There's No Art without a Message with Kristina Varaksina

In this episode, I’m talking to Kristina Varaksina, a professional fashion and fine art photographer from Russia, currently based in NYC. Her work is an outstanding blend of surrealism, poetry, pastel colour palettes and fashion aesthetics. Very few people can boast having such a combination in their works! Her work was recognized by numerous photography magazines and awards, including Aesthetica magazine, Vogue Italy, Int’l Photography awards, PX3, and others. She currently teaches photography at NY film academy and shoots for clients like Harpers Bazar and L’Oficiel.


In our conversation, we discuss the very intriguing topic of formal education in photography. what does it bring to you? Do you need it at all? Kristina also shares how her creative process is organized from the initial idea to the final result. She also tells us about her experience of working with big brand names. Priceless information for any aspiring and even established photographer. Enjoy!


Show Notes

Things we talked about:


  • Higher education in photography - is it important and what it can give you;
  • Kristina’s creative process, importance of mood boards and detailed photo shoot planning;
  • How to get your work published in a magazine
  • Areas of responsibility of a commercial photographer in a shoot and his/her role in a team
  • Why even if you’re a successful commercial photographer you need to always spare time for personal artwork.
  • How to combine shooting videos and short films at the same time and location




Kristina’s Instagram

Kristina’s website

The Art Institute of California, the school where Kristina was teaching

New York Film Academy, school where Kristina is currently teaching

Magic Realism series

Website, where Kristina is searching for trends

Short film Kristina art directed

Interview script

- Can you tell us your story how you came into photography and how did you end up teaching in New York?


- I’ve been doing photography for many many years I’ve started as a teenager as a hobby just capturing and to have those moments with me forever. It was a way to express myself. I went to art school, I started with graphic and interior design then. I ended up working at different advertising agencies as a graphic designer and as an art director. Gradually, I was going from small projects to bigger ones and I started art directing photo and video shoots. I was like WOW, these people are having so much fun, they’re being creative, they just took my ideas and built them up from nothing. The team spirit and that they enjoyed what they were doing. I was just sitting in my office the whole day, replying the emails and moving logos from left to the right, and that’s not fun. That people were having so much fun, and that’s something I wanted to do. So it took me a while to really make that final decision and I enrolled into photography masters program in San Francisco. At that point I started taking my photography seriously and I basically never looked back. That’s what I’ve been doing for past 8 years, just photography and teaching. I was asked by my friend to help her out with the class she was teaching at San Francisco. In the end it was an Art Institute of California, and then they asked me if I’d want to teach a whole class. I thought that’s fun idea and the next semester they asked if I want one more. Then I moved to NY and now I’m teaching different type of classes, like photography, photoshop etc., at New York Film Academy.


- So before you moved to San Francisco, you didn’t have any education in photography?


- Just visual arts but not photography.


- Many people are concerned with formal photography education. What did it give you?


- I didn’t know what I was doing at that time, I didn’t know much about fashion side of photography. I looked at many photographers’ work, but I didn’t know how it’s done, so I thought school will give me these tools, how to approach, how to create, how to light, the technical side of it. But now looking back, you don’t really need to have a technical part, you don’t need to go to school for that. You might become an assistant of a photographer you really like and you’ll learn so much faster from them, especially if you’re not assisting for one, but few of them. Everyone has a different way of lighting, different approach, how they interact with models, how they work with clients. I think this way is much faster to get where you gotta be on a technical side. But in terms with artistic part, that’s where the school came in very handy, because I got into this very artistic environment.


Everyone around me was so different and as it was masters program, they were working already, they were adults from different backgrounds, everyone had their own vision. Every moment in that environment we were encouraging each other. Saying how we see it from our perspective, how we see each others’ ideas and how to communicate them. It’s a school, it’s the time you can try anything you want, nobody will say you failed because you’re learning. That was amazing to be there and to grow as an artist.


- When you went to the masters program, what type of photography you had in mind?


