The Dark Side of the Big Easy – interview with Sean Yseult

The Scott Edwards Gallery presents

Sean Yseult – Soirée D’Evolution: Tableaux Vivants et Nature Morte

April 16 to June 14

Let’s play a little game. I’ll describe a city and you tell me where it is. This city has secret societies, a penchant for debauchery and a general love for the the dark and occult. If you guess anything other than New Orleans then, I am afraid, you’re wrong. I would have been right there with you had I not recently spoken with artist, musician and all-around talented person Sean Yseult, as she told me about the inspirations and stories surrounding her upcoming gallery show Soirée D’Evolution: Tableaux Vivants et Nature Mortes. This is an event that blurs the lines between fact and fiction to create a stunning reality of the beautifully macabre. Little did I know that talking to Sean would pull me down the rabbit hole with her as she explains the process behind building this view of her beloved (and sinister) New Orleans.


Could you tell me a little bit about yourself?

I am Sean Yseult. I was the bassist for White Zombie for 11 years, from the day we started to the day we broke up. I went to the Parson’s School of Design where we all actually met and studied photography and design. When we broke up I moved to New Orleans, started a design company and I’ve been showing my photography in galleries here for a couple of years now. I’ve come full circle.

What is the idea behind Soiree D’Evolution?

It’s a photography show that tells a story. I actually hand made books to go along with it. It’s based on the old New Orleans secret societies that threw a lot of the Mardi Gras balls, they had Mardi Gras krewes. They were also secret societies that were kinda the high society, very well connected and a lot of them had a lot more sordid purposes than just throwing parties. [laughs] They controlled a lot of the politics and what went down, but I don’t want to get to much further into that. [laughs]

But anyway there’s some pretty dark stuff, and the first krewe that started, Comus, the theme for one of their big balls basically was Dante’s Inferno. So you just had all these people dressed up as hideous devils with this huge opera house stage that looked like it was on fire. There was just a lot of dark, creepy things going on in the 1800s here in New Orleans [laughs], not that there isn’t still. It was very inspiring.

There were a few things that inspired me to start this, that being one. Still lifes in general, Dutch Masters – I was at the Louvre and the Dutch Masters wing for a long time about a year ago and I got the idea to create still lifes with things that I had in my house. I was actually with my sister and she said I should just photograph everything in my house because I have just kind of a bizarre collection of human and animal remains and antiques and things like that. That’s kind of how the show started.

Then I also got into the idea of not only still lifes, which in French are called nature morte, so I loved that, that still life actually has the word death in it in French. But then there were these big staged images in New Orleans in the 1800s called tableaux vivants, living pictures. So that became the basis for what I was doing. Through a lot of research it then became the sordid story of a secret society in the 1870s. Sorry I have a lot of information – I don’t mean to go on so long. [laughs]

Have you done anything like Soiree D’Evolution before?

No, I’ve never done a show like this. I usually have a general idea for a photo show and I do all these setup tableaus where I stage things but never to this extent. Some of the photos involved eight models and very large sets. I was hand-making enormous backdrops and had to hire people to help with lights. It was very involved. Never done anything like this

I also shot the entire show in my house. My house is actually a Greek revival house in the Garden District in New Orleans and it’s from the 1860s, so when I themed the whole thing in the 1870s the house actually fits in. You can’t really see the house that well though because I had to black drape everything over the background to make it have the Dutch Masters still life look.

We touched on this a bit already, but can you go into a little more detail about the show and your works that will be on display?

Sure. The photos tell a story of this soiree, the Soiree D’Evolution. I like the play on words having devo and devolving, you know, life devolving. There is a precise year that I am emulating, and its 1873, and in that year, two of the biggest societies, Comus and Momus, for their themes, for their balls that year they both did one on Darwinism, making fun of it. [laughs] They weren’t going for it. They had these hideous costumes that were half man, half animal going on with a lot of sarcasm and basically they were disgusted with the thought of it.

My group that I created, called the Omniscient Oracles of the Occult, are into magic, wicca, music, and kinda the darker side of things. Their twist on this whole theory of evolution or devolution as I like to say is that they’re embracing it. They’re saying let’s get back to animalistic pleasures and just everything reverting backwards, getting more and more animalistic, cannibalistic. They’re into bones [laughs], human remains and all these sorts of creepy things.

The party starts off on a dark note. There’s a whole ceremonial altar that’s made up of all of these antique musical instruments, candles, champagne glasses and human skulls. Then it moves onto this champagne presentation, and that I started because I was inspired by this banner from 1873 that really actually kind of inspired the whole show in many ways.

I started doing research on this banner that had these musical instruments on it and has the words The Town of Sainte-Marie de Songy in Marne. So when I researched this, lo and behold there was a band that struck up in an abbey in Songy which was a town in Champagne country.

