Spring 1996

Darkness visible

Amy Guip reconciles commercial image-making with a need to explore more personal themes

Illustrators able to imbue client-given projects with their own deeper experiences are rare. Only a few succeed in balancing the expression of a private vision with the mandates of the marketplace. Amy Guip, a 30-year-old American image-maker working for magazines, books and the music industry, is one of the few. Guip’s photo-illustrations are intensely felt commentaries on her world as well as strikingly effective solutions, using a difficult medium, to the problem of illuminating a commercial product or idea. The hear Guip talk about it, exactly how this balancing act is accomplished is sometimes a mystery even to her.

In recent years the divide between fine art and graphics has narrowed. But though fine art and illustration may now sometimes look similar, for an illustration to transcen the purpose for which it was commissioned it must be informed not only by the creator’s style, but by a distinctive vision. Amy Guip’s vision is rooted in the elemental forms of the natural world and the human figure, which she observes through a dark lens that distorts them into icons of menace. Through her eyes, even the most ordinary objects – a piece of flowered wallpaper, leaf or twig – are transfigured into the totems of an interior world of dreamlike creatures, part human, part animal, part thing. Though she is not particularly religious, some of her pictures have references to angles, crucifixes and saint and she savours images of bondage – ropes, strings and other restraining materials – for their aesthetic appeal. But if Guip lives in the psychological netherworld such imagery might in other hands suggest, one would never know it from talking with her. “People are often amazed that I don’t have white, white skin and black finger nails,” she says, acknowledging the contradiction between her own persona and her professional work. “I’m a basically happy person. I simply prefer this kind of imagery, which is perfect in this medium.”

Photo-illustration, Guip’s chosen medium, was introduced commercially in the US in the late 1940s through Alvin Lustig’s “New Directions” book jackets (see Eye no.10 vol. 3). It is now one of the most popular illustrative forms. Combining various media – collage, montage, painting, photography – photo-illustration at its best is a process for making visual poetry. Thanks to the imaging facilities offered by the computer, it has become the quintessential art director’s and designer’s medium – allowing them to create faux art for layouts – and the principal computer-generated mannerism of the current era. This makes it a difficult process by which to create original art, but Guip manages to avoid the inherent clichés. In her book jacket for The Myths of Motherhood, for instance, she combines photographic images of a Madonna, housewife and vamp into a sardonic composite of notions of western motherhood, complete with a smiling baby matter-of-factly waving from the womb. Though other solutions are possible, Guip’s icon is so potent that it is difficult to think of another.

In addition to her humour and intelligence, what distinguishes Guip from most photo-illustrators is her insistence on using original photography. “Not taking my own pictures takes half the credibility away from a piece,” she says. In a small loft on Manhattan’s Bowery, where she lives with her designer husband, she photographs props and models against the roughly plastered wall of her dining area and develops her work in a cramped darkroom off the kitchen. Because she has no space for intricate lighting or backdrops, her pictures contain unwanted shadows and other imperfections. These are transformed into a distinctive personal signature by painting on the photographic surface to repair, enhance or alter what the lens has recorded. Guip maintains a strong, often dark palette, yet the mood of her work ranges from sombre to boisterous, reflective to exhibitionist. Her CD cover for Stabbing Westward’s Ungod, for instance, is a study in light and dark with a static figure charged with kinetic force.

Guip draws on a wide range of influences. The work of Dada collage artists Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann provides a spiritual underpinning, while Mike and Doug Starn, contemporary exponents of psychologically based photo-manipulation, have also had an impact. In terms of editorial illustration, she fits neatly into the neo-expressionist tradition pioneered over two decades ago by Alan E. Cober, Brad Holland, Marshall Arisman and Sue Coe. There is also a large debt to Matt Mahurin, who in the mid-1980s launched a new wave of photo-illustration with searing essays in Time magazine on domestic violence and sexual harassment. “When I saw them I felt it was me who had done them,” comments Guip.

The most significant influences, however, and the reason for her preference for mass media rather than gallery art, are her parents: a father who in the 1950s and 1960s ran a 24-person illustration studio in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a mother who as a jewellery designer, sculptor and painter encouraged her daughter to pursue her artistic passions. Guip says she “grew up with design and illustration annuals” and recognised early on that she was destined to become a commercial artist. In the mid-1980s she enrolled in the art school of Syracuse University, where after doing poorly on advertising and graphic design courses she ended up as an illustration major with a strong interest in photography. There she experimented with photographic processes – including mixing painting, drawing and collage – and developed the skills she employs today. Though she managed the school darkroom and took many photographs, she found herself more intimidated by the camera than the paintbrush and admits to harbouring the same feelings of inadequacy today. “I’m still embarrassed to hire photo assistants because I’m afraid they’ll find out I don’t know as much as they do,” she says. Her father died unexpectedly during her time at Syracuse, and Guip speculates that though she has “never thought of myself as a dark person or have had any more tragedy in my life than anyone else”, this may be the root of her obsession with imagery that suggests imprisonment, spirituality and death.

