In the visually arresting Down the Rabbit Hole ( $97; Bruno Gmünder Verlag Gmbh; 160 pages ) , Justin Monroe takes the viewer through his version of Alice in Wonderland ( as well as a few other tales ) —and his perspective involves everything from same-sex bonding to same-sex bondage to Janice Dickinson.
The out Monroe talked with Windy City Times about his interest in photography, being compared to David LaChapelle and working with the self-proclaimed world's first supermodel ( Dickinson ) .
Windy City Times: You're a Midwestern guy. Where did you grow up?
Justin Monroe: Well, I kinda grew up all over the place, but I spent most of my life primarily in Oklahoma. But when I was really young, my parents used to travel—and they were pretty much hippies. My dad was in a rock-and-roll band, and my mom was a back-up singer and hairdresser.
WCT: Interesting. Did your dad sing with anyone famous?
JM: My dad was more of a behind-the-scenes guy. He played with everyone, playing everything from rock to country to pop. He worked in Hollywood for a while; then in Branson, Mo.; and in Nashville.
Actually, he sang and played back-up for singers like Crystal Gayle and Glen Campbell—and my grandmother was a Ziegfeld Follies dancer. I had a crazy musical background growing up.
WCT: So how did you become interested in photography?
JM: When I got out of high school in the '80s, I moved to Los Angeles and became a hairstylist for a company called Sebastian International. I was on their artistic team, so I traveled a bit—and got to work with a bunch of photographers doing a pictorial. The anticipation [ involving ] getting the film back would kill me, and sometimes I would be very disappointed. One day, I [ thought to myself ] : 'You know what? You're artistic. You're creative. I'm gonna figure this thing out.' So I went to school, taking a course at UCLA, and I absolutely fell in love with it.
I took a photography class in high school, but it wasn't so much a photography class as it was an excuse to get my friends naked. [ Interviewer and subject laugh. ] After I took the class at UCLA, I enrolled myself in the Pasadena Arts Center [ College of Design ] and went to school there for three years. I graduated, and have been shooting ever since.
WCT: How would describe your photographic style?
JM: It's kind of a melting pot of things. I find a bit poppy, as in pop-culture photography, in the sense that my subjects have a cult following—and those who don't have one think they do. [ Laughs ] It's also a bit transgressive—against society and against being politically correct. I mix it up with a bit of fashion sensibility because of my fashion and music backgrounds. Even if I shoot a really dirty scene, I take a stylistic approach.
WCT: Your style reminds me of David LaChapelle's.
JM: I think people see our works and [ notice ] a lot of energy. I don't think, if you look at David's work and mine, that you get a sense of quiet. I think [ our works ] come out and grab people—and we shoot color, which really ties our styles together.
WCT: Now, let's talk about Down the Rabbit Hole. Did you decide to tackle Alice in Wonderland because it's so surreal and vivid itself?
JM: That would definitely be part of the reason I chose the theme. It's kind of funny: That had to be my first book. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm kind of a chronic daydreamer, and I have always put these scenarios and fantasies together. I tend to do that when I meet someone for the first time—I put them in these situations.
When I saw the movie The Matrix, I was so impressed with the scene with the red and blue pills. The blue pill meant that you wake up the next morning and you're safe and sound; taking the red pill takes you [ elsewhere ] . A lot of people have described my work as that kind of experience—the red pill. One magazine wrote that my work is 'a red-pill ride,' and I like that.
I was thinking that if Alice were here today, she'd be a transsexual and that the rabbit would be a dirty bunny rabbit. Then I started putting these stories together, and started intertwining everything.
WCT: I noticed and liked the racial diversity as well as the use of different body types, although most bodies in this book are taut and muscular.
JM: That's how I see the world. One thing I didn't want to do was another male physique book; they bore me to death, and are so quickly forgotten. When I signed on with Bruno Gmünder to be my publisher, that was an issue for them [ initially ] ; it was uncharted waters.
WCT: Plus, you have women in the book—and what women!
JM: I'm the first photographer to have a book for Bruno with female content. So they took a big chance—but that was something I had to stick to. I thought about my audience: the young gay man. Some may be hot and muscular, but they like to put on high heels and do drag occasionally. [ Laughs ] Or they might like diversity or transsexuality. It's the MySpace generation; they like anything that makes them gag. [ Laughs ]
WCT: Were the models as uninhibited as they appear in the book?
JM: Oh, absolutely. I really can say that you have to chalk that up to trust; I think they really trust me. They know that I'm not going to make them look foolish. It might be a shocking image, but it's also going to be a strong image. I'd worked with a lot of them before, so we have a bit of a history. I think the key is to make them feel comfortable even as I take them out of their comfort zones. I haven't had a problem with anyone.
WCT: You also take the viewer out of the comfort zone. Those pictures of the guy with the Cheshire cat grin are quite disturbing.
Do you have a favorite photo in this book? The one of the old woman with the machine guns is interesting.
JM: Oh, gosh—that's hard to say. The old woman is actually Ester Goldberg. She's a drag comedian who performs at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles all the time, and she has her own comedy TV show.
You know, that story [ image ] is a take on the revenge of Little Red Riding Hood. I wanted Grandma to have her day.
I think the picture that's probably my favorite is—just because it's such an intense shot—the one of Janice Dickinson on the truck with the flame thrower: Glinda the Good Witch having a nervous breakdown and catching the scarecrow on fire as well as pulling the heart out of the tin man.
WCT: I'm going to have to look at that again—and that's something else about this book: The pictures are so layered with detail that you can't take it all in...
JM: ...in one sitting. That's cool, though. There are a lot of hidden details there. I actually have a cameo in the book: When the [ nude ] guy is riding the moon, the moon is actually my face. [ Both laugh. ] After the shoot, I sent him a text the next day thanking him for sitting on my face. [ Laughs ] He said, 'Anytime, daddy.' [ Laughs ]
WCT: By the way, what was it like working with Janice?
JM: People ask me about [ trans icon ] Amanda [ Lepore, who also appears in the book ] and Janice. It's like the lion and the lamb.
WCT: I think I know which is which.
JM: Oh, for sure. Janice is tough; you want to pull your hair out, but when she gets in front of the camera she does her business. The casting couldn't have been more perfect.
WCT: When you have a model call, what do you look for?
JM: It depends. I basically cast the model for the story. I have in my head what I want; for example, I might want a guy with a really luscious butt or a guy with a really evil look. It's almost like a producer looking for a character in a movie.
WCT: How did your parents react to the book?
JM: [ Laughs ] It's hysterical: My mom will [ leaf ] through the books, going past pictures of guys' cocks and women's breasts, and she won't even crack. She's like, 'You did a beautiful job, Justin.'
WCT: I think my mom would have eight heart attacks.
JM: I think my mom gets that it's all from an artistic standpoint. The black baby Jesus in the back of the crack van [ in one photos ] is her grandson and my nephew. He's the best model I ever shot. He's like, 'Catch up, everybody.'
WCT: I understand you're working on a new book called Eat This.
JM: Yes. I'm just starting to conceptualize the book and put components of that together. I'm want the book to be 50 percent celebrities.
It's basically about two trains on one track. One train is The Hollywood Express, with famous and infamous celebrities. The other train is The Redneck Nugget, with people like escaped convicts, trailer trash and strippers. Now imagine the trains colliding; you'd have the sexiest hot mess you'd ever see.
WCT: Sexy hot mess? That sounds a little bit like Janice.
JM: [ Laughs ] You said that. I didn't.
Down the Rabbit Hole is now available. Find out more about Justin Monroe at www.justinmonroe.com .