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The Mystical, Magical Photographic Art of Sequoia Emmanuelle

By Charles Purdy

Photo of Sequoia Emmanuelle, set, and costume by Christina Molcillo a.k.a. Black Lotus Clothing.

Photographer Sequoia Emmanuelle is a true renaissance woman—in more ways than one. She frequently manages every aspect of her shoots, from building sets and creating props in her Los Angeles loft, to art directing the styling of models’ hair and makeup, to experimenting with postproduction techniques. But the description “renaissance woman” also fits because, as she says, she “grew up in the Renaissance.”

Well, not quite the Renaissance, but close: Renaissance fairs and festivals—which her parents were very involved in when she was a child. “My mom was a costume designer, painter, and all-around artist, and my stepfather was a genie, photographer, and jewelry maker,” she says. “I grew up doing all the things I do now—I’ve been doing them since I was little.”

Emmanuelle often works in an avant-garde style, shooting for editorial and fashion clients, as well as creating her own images.  

THE ARTIST’S PATH

Having grown up in such an artistic household, Emmanuelle can’t remember a time when she wasn’t creating. While her parents were painting, taking photos, and making costumes, she was working alongside them and pursuing her own art: “There was never a time that I wasn’t doing some kind of artwork, because that’s the kind of household we had,” she says. “It’s very deeply embedded in me.”

But although Emmanuelle describes her childhood as “creative and amazing,” she acknowledges that there were difficult, tumultuous times, too, and times when money was scarce—her parents struggled to make a living as artists—and those times also had an impact. As a teenager, she went through a very dark period.

“When I was about 15, I saw no future, and I really thought I would never do anything with my life,” she says. “I really didn’t see any opportunities. Then I read this book, You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay—an amazing self-help book about using the power of your thoughts, and about how things might happen to you in your life, but it’s how you react to them and your decisions that are important…. At that point I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not going to let all of this stuff stop me from creating the kind of life I want.’ It was really important, and something I want to share with people is their ability to change things and the power of believing in yourself.”

Emmanuelle says that reading this book encouraged her to apply to art colleges—she ended up attending the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, which she says was “the best thing” she ever did.

Emmanuelle’s postproduction process varies. She says, “Sometimes I’ll do a shoot and they will come out pretty much done and just need a little bit of cleanup. Sometimes I’ll shoot and then test a few different treatments.... Some of them I’ll shelve for six months or longer. Projects can take on a life of their own, and I almost feel like I’m channeling this thing—what it wants to be.”

A WORLD IN A PHOTOGRAPH

The photographs Emmanuelle creates are dramatic, dreamy, often surreal, and rich with story. She traces parts of her style and her aesthetic back to her childhood, pointing to Renaissance-inspired elements and a penchant for mixing time periods and genres—something she has done in her work since she was very young. She is also drawn to underground art scenes and subcultures: before moving to Los Angeles, she spent time in both New York City and San Francisco, and those environments shaped her point of view as an artist.

Emmanuelle’s work is rich with symbolism. She says, “I like my images to feel dreamy and otherworldly.”

Emmanuelle describes herself as a very spiritual person, and that shows in much of her work. She uses the word mystical to describe her photographs, and the colorful, complex images are rich with symbolism.  

She says, “I love astrology and tarot—I get really excited about things in life that are synchronistic and that feel destined to be, and I like my work to have a bit of that mystical feeling…. I especially like to photograph women, and I often address female archetypes in my work, goddesses and warriors that recall images of women in a tarot deck.”

Although she creates elaborate set pieces, props, and costumes for her shoots, Emmanuelle also finishes some of her work in Adobe Photoshop CC. “I’ll watch tutorials online…I try to always be learning and applying what I learn to my work. I never want to get into a rut,” she says.

She adds that her process and the techniques she employs change from shoot to shoot—whether it’s a new digital treatment or experimenting with traditional media. Change excites her, and she sets herself creative challenges that help keep her work fresh. For instance, as a photographer known for color, what might happen if she does an all-white shoot?

“I don’t like to be too predictable,” says Emmanuelle. “I like to keep changing the game.”

Go behind the scenes with Sequoia Emmanuelle in this edition of our Make It video series, and learn more about how she works. Click on the image to watch.

TURNING PAGES

Working out of a sunny 13th-floor Los Angeles loft with wraparound views, art of all kinds on the walls, a mix of modern and vintage furniture, and two Chihuahuas, Emmanuelle splits her time fairly evenly between self-initiated and commissioned work.

Her striking photographs have appeared in numerous magazines and publications, including Vogue Italia, Paper, and Vibe; on album art; in advertising campaigns and music videos; and much more. She enjoys working with fashion designers (and has designed apparel herself) and other artists.

Emmanuelle recently released a gorgeous book of her life’s work—almost 400 pages of photographs—called Duende. It’s a project she has dreamed about since she was a teenager.

“I was at a friend’s house, and he had a David LaChapelle book. I picked it up, and I was just amazed. His images—they are worlds,” says Emmanuelle. “I said, ‘This is exactly what I want to do. One day I want to have a book like this.’”

Making a book of her photos was a dream of Emmanuelle’sthe nearly 400 pages of Duende represent her life’s work. (Learn more about the book.)

As she pursued her career and her craft, she said that the book stayed in the forefront of her mind as a goal, or perhaps a dream. “The first title I had in mind was Interview with the Underground—I was living in San Francisco at the time, and I was so inspired by underground culture. Eventually that shifted; years went by, and then my friend Eli, who works for the artist Alex Grey and designs all of his books, said he wanted to design my book. We did a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund it—it was such a crazy experience.” 

Currently, Emmanuelle is working on multiple projects: some editorial and fashion projects, as well as multiple series destined for galleries.

Visit her portfolio site to see more of Sequoia Emmanuelle’s work.