A self-portrait by photographer Laura Zalenga.

Reflections on the Self

By Serena Fox

Laura Zalenga has come full circle. Known for her hauntingly ethereal and hyper-composed conceptual self-portraits, the German art and fashion photographer made a radical departure last year at the start of her tenure as an Adobe Creative Resident. She spent months exploring an opposite direction: completely natural, documentary-style photographs and interviews of elderly subjects for a project called The Beauty of Age.

Now, as her residency ends, Zalenga is returning to self-portraiture but finds herself changed, incorporating insights from the time she spent listening and capturing the stories of 80- and 90-year-olds.

Create caught up with Zalenga in Barcelona—where she was teaching a three-day self-portraiture workshop—to find out how her approach to conceptual self-portraits has evolved.

Zalenga shot the original of this self-portrait in a beautiful stone valley in Italy, dressed in black jeans and a shirt. “It sat on my computer for a year,” she says. Recently she went back to it, darkened the puddles, and turned her clothes into a flowing black form. “Suddenly I really liked the image. I made myself part of that black liquid flow,” she says.

Create: We live in the age of the selfie. Why are people so drawn to self-portraits?

Laura Zalenga: Even people in the stone age, who were painting with charcoal on the walls, were already documenting themselves and their daily life. Painters from centuries ago used the first versions of mirrors that existed to try and draw a self-portrait of themselves. So the need to document ourselves is a fundamental one—the urge of people to show who they are is incredibly old and very deep.

Commissioned by Artemide to make a series of self-portraits with their lamps, Zalenga says she tried to create images that mirrored the visual language of the lighting designer. Here, she shows a lamp as a valuable and mysterious object. “It could almost be a girl hugging the moon,” she says.

One thing I do in my workshops is explain how different a selfie is from a self-portrait. Especially in today’s world, where selfies are everywhere and often viewed negatively, I think it’s important to recognize that self-portraiture is an art form, and always has been.

The intention is the difference, and the fire and love and effort that goes into it. Do you take a second to just document something, and it has a memory value, but no more than that? Or do you intend to express something bigger than just that moment? For a self-portrait, you have a concept, a story or feeling to express, you think about the composition and the light in detail, you want to create a piece of artwork that others can relate to.

It’s interesting, when I talk about my self-portraits, I never say, “I was sitting in a tree.” I say, “And there’s this girl is sitting in a tree.” To me, it’s a person, not necessarily me. It’s universal. There’s an anonymity, somehow—I like it when people can see themselves in just a girl in a particular moment or mood, and have a chance to jump into the image.

Struck by the beauty of the leaves falling off her office plant, Zalenga collected them, stuck them in a circle on a glass door, and then played around with incorporating herself into them. “It took me a while to get the light going through the leaves, and still have light on the face,” she says. “It was a technical journey. I emphasized the reflections and brightened up the background so it looks like fog. I really wanted to show that the leaves were on the glass, not floating.”

Create: Why did you focus on the self-portrait genre?

Zalenga: It started out as curiosity, and also out of the necessity of not wanting to bother anyone else to be a model. But then I found that self-portraits are such a direct and honest way of expressing yourself—much more than telling a model to do exactly what you came up with in your head for a concept, because then you’re forcing your idea on someone else.

It’s an incredible freedom, because you don’t need anyone. You just have a tripod and a camera, and you make photos. It could be 5 am. There’s no meeting on Wednesday afternoon with someone, when it could be the wrong weather conditions, or you could just be not in the mood for taking photos in that moment.

To me, great photographs have always been the ones that gave me a lot of feeling, that touched me on some level. I think you can only achieve that, as a photographer, if you are at that moment feeling what you want to express. And that’s hard to fake, or plan for.

You can almost never experiment as freely as you can alone. Because if no one is watching, you’re definitely trying out a lot more things than you would if someone was standing there looking at you. There’s also a lot of things you just wouldn’t ask another person to do, like laying in a frozen puddle in winter, in not a lot of clothes. You just don’t ask friends or models to do that.

