by Editor Marius Cinteză
“I construct my photos somewhat like staged scenes on a theatrical set, where the subjects and the props are obviously real, but their role is to induce and suggest emotional reactions in the audience. After all, the reaction of pleasure or discomfort are those responsible with bringing life into any form of art, because, in the absence of the subconscious in the process of perception, the message remains unknown, and the story, sadly, untold.” ~Crina Prida~
Crina Prida is a Romanian award-winning visual artist, whose work focuses on portraiture and conceptual photography. She is not comfortable being described as a photographer, but rather as a storyteller, because her work is staged, and mostly auto-referential. Since 2008, Crina's work has been featured in many international publications and online media, and exhibited in over twenty solo and group exhibitions in Romania and abroad.
Her works contain a perfect mix of performance and theatricality by using symbolism, specific themes of tension, intimacy and cinematic references to conceive a special mood. I invite you to discover more about Crina, her inner experiences as a visual storyteller and her remarkable portraiture photography projects in the interview below!
Crina, first of all I would like to thank you so much for taking your time to answer my questions! To begin, please introduce yourself shortly and tell us more about you, your hobbies or other jobs/projects you are involved in!
I am a visual artist based in Romania, with a former training in arts, but who became a dentist after all. I suppose I’ve always had second thoughts about this decision, because the years I have spent studying art have remained, to this day, the favourite slice of my life. As far as I remember, the educators we had in art high school would not put a lot of emphasis on performance and quantifiable achievements and grades, but rather on pushing the boundaries of free thinking and on encouraging the creative exploration of our ideas. Anyway, I can’t remember a time, during my university years and after, in which I haven’t dabbled in drawing, writing or painting; currently, my interest has shifted mainly to photography.
Let’s start from the beginning: when and how did you start your photographic journey?
My father had a serious interest in photography as I was growing up; he was mostly interested in technical stuff, and he used his cameras to make photos of his work as a civil engineer and the mandatory vacation pictures; he still has a few boxes of developed slide films, lots of 35mm rolls of films and photos taken through the years. He bought me a Smena camera when I was maybe 10-12 years old. I was pretty comfortable with its minimal settings, so I shot a few rolls, which we would develop and then make print enlargements in a makeshift photo lab in our apartment.
Since sourcing chemicals and photo paper became problematic in the late 80s, I gave up on this hobby, that is, until the digital cameras became available on the market.
For many of us photography is either a hobby or a way of life. How would you define your relationship stressful with the photography?
Well, it is certainly not a desirable way of life, if we speak in terms of cost/benefit. My ‘real’ job as a dentist, is, above anything, stressful; it requires time, concentration, patience, it’s physically challenging, and it involves a very personal human interaction. In this regard, taking a hobby is more than a bourgeois adventure, it’s almost a necessity. In my case, it’s been a manner of re-connecting with the world I had abandoned after high school. At some point, going to art events, watching art movies and reading books just didn’t seem enough, especially when juxtaposing this type of experience with my own memory and validation of reality, so I decided to buy a camera and see where this would take me.
What would be the most important experience so far that has influenced your steps in photography?
I’d say, without a doubt, my long time struggle with social anxiety. I am not talking about the clinical side of it, which is manageable most of the time; I am thinking about the marks that it leaves on the lives of those who’ve ever had to deal with anxiety on any level. Reality becomes convoluted, people around you tend to occupy places in your life ranked by their ability to understand what’s going on without asking inane questions, and, of course, the whole perception of life is slightly more vulnerable and (I speak for myself), prone to a special type of empathy, a selfish and self-educated ability to be more compassionate.
Crina, I would say that you are exceptionally proficient in conveying a special mood by your portrait photography! This is an area where many photographers try to stand out, but very few even succeed. Why are you so drawn by this photography type?
