Juno Calypso's best photograph: voyeurism in a pink cold-war bunker

‘It was built as a cold war bomb shelter by an Avon director and a hairdresser to the stars. Now it’s owned by a group of people who want to be frozen cryogenically and live for ever’

For the last five years I’ve kept a list of dream locations to photograph and this was one of them. It’s an underground house in Las Vegas that has its own garden with fake trees, fake sunrises and fake scenery. It went on the market in 2014, and when I spotted it it had been sold for $1m to a “mystery group”. I managed to track down the owners to ask if they’d let me shoot there. Luckily, they were up for it.

The house was built as a bomb shelter in 1978 by Girard Henderson, a director of Avon cosmetics, and his wife, Mary, who was a hairdresser to the stars. They were both in their 70s at the time. It was the age of nuclear terror and the cold war. Maybe they wanted to go out in style?

I knew from photos that the house would fit my aesthetic: my locations tend to be pink, quite kitsch, with a sense of the 60s and 70s being preserved. When I got there, though, it was so much bigger than I imagined. You can get lost in it. There are lots of different entrances and exits and it took me a while to work out my bearings. It’s also really quiet. You can hear the swimming pool trickling in the background and these occasional strange, creaky noises … but there’s no sound at all from the real world above ground.

I really had to push myself to stay for three nights because it was quite a scary place to be on your own. It felt like an empty museum – or a mausoleum! But I always work alone on my projects. If anyone else is there, I’d just be thinking and worrying: “Are they bored? What do they think of me?” I need to remove from the situation anything that makes me self-conscious.

The way I work is to set up the camera for each shot first, to make everything perfect composition-wise. Then I get in front of the camera and shoot myself with an infrared remote control. This picture, of my legs, came after I’d tried a million different poses. I ended up lying down because I was so frustrated and getting to the point of giving up. I was thinking: “What am I doing taking stupid pictures of myself in this house when all my friends are back in the UK having fun?” But this pose worked. It’s kind of ambiguous. It could be looked at as highly sexual, but it also reminds me of someone giving birth. I like the way the pose matches the curtains opening – I’m into cliches like that. It also has a Hitchcock Rear Window element, as if I’m peeking in on myself from the garden.

It turned out the “mystery group” who bought the house was a society of people who wanted to live for ever. They have all signed up to be frozen cryogenically when they die and I think they just wanted a quirky place for their headquarters. I explained to one of them what I was doing and they said it was fine as long as I made a donation. They’d left a whole archive library of cryonics magazines in the house and I think that influenced these images. They ended up being snapshots of a woman trapped underground, a Stepford Wives type trying to preserve everything perfectly and slowly going mad and morphing into an alien. That wasn’t the plan when I got there, because I never arrive with a plan – it all just happens on instinct.

Girard died of a heart attack in 1983. As soon as that happened, his wife thought: “I can’t do this any more” and moved back above ground. I don’t blame her. When I returned to the house to finish the project I booked into the hotel down the road.

Juno Calypso’s CV

Juno Calypso

Born: Hackney, London.

Studied: London College of Communication.

Influences: Stanley Kubrick, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, 1000 Extraordinary Objects.

High point: “My two projects, The Honeymoon and What to Do With a Million Years.

Low point: “Having nothing to do after I graduated and staring into the abyss!”

Top tip: “Don’t feel like you have to overproduce. Less is more.”

Contributor

Interview by Tim Jonze

The GuardianTramp

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