Meet Renata Raksha, the NY-based photographer behind the SOPHIE cover
New York-based photographer and filmmaker Renata Raksha is the photographer behind our Issue 88 cover story with the inimitable, and radical, popstar SOPHIE.
In the cover shoot, the PC Music affiliate appears as a Pre-Raphaelite beauty amongst soft, natural surroundings and dressed in an angelic white. In another image, she reclines gently in a chair, wearing a long trench from Shayne Oliver and Helmut Lang’s collaboration with shin guards and heels. The cover itself portrays the producer and singer as an ethereal figure dressed in delicate, sheer chiffon gloves, as she stares straight at the camera.
The 34-year-old photographer grew up in the city of Nalchik in Northcases, a region of Russia situated between Europe and Asia. In her teens, Renata’s family received political asylum in the United States and since, she’s lived in California and New York. It’s this border-crossing mentality that’s widened her sense of identity, with the photographer explaining that she finds globalisation and diaspora to be a “strange thing”, finding her sense of self, instead, through the internet and immigrants worldwide.
When looking at Renata’s celebrity-heavy portfolio, it may come somewhat as a surprise to realise photography wasn’t part of the artist’s original plan. In fact, she spent several years studying the sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, before shifting her focus to Media Arts and Design. With a body of work that includes Rihanna, Charli XCX and St Vincent, the creative has lensed some of pop music’s most prominent figures standing at the frontiers of the genre, as well as rock icons – such as Shirley Manson and Kim Gordon. An extensive list of publications is also attached to her name, with Renata having worked with The Fader, Dazed and Confused and Paper, in addition to commercial companies and labels including Adidas Y-3, Columbia Records, Universal Music, Interscope and Sub Pop.
However, if you look beyond her commercial work, you’d see something entirely different. Models wearing painted masks, against pastel-painted backgrounds in images exploring race and isolation.
We catch up with the photographer over email to talk lensing SOPHIE on set, how music informs her work, and her personal explorations.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got into photography?
I didn’t plan to be a photographer and didn’t own a camera until well into my twenties. A career in fine art was not an option when I was younger, so I spent several years studying chemistry and planned to become a doctor. Eventually, I studied Media Arts and Design and after college worked as an art director, animator, and designer. Often very computer-heavy, solitary jobs. But, living in LA, I always ended up finding myself involved in my photography and film projects as a satellite, artist-adjacent figure. I was very interested in dimension, space and lighting — all the things that I found lacking whilst working as a designer in a flat two-dimensional world of shapes on a computer screen. Design can be a very minimal, austere medium, and I wanted to make lush, rich, fashion, maximal pieces. I also wanted to work with people, to be less solitary in my craft.
I found that photography was an umbrella medium that could combine sculpture, design, fashion, dimension and maximalism, all while interacting with people.
What aspects of your everyday life inspire your photography?
Social life, sculpture, friends, collaboration, fashion, music, colour, nostalgia.
When you were growing up, what images can you remember capturing your attention?
Soviet animation, Soviet Communist-era sculpture and architecture. Russian and Caucasian folklore illustrations, embroidery, my mom’s fashion magazines, ballet, gymnastics, American sci-fi and action movies and music videos. The colour red, nature, twilight, snow. Making gold out of garbage. Being poor while trying to make gold out of garbage.
You’ve shot a lot of musicians. How do you use their music to inform your ideas as a photographer?
I listen to the lyrics and the music and try to correlate these to the current photography landscape and to any references to visuals. Then I listen to the track again while walking blocks around my house, noting any other ideas that come into my head.
What music do you listen to when you’re working/editing?
I love Bulgarian, Turkish and Latin pop, dancehall – I love the mystery of not understanding the lyrics. I listen to a lot of [Bulgarian pop singer] Azis and mom’s music, like Raffaella Carra or Lambada.
And tell us a little bit about the concept behind the SOPHIE cover shoot? What did you set out to achieve?
I’ve been friends with SOPHIE for a few years now, and we all wanted this to be an intimate shoot with a team of close friends. We wanted it to be comfortable, cozy, playful. SOPHIE was still in bed when I got there, it was very sweet. It was also one of those shoots that was inspired by its restrictions. Specifically, we had to shoot at SOPHIE’s house and yard, using midday Los Angeles sun, which can be quite tough to photograph, and with clothing available to us within the timeframe. But I love the surprise and challenge of working within a restrictive framework. More than anything, I wanted SOPHIE to look beautiful and feel that the shoot was a collaboration, and that she was as in control of the images as I.
How did you collaborate with SOPHIE on the shoot?
Our close mutual friend Tzef Montana let her know that I was in town and so she asked me to do the shoot. I’ve been wanting to work with her for some time I was very excited! Thank you for having me.
How do you feel the shoot reflects this chapter in SOPHIE’s career?
I feel that SOPHIE just recently started showing her face alongside her music, and the shoot was a result of this. I’m happy to have been part of the process.
Your work also focuses on models with painted faces. What are your thoughts on masks, disguise and ideas of authenticity? Do these themes inform your work?
I initially started using masks and prosthetics as an outlet for my love of sculpture and installation. I wanted to work with my hands, making teacups and Fabergé eggs. Making humans into these these objects through the use of masks and sculptures was a way for me to hack the figurative requirement in fashion/portrait commercial photography.
It was also a way to deal with the topic of photographer as a subject. I’ve always felt a bit ashamed to feature my image – photographer who turns the camera on themselves is somehow a double narcissist. So making sculptural representations of myself was a way to disseminate my image while keeping my faceless photographer-as-architect persona intact was a great waY to give in to the allure of self-representation.
There is also an isolation and race element to this chapter in my work. For many years, I’ve lived and worked in a black neighbourhood in Los Angeles. On most days, I was the only white person almost everywhere I went. It was mostly a positive experience. As an immigrant from an obscure part of the world, I typically feel somewhat alien, so it felt right to live among other minorities. But it did also feel isolating; I often saw stares and felt that I was being treated differently.
I really do wish the issue of race would just disappear and I empathise with minorities that live in largely white neighbourhoods. I was dating a lot at this time and most of my models were my dates. The subject of race was there but was awkwardly unmentioned, so masks and disguises were a way of addressing and coping with it.
Do your images respond to trends in fashion?
They definitely do to a degree but I try to be careful. I feel that I have two practices – one very commercial that is receptive to trends and makes me money. In this I mostly pay attention to colour, lighting and camera technology. The other practice is more personal, based on exploration, accidents, personal experience and history.
Leaves and nature reappear in a lot of your work, could you speak a little bit about that?
I think it comes from Romanticism, and Russian folklore and laquer art. Red and green are strong colors, as are floral motifs, and are the colors of leaves, fruits and flowers. Maiden in a red dress with a gold headpiece, in twilight, sitting in a wheat field next to a birch tree and a lake, red poppies, maybe with a shining phoenix in the sky and a spotted horse with golden mane. That sums it all up probably.
And what are you working on at the moment?
I’m trying to make sense of the mass of unpublished work I’ve made from the last two years. Most of it is still untouched on my hard drives.
Interview: Duncan Harrison
Words: Vivian Yeung