What does heartbreak look like? There’s no one answer, which is why photographer Caitlin Cronenberg and art director Jessica Ennis wanted to explore the full spectrum of possibilities. In “The Endings,” the authors recruited talented actresses — including Julianne Moore and Keira Knightley — gave them short backstories about breakups, infidelities and other romantic catastrophes and then started snapping photos. The method yielded a moving array of images, depicting tears, of course, but also rage and hope, impassivity and mania.
Cronenberg and Ennis took time recently to discuss their process, the outcome and the power of a good playlist.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Q: Once you got an actor on board, what was the process like?
Ennis: It was different with each actor. We’d always wanted the talent to really be involved as much as they wanted to, so there were a couple of instances where we were like, “What are your feelings on this story? Do you want to add anything? And in the case of Julianne Moore, she had played every character that one could imagine, and she said, “You know, it would be nice to actually play a character who never found love and never got married.” And the ending is kind of the idea of letting go of these preconceived notions of the way that you’re expecting your life to be.
We shot a minimum of 2,000 photos per shoot, so we originally intended to have these stories play out in a much longer way, but then, when we started working with the publisher, they were like, “You know you can’t have a book that’s 4,000 pages?”
Cronenberg [laughing]: That was so disappointing.
Q: How long were you able to spend with each actress?
Cronenberg: Generally, a real six- to eight-hour day. Juno Temple’s shoot was 17 hours but that was a totally different experience. And Danielle Brooks was in “The Color Purple” [on Broadway], so we made her shoot a bit shorter just because we didn’t want anything to stop her from getting to the theater on time.
Q: What were you doing for 17 hours with Juno Temple?
Cronenberg: We knew that we needed daylight and nighttime, and it was summer, so we knew it would be a bit of a long day. We wanted to capture the entire range of this woman having a downward spiral as the result of a breakup. So she was visiting the beds of many men — and women. We went to all these different guys’ apartments in Brooklyn — like real guys, not actors, and we all traveled together as a unit and went from place to place.
Q: Were the actors creating dialogue in their scenes or were you giving them directions while photographing them?
Cronenberg: Some people muttered or talked to themselves as they went about their business. But it wasn’t really dialogue.
We always had playlists going that we manufactured to work with the mood of the story that we wanted to tell. We can, and did often, give a ton of direction beforehand, but then during — yes, we would give direction when necessary — but it sometimes felt awkward to actually direct them while they were in the moment. Someone like Noomi [Rapace], she was just like this broken, fragile character, and she was giving it everything and weeping and doing these incredibly detailed things. And we both were like, “We can’t speak to her in this moment. It would not work.” So we had to kind of direct her with the music, and some of those cases are more extreme than others. With her, I actually felt like I shouldn’t be there watching her. We were crying. It was so intense.
Q: Did you always intend to just photograph female loss?
Ennis: Initially the stories were based on our stories and stories from our close friends, and there were so many stories to tell from the women’s perspective. People have obviously asked us: “Are you going to shoot men?” or “Why didn’t you shoot them?” And we just kind of never got there.
Stephanie Merry is the editor of Book World.
By Caitlin Cronenberg and Jessica Ennis. 136 pp. $29.95.