Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to correspond with Akiko Ida and Pierre Javelle, also known as Minimiam, a couple of Parisian photographers who concoct whimsical confections with food, miniature figures, and a soupçon of dark humor. Their Lilliputian culinary collaboration began in 2002, setting the stage for a host of miniature artists who have sprung up in the years that followed. Happily, Akiko and Pierre bravely agreed to surmount our language barriers and tell me a bit about themselves.
Erratic Phenomena: Akiko, you grew up in Japan, and Pierre, you were raised in Burgundy. Tell me about your upbringing. Was your childhood carefree and outgoing, or were you a solitary child, immersed in your own world? Was great food an aspect of your daily life? Who would you credit with having encouraged your creative spirit?
Akiko: My father was a very talented painter (my parents met in art school, like Pierre and I did!), and I grew up close to him, in the smell of the oil paints in his atelier. Art was a very important element in my family, and my parents both encouraged my creative spirit without forcing me into any direction or choice. It was quite natural for me to go in that direction later. I think my childhood was quite happy and carefree. I had a lot of complicity with my father especially, though unfortunately he died quite young. Otherwise, I was a child with lot of imagination, and I often played in the fictional world I created in my imagination. Also, I've been a real food lover since I was very young. It was not my mother, but my grandmother who cooked marvelously. I can never forget the tastes of the dishes she prepared for us.
Pierre: I don't quite want to talk about my family. I didn't have an unhappy childhood, but my familial climate was tense. For me, friendship was very important, but I've long been an idealist, and I experienced a lot of big deceptions. That made me a solitary boy, and quite early on, drawing became my only means of expression. Since I was a little dyslexic, reading and studying were quite difficult for me. Food was probably the only centerline in my family. My mother cooked very well, and she taught me the taste of lot of things. Moreover, when we were anxious, like I often am even now, food was a good way to relax, by the excess of pleasure.
There weren't any declared artists in my family, but my grandfather and my father have a certain talent for drawing — it's just that their career didn't encourage them to go further. My family always thought that my interest in a creative profession was just the direct result of my school failure. When I succeeded in the entrance examination of art school for the first time, I think my mother was finally convinced!
EP: Akiko, you were fascinated by gastronomy at an early age – baking different kinds of bread, documenting them in your journal with an obsessive fervor, then drawing pictures around the photos to create tiny worlds centered around food. What childhood experiences led you to become so immersed in the culinary arts? Did you ever encounter anyone else who was making art with food when you were a girl?
Akiko: I think since I was very young, I just loved food and cooking, because it's something creative which was close to our everyday life. At first I was amazed by cooking with flour, after having tasted my grandmother's homemade pancakes, which were my favorite snack when she made them. The texture and flavor of these pancakes were already an "art" for me! Later, when I started to make many different recipes, it was also the textures which attracted my passion, before the taste.
"P'tit coup de pousse" ("A Little Nudge")
EP: Pierre, your first love was comics, which led you to drawing, initially. Which comics that you encountered as a boy were particularly influential in the development of your visual aesthetics as a photographer?
Pierre: I think Hergé, the author ofTintinwas my first reading. I did the concours with a classmate who had the same comics as mine. We made reproductions of the covers, and I loved doing that! It was a great exercise of framing, since the cover images were charged with details with a strong perspective. But I stopped doing that when I recognized that they use squaring to arrive at that! For me, that was the same thing as photocopying!
Walt Disney and Mickey were also a magical source to discover the magic of "line," and I still remember my admiration for color setting inPinocchio. For example, there was a wet cake of soap with bubbles in close-up, it was really gorgeous. For me, some of these images should be in the Louvre museum!
Later I met Franquin, a Belgian author who also createdSpirouandGaston Lagaffe, whose lines were extraordinary. They were in black and white, in a dark and critical spirit. In France we call itl'humour noir(black humor).
EP: When did each of you realize that you wanted to become a professional photographer?
Pierre: I've never really wanted to be! I didn't even recognize, at the beginning, that I was about to be. I had to live, and it was a way to earn my life. I've always loved photography, but loved art even more. I've never found a photograph which affected me as much as the work of Magritte or Giacometti.
Akiko: I'm almost the same as Pierre – I had an opportunity to do a food photo series for a cookbook, and I really enjoyed it, and people liked what I did. That encouraged me to think of doing photography as a profession.
"Sauveur de crème"
EP: The two of you first encountered each other while studying photography at the Paris Arts Décoratifs art school. Tell me a bit about how you met, and how your relationship developed. When did you realize that your two worlds would mesh together so neatly?
Pierre: I was a technician (and student) in the photo lab of this art school. So I was often there, and helped students who needed technical advice for printing. Akiko was quite tall for a Japanese person, and that made an impression on me! At first, I thought she was Vietnamese. A good way to approach her was to ask what she thought was the best sushi restaurant in Paris. Our first date was a dinner in her favorite sushi restaurant! And I was right, she was as much of a gourmand as I was, and our conversation during our date was almost only about food!
