My life in mirrors

Mirrors have long been a source of fascination for me and it is a subject I keep returning to. They have so many possibilities. They can reflect not only what is in the frame of the photograph but what is outside of it also.

Mirrors have long been a source of fascination for me and it is a subject I keep returning to.

They have so many possibilities. They can reflect not only what is in the frame of the photograph but what is outside of it also. They can even be made to reflect something unexpected. I have done several projects using mirrors over the years.

Scanning and archiving work during Covid, some of which I had not seen for years, I came across a long forgotten self portrait taken at the very beginning of my career. Looking back, it seems to be a harbinger of what was to follow in terms of my imagery and it was my first use of a mirror. In it I am 22 and I am wearing a cycling jersey. I was a road racer until I rediscovered photography which drove cycle racing from my mind. I did an in camera double exposure to achieve the picture and in this version, I flipped the image. There I am standing in the mirror with my first work Blu-tacked to the wall behind me, in search of another direction. It almost looks as if the mirror is the real world (at least my world), and what is outside is unreal or strange. In another version, this time the right way around, dressed differently, I am leaning on the balcony railing with my back to the camera, while a masked mirror me is creeping up with a knife. By the following summer, I had found my direction.

Ten years later, I used a convex mirror I found in a jumble sale that I happened upon in a local library. It hung on my wall as decoration for a couple of years before I came up with the idea of reflecting legs in them for a project I was doing. [Link]

The first decade of the 2000s was a very fertile time for me. After handing in the final pictures of my first book, Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men and Subjugate Women, to my publishers in 2001, I did not take any personal pictures for the next eighteen months, while I wondered what to do next. When I started shooting again, the ideas came thick and fast and I had several projects going at the same time. They would often bleed into each other and sometimes give birth to a another. I would even use elements from one and apply it to another.

Ten years after the last picture, I was working on a project on violence and I tried to reflect myself and my axe in the mirror shades of a woman on a notorious common, near to me, and nationally famous for the infamous murder of a young mother, here in Britain. While I was standing over the model with my axe during setting up, the model screamed when a frog jumped out of the grass onto her. I knew that is was no place to be caught with a screaming woman and looked around apprehensively. Not far away across the bracken, I saw a couple looking around to see where the scream came from and beyond them were two mounted policemen doing likewise. The two mounted parks police came galloping towards us but I was able to put my axe away in time and let her do the talking.

After that I started to draw outlines on mirrors and reflect objects to create faces and bodies, placing cut-outs on them and bouncing light to produce shadows, creating multiple reflections in them and anything else I could think of. Over the years I have broken many, and if each one is seven years bad luck, my bad luck will exceed the rest of my life span.

For this picture I got a book from the library about the painter Amadeo Modigliani and decided to attempt to recreate one of his pictures in a mirror. I drew the outline of the nude on the mirror and with twigs, leaves and artificial flowers, began to shape the features, finding the right twigs and trimming them. I was doing it on my own, and since the reflection only comes together from the camera position, I had to return to it every time I placed or moved an object. It was very painstaking and tiring. I had to do it twice. Once to make sure it worked and another time when I finally got a model for it. A small reproduction of the Modigliani painting is in the background.

This one was inspired by Dolly the Sheep, the first ever cloned sheep. I had the idea for awhile but did not know when I was going to take it. I drove to the house of this couple and when I arrived and saw the mirror and the colour, I knew this was the place to do it.

I was thinking of Dali and his Paranoiac Critical Method, where he would paint figures in landscape that resolved to become faces. I thought I would experiment with that idea and went out to the toy department of Woolworths, a local store, to get some toy figures. There were toy soldiers, medieval knights, farm yard animals and these Cowboys and Indians. When I saw the figure of the cowboy in the red shirt, I thought he would make good lips and bought them. Laying them out on my tablecloth, I thought there was no way I could use them to create a face. I then remembered a mirror that I had used for another picture and thought I would try creating a battle scene by reflecting them in that mirror.

I had already taken a picture of a strangled woman lying on a bed in this position for my violence project. I then decided to add a mirror to it. I bought a cheap lipstick to draw the outline of the face on it. It would not stick, so I had to get a more expensive one. I then had to decide what to reflect in the mirror to create the rest of the face. I came up with the idea of the contents of a woman’s handbag. Something she might have in her handbag are sweets. I remembered seeing a sweet in the shape of lips and went back to Woolworths Pick “n Mix counter for my sweets. On the day of the shoot, I used the contents of the model’s handbag and added some elements of my own. I had not realised it but when my phone is left off the hook and not unplugged, after a long while there was a repeating tone that gradually gets louder and louder and more insistent. I imagined the scenario to be a woman murdered by her deranged lover or perhaps a serial killer. He sits in a chair and arranges the contents to create the face and contemplates the scene, while the phone gets louder and more irritating. Incidentally, I set up the shot sitting on a chair with my camera on a tripod, while being irritated by the phone, until I finally disconnected from the socket.

I remembered a song from my youth called Angie Baby by Helen Reddy. It is about a disturbed girl with no friends, living in a world of make believe. She spends her time listening to the radio and conjuring lovers in her mind. One day when her parents are away, a young neighbour, who has been spying on her, breaks into her room with evil intensions. Straight away he is enchanted by the sound of the radio, and disappears never to be seen again when she turns down the volume. He becomes her secret lover that keeps her satisfied. I thought I would retell the story but with a mirror. On the other hand, maybe it happened the other way around and I thought of the idea for the picture first and it reminded me of the song. It is hard to tell at this distance.

One of the things you can do with mirrors is reflect them in others causing a multiplicity of reflections. That is what I did with this picture.

My best-known image by far on the internet is this one. At first it was known as a black and white version, which someone else had made monochrome, much to my annoyance. I would come across it from time to time and it would irritate me. Not only did it not have my name attached to it but if I had wanted it black and white, I would have made it black and white. That was remedied sometime later when the series appeared in a post by the popular art magazine, Juxtapoz, and went viral. I had bought six small round mirrors from a £1 shop and reflected parts of women’s bodies in them. [Link]

In the latest of these pictures I tried to extend the reflection outside the mirror by using two models. One roughly mimicking the other’s pose. I wanted at first glance to blur the distinction between what real and what was reflection, then the viewer would notice the difference in the position of the hand and the bend of the knees. I had broken the last mirror of this size and the furniture shop from which I had bought them over the years no longer sold them, so I had to make a virtue out of its damage. Yet another seven years.

Alva Bernadine

Alva Bernadine makes photographs and films. By using themes such as surrealism, sexuality and violence, Bernadine touches various overlapping topics and strategies. Several reoccurring subject matters can be recognised, such as mirrors, shadows, optical effects and representations of the female form. The work is filled with invented surreal scenarios, witty events, troubling scenes from movies that were never made and almost hallucinatory images that invoke narrative, prompting you to imagine what came before or what is about to happen. They are not only about desire but the problems that go with it. Bernadine was born in Grenada, West Indies and grew up on the outskirts of London. He won the Vogue/Sotheby’s Cecil Beaton Award as a young photographer and has since worked for many prestigious magazines and became Erotic Photographer of the Year for his first book, Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men and Subjugate Women.

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