to go away. Through organization and curation, I am able to redefine my own history.

The images are paired with vignettes of writing that explore the loss of a relationship, the loss of what home means, and the feeling of being unmoored. I spent the last ten years of my life drifting, and this series is an exploration of feeling lost within that physical and emotional landscape. The figures in the book are representative of metaphors that look at astrology, myth, and symbolism.

AR: I want to start out by saying congratulations! I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with the images from Paradise Falling, of which many are real knockouts. The work seems to function through a particular way of looking, while many of the images seem disparate in content there is a unification through the artist’s eye. This is echoed by the functionality of the book form; what initially inspired you to take this route?

AC: First off, thank you. This series began when I was directionless. I stopped making work for a few years as I was struggling to make ends meet. I was also trying to figure out my place in the world and what I wanted. 

When my situation improved, I spent most of my vacation time traveling alone—not only to make sense of how I wanted to grow, but more importantly how to shoot again. A lot of these images are from those trips of wandering, and the text, too, is inspired from my travels. 

Once, in a cafe in Yucca Valley, a man walked up to me and asked, “So what are you writing?” I was startled because part of the purpose of the trip was to try to write, but also, I couldn’t get myself to start. I told him I wasn’t writing anything. He responded, “But you’re supposed to, you have something to say,” and walked away. 

A huge part of my creative process (and day job), is editing and sequencing photographic work. It felt very natural for me to take these images, which symbolize my memories and emotions, and to reinterpret their meaning through sequencing. I’ve always envisioned the series as a book. Books to me, especially at this size, are intimate. In addition, I think this series lends itself to density and repetition. In a tighter edit, typically the work is stronger, but in this case, the volume of imagery enhances it. 

It’s kind of cheesy to call it a coming of age book, but in a lot of ways that’s what it is.

AR: It certainly has the aura of a transformation, a move towards another state of being or another chapter in your life. Throughout the imagery, and particularly in the poetry there is a sense of a newly bolstered independence. This independence seems to grow as the book progresses. There seems to be an acknowledgement and even an appreciation for the beauty of solitude. There is certainly a strong tie between your psyche and the work; do you feel that artistic and personal growth are tied together for you as a maker?

AC:  True, I think a common theme between the imagery and the poetry is solitude. It’s not only my independence that’s growing, but also my comfort in the silence. With the text, I think the idea of progress is also illustrated with the subtle color shift that happens from black to blue over the 96 pages. 

But, yes, I am the type of person that annoyingly makes a list of goals at the start of the year. It’s important for me that I’m continuously learning even if it’s something as simple as reading a few books, or as silly as learning how to knit a sock.

AR: The idea of a progression, or linear transformation is certainly apparent in the work. You talk about this visual journey as progress, both you and the imagery becoming and growing together. Can you talk more about the ordering of the work? It is certainly something which grounds the work and seems integral to your process as a maker.

AC: In 2006, when I was a sophomore in college, I saw Jason Fulford speak at a now defunct Barnes and Noble on 6th Avenue. One of his techniques, which I adopted and still use to this day, is to print out contact sheets and cut them up. They act like playing cards that you mix and match. I have my entire archive cut up and stored in a giant Ziplock bag. 

At the beginning of 2019, I decided that in order to finish the book, I should completely scan my archive. A lot of these images I shot, stored away, and didn’t look at for years—some almost a decade. I had a residency at Vermont Studio Center in April, and there I finished scanning and began an edit of the work.

Sequencing for me is based on the interplay of images. Shape, texture, and color allows imagery to flow. Symbolism is integral to my editing process, and particularly this sequence. For instance, the image of the Joshua tree paired with the black and white photograph of an arm reaching. The images are from different years, different places, and yet they mirror each other. 

The Joshua tree was named by Mormon settlers wandering in the Mojave. The trees outstretched branches reminded the Mormons of the prophet Joshua reaching his arms to heaven. Joshua trees are a symbol of hope amongst scarcity. Their beauty is in their slow growth and struggle to survive in the most dire of conditions. The black and white photographs within the book signify the Zodiac—each sign rules a body part. This particular photograph, titled Gemini, represents the nervous system including the arms, hands, and fingers. Gemini is a mutable sign in a constant state of flux. It represents duality. We go through seasons, and I definitely went through mine while photographing this series. I was of two minds, and I was in flux. I was slowly growing amidst aridity. Gemini is also known as “the light of interplay,” and isn’t that what photography kind of is, too?

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AR: I agree, I  think this is one of the many things photographs and poems have in common, an emphasis on the way separate images or poems can work together. When thinking about photographs, or the photobook I often find myself thinking about the book of poetry as a form. I have always been fascinated by language and the language of photography; how these two can blend together. I noticed this merging of media in your book in particular. The images seem reminiscent of poetry themselves, reminding me particularly of the work of Rinko Kawauchi. 

Can you talk more about the poetics of Paradise Falling? Both the poetics of the imagery and the poems themselves. How does the written word fit into the work and shape it?

AC: Yes! Rinko Kawauchi’s work is a huge influence. Especially her book “The Eyes, The Ears,” which also combines poetry with dreamy scenes of ordinary life. A common thread throughout all of my work is to make the ordinary feel uncanny. I’m constantly seeking beauty in the mundane or the overlooked. 

When I started to write the text for this book, a suggestion I received from my friend, Grant Willing, was to very simply write to the photos. I received an artist retreat from Getaway House to spend a few days in the Catskills without wifi. I wrote a lot of the text during that time. The text from that period is inspired by fall in the Catskills and there is reference to it in the text, but as a starting point, I used the sequence I created as an outline. The first two lines of text in the book reference the first two photos in the book. Kirkjufell, the name of the mountain in Iceland, translates to church mountain. The second photo, Aries, represents the head and the mind. 

I’ve been calling the text vignettes rather than poetry. They exist somewhere in between poetry and prose. They’re a little messy, and operate more so as notes to myself. In fact, some of the text was actually written as a note to myself years ago, and stored in my notes app on my phone.

AR: That’s interesting that you refute the classification of poetry for the writing. I think the idea of text vignettes is an interesting one because it rejects the constraints and formalistic limitations of poetry. The body of work as a whole seems to refuse to be classified or simplified.

Paradise Falling Is your first published monograph which is quite an achievement! How does it feel to have reached the end (or an end of sorts) to such a long and expansive project and where do you see your work moving from here?   

AC: Thank you. It feels good. I’m ready to move on to the next chapter of my life. My fiancé and I have been collaborating on a fashion-based photo project that’s a tongue in cheek look at surveillance and artificial intelligence. We’ll be having a show at the end of July at Castleton University in Vermont. 

For my personal work, I have an idea in mind for another long term project that I’m just beginning to research. I could see it also taking a decade or longer to complete as it will involve a lot of travel to distant locations. 

Lastly, another long term goal that I’ve been sitting on, is that I would like to write a book of short stories that combine photography. As more and more explosive family secrets have been revealed to me, the more it’s something I want to explore.

To view more of Alana Celii’s work please visit her website.

You can find her new book Paradise Falling in the Aint-Bad shop.