But the thing that kept popping up when I tried to research it more was the wild girl of Champagne. The wild girl of Champagne was an 8-year-old girl who came from America in the 1700s to France. The ship got attacked by pirates, she escaped, swam ashore. She was feral for ten years. She lost all ability to speak. Her teeth and fingernails became sharp and pointed. She lived like a wild animal and would drink animal blood like when she caught wild animals so she could survive. She did this for ten years until she was captured in Champagne country.

There was a count there who tried to rehabilitate here, and he actually achieved this, which is very rare in feral children. But this is just another creepy story that inspired me.

There are more tableaux. The next is “The Absinthe Drinker.” The people are throwing this big, wild party and everyone is drinking absinthe and there’s a ritual that is getting ready to go on, unbeknownst to the king of this krewe at the time, that’s called “The Killing of the King.” So there is somebody behind him with a dagger getting ready to kill him while a snake charmer is mesmerizing him with a snake [laughs] . One thing just led to another.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King by Sean Yseult

The King is Dead, Long Live the King by Sean Yseult

There’s just so many things that were very interesting to me from the dark side of New Orleans back in those days. These societies for one, the story of the Champagne girl, the blight in the French vineyards. So absinthe was very popular so I did a lot of research on absinthe. We had three absinthe makers in New Orleans at this point during the height of its popularity. I felt like I fell down a few rabbit holes when I was doing the research for this.

New Orleans sounds really hardcore…

[laughs] On the surface people might think it’s really upscale, fancy people, but it’s really dark and sordid and that’s my obsession with it.

It’s straight out of a movie…

[laughs] Thank you, actually I wrote little two or three sentence stories that go with each photo that I put into the book. It all ties together into an ending with another ceremony [laughs] and somewhere in the middle the guests go a little wild partying and getting naked and what not [laughs]. It’s all in there.

What drew you to capture this part of New Orlean’s culture?

It started with trying to create still lifes in my house with things I already owned and I love New Orleans and macabre things so I collect a lot of odd things. And as I said, I also live in a Greek revival from the era so that started it but maybe it’s just living in this house. Maybe there are just spirits floating around that had a little influence on me. I am not sure. One thing just kind of led to another.

The exhibition is described as revealing a world that is one part fairy tale, one part history and one part occult. How do these three elements each come into play?

Like I said, I did a ton of research, but then of course the story is fictitious. There is no Omniscient Oracles of the Occult. I’ve had people look it up and research it and try and find out where they are [laughs] and that’s the fairytale part. There’s almost fairytale like references.   There’s a reference to A Midsummer Night’s Dream where Titania takes a donkey off to be her lover, the man with the donkey head. There’s an allusion to that. There’s all kinds of little fairytale-esque or magical type references within all of this. I’ve always been obsessed with turn of the century magicians. I’ve got a collection of that kind of work too. I have incorporated a bit of that into some of the photos.

Occult ties in with the magicians and all of the macabre items I am just obsessed with naturally.

Based on the image from Soiree’s promo, I’ve noticed a mixture of the sacred, the secular and the occult. Is this a running theme throughout your exhibit?

Definitely, definitely. Even in “The Feast” which is basically a very Dutch Masters-esque portrait of the remnants of a large feast on a huge circular antique table. Even on that if you look closely, which isn’t hard because the prints are six feet wide [laughs], coming out of a little silver finger bowl is actually a skeleton hand emerging from that. There’s just little bits and traces of everything [laughs] kind of everywhere on the table. There’s an antique version of a banjo from the 1800s. There’s little elements of everything tied into each photo. I tried to make them as detailed as possible knowing how large I was going to be printing these. With baroque and chamber music and things like that going on you’ll also see, baby grands, violins and some horned instruments things like that.

What is the biggest challenge you face when working on a project of this scale?

[laughs] The biggest challenge I had on this photo shoot was, you know, in theatre they always say never work with children or animals [laughs]. So I would say children and animals, but actually the animals on this shoot were very well behaved. But the children, the children were so hard. I needed two little four-year-old girls to be devils hovering over this fireplace at what looks like a satanic ritual, “The Crowning of the New King,” and I went through six children before I got two that could not only fit in the outfits, but were willing to get into the outfits. Only one of them would hold still long enough to take the photo [laughs] That was the biggest challenge I would say is children [laughs].

One little girl showed up. Everyone was waiting, she had after school stuff. There were seven other people on the shoot waiting. She shows up and I show her the outfit and she says, “Oh, I am not wearing that” [laughs]. You can’t make a four-year-old do anything, especially if it doesn’t belong to you. So we were scrambling at the last minute to find someone. It was kind of like Menudo. You gotta’ fit the costume [laughs].  It was crazy. I’d say that was the most difficult part of my shoot [laughs]. Trying to find little girls willing to get into devil costumes. A good word on New Orleans. Plenty of parents willing to have their little girls be in such a costume. But not all the little girls were eager.

Could you describe your process for creating your pieces?

