Interview with the Artist: Olga Shpak

Olga Shpak is a fine art photographer from Russia. We love how Olga creates stunning, unusual still life photos using people. We decided to ask her some questions to learn more about her work and her way of approaching art.


1. Olga, how long have you been doing photography?

I have been doing photography for 7 years. I am a teacher of Russian language and literature by education. 


2. Is there something or someone that has had a significant impact on your creativity, or is your style a result of steady work on yourself?

I was 5 years old when in the magazine "Young Artist" I saw a photo of Michelangelo's Pieta. It was a close-up of Maria's face. I thought it was the most beautiful face I'd ever seen. Now it is these traits I'm subconsciously looking for in the faces of the models. I love painting, sculpture, cinema. Each period is different. I can only single out my favorite film director. It's Ingmar Bergman. As a child I dreamed of being a ballerina. I admire beautiful bodies. I like to look at a crowd scene in the ballet, when many bodies move in synch as one whole. 


3. Olga, how often do you have a creative block and how do you get inspiration for work again?

This is a difficult and painful question for me. I think every photographer has a familiar feeling that all his photos are bad. I have such periods very often. I try to walk a lot alone. To go to the cinema. Usually this period ends as soon as I see a new interesting face. Then depression disappears by itself. Any random detail can grow into an interesting story. 


4. When talking about the photographs where you show children... Is it difficult to work with children? When you work with a few kids at the same time for one frame, how do you manage to sustain a harmonious composition where all children seem to work together? How often do you have to cope with the whims of children?

Good question. I do not divide models into children and adults. For mass photos I invite only those models with whom I worked before on single frames. I always have a few steps in my work: I find a model and work with her without makeup. We're just talking during the shoot. If the model likes me I try to pair her with another model. And the massive picture I do when all models are together with each other. It is a long process. But then there is a sense of unity in the frame. My models are interesting to me for their mental qualities. It doesn't depend on age. I think over the composition before shooting. I do the storyboard. Each frame on the mass shooting I can do in an hour and a half. It's astonishing how kids behave patiently when shooting. 


5. How much time do you usually spend on organizing a photo-shoot when you already have an idea? Please also tell us how you choose models, costumes, locations.

When there is an idea and understanding of what models you need to organize the shooting is not so difficult and long. Usually from two weeks to a month. I'm a perfectionist. The most difficult part to find is a location. During this period, I pay special attention to the light in the frame. I like confined spaces. The light should draw out models. My team helps me in the search. For the last shoot, I was looking for a hotel on the Internet. I looked at the images of more than 40 variants of rooms. Chose 5 options for personal viewing to understand how the light falls at different times of the day. Until the last moment I doubted the correctness of the choice and could not sleep. For my shooting I pay for the location myself and a mistake costs me money.  As I said before, I prefer to work with permanent models, the ones I already know well. We understand each other without words. Almost all my models are young. They grow up and change from shoot to shoot. They are interesting to me for because of those changes. Costumes are difficult to pick because we are always limited in finances. It's easier for me to wrap everyone in an elastic bandage than to choose the wrong dress. Now I'm looking for a dresser and props.


6. Do you give some creative freedom to your team (makeup artists, stylists) or do you control the whole process?

As such I don't have a permanent team now. I am open to cooperation. I always know what I want to show in a frame, but it can be a problem for me to say it. Now I found a makeup artist who does not need for me to explain everything. She understands the idea and just does things. In general, makeup artists and stylists do not like to work with me, because I prefer no makeup and simple clothes. It is important for me to show the individuality of the model. Atypical beauty. And I need people on my team who share my views. Often the stylist sees only clothes and his ambitions as a stylist. In the frame I show my soul, it is very intimate. What I can't say in words. You know how hard it is to find a team that will be with you on the same wavelength... 


7. Olga, some of your work is quite provocative. What is the reaction of the parents of your little models to such photographs? Do you have cases when parents did not want you to publish your work?

I don't find my work provocative. But I often meet negative reactions from the audience. There was a ban on one of the photos and I still hurt over it. But the girl's mother wrote to me that she understands me. Her friends just wouldn't understand. Before shooting, I explain everything to the parents of models: idea, poses, costumes. (I'm not forcing anyone) Of course models are shy about my photos sometimes. But this is not because of the provocation. At a young age want to look pretty in the photo. There is a stereotype in the image of children and young women. You know this: the more beautiful the better. And in my photos I do not aim to show typical beauty. If someone sees in my photos provocation it is the problem of this person. I just keep working. 


8. How did you develop the idea of shooting "still life" of people? I think this phrase is more suitable for your work than "portrait."

The world of things interests me as much as the world of people. Symbolism in painting is close to me. Systems of signs. Sometimes people freeze in very beautiful poses. It is a version of reality.  As a philologist, I was interested in the play of words in terms of: natura morta - "dead nature" with ital. and English. still-life "quiet, motionless life." For me there is life in things. A portrait is an image of the individual's internal properties. A photo of a person sitting in a static beautiful pose among the items isn't a portrait.