Part 1 of A Photo-Illusionist’s Declaration by Jerry A. Sierra
This paper has evolved from a previous version in which it was titled Unreality Studios Manifesto. The name has changed to the more brand-friendly Sierra Studios Manifesto. I’ve taken the opportunity to refine and update the text and add more visual samples. Sierra Studios continues to embrace a state of mind in which fantasy and reality can hold hands safely without the usual threats… long live the human capacity for imagination!
We don’t stop playing because we grow old…
we grow old because we stop playing.
- George Bernard Shaw
IT TOOK MORE THAN LIONS AND TIGERS AND BEARS to scare me as a child. It took King Kong.
Later, as an adventurous young adult, I was able to embrace the joyous terror of classic monsters. Real monsters like Godzilla, like you could occasionally find in sci-fi movies and comic books.
Universal Studios monsters, which existed since long before my time, were the real thing. Isn’t Dracula the best vampire ever? Others pale by comparison. Sure, they’re more violent and bloody, they wear shades at night and leather jackets… but, let’s face it; they’re sequels. They have no class beyond hipster fashion.
The creature-features of the 1950s (which I didn’t see until the 1980s) pointed the way, and eventually the cultural/technical evolution followed their footsteps.
Before this goes any further, let the record show that there are no lions or tigers or bears in any of my images. These fine creatures were eaten long ago by the monsters depicted in my images, or they were killed by humans, often for mere sport, making humans the true monsters of a world that’s rapidly sinking into the ocean.
Perhaps the giant ant-mutations that horrified New Mexico (“Them,” 1954) ate the lions and tigers and bears, or the bi-ped alien creature that grew over 20 feet tall and went on a rampage across Sicily (Ray Harryhousen’s “20 Million Miles to Earth,” 1957). I know it wasn’t the Xenomorph that chased Ellen Ripley throughout the dark halls of the ill-fated Nostromo (Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” 1979), or the shape-shifter that wiped out McCready’s team (John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” 1982). But who can tell for certain?
Maybe they were never real in the first place.
Monsters only know one thing; they don’t like us, and they know we don’t like them. Nobody knows why, but that much we can accept to be real. And yet, in a larger sense, what is real? And what is unreal?
For the purpose of this paper, and as a general observation, reality is that which we share… movies we see with friends, exchanges with our partners and the checkout clerk at Safeway, the shoes we wear to walk in the rain, the results of a medical examination…
Reality is bleak and shallow… lacking passion or judgement…
Most of the time, you can’t escape reality. And yet, what is reality in the age of Photoshop?
In Tales of Power, Don Juan explains to his humble student that “the world conforms to our description of it…” (I paraphrase) which indirectly points to the unreal as a major influence in our lives.
Un-reality is where the action is. (This is what got Trump elected in 2016.) This is how we privately interpret our exchanges in the reality layer and which defines what meaning we internally attribute to experiences and events. It is deep and private and often personal beyond words… and it seems most abstract when you try to explain it to a human or extraterrestrial... or a therapist. (I’ve noticed that un-creative-sane-types tend to protect their unreality from the outside world as if it was a disease…)
This faint line between reality and un-reality is often invisible to those that experience it the strongest. And it’s most pleasing when you ride it like a fast motorcycle through slow freeway traffic. That’s why I love photography; it has always allowed a creator the option to favor one frame of reference (reality) over the other (unreality) with every image captured. Let the viewer (consumer) beware.
Initially I experienced photography as a celebratory expression of the real (above); a beautiful old face, a classic sunset, the human figure, a child exploring the world.
Reality is often convenient and reliable, while unreality can be deeply painful and unforgiving.
To honor the fine cultural tradition of unreal-fright-for-escapist-fun (and spiritual release), I strive to show the deeper integrity of my characters… and the very reason we love things that scare us or activate our dormant imagination.
They start out as toys purchased through a computer and sent through the mail… immediately unboxed, displayed and posed, then, after careful examination, photographed… sometimes repeatedly.
The toys and figurines used for these photos are no longer mere toys or figurines… they’re actors! Thespians called upon to play new roles and face new challenges, though some are subject to decades old typecasting, and others get made anew. There isn’t always a rhyme or reason, and some can’t easily break out of their stereotypes.
But their spirit can come to life for the camera… as long as I promise to never combine characters from Star Trek and Star Wars interacting with each other on the same image.
Promise made. Promise kept.
I love breathing new life into the old monsters... and creating new worlds and adventures that can help expand the viewer’s curiosity... The unreal environment often comes from the real world… real clouds, real cities, real buildings…
NEXT: Don't dream it, see it