Akiko: When I first saw Pierre at school, I liked his sense of humor, his size (tall and large!) and above all, his gourmandise! We really have the same passion for food. When we started to talk about food, it just didn't stop!
EP: How did your first project working together with miniatures come about?
Akiko: In the very beginning, it was a professional order from a dairy product company in France. They asked me — as I was doing food photography — to make a series of food pics to decorate their stand in an international food salon in Lyon (SIRHA). But I didn't want to make ordinary food shots, and since they gave me complete freedom for creation, I decided to realize something I had wanted to try for a long time — a world of tiny people in food! That was my favorite theme to draw during my childhood, and I have pages and pages of drawings where tiny people or animals are creating stories in food. I knew that Pierre must be also very interested in this kind of universe, and once we started to talk about it, the ideas came one after another and just didn't stop! So we made about 15 diptychs, and everybody just loved them! Afterward, we decided to create a real series, and it is still in progress.
"Meringue" (left panel)
EP: I understand that the name Minimiam sounds like "yum-yum" in French. How did come to choose that name for yourselves?
Pierre: We needed a title that was consistent with the tone of the images. We talk about the culinary adventure in miniature. It's like a child's game, so "yum yum" was imposed for its resonance to childhood and of course, "mini" gave us the notion of scale.
"Meringue" (right panel)
EP: Tell me about your process, and how the two of you work together. Are there unique talents that each of you has which contribute to specific aspects of the work, or is everything more or less done by both of you equally?
Pierre: I always look for the narrative structure, and when I've outlined the idea, I have the frame of the image. Very often I make a sketch in my notebook. Then comes a dialogue with Akiko. If she doesn't understand the story, I need to clarify it, or think of an another situation that's more accessible. Next comes the research for the elements. Since there are quite few in our image, we should find something that's "just right," but often we pick up an object in the bottom of a drawer that completes the image! In each step, Akiko is a little like the project chief. She doesn't follow all these steps very closely, but she keeps just enough distance so that she can be objective in the end. During the shoot, I take care of the lighting and technical parts. An image will be validated when we're both happy with its tone and its aspect. When it makes us smile or when the result surprises us, we've won!
Akiko: Pierre is very good at constructing narrative and model-making (his talent from Beaux-Arts, the art school), and everything technical when shooting. I'm much more like a stylist who takes care of the details of the scene. I have much finer fingers than he does, so it's often my role to move the small figures or to install tiny elements.
Pierre: If I were rich, I would've had his work hanging on the wall of my salon for a long time! His work is admirable, as much for the images as for the story. But my inspiration doesn't come from there. I am part of the generation that didn't live through the war in Europe — however, it fed our imagination throughout our childhood. In France, films about that era were less heroic than the war films made in the US, and to exorcise the trauma of the war, it was treated in a comical way. For us children, the German occupants were always thought of as clumsy and stupid, and the French would find very clever ways to make fun of them. So it was with that aspect of the war, that a few years later we discovered with amazement that the period had never been comical. However, I kept that vision of German soldiers as threatening but not deadly, and my war series staged their reincarnation. The lighting there is more dramatic — in "Grenade" there are even victims of the explosion. It's a bit of a marginal work in the whole series. Three more images have already been drawn in my notebook, but I haven't found the time to realize them yet!
EP: Please tell me a bit about the conceptual process behind the pair of photographs entitled "Grenade!"
Pierre: A "grenade," in English as in French, and everywhere else in the world, is a frightening weapon. In France, a grenade is also a fruit (a pomegranate in English), and its name comes from the similarity of their forms. The fruit is very beautiful, both inside and out, and when they are opened, you can see a multitude of shiny seeds. So I imagined that this fruit, in its ripeness, can explode like its homonym, and project its seeds everywhere. Its red color reminds me of a scene I saw in another French war film (less comical), where there was a bunker in which remained only human tissue, scattered everywhere. The lighting is soft, but I wanted to achieve the contrast dear to Flemish still life paintings. The smoke is there to add a bit of chaos and give an instantaneity to the action.
"Grenade!" (right panel)
EP: Many might envy your lifestyle, which would appear to center around working at home, encountering great food, and spending a lot of time in toy stores. Would you say that your work is essentially play, or are there drawbacks inherent to your way of working?
Pierre: Ahahaha, it's only 10% of our life! The rest is much less interesting, because like many people, we must work to photograph other much less exciting images with strong constraints. Also, our children take a lot of time. As for food, I think it has been a while since I spent time in the kitchen preparing something good, and I often quickly eat insipid things. I sometimes envy our small figures, and dream about pools of chocolate mousse!
Akiko: As freelance photographers, we have a certain freedom, but like Pierre says, we do work making images which inspire us little, but we must do it for living! And since we have children, we spend most of our time with them when we don't work, so we can't stay in the store as much as we want and enjoy good food with leisure, it's almost impossible!
EP: Are there any cartoonists or other humorists who might have been an inspiration for the visual puns you often create in your photographs?
