by Editor Yvette Depaepe
Dina Belenko's imagination is endless. She tells us magical stories with mundane objects, brings them alive. Her work is coulourful and playful. She doesn't consider her photographs as creatively edited but far more as still life images. Dina is not only a talented visual narrator but she drags us into her magical world through her images. Moreover, she is a spirited and charming lady who often made me smile when I first red her answers in this interview.
Enjoy her sparkling personality and learn more about her.
Please tell us something more about yourself, your hobbies and other jobs.
My name is Dina and I tell animated stories about unanimated 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 photo camera. That’s quite essentially me.
Usually I introduce myself as a still life photographer. And yes, this is my profession now. But I'm interested in so many other things!
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 fallen in love with is “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” by Eliezer Yudkowsky — it's hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time. And professor Quirrell (here he's a competent teacher — calm, collected and powerful) has broken by heart.
Also animation of any kind (from Western to Japanese) is a great joy to me. Right now I'm a huge fan of Gravity Falls (the show is over now, but oh, heart, why are you making me feel things?!).
Sometimes all this fangirling slips into my work and I make a picture of a small series about my current crash, but for most of the time it stays backstage and keeps me inspired and happy.
How has your history and life experiences affected your photography?
Which are your most important experiences that has influenced your art?
It turns out, most of my decisions are guided by books I've read. So it's not surprising that most of my childhood memories are about books (and video games with a couple of TV-shows). 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 90's did have access to Internet, books were the only way to be introduced to art. And books like these were regarded as treasures.
What first attracted you to photography?
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 tried. Maybe I just liked the sound of the shutter.
In course of time I started to took at photography more seriously, started to think about what I want to say through my pictures, to plan shootings, to draw sketches and to 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 some happenings, but in creating tales of my own and 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 became good at. At least, theoretically. So I decided to make it my profession.
Describe your overall photographic vision.
Telling magical stories of mundane things. That's what I do.
One thing I find especially wonderful in a still life genre is all the stories you can tell with simple things. 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 the 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 it can be transformed? Who can use it? What if I make it liquid? What if I make it solid? Things are marvellous, 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.
Why are you so drawn by creatively edited photography?
I wouldn't describe my photos as „creatively edited“. There's hardly any editing involved. Unless you count adjusting colours and combining two shots (say, one with a splash and another with a clean background) together.
I'd rather say that I'm interested in still life. Maybe it's a believe that every single thing there is a sense of human presence, something invisible but clear. 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.
What is more important to you, the mood,/story behind your images or the technical perfection?
The story, of course.
You'd often hear that the most important thing in photography is a story. I couldn't agree more. It's like a movie, but just in one frame. Even if you're not looking deep into a manner of things, you can still find unusual connections between objects and make a beautiful picture out of it. Find a mundane object that reminds you of something more interesting, more adventurous or exiting. Make their similarity visible. Sure, tell a story of a coffee cup. But let this cup belong to a Hogwarts first year student, a pirate or an astronomer.
What generally is your relationship to your subject matter beyond being an observer?
Well, I'm never an observer. Okay, you have to be observant to pick your themes and stories, but I never wanted to capture the reality as it is. I never wanted to use photography as a tool of memory. I wanted it to be a way to translate stories from the language of inanimate things to a human language.
Do you prepare carefully the locations when you are intending to photograph?
If props and backgrounds count as a location, sure. I'm a big fan of Writing Excuses podcast. In some episode they said that there's two types of writers. Discovery writers, who got an idea and want to see how far it would lead them. And Outliners, who plan carefully each scene in their book. I think it applies to photography too. I'm definitely an Outliner here.
Can you tell us something more about your work flow?
The entire process looks like this:
1. The Idea.
I always start with making a sketch. In fact, this is my favourite part. It's a time to find the motivation for each object in the scene; some integrating vector. What are these objects? How did they come here? Who brought them here? Who is the protagonist? What’s going on here? 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's 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 so 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.
What gear do you use (camera, lenses, bag)?
Nikon D800. Two speedlights SB-910. A nice tripod.
Well, gear was never important for me. I want it to be easy to use and that's all.
To be candid, I'm more attached to my glue gun and clamps. They are the real heroes!
What software do you use to process your images?
Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom.
What is your most important advice to a beginner in “still life” or “creatively edited” photography and how do you get started?
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 important question, to add cute details. I know there are photographers who 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.
Speaking of which. I don't really believe in abstract inspiration. I believe in the inspiration that finds us during our work. So, I just sit down with my sketchbook, felt pens and a cup of tea and start to think: about what the next picture could be? I can choose an abstract topic (e.g. sea, astronomy, travel, sweets), and find suitable objects to this story. Or, on the contrary, I can select an object (e.g. recently bought cups, magnifying glass or shell) and come up with a little adventure for it.
Thanks to all the narrative opportunities in still life genre I never got bored with my work. Well, I get bored with little things pretty quickly, but that's why I'm constantly searching for something new. Tired of flying coffee cups? Get a dragon from candle flame, name him Lafayette, let him be your pet. Maybe, it's a sort of wanderlust. The thing that keeps me moving is an excitement of a genre explorer.
Describe your favourite photograph taken by you and why it is special to you?
It's still an Endless Book Project.
It was initiated by illustrator Natalie Ratkovski. She gathered a group of artists, each one of them was creating their own Endless book during the year. Every week each member of the project has to create one illustration in any possible technique (photographs, watercolours, computer graphics, etc.) on any possible theme. There's only one condition: the illustration on the previous page should flow smoothly into the next one, so there should not be visible seams or rough blends. At the end of the year each participant should have large panoramic images, an endless book which would consist of 52 images, and could be continued.
My book is about outer space, chocolate cookies, dreams of interstellar flight, coffee, cupcakes and meeting with aliens . I felt like it's a fruitful theme for a long series. I've never made such a long series before so I had to find a theme which may give large variations of objects and stories. Space fits perfectly:)
I think that space is surprisingly a great theme for still life photography — food and science (including astronautics) are perfect themes to combine. After all, cooking sometimes looks like alchemy (especially for people who are not good at cooking), something fantastic and magical. And alchemy evolved with time to chemistry. So it's a pretty close relation, don't you think?
Link to the project
Is there anything else you wish to add and what do you think about 1X as a home base for your work?
I guess, I should upload photos here more often! I really enjoy the community, but I would really love to see more photos published in Still life category, which takes less classical approach of this genre. More action, more visual metaphors, more bold colours! I know, there must me lots of photos like this at 1x, why not let them shine and find their audience?