In 2009, photographer Alexandra Carr spent roughly a year snapping thousands of portraits of Boardwalk Empire actress Paz de la Huerta on a 35 mm Nikon camera. The ongoing photo project was not only a testament to their friendship — they’d meet up regularly on Sundays at Paz’s tiny “jewel box” of an apartment or drive to an isolated Coney Island armed with an arsenal of wigs and furs — but also served as an emotional and artistic release for both women. Paz was nursing heartbreak from a difficult breakup while Carr was stuck in an artistic rut in the middle of a recession, and the photo-book project, eventually named The Birds Didn’t Die Over the Winter, was a catharsis.
“This book, in a way, is about the end of suffering,” Paz told the Cut. “I love myself for the first time of my life. So as David Bowie killed off Ziggy Stardust, I killed off [my past self], whatever you want to call her.” The book is filled entirely with portraits of the actress walking aimlessly around New York, chasing seagulls on Coney Island, changing outfits in a car, or lounging in her cozy apartment. In addition to the shots, Paz added hand-written quotations and original lines of poetry to accompany the dreamy selection. “We are all polyamorous,” one reads, while another vaguely states, “Everyone is a ghost.” The Cut caught up with both women to chat about the collaborative process, and other thoughts on love, losing it, and figuring out your twenties.
So tell me how you two first met. What prompted you two to create a book for over the span of a year?
Alexandra Carr: I met Paz kind of through a friend of a friend. I was shooting a musician and it was for this German magazine and it was a last-minute thing. [A director connected me to Paz] and we talked on the phone, and I liked her. For myself, she was funny, interesting, and cool. She liked my photos and she said, “You know, we should do something.”
Paz de la Huerta: My ex-boyfriend, who was my first love, was Donald Cumming from the Virgins. Alexandra had taken his photographs, I was like, “Oh my God, these are the best photographs I’ve ever seen of him,” because he’s really beautiful, but in a very unique way. To me, he looks like Pierre Clémenti. She said she’d like to take my picture, and I love the way the photos came out.
What was your collaboration like? What was a typical day out shooting?
Paz: I was going through a breakup, a really hard breakup, and how I always approach being photographed is that I create a character. So every time we would meet, she would take my picture in Coney Island, mainly. We’d drive out in the middle of winter and I’d be wearing next to nothing and we had wigs and all of these props.
Alexandra: Sometimes we’d talk about a character and then Paz would bring it to life. It was a very fluid thing. We did shoot a lot at your place, too, in the West Village.
Paz: Yeah, I had this 300-square foot apartment on Gay Street, which was like a little jewel box. It was so tiny and it was basically this gorgeous bed from the forties and a bathroom, and there was a fireplace, and it was totally a fire hazard. I was sleeping on a mattress next to the fire every night.
Alexandra: [Laughs.] With the fire on, with no fire screen. When you had the bed, you had all those candles in there. It was beautiful.
How did you come up with characters for the shoot?
Paz: I would tell Alexandra, I want to be an Italian like Anna Magnani in The Fugitive Kind, you know, this older woman who was really in love with someone who at first was not reciprocating, but at the end reciprocates, so at the end it’s this really passionate love. I wanted to create this woman who is quite lonely. So I put my hair down, all long, dark, curly.
Alexandra: And desire. That was another one, I think we started with that one.
Paz: That was a huge one, because you get to play with this cold, sort of bourgeois woman. So you had the woman who was a coquette and this beautiful, cold, almost untouchable woman. I was really releasing a lot of [sighs] emotions through them because I was feeling a lot of heartbreak. You know, your twenties are really hard years, and I didn’t know where I was going, didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and only until recently was when I realized that.
How was this series of photos a form of artistic release for you?
Paz: When you’re working on film, you work on it for three months and then it’s good-bye. But this was very therapeutic for me because instead of calling this guy, you know, two or three times a day, and wallowing in my bedroom by myself, it was an outlet to get through it and make art out of it, make something beautiful from suffering. In October 2011, I was hit by a stunt driver on set. I had a horrible accident on set and I was literally in the hospital for all of 2012, but during that time, how I coped was that I painted. I feel better now and I got a spiritual awakening because of what I went through.
Was this more of a fashion-related shoot for you or more of a documentary portrait session?
Alexandra: It’s a portrait, but it was amazing because we had the freedom to just do whatever we wanted to do. When you have someone who’s a very gifted person — and gifted actress — in front of the camera, it’s a very inspiring experience.
Paz: We didn’t start the project thinking we were going to make a book. [But we decided to] as winter turned into spring and … the reason the book is titled, The Birds Didn’t Die Over Winter is because I literally thought that the whole world had died and a part of me had died, and then all of a sudden I heard these birds chirping and it was over and I was healed. I had two windows looking out on the street and the temperature was warmer. I was like, “The birds didn’t die over the winter, oh my God!”
Alexandra: Yeah, she called me. [Laughs.]
Can you expand on your title a little more?
Paz: I thought life had been dead and all of a sudden great things started happening to me. I went into the void and my life was starting to change for the better and I wasn’t living my life for a man. I was living my life for me. I don’t consider myself an actress. I find myself more of an emoter. I read this book and Buddha’s definition of enlightenment is the end of suffering. Now is the time for light and happiness. I’ve never truly been happy and it’s kind of a cycle that started at 17 and ended at 27. I was closing a dark chapter of my life and now I feel I’ve been enlightened and I’m a different person now.
Were you going through anything similar to Paz’s experience at the time of the project, Alexandra?
Alexandra: It was in the recession and I was pretty broke and I was kind of lost creatively, I was pretty frustrated with what I’d been doing, just commercial work. I think for me, it was about having an outlet and making something beautiful. To me, it’s also about our friendship, which was important to me and still is.
How did your friendship grow over the course of the book?
Paz: I feel like the level of trust just increased. As you get to know someone, trust is so important. We became deeply open with one another and over time, it was interesting because there was really not a lot of talking. It was more through the lens that the friendship developed.
Alexandra: We were on the same wavelength.
Paz: To be able to be quiet with someone for such a long period of time is incredible. When you can sit in a room with someone and just be quiet, then you know that there’s connection and a sense of safety and there’s trust. Now that I feel reborn, literally. I love myself for the first time in my life.