I get the image in my head, you know, through the research. The research I did inspired every shot. That’s the first step, all the research I did. The second step, I keep a blank notebook and do a lot of sketches. I think of who I can cast as who or what. If it’s a still life, ya know, like if I have the remains of a feast with various live and taxidermied animals on the table roaming around. Depending on what the piece involves, I have to try to purchase, borrow or obtain these things from people. I have a lot of friends here in New Orleans who are of my mindset that were not too hard to convince to be involved, especially with the absinthe drinking party [laughs].

I’ve been living in New Orleans for 17 years so when it comes time to find the perfect naked lady I know where to look [laughs]. There’s just a lot of great people here. A lot of great resources. I didn’t have all the antique instruments I needed but I have a very good friend who lives two blocks away and he did. It’s just a big collaboration in some ways as far as getting by with a little help from some of my friends.

Can you describe the challenges?

When you’re going for a dreamy, black and white photo that has an aged look, with scratches, imperfections, flaws and blown out areas, you can have some lucky accidents or you can kind of fake the lucky accidents. You can play around with these things, because it’s not defined what it should be. When you are going for a 4-foot by 6-foot, very detailed, sharp coloured print, that, to me was a little terrifying. You need to make sure that everything is well lit, no one’s moving and everything needs to be flawless. It was intense. It was definitely a different process for me.

A little more stressful?

Yes very stressful. [laughs] Extremely.

Is your process different when you are creating for different mediums. For example, does your process work differently if you’re writing a song versus creating visual art?

Oh, definitely, well, I don’t know. The visual things do just pop into my head sometimes so I could be anywhere and if I have my sketchbook I just jot it down. For this show it was kind of unique with all the research that went into it to create something fictitious that is based on a ton of history, so this was a very different process.

Music, a lot of the times I’ll just hear a song in my head when I am on a plane for some reason [laughs] and I’ll have to get my notebook out and draw some music bars and write it down, and jot down the music notations. A lot of the music I’ve written, it’s in places where I am not distracted by everything [laughs]. It’s just quiet on the plane and I’ll hear a song in my head. Yeah music is definitely a different process for me.

What do you look for when you’re capturing a photo?

I am not really one of those people who are capturing a photo – I am staging things, always staging things for the most part. I do shoot a little bit when I travel here and there and of course when I am looking for something that interests me. If it’s decayed or haunting or interesting in one way or another. And then just getting a really wonderful composition, that would be the main thing I am looking for when I am trying to capture something. Of course when I am creating, I have drawn it out, create the composition, then I just have to try and recreate it with people and sets and things. It’s pretty planned out.

Is all of your work connected? Or is each set of work self contained? For example your work on Soiree now and previous works like Musicians, Gamblers and Dreamers…

I feel like they’re all connected. To me there is always something magical and mystical about New Orleans. All of my photos are very inspired by New Orleans. I did a series of girls in bottles kind of floating, but I always kind of go for something stuck in this era. Turn of the century, 1890s, or a look that’s kind of hard to place, because I just feel like that’s New Orleans. It’s so timeless, with so much history, something a bit haunting. Those are all things that I feel are in all my pieces whether I am trying to or not.

Is that why your older pieces look like they’re antiques in terms of their style?

Yeah, I mean when I first moved here I had an old Polaroid Land Camera and you can’t get the film for that anymore, but a lot of my photos were taken with that so it was easy to achieve that look. I was also staging tableaux to look that way, but when the film has that look it really helps. This is my first show that I haven’t tried to achieve that look. I was going for a photorealism look but I am actually using photography so it’s a little ironic I suppose. I was going for a very detailed Dutch Masters painting look where they’re trying to make things look as sharp and real as possible, so I went full colour and very sharp on these. That was a huge challenge for me.

Are there any surprises planned for the exhibition opening?

Yeah, I’ve told a few people, and it hasn’t really been advertised, but my old band Rock City Morgue, we’re actually going to play three songs. There’s a piano in this gallery, so we’re going to do a few piano songs that are kind of dark and haunting. There’s another great band out of New Orleans called Morella & the Wheels of If. They are a sister-brother duo. The brother is an amazing pianist and the sister is a gorgeous singer. They have some creepy little songs so I invited them to do a few songs also. There will be some impromptu piano sets throughout the night, but very short. I want to keep it focused on having some cocktails and the party going on.

The opening is open to the public, and the exhibit will be open for two months, until June 14th. So please come by. Food, drink and music.


If you’re going to be in the New Orleans area you can check out “Sean Yseult – Soirée D’Evolution: Tableaux Vivants et Nature Mortes” at the Scott Edwards Gallery (scottedwardsgallery.com). The opening reception is April 18.

Check out more of Sean Yseult’s work at: www.seanyseult.com or follow her on twitter: twitter.com/seanyseultwz.

Josh Sullivan

Josh loves metal so much he writes about it sometimes.