Uber-realist photographer Xavier Nuez likes his bugs dead.
That way, he can collect them, as he has for the past 23 years – and build elaborate sets for them. Then he can place them in context, name them, give them epitaphs, and shoot them with his 4 x 5 camera.
His aim? To make heroes or villains of them all.
“I imagine them lining the halls of government buildings like a state capitol, or the head office of a brand,” he says. “It’s like: ‘Here are our past leaders – the horrifying and the ugly, but sometimes I’m glorifying them and transforming them into larger-than-life leaders.”
It is, the 51-year-old says, a kind of very dark humor. “They’ve seen better days – they’re mangled, clearly dead and in dark corners, but with some glorious history – like Atlas the Greek god who carried the earth on his shoulders,” he says. “There are villains, tragic figures and pop stars – I just loved the idea of transforming these ugly, lowly, creepy bugs into such powerful figures.”
It’s a personal journey for him, one that got its start more than two decades ago, when he struggled with issues of self-worth. “I had a set of colored filters, and I was sitting on the floor of a rundown studio that was pretty much condemned,” he says. “I wanted to test them out and I looked around and saw a bug on the floor and decided to take pictures of it.”
Next came the epiphany that his photographs of bugs were, in fact, self-portraits. “I was photographing myself – I felt totally unworthy at one end, but at the other end I wanted to do something about those awful feelings,” he says. “When I realized that, the series really took off – I had a clear vision and the sets became more elaborate.”
Now the images are on display in Chicago at the Institute Cervantes, at 31 W. Ohio St. Included are 21 portraits of the good, the bad and the ugly, shot on film and blown up larger than life – some as big as 44 by 55 inches.
The details, he says, are important. “I try to focus on the eyes, and it’s not easy because the depth of field is very, very narrow,” he says. “But to get these eyes focused is to make people see that it’s a living creature and understand that the eyes are the windows of the soul.”
It’s enough to make an entomologist squeal in delight – or something like it.