Even as a child, Bet Orten was fascinated with cameras. Upon liberating an old film camera from her father’s study, she began secretly taking pictures. By the time she was fourteen, Orten knew that photography was what she wanted to do, and she convinced her parents to enroll her in a lyceum specializing in it. “I really loved it! I was working with reportage, documentary style, and I really thought that I was going to be a war photographer,” she tells me over Skype. But, after a while, she says, “I wanted to moreso create the pictures, and I started to move in a different direction.”
Orten’s work is loaded with a power that reverberates to the edges of every frame. These are images charged with emotion and mystery, possessed of an abiding otherworldliness. There is an element of the Gothic, of fable and legend, that winds through her oeuvre. Through Orten’s lens, nature is both omnipresent and ambivalent, silently observing the human dramas playing out within each tableau. Her palette favors the muted and impressionistic, but she can just as easily turn to bold splashes, or marry both in one image. Her portfolio is so layered, so freighted with unease, that it is easy to forget you are looking at fashion photography.
Born in Prague, Orten was raised on the outskirts of the Czech capital, the oldest of two children. Her parents met in film school and both went on to work in the industry, so Orten grew up running around backstage on sets. She was four years old when the Iron Curtain began to crumble, taking the authoritarian government of Czechoslovakia down with it. She still has memories of her family joining the crowds in the city squares clamoring for freedom. After an amicable divorce from Slovakia, the newly born Czech Republic was spared the worst of it. Caught between worlds, Orten was part of the first post–Cold War generation.
Orten didn’t get into her first choice of lyceum, but this seeming setback would turn out to be fortuitous. The school she did attend required its students to work on professional shoots to fulfill their credits, and Orten ended up on a week-long shoot for Details magazine with renowned American photographer Steven Klein. It was a dream assignment, but Orten has never been shy about dreaming bigger. When the shoot was wrapping up, she let it be known that she wanted to work with Klein again. By 2007, she was on her way to New York City to intern for one of the biggest names in fashion photography.
“Pretty much everything I wished for was just happening for me,” Orten remembers, shaking her head and laughing. Orten spent six months working in New York City, living in a windowless room in Tribeca. Although it was a meaningful experience, she knew she didn’t want to stay. “I realized my favorite places and people in New York all reminded me of Europe,” Orten says, “so I thought maybe I should go back.”
Still, Orten knew she couldn’t live in Prague. She needed a bigger city. After being accepted into a graduate program at the University of the Arts in London, she moved there in the fall of 2009 and quickly fell in love with her new home. School itself was a revelation. Orten had been studying photography since she was fifteen, and the Czech educational model stressed craft and technique. As a result, she was ahead of many of her English peers in terms of actually taking pictures, but not so when it came to thinking about them. “I had a classmate who would come to class without any photography and just talk about his project for 30 minutes, while I had all these sketches and pictures, but we got the same grade,” she says. “It was shocking, and it shifted everything for me. I saw that people were thinking perfectly freely, that you didn’t need to put things in boxes to create.”
She hustled for work, mostly unremarkable public relations assignments, but she also stumbled into some meaningful opportunities. Most memorably, Orten saw that Juliette Lewis and her band, The Licks, were going to be playing a show in London. Hoping to photograph the band, she sent them a message—through Myspace, no less—and was surprised to get a response that she was being added to the guest list. Orten went to the show that night, and the band ended up inviting her to join them on a couple of tour stops. “I was always thinking, ‘It’s worth asking,’” Orten says. “I don’t lose anything—the worst that can happen is they say no. So I always tried, and I ended up doing a lot of stuff like that.”
At this point in her life, Orten’s photography career was a gleaming bullet train gliding down a frictionless track. Twenty-three years old and on the cusp of everything—then she got pregnant.
“The first things going through my head are either I give this life away or I risk my career, and at the end I just couldn’t, so I have a ten-year-old son now,” she says, her voice heavy with emotion. But the Fates were not done with Orten yet. When she was nine months pregnant and rushing to finish school, Orten received an unsolicited email from someone named Lucinda praising her portfolio and inquiring about her availability. Before replying, Orten showed the message to a friend, who reacted with shock and glee, telling her that Lucinda Chambers was the fashion director at British Vogue.
“So, there I am, enormously pregnant, walking into the Vogue House, and Lucinda sees me—not knowing that I was pregnant—and is like, ‘Wow,’” Orten says with a wry chuckle. She remembers being introduced to the Vogue art directors and told that then editor in chief Alexandra Shulman wanted her to shoot a feature. Twenty-four years old, two weeks shy of getting her degree, and she was in a meeting at the British Vogue office, being asked if she wanted to shoot film or digital. “I got home from the meeting, and there was an email from Lucinda saying ‘Let’s wait until after the baby is born’ and ‘You are up and running,’” Orten says. “Then the [financial] crisis came, and I never shot for Vogue.”
She pauses for a moment before finishing, “It was very, very sad for me. It was a kind of breaking point.” Orten moved back to Prague in the fall of 2010, when her son was just a few months old. She was chastened but unbowed. Talent and hard work have a way of providing results, no matter where you are, and in 2012 she was awarded the Czech Grand Design award as photographer of the year. That same year, she met her current partner, a sculptor, and they have since collaborated on several projects and opened a studio called S K U L L, which helps keep her busy when the commissions are slower to come.
When Orten does take on outside work, she chooses clients very carefully. “I don’t want to be the person standing between the agency and the client, just there to say, ‘Is this blue the right blue? Are you cool with it?’” Orten says. It’s a position born out of confidence in her vision and hard-learned lessons from being in the business as long as she has. When I ask how this is affecting her workload, she laughs before replying that she isn’t getting a lot of work, and that she is happy about it. It’s not that she doesn’t need money; it’s that if clients want to art direct her, they need to be willing to make it worth her time.
Listening to Orten, it’s hard not to feel that she is at another turning point in her career. Her focus is firmly on her own work, and, over time, she has pared down and simplified her approach, jettisoning much of the gear she used to think was essential. “I would carry flashlights, a massive battery pack, softboxes and all these things that I really dislike at the moment,” she says, “then I realized that there is so much beautiful, natural light to use. I just need to be smart about [how I use] it.” Often scarce or diffused, the light in her photographs seems to exist in the fleeting haze of an eye adjusting from bright sunlight to a dimly lit room. She loves those magical half hours of dawn and dusk, not only for what they bring to her images, but also for how they force her to work to get things done, and how on edge everyone is in the cold light of a new day.
Orten sees her work as a kind of poetry. “It’s super important for me to capture real emotions in whatever I see,” she says. There is a sadness in her work, she admits, but she can also find joy in the same images. For her, it’s not that much different from what she sees around her in daily life: all these emotions and energies moving beneath the glassy surface of a world that our eyes skim over. Orten’s work inverts that and immerses the viewer in those powerful undercurrents.
When I ask what has kept her in Prague the last ten years, Orten is succinct: family. She has carved out a space for herself outside the thrum of New York City, Paris and London, and has no interest in giving it up. While she still sometimes wonders how things might have been, she wouldn’t change a thing about the road she has traveled.
“I had spoken with this very wise woman I know in Prague, and I was telling her how, for a fashion photographer, Vogue is the peak of the mountain,” Orten remembers, “and she said to me, ‘If that happened to you at 24, where would you go then?’” ca