I'm very old school," chirps New York City fashion photographer
Marlena Bielinska during our meeting in her sparsely furnished
midtown apartment. We've been discussing her work philosophy, and
she is obviously delighted with her pronouncement.
Old school? Bielinska isn't kidding. She has no website. She does almost all her darkroom work. She rarely retouches her pictures and she hates images that have been manipulated, especially by computer. Old school? Some might argue that this 30-something native of Poland is a throwback to the photo industry's Stone Age.
But Bielinska's failure to embrace all things technological might have less to do with what she calls her "Eastern European stubborn mentality" and more to do with common sense. In the fashion world, editors and advertising directors are too busy to surf the Internet looking for new talent. According to Bielinska, a portfolio is still a more accessible promotion, and hers makes the rounds at least twice a year.
Developing prints in the darkroom is not just a soothing antidote to the stresses of the set, but a way to maintain control over her work: no art directors fiddling with her images in Photoshop, or having first crack at cropping them.
"There are lots of elements jogging the peace of mind," she says in thickly accented English, calmly sipping from a cup of fruit tea.
With her two Mamiya RZ67 Pro2s, Bielinska shoots 6x7, a format directly proportional for page layouts. "What I see in the frame, and what I shoot, is what I print. I like the finality of that."
And then there's Bielinska's own history within the fashion world, which speaks volumes about her method. Bielinska was a model herself for five years, with the renowned Elite agency in Manhattan. By her own admission, she was unhappy with the work. Photographers would think of lighting her dress, not her face; already skinny women would be transferred to magazine pages with "their legs cropped down, their waists cut to look even slimmer."
Now on the other side of the lens, Bielinska is a model's greatest advocate, determined to show her first of all, and concentrating on aspects she once found lacking on set. "The models appreciate that I work with their faces," she says. "I make them beautiful and feminine."
This empathy gives Bielinska's oeuvre its distinctive timbre. Flipping through her portfolio, you are always aware you are looking at pictures—in Mademoiselle, Manner Vogue, and Modern Bride-of very beautiful women, in extravagant couture clothes. But you cannot fail to recognize what lies "beneath the clothes," as Bielinksa puts it: very real women—not what she dubs computer-altered "cyborgs," exhibiting the whole extent of womanly expressions, movements, and moods.
Translating this empathy is not just feminine prerogative but pure practicality: the first time Bielinska shot the cover for a particular women's magazine, sales went up 40 percent. "I just understand the female mentality."
Bielinska taught herself almost all she knows about photography eight years ago, with a "small Nikon" and a slew of friends volunteering as subjects.
Before she had any knowledge of the technical aspects, she shot using only natural light. Then she experimented with a few low-ambient lights set up in her apartment. Even today, she prefers simplicity in lighting, and all things, and does not often use more than one light on a set, or mix natural light with electric lights. "You can never say my work is gimmicky."
Bielinska is conservative when it comes to equipment, too. "I am one of the very few photographers who is never aware of gadgets. I'm not so much into toys, or always upgrading," she says. She's never even used a tripod, and has almost "broken my back" lugging 12 pounds of camera around various sets. She's been thinking lately of swapping her Mamiya for a medium-format Pentax ("It's lighter," she sighs), but she probably won't, since the Pentax won't allow her to switch to the Polaroid back that's so crucial on a fashion shoot.
CHANGES ROUND THE BEND
Bielinska concedes she will have to do some things differently in the coming year. More and more, photo editors are asking to see portfolios, an assemblage of actual prints that exhibit more of the photographer's perspective. Putting such a book together will be a lot of work, Bielinska says, adding, "I need this kick in the pants. Times are changing."