Elizaveta Porodina

By Dao Tran

Chasing the Muse

Elizaveta Porodina’s photography taps into a deeper nerve. Like a catchy tune, her images reverberate and become emblazoned in your mind. 

Munich-based Russian fashion and fine art photographer Elizaveta Porodina has a massive Instagram following. She has produced iconic images of Chlóe Sevigny and Janelle Monae for The Cut, Grimes for the New York Times, Natalia Vodianova for Vogue Russia and many more. Her gorgeous campaign for Carolina Herrera by Wes Gordon over Zoom transcended the creative and logistical constraints of the pandemic, opening up a world of opportunity while the world was in lockdown. Her work has been featured in all the publications, including Vogue, Numéro, Dazed, Vanity Fair, W, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, not to mention exhibited in galleries and museums internationally. 

The Impression’s Dao Tran chatted with the self-taught creative polymath versed in painting, illustration, music, styling and photography about her singular artistic vision. Elizaveta draws from a rich life of the imagination developed in a very idiosyncratic childhood spent in her own fantasy world, between home school and hotel rooms in Thailand or her old grandparents, with her head in books and making all sorts of art. She talks about finding that one magical photo, her unique techniques to achieve her signature voice and aesthetic, and how empowering it is to own your art and be the unapologetic Artist to your Muse. 

Dao Tran:  Can you tell us a little about your background? 

Elizaveta Porodina: I was born in Russia to a very mixed family – my father’s side of the family is Jewish and the other side is kind of Russian, Chinese, very mixed. My parents figured that I wouldn’t have any significant future in Russia and there was this reinvitation program for Jewish people who were directly influenced by the National Socialist regime – which was the case for my grandparents and the whole family – so we went to Munich when I was 12. 

I studied clinical psychology and became a clinical psychologist for a couple of years before I decided to change to photography.

Dao Tran: How did you decide to change?

Elizaveta Porodina:  I always wanted to be an artist. Since I can remember, I was always interested in the arts. It was something that my mom introduced me to very early on. I remember looking at pictures by Matisse and Picasso and Brueghel and just being completely shocked by how daring the colors are, how amazing the shapes are, and how weird and strange the people look in these paintings. I was drawing my own things while I was going to school, but I didn’t connect the dots for a very long time.

By the time I was 18, when I was kind of toying with the thought of going to the Academy of Fine Arts or something like that, my Russian parents said no. I don’t come from a rich background so it was out of the question to just be at the Academy for five years and do whatever I want. I was expected to find a job where I could support myself as soon as possible. Not that psychology is the type of job that you could jump into immediately, but I definitely tried to support myself as soon as possible by working on the side in the clinic while I was studying. 

But then, at some point, I started being interested in photography because art was such an amazing and important part of my life which interested me more and fulfilled me more than anything else, even if psychology was an interesting choice and I liked working as a psychologist and I was always interested in people and their stories. 

Dao Tran: How did you start? Was it learning by doing or did you take courses?

Elizaveta Porodina: I completely taught myself. When I was doing therapist training and working in psychiatry, I started photographing on the weekends – mostly people that I knew, people that I found beautiful, in very magical scenarios. I was experimenting with natural light, experimenting with different natural elements or something that I bought and wrapped around the people, and photographed as long as it took to find that one magical photo. 

This is something that I came back to recently and I just felt like, wow, I had the truth from the beginning on. But there were a couple of years in between where I felt like I had to satisfy someone else’s needs or become more approachable.

I thought maybe my art needs to be more understandable for people, maybe my colors are too crazy, maybe the people that I choose are too weird, maybe the way I communicate is too complicated, maybe the elements are too much, maybe I’m too much.

In the meantime, I think it is a mistake to care about being more approachable. I don’t want to be that anymore. I don’t care about anyone’s needs, I just want to do my art and I just want to be happy. 

Dao Tran: Who started picking up on your work and made it pop?

Elizaveta Porodina: There wasn’t this one moment, like a person who discovered me or a turning point from which my career changed and took a completely different course. I would say there were multiple little points like getting the first cover of a magazine, or when people started giving me models, or my work was in a museum for the first time. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of little steps and nothing came easily.

Dao Tran: When did you get your first paying job?