Pierre: I have a lot of admiration for Gary Larson, who makes me die laughing, and the Swiss artists Plonk & Replonk for their completely shifted perspective.
EP: Is there a particular chef, restaurant or food photographer you would credit as an influence?
Akiko: David Loftus and Con Poulos for food photographers. Chez Panisse in San Francisco for chef and restaurant — the whole energy of the place, the food, and the people making food were a great shock!
EP: The two of you lived in Paris for many years, but have spent the past summer in Japan, living in Akiko's hometown in the countryside north of Tokyo. How has the cultural transition been for you? Do you think your work will also be evolving into new territory as a result?
Akiko: After 14 years in Paris, I was eager to live in Japan again throughout the four seasons. I'm just happy with everything which is quite "normal" here in Japan — nature, the climate, the kindness of people, and of course the Japanese food! I think after a certain period of adjustment and adaptation, we'll find new inspiration from our new territory.
Pierre: Staying in Japan for a longer period — actually we've decided to stay at least until the end of 2011 — generates certain time-consuming constraints. For example, I should learn the language, but for the moment my progress is ridiculous, whereas my 4-year-old daughter almost speaks fluently! The other thing is that we don't have the same facility of provisioning for styling (props) here. Recently, I needed a marshmallow for a photograph, but I couldn't find the one I imagined in my mind. We don't find the same products here as in France, of course... but I think we'll start a new series with Japanese products and food very soon.
"Les épépineurs" ("The Pitters")
EP: Has seeing the world through the eyes of your children, Miyako and Yamoto, changed how you approach your work in any way?
Pierre: Our children are a source of love, but not of inspiration. Our universe is much less childish than it appears. Our Minimiam series was created before their arrival, and seeing a child eating his porridge doesn't really inspire me!
Akiko: Children see and remark on much more detail than we adults. So I learn again with them how to see the world — it can be just a fly on the window or tiny bread crumb on the floor. That can give me inspiration at any moment.
EP: You do quite a bit of editorial photography with your miniatures, and Akiko has also photographed for dozens of delectable-looking cookbooks. What other projects do you have underway?
Akiko: While staying in Japan, we're thinking of making other Minimiam series with Japanese food and products. We also wish to shoot some stories around Japanese food — there are just too many good things to show and eat in Japan!
EP: What other artists working in miniature scale do you most appreciate?
Pierre: Slinkachu's little people are remarkable work, for his sensibility and his concepts. His work intersects ours without being a copy. Recently I saw the work of Thomas Doyle — he doesn't do photography, but it's gorgeous work.
EP: What artist or photographer from the past moves you most powerfully, and what aspects of his or her work do you find most intriguing?
Pierre: Duane Michals is for me one of the greatest photographers in the world. It's not a coincidence that he is fascinated by Magritte, and me by him! His narrative simplicity nourished my first years of photography in the Beaux-Arts school. The series of crossing men, or that of "Things Are Queer" are for me the unforgettable images of XXth century!
EP: If you could hang just one classic artwork from history on the wall of your studio, what would it be?
EP: Is there anything else you're finding really inspiring right now?
Akiko: The light of Japan in every moment of the year — which is really different from that in France.
Pierre: Since I'm in a country I don't know, everything inspires me! The people, the panels, the food, of course! The most difficult thing is to prioritize and not head in many different directions!
EP: What's on the horizon for you? Hopes, dreams, plans for the future?
Akiko: Life in Japan makes me reflect on my origin, my childhood, the childhood of our children, and our future. I think the ideal lifestyle for me is having more time in Japan, and maybe spending half the year in France to work — or why not in other countries, if we have the opportunity!
Pierre: Five years ago, I didn't imagine myself with two children, and a year ago, I didn't imagine myself living in Japan. So it's difficult to envisage the future, since all options seem to be open. Maybe after Japan, we'll go to the US? It's tempting, and not impossible. I would like to imagine myself, at the age of 90, still doing the miniature photo settings... (if I don't tremble too much)!
Each time my dear friend Edwin Ushiro creates another body of work, he challenges himself to take us somewhere we haven't been before. For his upcoming show at Roq la Rue next weekend, he has created five paintings of unparalleled warmth and dynamic composition. Mysterious, playful and vibrantly hued, they resemble nothing so much as sunstruck vintage snapshots of precious memories. You can learn more about Edwin's inspiration and technique in our recent interview.
"All Signals Configuring to a Position Seeping from Words Either Unspoken or Intangible"
I am obsessed with art, so whenever I see imagery that moves and inspires me, I need to write about it. In addition to the many profiles and interviews you can read here, I wrote an essay and 15 interviews for the recent Heroes & Villains photography book, which showcases over 100 underground artists. I am also co-author of Chris Berens' new monograph Mapping Infinity, and one of several writers for Mark Ryden's Taschen monograph, Pinxit. Most recently, I wrote and edited Andrew Hem: Dreams Towards Reality, which just came out from Zero+ Publishing.