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Word & Thoughts of Liza Kanaeva


Today begins the second episode of our World and Thoughts series with Liza Kanaeva. The young Russian photographer unveils her work and details her taste for encounters and her attention to natural light.

Liza Kanaeva is a Moscow-born photographer living in the United States for the last ten years. She first lived in California where she finished her degree in Art and Business in California Lutheran University before moving to New York five years ago. Her portraits of women models and her Teenager series recently assured her success and recognition on Instagram. Yet, the artists did not always looked for human figure as her main subject of work. In the typical whirlwind of New York, her practice changed. She was struck by natural light, describing its essence as “raw and striking”. She compares: “In California I found natural light to be more predictable and on a harsher side. The light in New York is different. It has more dimensions and allure if you will”. Her portraits are immersed in a floating atmosphere, playing only with light. Her studio installation is therefore “rather simple, without artifice, without flash”.

“The most important part is to meet the girl, have a conversation with her. That’s when the picture happens. ” In other ways, Liza Kanaeva looks for the story. That being said, don’t think that the picture is ready to be picked on a film or on a monitor screen. One must prepare the fertile ground, cajole it, see it coming through, have a green thumb and finally be ready to seize it. Then, the fruit get ripe. All works emerge from her previous encounters with her models in the intimacy of a conversation. Slowly the forthcoming appears. In the café, “a connection between two human beings” emerges. “some girls have a more available personality, others are introverted, but despite the differences I first and foremost appreciate the human being in front of me opening and willing to be vulnerable”, she adds.

Let’s suppose portraits require intimacy, the knowledge and understanding of the one being photographed. The truth is more ambivalent. There is no rule. Her other project Teenagers is based on an entirely different approach: a simple encounter in the street with a teenager leaving school, a portrait quickly taken, a bit of his or her personality seized and she moves on to something else. Liza Kanaeva conceives this long-term project as a typology “representative of contemporary culture. As a teenager, you’re like an open-book, you’re a representative of a modern culture. Teenage is taking everything in. I just want to document this age. There is so much going on in their heads”. But one understands the upheavals and changes they’re going through.

When she approaches them at the corner of a street, during the after-school hang out, or after sport practice, they are loud “Everyone is screaming, calling each other’s names. Once I ask them for a portrait and one of them agrees, the rest want to join in”. Are these teenagers afraid of exposure, of the gaze of others? The artist assures they are not. They are simply intrigued and excited for their picture to be taken.

A sign that the knowledge of the subject is not always necessary, her preparation and her practice of photography changes according to the projects. In her studio, the artist mostly uses digital photography. But in the street, she works with analogue and appreciates not seeing the result before a few days. “Most of the time I just take a picture, we exchange our Instagrams. No friendship. Sometimes, a week later, some of the street subjects ask me for their portraits and so I share the picture with them. When working in the studio, the image pops up on the monitor. But I prefer that people don’t see the pictures in process. It can affect their pose; it can change their facial expression. Everyone is self-conscious. And you want the subject to be at ease”. Putting the subject in the intimacy of the eye, wherever in the middle of a boulevard or in a dancing ray of sun is somehow the simple key.

In Contacts, a series of photographic documentaries produced by Arte Television, the viewer is able to understand how great masters of photography choose a shot in their contact sheets. Some carefully scrutinize details, others know from the start which photographs they should choose. Liza Kanaeva is one of them. She remains evasive, almost mysterious and assures to work through emotions: “I’ve read an interview with Nan Goldin, she explains feeling like a little rush when she is facing a good photo of her. You think to yourself ‘Oh, that’s a good one!’”

One could think that the art of portraits is a matter of surprise, if that is understood,photography other than art, is  also a matter of meticulousness. There is no great rule, but apprehending an artist’s methods allows the viewer to apprehend the depth of the work. If Liza Kanaeva’s first attention seeks to reveal light and play with the unusual sharpness of her models, the intimacy of her photographs buds in her fortuitous or prepared encounters. Then comes the will to grab a detail of beauty. The story unfolds, and need to be seized, “I think there is so much in every line, in every curve. You really need to tell the story”, she concludes.

Arthur Dayras

Arthur Dayras is an author specializing in photography who lives and works in New York, in the United States.

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