Also, it’s a lot of fun. Just creating a scene and stepping into it yourself, being your own actor in a story you wrote, I enjoy doing that.

Zalenga often composites herself into images creatively. “I feel like most of my pictures are spontaneous,” she says. “I rarely have a fully formed idea to start. I find a place, get inspired, and play around with it. That’s what I enjoy most: playing.”

Create: What’s your biggest challenge as a photographer?

Zalenga: When I started out with photography, I knew nothing, so I had no rules and no expectations. I was just doing it the way kids do things, because it felt right. That’s how I took my photos for the first year or two.

Then of course you get into habits, you have your own expectations and the expectations of people who follow your journey, and you study and learn things that you can’t turn off in your head. I think that’s true for any art form, you have to master the craft and then unmaster it to approach it freely again.

I struggle with that a lot: the search for being a beginner again. There’s something so magical about being a beginner. You don’t even realize the treasure you’re holding of having no clue. It’s such an advantage not to be aware, when everything is just intentional and intuitive.

“I love to make people wonder if it is real or if it’s edited,” says Zalenga, who took both of these shots on the same day, playing around with a mirror just visible at the neckline of the photo at left. “The illusion is that the person is see-through. To me personally, it’s about the fact that when people look at you, they don’t see much of you.”

Create: What have you learned during your residency?

Zalenga: This year was really about rediscovering that newness, actually. I never before was a “documenting” photographer. I was capturing images where I was in full control. The only things in the frame were the things that I wanted to be there.

This was a year when I stepped like a complete newbie into documentary photography, and I was like a child in that field. It was crazy frustrating at first, to come from something so different, and step into a field where I had to give up all my control.

Only viewing it backwards, I see it was great to play and find my voice and my take on the documentary form. You’re still making the photo, composing the shot, cutting out what will not be in the frame. But it’s their story you’re telling.

It was super helpful to learn to let go of some control, and find out about the medium of photography not purely as a creator, but as someone who is telling the story of someone else.

Zalenga incorporated her newfound appreciation for documentary-style portraits into this image, emphasizing the subject’s mood by adding a majestic icy background. See more of how she is integrating her signature style into her Beauty of Age photographs here.

There’s one image that I think really combines the former Laura Zalenga portrait style with what I learned from the Beauty of Age project. It’s an elderly woman surrounded by icy mountains. It’s about the mood that she was expressing to me, her silence, majesty, a bit of sadness. I thought, “She could be an iceberg.” In the compositing, I tried to find a background that reflects her mood, an old beauty that we need to pay more attention to. And I did it in my style.

When I showed it to my mentor, Andre Larrow, he said, “I see that glow—you found out you can combine these two things.” That was a wonderful moment.

The best thing about the residency was the mentoring. You get to pick two mentors for each half-year. It could be a technical mentor from the Adobe team, or another photographer who coaches you through your project. I think one of the most important things you can get as a working artist is feedback, critiques. After school, no one s going to give you that honest feedback—people just say they love your work. But here I had people like Andre or Ivan Cache, whose work I’d admired for so long, coaching me every week, discussing images, giving me advice and suggestions for what to try next. It was so valuable.

“This was one of the happiest moments of my year as a creative resident,” says Zalenga. “I was just swinging, letting go of everything, with the whole Bay Area below me. I was capturing the incredible freedom of childhood, of fun. It’s a crazy happy picture, which is rare for me. Melancholy is definitely my favorite mood; I love silent happiness with a bit of sadness.”

Create: What’s next for you, creatively?

Zalenga: One of my goals this year is to find elderly people who are willing to come into nature with me. I’d love to do more of that.

I’m also working on a project about adoption. It’s a topic I’m very curious about personally, but mainly I think it needs a lot more positive attention, as it is such an amazing thing but seems to be such a taboo topic.