Muse: Re-reinterpreting “Folies Bergere”

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A few months ago, my collaborator Niki and I were trekking around the city in search of an ornate yet inexpensive antique chair for an upcoming shoot as part of the Muse series. We ventured to the south side of Chicago to a warehouse of old hotel furniture, and then wound our way back up to a few shops on Grand Avenue. While meandering through an architectural salvage and event space, we both at the same moment stood frozen, flashed wide-eyed and knowing glances at each other, and then began to twitter with excitement. We saw the bar and knew it would be the perfect location for our upcoming reinterpretation of the Eduard Manet painting “A Bar at the Folies Bergere” from 1882.

Four months later, Niki and I (in full drag makeup and boy clothes), amidst a typically snowy and frigid Chicago February, began unpacking our gear, setting up the light kit and arranging all of our props. Having rented the space on a day it wasn’t usually open, we mostly had the place to ourselves, except for a couple of staff and the crew of guys redoing the wood floors on the second level.

Often, the shoot process is quite technical and the most time-consuming part is just getting all of the lighting in its ideal location and level. But despite that, Niki and I seem to have our own setup rhythm. Before we know it, with costume on and hat duct taped to my head, we are taking our initial test shots. Well into the shooting process, somewhere between the back and forths of head turns and up and downs of chin and focal points, there are two things that happen – and which have happened in pretty much every shoot we’ve done together. First, we both feel something – a kind of internal “YES!” For me, it’s what we artists call flow. My focus becomes narrow and the volume of my surrounding periphery reduces. A softness settles into my body and there’s a sense of effortless connection and collaboration with Niki. In the process, it feels as if we become one. And it’s usually right after this moment that the second thing happens – we get the giggles. Every. Single. Time. For some unknown reason we just start giggling, and on occasion, have to succumb to a fit of laughter before getting back to the business at hand. Fortunately, we both embrace it as a simple part of the process, and know it’s a likely sign that we’ve got the shot we’re looking for.

© Niki Grangruth & James Kinser

And speaking of process, when I started working on this costume eight years ago, Niki and I had only just begun working together. At that time, I didn’t see any connection between the costume and the Muse project, let alone the Folies Bergere shoot. It was just a costume that I intuitively knew I needed to make. Now, I can’t imagine having done the shoot with anything else.

Another synchronicity at which we marvel, is that the Folies Bergere painting was the first piece that Niki and I attempted to reinterpret. I say “attempted” because, looking back at that original shoot now, it is laughable at how much we had yet to figure out. We simply weren’t as attuned as we are now to the environment or the costume, and my relationship with the camera/viewer was way more timid and less engaged than our work that would follow.

But all these years later, it has been extremely rewarding to have returned to this painting and to have reinterpreted it with a more mature and refined eye. We hope you’ll enjoy the soon-to-come result and this slight peek into the process along the way. For now, here’s a gander at the source of inspiration.


Edouard Manet, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère


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