In my second year of being a surrealist, I saw a cover of Tatler Magazine. On it was a black and white photo of Barbra Streisand with her eyes pictured green. I thought it looked striking. Sometime later, a line of a song from my youth came into my head.
“Them black skin blue eye boys, ain’t gonna fight no doggone war”. I could not remember the melody, the rest of the words or the name of the band. But it in turn called to mind the phrase “blue-eyed boy” to denote the favourite of someone in authority. As I am black, neither I or anyone like me could be described as a blue-eyed boy for various reasons. So, the phrase “Nobody’s blue-eyed boy” became associated with the picture I was planning, long before I took it.
I bleached the eyes on the print after I had developed it, then hand coloured them and Letraset the words. A couple of years later I started screen printing classes and made it into a T-shirt with the slogan “Nobody’s Blue-eyed Boy”, which I modelled around town. Twenty years or so after shooting it, an international drinks brand used a very similar picture as an advert. Great minds think alike, right? Coincidentally, I had worked with the accounts person in charge of the brand on a small project a few years before they moved on to the brand. The last time I saw them, I sold them a copy of my first book, Bernadinism: How to Dominate Men and Subjugate Women, which had this picture in it.
Years after taking it, I attempted to project the picture on to the body of a nude. It did not work because the breasts of the model were too small. Many more years later I tried it again, it worked better to my satisfaction.
I finally found the song on YouTube. It is called Black Skin Blue Eyed Boys by the Equals. A band made up of black and white members.
I shot this picture the same day as the first. The genesis of it began two years previously when I was still taking impressionistic pictures of tourist London. I was shooting a man in the window of a tourist coach, when he saw me and shifted his eyes away. When I saw the slide, his eyes looked a little blurred to me. Using a slow shutter speed, I got the model to keep still and move his eyes.
Seven years after taking the other two shots, I was asked by a facilities management magazine to illustrate an article on bad office lighting. After a brief brainstorm, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to finally use the technique commercially. I shot it in the studio but when I developed it, I found there were tramline scratches running the length of the film. It was unusable. I had to shoot it again. Short on time, I shot it in my kitchen and meanwhile the model had their hair cut. There was too much light bouncing off the low white ceiling and I did not like the hairstyle. It just wasn’t as good as the first shoot. After period of lamentation, I came up with an idea. I took the negative, laid it on my linoleum in a dusty patch, emulsion side down, and stamped on it and dragged it along the floor with my foot, dusted it off and put it under the enlarger. I had successfully camouflaged the scratches with more scratches. The original print I gave the art director was done in Lith developer, which I was trying out for the first time. When I presented it to her, she laughed in shock but used it anyway.
About that time, I was on a train with my bike one Sunday morning, heading to ride with my old club mates from back when I used to race. Sitting there, the first line of a paragraph came to me, which I fleshed out the following day or the next. It sounded like the captivating first line of a novel or memoir. The line was, “I was sitting on a train the other day when the warm memory of Colette, who used to masturbate me through a hole in my pocket, came to me and I smiled”.
For no particular reason, I remembered the German miniseries, Heimat. In an episode, a young girl masturbates her boyfriend through a hole in his pocket. I also remembered the Belgian film, Toto The Hero. In it is a beautiful and resonant poem of a man who has a familiar dream of a woman, who each time is not entirely the same nor quite different, who he loves and who loves him. He cannot remember the colour of her hair, whether it is brown, blonde or red but she has a beautiful voice.
I hardly ever register the colour of people’s eyes, except a very few. I have conjectured it is because I am black and nearly all black people have brown eyes and it was early conditioning, that since all eyes were the same, I did not bother to look. But I moved to Britain and was going to school with white children from the age of six, so that might not explain it. I can only guess. Instead of different colour hair, I would make it different colour eyes.
This all came to mind as I was writing it all down. I needed a name for the girl. Since I was writing it in the first person, it had to be the name of someone I did not personally know to avoid any future misunderstanding. I remembered a gorgeous girl I had encountered a few months before, Colette. I had no romantic doings with her by any means but I liked the sound of her name.
And lastly, I remembered sitting across from flirtatious girls and longing to kiss them. I put it altogether and came up with the lines and took the picture. It is a great example how my mind sometimes works when it comes to ideas for photographs. One thing leads me to another and I draw in all the strings to make the photo.
I typed in the first line of the poem into google recently and the poem was My Familiar Dream by Paul Verlaine. It came up with several different translations and like the woman in his poem, they are not entirely the same nor quite different.
I once took part in a one night exhibition at a fetish club. One of the photographers exhibited a picture of the buttocks of a woman lying on her side with her legs drawn up and pudenda printed with an eye, using card masks, which was the order of the day before the computer age. The edges of the mask were fuzzy and I thought there was an easier way to do it, and that was simply to place a glass eye in a vagina. I bought an eye from a taxidermist supplier and had to wait two years before I got the chance to use it.
