What if God was one of us? What would that look like? Dina Goldstein's "Gods of Suburbia" is a series comprised of visually arresting images of everyday situations, only with gods as the main subjects. Gods of Suburbia offers an iconoclastic interpretation of how ancient belief systems fit with technology, science and secularism, the three main pillars of modernity. She spent two years creating her third large-scale series with a tiny budget, and every obstacle you can think of. But through creativity and tenacity, she was able to bring the project to fruition.
Each piece in the series came with a set of its own complex challenges and issues which had to be worked out. Goldstein worked with a restricted budget, which was granted to her from the Canada Council for the Arts. Utilizing relationships with crew and friends was essential on this small budget. "The makeup artist that I have worked with in the past, Vicky Chan, moved away to L.A. so this time around I worked with various makeup artists in Vancouver. My core crew has worked with me for years and I truly depend on them," Goldstein says. She also brought in students and volunteers for extra help on set. Even her friends lend a hand when needed.
Her first priority when working on a series is to find the right person to portray the lead character of the piece. This process can happen quickly or may take months or even years. She tends to do a lot of street casting or work with local actors and performers. The circumstances are always different but somehow seem to work out for her in the end. Goldstein recalls, "Tammy Larkin came on board early on as my costume designer and together we came up with ideas and solutions for outfitting our gods.”
Goldstein does all of her own location scouts and gathering of props. Her studio, XX, is headquarters for the production with interns and assistants busy online and on the phone gathering information, working on various organization details.
When the raw shoot is finished, she assesses the image and together with her post team (Cake Imaging) they work on finessing the final piece. "Details are essential in my work and especially in 'Gods Of Suburbia' where the symbolism is in the tiny details. Unlike other artists who roll out new work often, I wait to release a complete series.” Goldstein calls it an "exercise in patience” — something that does not come naturally to her — which gives her time to ponder and enhance the narrative within each piece.
Every image was a challenge to produce. As mentioned earlier, Goldstein was working with tiny budgets and each time had to find a way to bring people on board and to get them excited about something that does not yet exist. "I strive to find the right locations and there is always the disappointment of it falling through for one reason or another." Take Buddha and Darwin for example. She had to convince a local designer supermarket to allow her to shoot during working hours, when the subject matter was clearly critical of the market itself. They had to find a way to work around that and finally were granted permission to shoot at a competitor’s market. This took months to organize. Goldstein adds, "There are strict rules in regards to photographing in a functioning casino and making this happen seemed fruitless at first." In this case she personally made lots of calls and utilized her connections, friends, and acquaintances. Her years of experience as an editorial shooter taught her how to communicate well with those who have the power to make things happen.
Shooting those subjects in public was a challenge on its own. Her subjects are clearly iconic and recognizable, from Disney Princesses, to Barbie and Ken, and now to gods and deities. "When these characters were out in public, people in Vancouver just assumed that we were shooting a movie, as there is much of that here,” Goldstein reflected.
Goldstein has been shooting for over 22 years and until recently most of her work was more documentary with no elements of Photoshop or retouching. When she moved towards pop surrealism, portraying these supernatural characters, her visual language and storytelling techniques morphed into what you see today. "This is mainly because I had to create much from very little. Perhaps if I had unlimited budgets I would work differently?" Goldstein says.
For "Gods of Suburbia," she collaborated with Cake, a post production company, to create custom glows for each character. Goldstein goes on, "This was a fine balance, as too little would not be noticeable and too much would look cheesy. Also as I mentioned above, my process for 'Gods' was unique in that I built on the narrative with the help of post."
These 11 pieces were all photographed with the Hasselblad H2 and Phase One P 65+ back. She mainly shoots with the 50mm lenses and 80mm on occasion. She continues, "Over the years I have collected many White Lightning self-contained strobes which work very well on location. I have a variety of accessories, but use all sorts of unconventional materials when I’m lighting."
Fun Facts About This Production:
- Christian, who played Ganesh, had to endure an hour in a head cast (for the elephant head) and later told me that he is claustrophobic.
- Xenu was portrayed by the tallest man in Vancouver – seven feet tall.
- Most of the drama students at the high school that she used for Muhammad didn’t show… so a few of the kids are actually crew.
- They were given permission to shoot in a house scheduled to be torn down, but when they got there it was locked so they had to break in… "that was fun."
- Darwin is Goldstein’s husband’s uncle and the extras include other family members including her mother.
- The 16 finches inserted into the Darwin piece were collected online. Dina personally contacted wildlife photographers around the world and asked them to participate.
- Jason who portrayed Jesus is a well known actor and has performed in some HOLLYWOOD films.
- Trisha, who is Lakshmi, is actually a well-known clothing designer and at the same time just released her line called "Embracing the Goddess Within."
- Goldstein asked kids from her daughter’s class to be in the Ganesha piece. Her daughter Jordan is skipping rope.
- Satan is Goldstein's fitness instructor, and Grandma is actually her husband Jonas’ grandmother.
- The sky in Satan was also sourced by Dina and donated by Mike Robinson
- Goldstein bought most of the elements for the Lakshmi costume while in India on a residency.
- Shooting "The Last Supper" in Canada’s poorest postal code was not an easy task… "Every time I turned around, some props would be missing or moved as people would walk up and just grab a beer from the set."
To learn more about Dina Goldstein's work, visit her website at DinaGoldstein.com.
All images were used with permission from the artist.