The short version is - I had access to quite a number of ‘models’, people who agreed to let me take pictures of them, even in the early days, when I had really no idea what I was looking for in a photograph. There’s way too much talk about technique, lighting, posing, in portrait photography. I think it’s a shame that we fail to discuss the reasons for which we want to shoot portraits. A lot could be learned or explained if we link the aesthetic of portrait photography to its origin: curiosity as an adventure of the mind, compassion, fixing a broken memory, stuff like this. At this point, I’m trying to match my subjective and average daily life experience with an enhanced observation of it through the lens.
What do you think that makes your portraiture works differently?
I don’t acknowledge that it’s significantly different, or no more than anybody else’s work is unique and personal. Perhaps there is a vague visual common denominator to my portraits, and that has to be credited to the fact that I use specific themes of tension, intimacy and cinematic references or lighting. But this is certainly a simplified explanation, and I really don’t have a better one.
You have found inspiration for one of your latest project “Witchcraft” in the Romanian folklore. Where else are you looking for to find inspiration for the stories you want to convey by your portraiture? What is inspiring you?
Inspiration is literally everywhere, and yet, how weird is it that we find ourselves in the middle of creative blocks all the time. I said in another interview, and I stand by this line, that photography is an efficient method of organizing chaos. I watch movies, I read books, I browse the internet like the next person. Everything can be deconstructed and re-contextualized; the Witchcraft project was fantastic, and ultimately so easy to put together. However, it took me years to actually do it. Why?? It was there all along - I have lived most of my life in Transylvania, the myths and the legends, both mysterious and extremely well documented, AND the brazenly kitschy by-products, have been continuously part of our lives in this part of the world. Yet, I had to meet the right people who were willing to be part of this adventure in order to make it happen, and I am obviously talking here about the three models and the handful of other people who helped out with logistics and everything else.
You once said that your photography style can be more fit under the “staged photography” category, usually following a plan but also letting the spontaneity to express. What would be the features of a successful “staged photography” session?
It’s true, I make images that tend to contain a mix of performance and maybe theatricality by using symbolism, props, textures, specific lighting. I am setting up the scene for the subject because it’s the best way to create a narrative in which the viewer becomes a voyeur, if that makes sense. The model is not aware of what I see at the moment when the camera shutter goes off. There is no reciprocal gaze, and that means I’m the link between the narrative in front of the camera, and the viewer who will have access to the final image, after I have manipulated it. I do value spontaneity, because often the models are playing along with the idea I had explained to them, and it’s good to allow this transition from the literal space in which we shoot, to the conveyed reality in the final image.
Can you please tell us something more about your workflow for portrait photography?
I’m not very keen on studio photography, because it is too static. Also, it needs advanced lighting skills which I do not possess, nor do I wish to develop. When I work in natural light or with very limited and simple studio lighting, my main concern is to make the model feel comfortable. I avoid heavy styling, excessive posing, complicated lighting, especially because most of the time I work with non-professional models. The more I left everything I had learned or seen in various tutorials behind, the better my images became. I value error a lot, it’s been my favourite motivation to explore beyond the classic visual landmarks, but am trying to avoid recurrent errors.
I found your project “I’ve never seen your face” impressive and I wanted to ask you how difficult is to outline the emotion in a visual story involving a person without fully revealing her/his face? Or is the other way around: this makes your photographer job easier?
The beginning of that series was caused by the much loathed question every photographer hears: What should I do with my head/hands? I’ve heard it dozens of times, and to be honest, it still puzzles me after all these years. I used to tell the models ‘just shake your head, move your shoulders, take a few steps to your side, whatever works, and forget about the camera’. As it happens, I came up with a few interesting random photos that were hiding partially or completely the model’s face, and later I started staging a few more; I still collect faceless images, in fact this could easily turn into a project in its own right, in these times where being anonymous has become a rare commodity. To answer your question - it’s neither difficult, nor easy, unless you’re losing focus on why you’re choosing one over the other.
You work with models for your portrait projects. They are an important part of the story you want to build and convey to the viewers. How do you chose your models?