Elizaveta Porodina: My first paying job was in 2012; it was for an electronics company that wanted to show the personification of electricity. So it wasn’t a fashion job, it was an image campaign where I could be as creative as I wanted, take the model that I wanted, do the makeup that I wanted, play with the lights like I wanted, which was super cool. I could do it exactly the way I had trained myself, with all of my weird little tools that I’ve invented and the tricks that I had. They paid me really well and I was shocked by the amount of money because at the time, I wasn’t earning much in psychiatry. Then another job came along and that was in fashion and then a lot of musicians started asking. So it wasn’t one campaign or feature that changed my whole life.

Dao Tran: Are you a native to social media – is that how you got your work? 

Elizaveta Porodina: I’m totally a native to that. I don’t remember a moment when I wasn’t showing my work in the internet. When I was 13, the moment we arrived in Germany, I started drawing, illustrating books, painting my own paintings, comics, everything, and I immediately started putting my stuff on the internet because that was the only place where I could show people what I’m doing since no one in my school was interested. It was like my only sort of exchange. I had this homepage that I made myself and I put my paintings on. I remember the first comment in my guest book was: “No offense, but this is really ugly. Why would you put this up on the internet?” [laughs]

Dao Tran: You got trolled at the age of 13!

Elizaveta Porodina: I remember how bitter that was, how I cried, and how my parents were like, but this is criticism, and the artist’s way. It was very funny, actually. Even then, the irony didn’t escape me.

Dao Tran: So, what was your platform? Was it IG, Tumblr, FB? 

Elizaveta Porodina: I’m 33, so when I was 13, that was 20 years ago, there was no IG or Tumblr back then. I showed my work on different platforms like Flickr and DeviantArt. I was doing oil paintings and a lot of digital painting, which helped me a great deal, because when I started doing photography, I was already professional with my darkroom, which is Capture One or Photoshop.

If not for social media, I wouldn’t be as successful and as known as I am right now. Everything that I’ve ever had – in terms of human relationship or opportunities in my career, etc. – that all came through social media. 

Dao Tran: When you talk of your darkroom, does that mean you do all the post production yourself?

Elizaveta Porodina: Yes. I mean, right now, it’s kind of impossible because I have so much to do. But until a very late point in my career, I was actually retouching the images myself, and even now, there is still work that I leave for myself because it is so precious to me that I just can’t give it away. So I have all of these retouching abilities and post production abilities myself, but sometimes I have to outsource it to companies that I trust. But even when I outsource it, everything’s already prepared in terms of color, shapes, exactly the way I want it. It’s a huge part of my work, my colors.

Dao Tran: You have a very signature aesthetic with the way you use color. Can you explain how you developed it and what kind of techniques you use?

Elizaveta Porodina: Honestly, I work on it until I like it. Again, it’s like with inspiration or creativity, it’s a very natural and intuitive process. 

I work together with my husband, Josef Beyer. He’s my lighting director. We’ve been working together for the last 7 years.

Colors obviously are extremely important to me and I did painting before I did photography, so, to me, the shape, the color and the composition are the most important things. The most important things to me are the feeling, the emotion, the aura that I can show. Also: whether the picture feels true to me.

Is that the truth, or are we just taking a picture? And it’s actually very clear if you listen to your inner voice, whether you are creating something of relevance, whether the Muse is acting through you, or you are just wasting your time clicking the shutter 300 times. 

It’s the same with colors – I just know when it’s right. Sometimes I know this is the right thing to do, and then, on another day, it’s not the right thing anymore, I need to find something else. So I sit down for hours and hours and I will find the right color. It just depends from project to project. There is no recipe, there are no filters that I pre-make. There is nothing that I will follow religiously on every project. Every project is treated as if it’s brand new and as if it’s the most important one and I will find a completely different approach for it. It’s very driven by what and who I work with and why we’re doing it that way. 

For example, when we were working with Wes Gordon for Carolina Herrera, he briefed me and was like, “I want you to create your favorite pictures ever. The most important thing to me – and this is the only thing that I will tell you – is that it is driven by an explosion of color.” When he said that – it sounds very vague, right? – but the way he said it, it really switched something in me, I knew exactly what he meant and how to translate it to me. And because I was doing this project by Zoom, we already have an army of equipment standing here in our room to make it happen, and we added another assortment of different tools to bring the explosion of colors to life. 

Dao Tran: What is your army of equipment, how does that work?

