Audrey Love, Argentum Photo Lab, Hollywood, California, 2014

I Love You

The frequent appearance of hearts in his photographs may be interpreted as some kind of sign – a pending miracle, an awakening, a message from the universe – or just one great, big coincidence. Whatever the reason, artist Stephen Hues accepts that hearts just always seem to appear to him or he is drawn to objects that contain them.

Front cover of Hearts I, One Way, Venica Boulevard,
Front cover of Hearts I, One Way, Venice Boulevard, Mar Vista, California, 2000, by Stephen Hues

By the time Hues started paying attention, he had amassed hundreds of these images. His recently published book, Hearts I, contains a collection of heart-inspired photographs, 101 of them, mostly taken at cultural events like Burning Man, the Electric Daisy Carnival in western U.S.A., near Los Angeles, where he lives, or in public spaces and iconic places in Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and Montreal while on tour.

“I carried my camera with me always.  As soon as I walked off stage…I would start taking photos.  And it didn’t stop there, I took it out on the streets too,” Hues tells us in the introduction of Hearts I.

Oude Kerk Heart Stone, Amsterdam's Red Light District Church, Netherlands, 1997
Oude Kerk Heart Stone, Amsterdam’s Red Light District Church, Netherlands, 1997, by Stephen Hues


An image of a swollen metal heart on the door of the Oude Kerk Gothic cathedral in Amsterdam’s Red Light District resembles a locket one would give to a loved-one, but is cast iron and lackluster, owing to hundreds of years of thick, black tarnish. A corrugated line runs through the heart breaking it into three pieces, etching toward the outer edges, framing the heart inside a circle.  The lock looks like it leads to a dungeon instead of a place of worship.

As a universally recognizable symbol synonymous with love, the heart in the Oude Kerk image easily represents human emotion, physical and spiritual devotion but also offers the viewer other possible definitions of love.

The old church stands in complete contrast to its present day surroundings where flesh is the object of desire. Originally dedicated to St. Nicholas, it still has remnants of its Catholic past carved into the wood, Protestant biblical depictions, a marriage chapel, a memorial for Rembrandt’s wife, and an exceptional organ to celebrate the love of music.

“Hues sees hearts everywhere he goes.”

A manhole in London that appears to be a heart but are actually the initials “VBS,” holds so much beauty that it’s hard to believe it’s been trodden on for years and is a protective cover for the sewer below.

“I got Berlin 15 years later when they were repainting it as a tribute, and then five years after and 20 years after,” says artist Stephen Hues.  He’s talking about the Berlin Wall memorial, “there were tons of murals and graffiti – the initial pictures are not in the book,” he adds.

Berlin Wall mural, Berlin, Germany, photo by Stephen Hues
Berlin Wall mural, Berlin, Germany, photo by Stephen Hues
The Kiss, Berlin Wall, East German leader Erich Honecker and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Berlin, Germany, 1994
The Kiss, Berlin Wall, East German leader Erich Honecker and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Berlin, Germany, 1994, photo by Stephen Hues


The title, Hearts I, calls out for an eventual part II Hues admits will likely happen in the next few years. Hopefully, he will include an image of the heart-shaped tomatoes that grew from seeds he planted in his garden.  I verified.  The tomatoes were actually shaped like hearts.

His interest in photography developed in the 90’s and a few years ago he started taking a photo a day.  He takes the opportunity to shoot photos on his travels around the world for his work as a Cirque du soleil-style performance artist, a stilt walker.

“Who is alive? I ask. Those who are born of love.” Rumi Fire Heart, sculpture by Charles Gadeken, Nocturnal Wonderland, Insomniac Events, San Bernardino, California, 2010
“Who is alive? I ask. Those who are born of love.” Rumi
Fire Heart, sculpture by Charles Gadeken, Nocturnal Wonderland, Insomniac Events, San Bernardino, California, 2010, photo by Stephen Hues

Hues has an appreciation for festive environments like the California State Fair, Nocturnal Wonderland (click on the rabbit hole and follow  Alice) where Fire Heart, shown above,  was taken in 2010, or the Electric Daisy Carnival, with thousands of people there per night; “it means a lot to me because I’m there performing and living it,” he says.

Hearts I  reflects the personality of time and place in vibrant colours, but in traditional black and white shots too, on manual cameras, before digital was invented.   Sometimes the images he captures are purposefully produced by human hand, sometimes accidental works of art, and other times created by nature itself. His festival-inspired pieces stand out because of their bold simplicity and uniqueness, despite the fact that they were shot at large-scale constructed events.  He includes images like “Love is in the Air,” a photograph of kites flying in the sky at Burning Man in the Black Rock Desert, “which becomes the third largest city in Nevada for the week, after Vegas and Reno,” he says.

Hues sees hearts everywhere he goes. The only criteria he placed on images to include in the book are that they all have a heart and possess some unique element or statement in their composition. There is a photo of a Venice Boulevard sign in California “that says there’s a part of me that’s cheesy and corny,” he adds.  There’s a poster of Audrey Hepburn in Hollywood (below), a Keith Haring wall mural in Montreal, and  a sculpture in front of le Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Audrey Love, Argentum Photo Lab, Hollywood, California, 2014
Audrey Love, Argentum Photo Lab, Hollywood, California, 2014, by Stephen Hues

“Coming from a dance background I tend to express myself more with my body and with images more than with words,” says Hues. That may be the reason why there are no explanations of the pieces in the book; instead, quotes from the Persian poet Rumi accompany the images, like the untitled image of a leaf below that says “Every fiber of my being is in love with you”.

“Every fiber of my being is in love with you.” Rumi Photo by Stephen Hues
“Every fiber of my being is in love with you.” Rumi
Photo by Stephen Hues

Aside from the fact that his muse was born on Valentine’s Day, his obsession with hearts developed alongside a confidence-boosting practice sometimes used by performers.  “I started looking into my eyes and saying: “I love you” as part of a mirror exercise, something I read about in a self-help book,” Hues says.

“I love you,” he explains, is really the verbal equivalent of the heart symbol. The costumes he performs in are usually covered in hearts and he uses these symbols on social media quite often.  At first I wondered who he was directing it to, then I though he was saying it to me; after a while I realized that it was meant for everyone.

It’s really about recognizing the personal issues you have with yourself and what you don’t like and just accepting those things, he says.  “It can be hard to focus at first. I felt silly and I would burst out laughing. Then I started saying it to my partner. You get to a place where you can say it to the world, putting it out there to my friends, to my family, to the trees, the planet, the universe”. He leans back in the swivel chair behind his desk and laughs.

Hearts I, could be considered a self-help book as it allows you to reflect and gain perspective through beautiful imagery of unique cultural landscapes and timeless poetry.  It’s gimmick-less and sincere.

The book is dedicated to love and reminds us through Rumi, that “When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”  That’s exactly what Hues aims to share.

Hearts I is self-published and is available for order online in hardcover, soft copy and instant PDF via Blurb and on iBooks, from US $8.99 to $54.99.

by Cherryl Bird
@ladycbird
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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