- At that point I saw myself as a portrait photographer. But they way i started photographing and presenting my work in classes, people and even some teachers asked if I’m going for fashion. Not really, I didn’t have anything like that in my mind, but maybe the way I chose models and lightning looked like fashion. I also started doing a lot of conceptual things, telling stories, and I really got into that stuff, whole kind of retro aesthetic. And because of my art directing and advertising, my sets and color pallets were carefully put together. People thought it was commercial looking and they thought I wanted to do advertising. At that time I wouldn't mind doing it, but that wasn’t my goal. I just wanted to tell stories I felt were interesting and important to me to talk about.


- I want to ask you about psychological topics you were interested in and in your earlier work they’re really visible and so deep emotionally. How did you find those topics, why did you find them important and how did you find courage to speak about them?


- I think it was because I was in a different country, with different culture around me, with different ways of seeing things. I come from Russia, which is more conservative society and American society is a little more liberal the position of men and women are a bit more equal. Women felt much more independent to me than how women were seeing in Russia. That’s interesting, I’ve never thought of it this way, I was under so much pressure growing up in Russia, so many standards made by society, that you have to be beautiful, we have to take care of ourselves, your looks are very important, otherwise no man will look at you and you’ll never get a husband. And it’s essential to get a husband. In US, there are so many independent women and many of them are interested in career, life, not just getting a husband. And I thought the Russian society can get so judgmental, “why aren’t you married and why you have no kids?” or when you have kids; “why are you working, why is your art more important that kids?”, that’s a lot of pressure. And I thought we’re not that different from men, we should have the opportunity to pursue the same things men do. That gave a birth to my series about women and about what we want in life.


- I think it’s hard to conceptual the ideas, to make them into photography immediately, maybe that’s where the school came in handy?


- That’s true. As it was masters program, they really forced us to conceptualize, to think through everything. Every presentation we made, we had to explain it from multiple stand points, why we come up with it, why we think it’s important etc.. For my thesis I had to write the giant paper, where I had to talk about my background, my influences, everything that led me up to this point and why I’m working in the style I’m working with, all those things had to be explained, they all should have a reason to it. The school trained me in a formal but a good way.


- When you’re working on a big project, for a magazine or a client, is the original idea yours? Are you art directing it?


- It depends. I think with magazines it can be more flexible sometimes, they might give you a mood board but you can decide how to approach it. With advertising usually they have a clear idea and they’re art directing it, even with the lighting, in everything. Some art directors easy to work with and sometimes they represent their ideas and ask me what I think of it, so I show my mood boards and once we choose one direction, we go into detail; hair, makeup, lighting. I’ll also sketch the ideas; how I’m gonna pose the models. After that point, when everything is confirmed with the client, I’ll have the meeting with my team. It’s especially important to meet with the set designer, the wardrobe is also very crucial. It’s most important that they’re feeling your idea.


- So the idea comes from you and then it’s translated to all the team members?


- Yes, but if it comes from the art director, it is still my job to translate it to the team. You’re kinda like a movie director, you’re responsible for the final result and you don’t say cut until you get your shot. It’s a lot of responsibility, you can’t just let someone else handle it. Every single detail is your job.


- How’s the creative process, from the idea to the final shot?


- I can show you my steps. This is Magical Realism, my personal-fashion but also fine art series. The idea behind it was dedicated to what it is to be a woman from different perspectives; psychological, physiological and social point of view. But how you gonna conceptualise it, you must start thinking of the ideas. The idea should be relatable and interesting, with the current issues, current trend, what’s going on in the world right now or it can be timeless as well. And it’s OK to steal other people’s ideas, don’t be ashamed of it or think that you’re not as good of an artist. The only thing you need to pay attention to when you’re stealing the idea, is to be honest with yourself and you have to know you’re gonna do better someone else. But don’t try to steal something you know you not gonna get into the same level, just be honest and know what’s achievable for you.


I know it’s harsh, but I’ve been there, also my students. They show me sometimes their ideas and 90% of it os a model, how she looks, how she poses, her face, and there’s 5 models in the world now that could pull that look. Lower your expectations a little bit and do something that’s achievable at this point. And you can create something really amazing because it’s gonna be yours and no one has ever approached it this way.


- Yes, but, on the other hand, you should try. Of course at the beginning you should lower your expectations, but still, why not go bald and - what the heck - TRY!


- If you never try you’ll never know, and good ideas are always around us, we should be able to catch them. Once you have an idea, you need to do a research.


