Today on the Pixel Magazine, we showcase incredible stories created by still life photographer Dina Belenko from Russia.
Dina explains to us her process for creating rich imagery and how simple things can help you with your storytelling.
A great interview illustrated by 17 of Dina's photos, let's go!
A few words about you, how did you start photography?
There is one phrase I always use to introduce myself; it describes me precisely: “My name is Dina, and I tell animated stories about inanimate objects.” I’m a person with little paper cities, sugar cubes, moon from polymer clay, doll’s miniatures, broken cups, handmade Rube Goldberg machine, repainted puzzles, wire trees, cardboard dragons and spilled coffee. And with a photo camera. That’s quite essentially me.
I was interested in photography since graduation from high school. I didn't want to become a professional photographer, I just had a hobby. I was shooting portraits of my friends (and now I think it is a good thing to start), flowers, landscapes and anything I saw. There wasn't a photography genre I didn't try. Maybe I just liked the sound of the shutter.
In the course of time, I started to take photography more seriously, began to think about what I wanted to say with my pictures, to plan shootings, draw sketches and pay attention to minor details. I began to control more and more aspects of my work.
Call me a control freak, but I fell in love with it. I found out that what interests me lies not in tracing some events and retelling stories of something happenings, but in creating tales of my own. The easiest way to do this is when you have control over all the objects in your shot. And I understood that still life photography is something I can become good at. At least, theoretically. So I decided to make it my profession.
Did you try other photography styles? Or still life photography has always been your favorite one?
I did, but I found out that my stories go best with still life genre. Imagine all the stories you can tell with simple things! In every single thing, there is a sense of human presence, something invisible but clear. They have a subtle connection to their owners. And they can store memories. You just need to get them talking.
I often imagine myself as a movie director that gives orders to cups and cookies. It's like I have a troupe of inanimate actors who could neither move nor speak, but still could create a narrative.
Take a coffee cup, for example. It may belong to an astronomer and reflect the stars or lunar eclipse. Or you may think of an artist who got oblivious and put brushes and pencils in a cup. Or steam from a hot coffee can rise above it, and in this steam cloud, kites or blimps might fly. You just need to ask questions: What does it look like? How can it be transformed? Who can use it? What if I make it liquid? What if I make it solid?
Things are marvelous, especially simple ones. Coffee cups and cookies are so simple and common, they can get anywhere. And they can take a photographer anywhere with them. You may imagine yourself as an explorer, like David Livingstone, in a world of inanimate objects.
Can you briefly explain your creative process for a great still life shot?
The entire process looks like this:
I always start by making a sketch. In fact, this is my favorite part. It's a time to find the motivation for each object in the scene; some integrating vectors. What are these objects? How did they come here? Who brought them here? Who is the protagonist? What’s going on here? A good photo is the culmination scene in the movie. Invent for a photo a coherent story (with a beginning, middle, and end), and then simply capture a culminating point.
If I only need to put together all my coffee cups, this stage takes just a couple of minutes, but if I'm going to make a bunch of paper flower, it may take a few days. But for an imaginary average shot, it's 3-4 hours.
When all items are ready, it usually doesn't take long to make a composition (which I've already thought over at the first stage), set the lights and make a shot. Sometimes there may be difficulties with naughty sheets of paper or capricious smoke, so this stage can last from 1 to 4 hours.
Files from my camera are really large and my computer isn't the fastest one, so I usually need about 2 hours to convert and process my image. I like to keep things simple. If it's easier to make changes during the shooting, I'll make them during the shooting. If I know that something will be more simple to correct in Photoshop, I'll do it that way.
Do you make the set design yourself or do you require another person in the team?
I work alone at home, though I love collaborations with artists. Say, there's a project we created with a wonderful illustrator Marina Fandee, about fairy tales and different kinds of brownies. I took the photos with spilled milk and falling cups. Marina drew magical creatures.
Are you inspired by the work of other photographers or artists?
It turns out, most of my decisions are guided by books I've read. I remember how I discovered "The Lord of the Rings" and was truly mesmerized by it.
"So, THAT's how literature should be like!" I thought. Also, there was The Enchanted World Series with titles like "Dragons," "Spells and Bindings," "Fairies and Elves" and "Magical Beasts" and almost literally spellbinding artwork (it was the first time I saw artists like John Waterhouse and Arthur Rackham). Since practically no-one in my town in the '90s had access to the Internet, books were the only way to be introduced to art. And books like this were regarded as treasures.
And even now I'm a bit of a bookworm (well, audio book worm) and a fangirl. Pick a topic (literature, music, games, films) and I found something to be obsessed with. Obviously, I enjoy books about still life and storytelling (like "Problem and Development of the Still Life. The Life of Things" by Boris Vipper or "Historical Roots of the wonder tale" by Vladimir Propp), but not exclusively. The last one I've read is "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality" by Eliezer Yudkowsky - it's hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. And Professor Quirrell had my heart broken.
Sometimes all this fangirling slips into my work and I make a picture of a small series about my current crush, but for most of the time, it stays backstage and keeps me inspired. And happy.
About your photography gears, what are your favorite tools?
My sketchbook. I have no special affection for my camera or speedlights, but I do love my sketchbooks. In fact, the most important advice I've ever got is "Always start with a sketch".
Can we make it in a voice of Discworld Death? ALWAYS START WITH A SKETCH. Yeah, that's better. I wish someone told me that earlier! It allows you to think about your character and your story, to ask an important question, to add cute details. I know some photographers can think of an idea on the run, but I'm definitely not one of them. So sketching and planning ahead is a core of my work and, for that matter, inspiration.
Do you have projects for the future like workshops, personal series or travels?
I'm extremely bad at long-term planning. Usually, I'm trying to think about a project and immediately get started. Because otherwise, I would never get the thing done. So, no real plans further than a month. But it would be nice to do a workshop in Moskow this year.
To see more from Dina:
All photographs copyright Dina Belenko and used with her permission.
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