Years later I first heard the name Georges Bataille mentioned in connection with my picture. The second time I heard it I looked him up. He had written a novella called The Story of the Eye, in which a man places the eye of a bull in the vagina of his lover. I had got my inspiration second hand, which isn’t the first time.
When I became interested in video in order to document my work, I soon began to wonder if I could replicate some of my photographic ideas. To that end I started learning a bit of After Effects, a programme much deeper than Photoshop. My way of dealing with so many applications is to only learn what I need to perform the immediate task in hand. I was browsing the web one Saturday night and randomly came across a tutorial on eye replacement. It showed you how to track an eye, make a 3D replacement and animate it. It was a Eureka moment. I suddenly thought of the eyeball in the vagina and thought I could probably recreate that. It proved a technique that would lead to other works.
I shot some video and was putting the effects together, while listening to Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, when I remembered another one of my works. The year after my Nobody’s Blue-eyed Boy, I had a brief flirtation with painting. I bought a book called How to Paint Your own Masterpiece, that showed you the techniques of the old masters in a rudimentary way. I went to a Francis Bacon exhibition at Tate Britain and in it was a painting of a screaming monkey. For some unknown reason, the vision of teeth in a vagina came to me. I could not draw but got a picture from a porn magazine and squared it onto canvas and added the teeth. I had never seen or heard of the concept before. Years later though, I found that the Vagina Dentata was a myth in many cultures. Well, I never finished it and it must remain what must be called an “unfinished masterpiece”. While working on the visual effects for the eye, it occurred to me that I could possibly do teeth in a vagina as well, modifying the same technique. While pondering this, on the radio came an article about a new feature film, Teeth, in which the Vagina Dentata was featured. I was dismayed and reckoned if you wait long enough someone, somewhere will come up with and execute your idea before you. I considered not seeing the film in case it influenced me but I saw it anyway. A lascivious gynaecologist lost his fingers, a bitten off penis was eaten by a dog but no vagina with teeth was shown. Not only was a Vagina Dentata shown in my two minutes fifty-six seconds film but it was funnier also. It was called A Gnashing of Teeth.
The following year I came across a meme where people clone the mouths of celebrities in place of their eyes. I vaguely remembered the image from Greek mythology. I wondered if I could make a horror short film from the concept. I wrote a screenplay and recruited a friend of a friend who had a better camera than mine, to help me film it. We even did a casting for it. He then got busy at work, then got busy with a new girlfriend who was a model and it never happened. Some months later, I had just finished shooting a girl and she was dressed ready to go home, when I remembered wanting to film a test to see if I could even do the effects needed. I got her to sit down for ten minutes and filmed her pulling faces. I put the effects together and found it so funny and peculiar, I decided to upload it to YouTube and emailed a few creative websites. But before that I read an article on how to make a viral video. One of their recommendations was to give it a good title. I came up with, Born with Three Mouths.
I finished the site but it was yet another two weeks before I finally got around to investigating the video. By that time, it had risen to over 3 million hits, to my total surprise. When I finally checked out the stats, I could see that the traffic started from outside YouTube before it was picked up by the YouTube algorithm, probably by the creative sites. The trouble was it ended up grouped with videos of people with human deformities. It got a lot of down votes and people saying it was a fake and had been photoshopped. Obviously, they don’t know the difference between Photoshop and After Effects. I did not care at the time – more engagement, more views, but it was all those down votes that finally killed it. At its height, around Christmas Eve, it was getting over 80,000 hits per day then began to trend gradually downwards. In April 2012 it got to just over 7 million and one afternoon Google, who own YouTube, changed their algorithm and I virtually have had no hits on it to talk about ever since that moment. While it was still going strong, I thought since people like the concept, I’ll do three more in a hurry. The second was an interview with a performer with a split tongue and the other two were more creepy and featured a stilted conversation I had with a model who claimed she could act. She could not act but she sucked a nice lolly though. The other videos carried on a bit longer. The 2nd had 2.5M hits, the 3rd1.6M and 4th 240K. What I gained from the experience was that Google giveth and Google taketh away. The pictures are stills from the videos. I never actually did any work as photographs because it had already been done. I wanted to make them move. It went on to influence a couple of pop videos that I know of.
The last video I shot was a video for my Pornography as Art series during that spring, when I filmed London public and commercial galleries inside and out. Galleries such as, The Tate, National Gallery, Saatchi Gallery and Gogosian. I replaced banners and paintings with my own work. After that I gradually lost interest in video.
Well, that’s my history of eye problems… Oh yeah, I am also short sighted and wear glasses and get dry eyes from looking at a computer screen too long.
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.