- First step is an idea, 2nd step is art direction, which is broken down into research and references. Then you develop a story and then you get to the part where to speak with your team. After that you go to the pre-production, it’s really important part and it can take a long time; it can be location scouting, model casting and finding/making props and at the same time you’re thinking of lighting and an equipment you’re gonna use.


- The next stage is the photo shoot and after that is your post production. All those 4 stages are equally important, you should not skip any of these. Really think about your idea and with the art direction, you have to really think how to approach it to make it yours and to express your vision. But sometimes something happens, your model moves, stylist brings something cool and your story suddenly gets something extra. And in post production it’s so important how you treat your colors, how you gonna take your lighting further. So many things that can affect your idea.


- Back to the research step. I got my ideas from 1920s’ paintings and abstract sculptures, they made me think of female body somehow, how we become objectified in modern world. And I really like 1920s’ aesthetics, it’s real but at the same time it’s very surreal, the colors, poses, I just got fascinated by that. I’m not just researching specific time period, but using a part from it and expressing my own ideas.


- And step 2.1 was a story, what’s exactly happening with my model. I thought it’s important that she’ll somehow interact with the space, she becomes on with it and the details on and around her connect with each other.


- After that I start a direction with the team, so they can see exactly what I’m thinking. I try to pay a lot of attention to styling, colors, fabric. If fabric is heavy it will go around her body differently, the light will be reflected differently. Styling should never be neglected.


- And then my hair and makeup board. I wanted something simple but also very painterly. Sometimes I’m looking for right references for days, weeks, months even, and it’s not exactly what I wanted. So I go back and forth on one page to another; “with this type of dress this type of hair makes sense but make up will be too much then”. I think and I think but when I’m on a set everything is exactly how I’ve planned it.


- How long does it take you to prepare those mood boards?


- Maybe in the back of my head the idea is boiling for days, weeks, sometimes months. It depends, if it’s a project coming from a client then I need to be on schedule, I’d definitely put something together in a week or faster. But if it’s my personal project, I take my time.


- Do you take any ideas from makeup artists?


- Yes, definitely, especially when we shoot beauty I rely and makeup artists a lot. I have certain criteria but I rely on their vision and knowledge. I really like bouncing ideas of each other. I try to work with makeup artists I really like and I rely on so I know they’re not gonna mess it up.


- As you often shoot for magazines, they want the latest fashion trends, how you get that?


- That’s important being fashion and beauty photographer, you have to know the trends. I’m trying to keep myself updated, I go to almost every day and look for the trends. Then I can speak the same language with my makeup artist and stylist team, so we are on the same page. And with the magazines if it’s very independent one, they don’t really care that it’s something that’s not mass market. A lot of higher end, older and established magazines, they have requirements and sometimes even suggest the list of brands that are acceptable. It’s a business too, it’s related to the clients that advertise with them and that’s the side of the industry. But the stylists who work with those magazines, know the requirements and the reason I worked with fashion stylists is they’re professional and they have connections to showrooms and designers. If it’s something that’s out, no big magazine is going to publish it.


- After the shoot, do you invite your team to select the final image?

- Sometimes when we shoot we go through the shots and say which we like the most. But if it’s personal shoot, not a collaboration, I choose myself. But if it’s a shoot for a client, I send them a selection and they decide. I send about 10-15 photos, but I’m trying not to send the shots I’m not happy about, because this is the rule, they will choose the weakest shot ever. You better not send them anything that’s not up to your standard. But if you collaborate with other creatives, it’s nice to hear their feedback, because they see a shot from a slightly different perspective. It’s about how flexible you’re as an artist, if it’s really your idea, your baby, then you don’t need anyone else’s opinion. If it’s fashion, something artistic ut with commercial element to it, you can definitely get someone else’s perspective on it.


- How many shots you usually have from a shoot?


- If it’s a client shoot and we are very restricted it can be 300 per look, and there's usually several looks. I used to have 1000 shots I had to go through, now I feel it’s getting less. We got so spoiled with digital cameras, we just shoot, shoot shoot. But as older I get, I come to what I exactly want and I’ll have 40-50 shots per look. And lately I started shooting film and it’s basically 2-3 shots per look. I think it’s a good practice to try to shoot less.


