by Jonathan Griffin
For Christmas in 2012, Anthony Lepore’s father gave him a section of a bikini factory in eastern Los Angeles—rows eleven to fifteen, to be exact. A few months earlier Lepore had inquired whether his dad might have any surplus space that he and his partner, the artist Michael Henry Hayden, could use for a studio. Real estate in Los Angeles is increasingly expensive but Lepore’s father, whose bikini business has been declining since the 1980s, had more than he needed.
At its zenith, the company—founded by Lepore’s grandfather in 1971—employed some three hundred people. Now there are four: seamstresses Lupe, Rosa, and Ligia, and Otilia, who does the finishing. Lepore has known these women for almost all of his life. While the majority of bikinis sold in the United States are currently made in China, the company has stayed afloat by specializing: today it solely manufactures plus-size swimwear.
Lepore and Hayden were grateful for the gift, although they asked if there was any space less central and intrusive to the workers. Lepore’s father replied that this was what he had to offer, since he had begun subleasing sections of the factory to other businesses several years before. In 2007, he encouraged his head seamstress to start her own swimwear company under his roof. Her thriving business now outperforms his. The fabric cutting, which still takes place on a seventy-five-foot-long table built by Lepore’s grandfather, is subcontracted. Elsewhere, a small team of master saddlers from northern Mexico now produces premium gay bondage wear.
So the artists put up their studio walls in the middle of the building. Lepore, conscious of blocking the seamstresses’ view across the factory floor, asked them to choose colors they would like the walls to be painted. A pale blue with a darker blue upper section was selected, evoking the ocean horizon—the eventual backdrop for the swimwear once it leaves the factory.
Lepore has said that the factory is “like a river, through which a rainbow of color and pattern flows every single day.” His studio is midstream. Within a short time of his moving there the factory began to infiltrate Lepore’s photography, which often operates by confounding viewers’ perceptions of depth and flatness. Initially, it was simply a case of using pieces of Lycra as backdrops. Then Lepore’s playful torquing of foreground and background, of illusion and reality, began to seem reflected—sometimes literally—in the industry that envelops his studio space.
One evening, after factory cleaners had mopped the studio floor, Lepore dropped something and, stooping to pick it up, was astonished by the dazzling reflection of a striped fabric in the puddles. It is hard to believe that the resulting photographs—Spill, Mirage, and Floor Show (all 2015)—were made without the aid of Photoshop, but Lepore rejects digital postproduction, and established an early rule that he would use only the factory’s fluorescent lighting.
One exception to the latter rule is Lepore’s series Factory Chairs (2015), in which he photographed seamstresses’ chairs at the end of the working day in raking sunlight, isolating them against a white wall in the parking lot. These chairs, often custom upholstered by their owners with swimsuit Lycra to make them more comfortable, serve as surrogates for the women: not only for their bodies but also for their creativity, humor, and individualism. While the workers’ daily labor can be hard and repetitive, Lepore also emphasizes the factory’s enduring social role—a family business that, like many others, has itself become something like an extended family.
First published: Aperture, Spring 2017