Two androgynous sisters, their cheeks caked with jewel-sized tears, embracing in silvery black-and-white. Contrasted against the downtown street, with its storied past muzzled by high-priced developments, this striking portrait, located on Orchard and Broome, provides a rare public glance through a time portal. It’s a strange alchemy conjured by Julie Orlick, a Bushwick-based surrealist who specializes in tintype photography and silent 16mm films. She is currently featured in The Storefront Gallery’s group show “SaveArtSpace: The Future is Female,” which runs until July 16. That same day, Mono No Aware will host her latest film Silent Lovers, in the first of many nationwide screenings, at Brooklyn’s Center for Performance Research. Hers is a world that is at once contemporary and retroactive, populated by mimes, beached sirens, and creatures with only an eyeball for a head.
Meeting Orlick herself is, thankfully, a peculiar and vivid experience of its own. With purple bobbed hair (modeled after silent icon Louise Brooks), decorated jugger’s hat, busy hands, a mouth painted almost like a heart, and head cocked to the side in an inquisitive glare, Julie Orlick appears a time traveler, were it not for her tattoos and lip piercing. “I’ve been a punk, a raver, a pothead, and they’ve made me who I am today,” she says when we meet for iced almond cortados.
Lately, heavy doses of caffeine are her vice, driving her frenetic behavior and curiosity. In conversation, her sentences are almost always punctuated by hearty laughs and impassioned profanity. Make no mistake— her films may resemble the early 20th century, but they do not suggest that the time period was an innocent one. Her works are often risqué and feature models comfortable with nudity, recalling a time before films were restricted by the Hays Code. “I love classic beginnings,” she says, acknowledging that the time period also wasn’t exactly progressive.
Orlick considers herself a nostalgic person, even romantic for older times: “The first thing I think about in life is romance.” It’s certainly evident in her latest film, the 10-minute long, full-color Silent Lovers, which centers on the formation, and eventual collapse, of a love affair between mimes (Elisabeth O’Driscoll and Nathan Graves). They’re both nubile in appearance, surrounded by shiny linens, masks, and broken mirrors, and the film resembles a ballet, full of arching expressions and large emotion. As in her photography, emotion takes precedence over narrative. It’s Orlick’s longest film to date, even after she lost a large chunk of it from a failed double exposure experiment. Still, the filmmaker remains optimistic audiences will receive it well. It’s her preferred medium at the moment, given its economy and portability.
Still, the fruits of planning tintype portraits remain astounding, even if they’re more costly and time-consuming. A single picture can take weeks of planning, and the day of shooting is physically demanding. It begins with an idea— for example, friend Tony Stathes, a collector of 16mm cartoons, dressing in a half-century-old Felix the Cat costume. A single tintype requires submerging an aluminum or metal sheet in collodion and silver nitrate, essentially building a film negative. The exposure takes 10 seconds, requiring the pose to be precise. The SaveArtSpace poster, which features Elisabeth and Alexandra O’Driscoll, was the final tintype shot during Orlick’s residency in Red Hook.
Filmmaking affords more flexibility for Orlick. Using a Bolex camera, Orlick and her cast (which doubled as a crew) spent three days on filming with no breaks, camping out in her room. It’s what she prefers. Of course, she’s aware of her intensity— her assistant director Nathan Graves, a more logical-minded creator, applauds her for it. “He’ll offer something logical and I’ll often outright dismiss it,” Orlick said. Her latest film is as much inspired by Kenneth Anger’s mime short Rabbit’s Moon as it is by her own experiences as well as her LA friends Almighty Opp— “real clowns in the most chill way.”
Her roots are in Los Angeles, where she fell in love with photography upon seeing Diane Arbus’s work at the Getty. A love for filmmaking blossomed during a LACMA workshop inspired by Salvador Dali in 2008, but it was Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema program on French Surrealism that opened up everything.
Orlick and I first met at the Irving Penn art show at Metropolitan Museum of Art, and she cited AFA’s program, Primarily, perhaps more than a specific period of art form. But Orlick is most inspired by friends and contemporaries like Amalia Irons, a fellow practitioner in older methods— “my fucking kindred spirit.” She dubs Elisabeth O’Driscoll her “artistic soul sister.” New York plays an essential role, too— the smell being a poignant trait. She moved to Bushwick four years ago after stints in LA and Portland, settling here for pastry school. She currently bakes at Bakeri in Greenpoint. “It’s honest work,” she says.
Silent Lovers will appear alongside 10 other films, all of which she’s made in the last few years, in a program she’s taking all over the country, with stops in Las Vegas, Atlanta, and Portland. “It’s the only way I’ll get anyone to see my films,” she insists. Only three of her shorts, including a music video, are available online. For the rest, you’re at the mercy of Orlick and her projector companion. It’s also, she says, an excuse for her to finally take a road trip across America. It’s fitting that Always A Tourist was the name of one of her self-published books.
If you miss Orlick in New York this time around, fret not; in August, she’ll have screenings at the Seward Park Library in the Lower East Side and at Spectacle Theater in Williamsburg. You can find more info— and revel in Orlick’s oeuvre— at her website.