- And what about final shots?


- If it’s for a client we agree upon number of shots at the beginning, but if it’s my personal shoot, then 1 shot per look.


- About the film shooting, how can you do it at the same time? I saw the shot for Harper's Bazaar, you did the shot and shot a film. Was it a request or your personal initiative?


- It was my personal initiative on this one. I was so lucky on that shoot, I got to collaborate with cinematographer and producer/director. I was basically art directing the shoot, but those 2 amazing guys were there with me. 

  I’d do the stills and after the cinematographer would step in and do the film. It was very great, but it’s a challenge. Sometimes I have to do both myself, I usually try to have 2 different cameras then, one is for stills and another for video.


- Can you sum up the process to get published? What are the steps?


- Start with some small, independent magazine, there’re so many of them now. I’d study the style of a particular one, see what their editors are into. You should also check how many followers they have. It’s independent so mostly it’s not print, and right now Instagram is the biggest platform. Then check their rules on how to submit, some have open calls. And most of the time they don’t write back to you, because thousands of photographers from around the world are trying to submit their work too. And that’s OK, they don’t have the time to reply to everyone. It doesn’t mean you’re terrible photographer, maybe this magazine won’t reply, but other will. And if this one didn’t reply to your particular story, send them another one that might fit into their style more. You never know what’s gonna catch editor’s eye.  Eventually you’ll get something published and then you’ll get another thing published, and another. You’ll start getting better understanding of what editors are looking for. With more published worked you can start reaching out to bigger magazines, send them your portfolio or a shoot you did. It depends on your resources, if you don’t have any just start with small magazines and grow gradually until to the point where you’re ready.


- If people don’t have a chance to go to New York Film Academy, how they can learn from you?


- I have a couple of workshops, I also offer retouching tutorials, I even had some physical workshops in NY. i’m getting so many offers to do workshops in all different places, maybe something will happen so stay tuned. But other than that, if you’re interested in learning online, there’s few things I'm offering, just check my website. One is about creative ideas and collaborating with your team, and it transitions into set, how I’m shooting series, how I do lightning, we look at the shots I took and we discuss them and I get into retouching afterwards. Another one was about the concept, I’m talking to my team and students can ask questions, they can talk to people that are professionals in the industry and are successful, they can see how to put the set, lighting, the shooting.


- How did you find your first client?


- It depends on whom I call my first client. I think it was this hair salon in San Francisco. I meet this amazing hair stylist and we would create those crazy trees out of hair, snakes, everything, it was my school project. And a hair salon saw the photos on Facebook and asked me if I wanted to shoot ad campaign for them I didn’t tell them I’m a student and never did an ad campaign before. We collaborated on references, we had an amazing team, great models and I could do the lighting the way I wanted, it turned out really well. Don’t be intimidated that you never did it before, try it.


- Tell us about your artistic plans.


- This year I wanna focus on fine art projects. As a photographer you have to shoot almost everything that comes at you to make money, even boring ideas, and you’re not expressing yourself as an artist and you start feeling frustrated. You need to find time to a project that will make you happy, something that will make you feel like you grow. So this year I really made it kind of packed of myself, I’ll work more on artistic projects. Instead of pleasing someone, I’m gonna do more things that I love. And then maybe something more serious, something socially related. I started working on this project about women immigrants. I narrowed it down to women from former Soviet Union countries and Eastern European countries, it’s the community I know. From a female perspective I understand the struggles and how hard it is to come to another country and establish your life. It’s another direction I wanna grow in, so it’s not just cute and fun things that I do, but also something serious that will contribute the society, to how we see things and how people see immigrants. I’m gonna speak about things that worry me and I want to bring attention to it. Maybe in 5 years I’ll do an exhibition on that.


- What makes a good work of art?


- It has to be simple and it has to have a simple message. It doesn’t have to be literal, but it’s something you’re attracted to immediately. And to me it has something you can relate to, or some topics that are always going to be relevant and interesting. I think it should have a message in it, if it doesn’t, then it’s not an art for me anymore. That’s probably the main thing. Everything else is a matter of taste. But as long as it has a message in it and it resonates with you, that’s a successful work of art.

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