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Laura Zalenga and the Photography of Feeling

By Jenny Carless

The mood of a photograph, the magic of stumbling upon unexpected joy in an image, and the abandon of throwing herself fully into her work—these form the essence of what German photographer Laura Zalenga loves about her craft.

Whether it’s human faces, human bodies in a unique landscape, or the revelation of an unexpected moment, if it expresses a mood, Zalenga is interested. Her favorite kind of photography is all about feeling.

So when Zalenga sets out for the day with her camera, she goes with the flow.

“I keep my eyes open for magical spots with unique light where I can tell a story,” she says.

The photo below demonstrates what she means.

“I adore riding trains; it’s one of the places where I come up with most of my concepts,” she says.

One day, she saw this coal hill from her train window and knew she had to shoot there.

“I was covered in black dust in the end and the soles of my feet were sore, but I was happy that I dedicated all my energy to this image,” she says.

But Zalenga is hesitant to describe her photographic style.

“It's so hard to try to watch yourself from the outside and objectively say what your work is,” she explains. “What I can say is that my images have a clear visual voice paired with dreamy moods, and that emotions are my language.”

Zalenga uses a clear visual language and likes to create a moody atmosphere. She sells her work as an Adobe Stock Premium contributor; below are a few of the images she shares on that platform.

FAIRY TALES

Zalenga is also fascinated by fairy tales.

“These stories existed all around me while I was growing up—from the plays we saw and I acted in, to the books I read,” she says. “Within an obviously fictional story, you learn that life isn't always easy, but you are also invited to dream and to hope. And within these short stories, which remain nearly unchanged for centuries, there are always simple truths and morals to be learned.”

In her Compact Fairy Tales series (select images shown below), created for a competition Zalenga entered some years ago, she tried to show the fables in a new way.

“I zoomed in until only the very essence of each tale’s key scene is visible,” she says.

SELF-PORTRAITS

Self-portraits are another favorite theme for Zalenga.

In one self-portrait shot in the early morning (top image), she set herself the challenge of focusing on her own eye through a spiderweb covered in drops of dew.

“This is one of very few close-ups of my face I’ve done in the past few years, but it's a good memory from a beautiful morning,” Zalenga says.

She took another self-portrait (middle image) the day after shaving her head for charity—collecting $1,000 online and then donating her waist-long brown hair to the Little Princess Trust and the money to Animal Equality.

“I wanted to see what life is like as a woman without one of society’s most loved female beauty attributes,” she explains. “It was a pretty freeing and eye-opening experience.”

Zalenga wasn’t wild about the topic—or color—when the week’s theme for a 52-week collective project she was participating in was pink (bottom image).

“In the end, eating beetroot salad inspired me to shoot pink water and challenge myself to shoot a self-portrait in a bathtub,” she says.

 ‘MAKE ME FEEL SOMETHING’

For Zalenga, there are three ways to make a good photograph:

1. “Touch me, move me, make me feel something.”

2. “Let me see something in a new way.”

3. “Make my eyes fall in love—with great composition or color, for example.”

“And sometimes, there are those special images that combine all three elements and take my breath away,” she says.

The picture below, of her sister the second before she breaks through the water’s surface, is one of those special images.

“I love to explore effects like this,” she says. “They’re not planned, but once found, they feel like magic.”

As Zalenga’s work has evolved over the years, she sees that it has become more clear and bright.

“I used to do dark, moody close-ups,” she says. “I still love melancholy, but my work is not as dark anymore, and I don’t focus on close-ups as much as I once did.”

PHOTO MANIPULATION—OR NOT?

“I’m in love with my Sony a7R II and Adobe Photoshop,” Zalenga says. “They are the perfect tools to help me create what’s on my mind and in front of my eye.”

She sometimes manipulates images to make a certain point.

“I like to erase the things that draw away attention from what should be the focus, and emphasize the things I want to be seen,” she says. “Also, I’m a big fan of creating what would be (almost) impossible in reality—changing moods or combining worlds or things.”

She also likes images that leave the viewer wondering if they have been manipulated or not.

“I love to create images that need a second glance,” she says.

For instance, the image below is not montage—it is one shot.

“If you look closely, it seems that you see Valentina’s profile as well as her whole face,” Zalenga says. “We were lucky with the light and the shadow it created on the dusty glass.”

Mirrors are another way to make the viewer wonder if an image has been manipulated.

“People who follow me know how much I love reflections,” she says. “I created this image [below] using several mirrors.”

Sometimes the manipulation is obvious.

“Yes, I used Photoshop here [image below]; I can’t climb trees upside down!” she says.

Creating these kinds of photos leads to some funny situations when people come across Zalenga in action.

“I get some pretty comical reactions when I’m taking self-portraits and people don’t see my camera,” she says. “I can't blame them. Just seeing someone hanging on a tree trunk for no visible reason—I would be confused, too.”

Zalenga goes to great lengths for her work, but in the end, her goal is simple.

“I just want people to feel my art,” she says.

Zalenga shares her work on her portfolio site, and she is an Adobe Stock Premium contributor.