Female in Focus: Kourtney Roy deconstructs the male gaze

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A rosy-cheeked cheerleader clad in red, clutching pom poms, gazes into the lens. Behind her, a kitsch backdrop depicts dense forest and snow-capped peaks. In another image, the same woman dons a white wedding dress complete with veil and bouquet. She looks out intently over her garland; an identical backdrop sits behind her. From photograph to photograph, the subject transforms – an air-hostess, a beauty queen, a secretary, the list of clichéd American female roles goes on. The enigmatic protagonist at its centre is Kourtney Roy, a Canadian-born photographer who features as the principal subject of her work.  She masquerades as an eclectic mix of characters, each inhabiting their own carefully curated universe.

For the series in question, titled the ideal woman, Roy is both the objectifier and the object: the photographer and the ‘ideal woman’ photographed. The duality is intentional, with Roy employing this dynamic to draw attention to the prevalence of the male gaze in photography, and, more broadly. “I use my practice as a way to live as many parallel lives as possible,” she explains. “It is a channel to express all my desires, dreams and illusions. A form of therapy to vent frustration at modern existence.” To mark the advent of Female in Focus – a new award seeking to elevate the work of exceptional female-identifying photographers – we spoke to Roy about her practice and the challenges that come with working in an industry dominated by men.

© Kourtney Roy, from the series the ideal woman
© Kourtney Roy, from the series the ideal woman

In contrast to her use of bold aesthetics, Roy’s reference to the male gaze in the ideal woman is subtle. This reflects her understanding of gender discrimination in both the photography industry and society at large: “I think that discrimination operates in a much more subtle and pervasive manner,” she reflects. “Discriminatory behaviour has been so conditioned that we often accept it as natural, as opposed to learned behaviour.” For Roy, the practice of celebrating female artists in relation to their womanhood epitomises this. She cites Georgia O’Keeffe, who famously said: ‘The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I am one of the best painters.”

Roy was born in the wilderness of Northern Ontario, Canada. She completed her fine arts education in Vancouver, Canada, before moving to Paris, France, where she was determined to make photography her full-time profession. Initially, she assisted various fashion photographers, before finding work at a studio, where she was eventually hired full-time. Today, her work spans the genres of fashion and art, and, along with her personal projects, she undertakes commissions from clients who range from Dior and Louis Vuitton to Vogue and GQ.

© Kourtney Roy, from the series the ideal woman

Roy’s distinctive approach and aesthetic runs through all of her work, be it personal or commercial.  The careful compositions, bold colours and immaculate hair and make-up, imbue each still with a cinematic air. Roy is inspired by an extensive list of films, from the colour work of German film director Douglas Sirk to Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko. From style to subject-matter, ‘kitsch’ also plays a central part in her practice. “I am attracted to everything that is campy and whimsical,” she says. “I feel that kitsch is part of a larger world, which is made up of the everyday … Kitsch is woven into the fabric of these magical places. It is in these mundane sets that the marvelous resides.”

For Roy, creating a unique world through one’s practice is key to breaking into the industry. “I love how someone’s work can show me a universe that I never even knew existed,” she explains.  “It allows me to retain a sense of marvel and wonder in the world.” Although the photographer acknowledges that the gender-imbalance in the photography industry is slowly improving, she emphasises that there is still a long way to go: “We shall have to wait and see if any real concrete progress is actualised!” Nonetheless, despite the challenges and frustrations of the industry, Roy’s work continues to provide her with a sanctuary: a place to innovate, experiment and act out her own alternative reality. “I had a feeling at some point that life was ‘elsewhere,’” she explains, “that there was a magical layer under the daily veneer of existence that was teeming with wonder and magic and dread.” It is this “misty world” that Roy invites us to explore.

Female in Focus is calling for exceptional photography by women. Want to win a group show at United Photo Industries Gallery, New York? Apply today!

© Kourtney Roy, from the series Hope
© Kourtney Roy, from the series I Drink
© Kourtney Roy, from the series Hope