At art school, teachers of illustration advocated tracing over projected photographs, a traditional method Guip found totally “unnatural”. Instead she opted for the immediacy of painting on top of and scraping into her photographs, making violent interventions in both the form and meaning of the pictures. A selection of these “destroyed images” was the basis for her final exhibition, which included 15 interpretations of natural elements, among them the withered flowers she made into a portfolio and mailer to hawk around New York City’s art directors. These dark, abstract images revealed a formal mastery and conceptual acuity that immediately touched a nerve in many art directors, including myself. Though many of us were beginning to tire of the plethora of Brad Holland and Matt Mahurin look-alikes, Guip was far from being a slavish imitator. Her success may also have been the result of a simultaneous rise in heavy metal music. Art directors interpreted her emotional images of natural decay as macabre and this seemed to fit perfectly with heavy metal stagecraft.

“I didn’t think of myself as a heavy metal chick,” Guip says. Nevertheless, her first job was an album cover for the short-lived Fifth Angle, a band with a taste for gothic imagery which they thought Guip could supply. During the same year she earned four more album commissions and was well on her way to becoming, if reluctantly, the doyenne of heavy metal. Though she criticises this early work now as overly art directed, her album cover for Circus of Power, for which she orchestrated a king of graphic performance, was an artistic breakthrough. She commissioned her mother to create a classic sunburst in clay which served as the focal point for an ambitious series of manipulated photographs notable for their earth tones and surreal lighting. More significantly, she was asked to shoot portraits of the group members, an introduction to an exploration of straight and manipulated portraiture that she continues to pursue whenever possible.

It is in the area of editorial illustration, however, that Guip has made her most important breakthroughs. “I always have some kind of masochistic thing in my work,” she jokes, and this psychological symbolism found a ready market on the pages of Health magazine with its stories about personality disorders, depression and drug addiction. A regular quarter page for Health, together with assignments for magazines such as Discover, gave her the opportunity to explore a variety of iconographic approaches, including the haunting, virtually skeletal form of a woman wearing a gas mask printed in solarised gold used to depict the chronic breathing ailment Four Corners disease. Like the motherhood collage, this is a virtual icon for the subject.

But Guip quickly became weary of devising what she refers to as the “singular summation of a story”. Her solution was to “break up my work into blocks, chop everything into a grid and represent different parts of the article”. This allowed her to incorporate a variety of shots of different parts of the article”. This allowed her to incorporate a variety of shots of different subjects into each picture, building up a mood based on a critical mass of narrative and symbolic images. The menacing “Laughter” illustration for San Francisco Focus, for instance (see this issue’s cover), shows multiple laughing faces on two-thirds of the picture area with two butted photographs of distressed men holding their ears in the corner of the upper third, giving the image its tension. Here the viewer can almost hear the piercing sound of annoying laugher and identify with its victims. The grid technique also gives Guip’s work a more contemporary look analogous to that of layered typography. But it has a downside in that it absolves art directors of the need to commit themselves to a single strong image.

Guip has run up against enough editorial interference to know that the manipulated photograph, combined with the right idea, is a powerful tool. Dividing the image into component parts is not only more creatively challenging, but also safer than the “singular summation”. Take, for instance, her relatively straightforward solution for a Washington Post Magazine story on corrupt black police officers for which she photographed a model in uniform with dollars tied around his eyes. The picture was slightly manipulated for dramatic effect but literally reiterated what was stated in the text. Regardless, the editors believed that showing a black man in such a dark light was potentially inflammatory and killed the artwork. An earlier illustration for a Washington Post Magazine article about guns had also proved problematic. Guip constructed a mask of gun barrels that was attached to a model’s head and then photographed. The idea, borrowed from a sketch by sculptor Nancy Grossman, is a startling repudiation of the gun-fancier’s mentality, but was rejected with the editor’s old chestnut that image is too strong.

Though Guip accepts that she is usually “not hired for my opinion”, her technique is so imposing, at times violent, that a concept that may appear benign in her preliminary pen and ink sketches is inevitably transformed. When she is allowed to follow her instincts, which dictate her direction more than any conceptual methodology, she invariably stretches the conventions of illustration. Such is the case with the portrait of Moby for Rolling Stone, a grid picture that combines religious and sexual imagery to express a king of powerlessness. Each of the four frames is a formal exercise in painted photography which when joined together become a single, mysterious study of a tormented figure. Detached from the magazine context, the piece also functions as art in its re-creation of Guiip’s admittedly “bad dreams” of isolation and loneliness.

Despite such autobiographical clues, Guip does not intentionally try to tell her own story. She is a professional concerned as much with marketing as aesthetics and she understands when to indulge her own artistic preferences, and when not. She confesses, though, to some frustrations. “I though after all this time I could be dark without interference, but this year every art director I’ve worked with has told me not to be so dark.” Guip may not be able to explain where her vision comes from, but she knows that he images are at their most compelling when she and her collaborators allow her subconscious to come through in the job.

First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996