Elizaveta Porodina: So, there are some parts of this process that I obviously can’t explain because it is what I do uniquely and no one else can do it like that. But there are a lot of equipment pieces on our part in order to achieve the look the way we want it. Sometimes there is some equipment on the side of the model, but sometimes it’s not even possible – for example, when we were shooting Chloë Sevigny, that was right in the beginning of the first lockdown, and she was 8 months pregnant in New York. So, she just had a tripod and her phone and that was it. I was directing her from my place through my computer and the equipment. 

Dao Tran: How is working with your husband?

Elizaveta Porodina: We are very very connected and spend 24/7 together. He knows exactly what I want and how I want it and how I feel. We preproduce it together and think about each single picture. Then, after the shoot, he will see how his light worked on the model exactly and where we can improve it. We work through every shoot together. There is no one who could do it better because he is a learned theater light and sound engineer who worked at the Kammerspiele in Munich. This type of lighting interests me more than classical fashion lighting because he understands what environment means, what it means to compose lighting for background, foreground and middle ground, and how to create real depth. 

Also, it was really natural to let him into my world 7 years ago, because I didn’t have to be ashamed of my very weird, dramatic way of directing the muses, you know? I feel like… I don’t know how to explain it, but it is a very important part of becoming myself to understand that my art and my craft will become very powerful if I just let myself be exactly 100% who I am. And who I am…

I feel like I have this aura, almost like a bubble around me, and it’s full of energy, it’s full of storytelling, there is a whole world inside of me. Like with every person, but I don’t know if everyone is aware of it. 

I feel like I create my best pictures when people just come into this world and let themselves go, if they trust what I ask them to do and respond to these cues and signals that I give. Before, I was very scared of revealing this world because I was scared that people would ridicule it, that they wouldn’t understand it, that it would be weird to them, the way I direct, the way I listen to these signals that the energy is giving and give them directions. The pictures wouldn’t be as good when I didn’t do it. And when I met Josef, he totally understood because that’s very close to directing in a theater, actually.

Dao Tran: So it’s this thing that you guys have developed together, in a way.

Elizaveta Porodina: Oh, 100%. Funnily enough, I met Josef the same time that I decided to give up psychiatry and just do photography full time. I met him in May 2013 and gave up psychiatry in June. 

Dao Tran: Has the pandemic affected the way you work?

Elizaveta Porodina: No. The whole Zoom thing obviously came because of the pandemic, but I made it my aim to not make it like a compromise thing. I wanted it to be as valid or even cooler than my usual photography. But, I mean, apart from the fact that I’m not physically there when I’m shooting it, it’s pretty much the same – I’m still directing heavily and I’m still preplanning a lot. 

Dao Tran: Sounds like an opportunity that has actually broadened your scope and possibility of working.

Elizaveta Porodina: It has 100% been an opportunity because a lot of companies realized what a possibility that is. Like with Carolina Herrera, when I shot Grimes for the New York Times article, or Chloë Sevigny for The Cut, things like that. They were opportunities that I wouldn’t have had before if that didn’t come along. 

Dao Tran: Will you continue to work per Zoom in future?

Elizaveta Porodina: I actually make the Zoom process very selective and make a point of only taking these pictures with subjects that I really can trust and feel like they are artistic enough to understand. The other person needs to be able to feel it and let herself go a little bit, and understand about light composition, the air around herself and things like that. The process is pretty exhausting. At the end of a day like that, it’s like a week of normal shooting.

Dao Tran: Is there anything you feel that we haven’t covered yet? 

Elizaveta Porodina: This is a very unique conversation because I feel like what I’ve talked about is really the point in life where I am. I feel like I’m standing alone on a very big field, but it’s a great feeling because this is exactly the point where I wanted to bring myself and my mental state in, if you know what I mean. I wanted to be as far away from anyone else and just to think. I don’t want to hear any other voices; I just want to hear my own voice and then act accordingly. This is how it feels to be me right now. All of the work that is coming out right now is the product of those efforts.

Dao Tran: That feels like a really empowering place, a very authentic place for you to be.

Elizaveta Porodina: Yeah. I’ve never voiced it like that, but it feels great to say it. Before, I had a similar feeling, but it always was negatively colored because this is something that is not necessarily empowered by society – to be that person. But it is what actually makes me feel good about myself.

Dao Tran: Congratulations on being exactly who you are, where you are, and doing exactly what is within you.

Elizaveta Porodina: Thank you for saying that. 

Dao Tran: Thank you for your time. It was great finding out about the artist behind this stunning work!

Elizaveta Porodina: Thank you so much for the talk, I enjoyed it!