American photographer Simone Lueck shot to fame with her series The Once and Future Queens.She talks about that and other beauties, including Minnesota, Cuba TV, the State Fair Dairy Princess and curling. Yes, curling. 

Simone, you live in Minnesota. In St. Paul? What do us fellow earthlings need to know about St. Paul and Minnesota?

I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, but I crossed the river and live in Minneapolis. It is a beautiful city set on a series of lakes. The name means “water city,” it comes from the Dakota word for water - minne- and the Greek work for city - polis.There’s an incredible bike system that connects most of the city. People are out and about all the time using the lakes, even in winter people use the lakes for ice fishing and pond hockey, for example.


How did you become a photographer? Is yours a classic tale of first camera at 4, taking pics for the school newspaper at 15, and a fine arts degree at 23? Or did you just start one holiday and learnt things as you went along?


I took a photo class in high school and loved it. I borrowed my dad’s Minolta and carried it around. I used it to document friends and the things around me. Later I went to art school and was in the MFA program at the University California, San Diego (UCSD). 

Was Cuba TV your first taste of success?


CUBA TV is early work. It was a one-off thing that I did while on vacation in Cuba with my friend Erin in 2000. Years later my friend Ted put the series on his blog Polar Inertiaand then Buzz Feedpicked it up. In 2010 there was a random phone call from a publisher at Mark Batty Publishers, they wanted to do a book. It was at the same time that I was working on The Once and Future Queens. The book came from out of the blue.


The whole world is arguably still wondering how on earth America voted for Trump. You headed to Binghamton in upstate New York to portray Trump voters. Why Binghampton? Who are these people? 


I had seen a map in the Times that showed a heavy bit of Trump voters in the area around Binghamton, and I was curious to find out who they were. I met a wide variety of people, including a unionized steel worker, a small town lawyer and a retired gentleman with a large collection of tigers. So on the surface there’s not a lot in common with these individuals, and I would have had to spend more time there to get a better picture of the situation. Binghamton is a former manufacturing center with its share of faded glamour – the small downtown had three department stores and now has none. There is a crumbling former Amtrak train station. Also (fun fact!) Rod Serling came from Binghamton. 


The ad had at least 100 submissions. I was surprised and delighted by the enthusiastic reply! The level of interest makes a lot of sense… There’s so much talent and creativity in Los Angeles, and a lot of people go there in pursuit of their dreams. The reality is that most people do not get to be famous. So then it is like: what happens to the people that don’t?

Your series The Once and Future Queens started with an ad, in which you asked for older women willing to pose as a glamorous movie star. How many people reacted? Were you surprised to see such enthusiasm?


The ad had at least 100 submissions. I was surprised and delighted by the enthusiastic reply! The level of interest makes a lot of sense… There’s so much talent and creativity in Los Angeles, and a lot of people go there in pursuit of their dreams. The reality is that most people do not get to be famous. So then it is like: what happens to the people that don’t? Do they move back to Wisconsin? Do they go poof and be gone? Maybe they move to an apartment in the San Fernando Valley or into a house in San Bernadino. In any case there are people of all ages that have unfulfilled fantasies. This kind of extant glamour is compelling because it is authentic and because people are trying.


What does that tell us about the role of fame in American society?


I think the photos make the point that fame is fleeting. In general, we are not used to seeing a lot of older women in pictures, although I see more of it lately in art projects, so that is promising. But not in pop culture.  Aging does not age well, especially for women. 


You did not pay the models, but you gave them a portrait. Were most of them happy with the end result?


The reactions were mixed. Some people loved the photos and felt empowered by the experience. Others were not happy with the lighting and felt it was too harsh.


I love the way how you manage to find the extraordinary in the ordinary or the exotic within the mundane. I see that in all your work, but perhaps nowhere more so as in State Fair Dairy Princess. Tell us, what is this about? It seems an animal and a beauty contest at the same time?


Ha! That is funny. It is a competition for girls coming from dairy farms. The Princess is a part of one of the most popular exhibitions at the fair, The Butter Booth, where she gets her likeness carved from a 90-pound block of butter. Now, that is a good example of working with what you got! 

The Minnesota State Fair is a huge deal. It is the largest state fair in the US, and it is a celebration of the whole state. It is also an opportunity for people to learn about what goes on outside of the Twin Cities. Geographically speaking, most of the state includes farmland, forests and mines. 


I am always hesitant to use a flash, as it tends to make things artificial. You do not seem to mind at all. For exactly the opposite reason?  


I use flash because I want to see everything. I am not Rembrandt or a glamour photographer, and I am not trying to create a nuanced look or a cinematic feel using flash. I simply want to see what is in the frame as it is, and I actually think that approach makes the pictures feel morereal than not.


You did a series for St. Paul's Magazine on the US Women’s Olympic Curling Trials. Now, no disrespect, but I think curling must be the most surreal sport on the planet. Or can you think of other contenders?


I loved watching curling! It is entertaining and easy to get into. There was an article in the New York Times recently about odd sporting events in Finland, like swamp soccer and hobby horse races. I think that people with long and harsh winters are forced to get creative for their entertainment.


What would be your dream job in 2018?


2018 dream job…. staff photographer on a fancy cruise ship? 

Interviewed by PETER SPEETJENS

ArtEli Rezkallah