In the beginning, most of my models were my friends. Later on I have worked with models from local agencies on certain fashion or editorial assignments; however, over the past 4-5 years, I have photographed mostly women I have found among my Facebook followers, a few of my patients (even models have occasional dental problems), and naturally, some of my friends who are still willing to take part in my photo projects. I am happy to have had the chance to work with a number of theatre actresses from Cluj and Bucharest, they are amazing in front of the camera, and their knowledge and ability to express emotions using their face, their eyes, and their body are exceptionally welcome for any photographer.
The success of model shooting sessions depends heavily on the model skills, on one hand, but also on your “stage director” skills, on the other hand. How do you manage to successfully communicate with the models, to make them fit in your story and to get the most of the mood from their performance in front of the camera?
This is indeed a good question. When I work on a specific project, I usually start with doing my research alone, then I set up a meeting with the models, where we discuss the concept, plan the make-up, hair, wardrobe and props. I sometimes have a few handwritten sketches and ideas collected in notebooks which I carry with me at the scene where we are shooting.
Like I said before, I prefer working with non-professional models. But, alas, there are degrees of ‘non-professional’, some people are more camera shy than others, which doesn’t make them less interesting as subjects. This is the main obstacle I have to overcome, making the model part of the scene without compromising their personality. A photo should capture grace and meaning, and sometimes I get it within the first five minutes, sometimes it takes much longer to find a way of capturing the kind of look or expression I’m after.
Crina, you are of the opinion that a secret ingredient for a great photo (portrait in your case) would be to include unforeseeable and intriguing elements. What else do you think is needed for a remarkable photograph?
Managing the mechanism that switches reality to its counterpart, the interpretation of it, for the viewer. If I like my photo, the photo is most likely about me, if the viewers like it, perhaps it’s about them as well.
Many are of the opinion that the gear is not very important when the passion for photography is strong. However, can you please share with us what is the gear do you use (camera, lenses, tripod)?
Currently it’s mainly the Canon 5D Mark IV; I prefer prime lenses, mostly the 50 1.4 and the 100 2.8, but I sometimes use my old lensbaby 3G, the Daguerreotype lens, and occasionally I borrow lenses from friends, if the project requires it (wide angle, for instance). I’m using more and more these days the Fujifilm x100f, which I bought for travelling, but it appears to be quite useful for my personal work as well. I tend to carry with me less gear than before, at this point the camera is an intuitive tool, and basically, one body and one lens are good enough for me most of the time.
Who are your favourite photographers or mentors whose works have influenced you and your photography?
There’s a long list of photographers whom I like very much, but reading about some of them or studying their work has made a stronger impact; I’m listing in no particular order or timeline - Duane Michaels, Yamamoto Masao, Ferdinando Scianna, Man Ray, Sarah Moon, Saul Leiter, Alec Soth, Sally Mann, Graciela Iturbide, Mary Ellen Mark, Robert and Shana Parkeharrison, Bill Brandt, Roger Ballen, to name a few.
Now, since we almost reached the end of this interview, I would kindly ask you to share with us your future plans or photographic projects you would like to involve in.
First of all, I’ll have to try and complete a couple of projects I have been working on, or put on hold for various reasons over the past 2-3 years (Witchcraft, Delicatessen, I’ve Never Seen Your Face). I am working with visual concepts, which means they take forever to complete. Or not. I often feel I have finished with this one thing, only to find myself discovering a new way of looking at it, two years later. It’s something I can’t actually predict.
Anyway, I’m struggling to finish a series of single, rather classic female portraits, inspired by, and emphasized with literary quotes (Flaubert and Julian Barnes); I also have in mind a project that will involve a less ‘clean’ approach to portraiture and editing, but rather a sequenced storytelling, in the manner of Chris Marker’s “La Jetee”; it should result in an absurd story taking place in a derelict space we found by an abandoned spa, close to the airport, where the models actually created some charcoal/acrylic works of art which became the props in lieu of pre-existing beauty, and include some alternative processing of the images I took. There are a couple more, but I have to organize them better before talking about them. Finally, I definitely want to make a photo book which should obviously contain at least some of the things we discussed in this interview.