I can’t draw. I can’t paint. Photography is the only thing I can really do with my hands,” Toronto-based still life photographer Natasha V. tells me as we work our way through a couple of small plates at Bar Isabel in the city’s Little Italy neighborhood. She is explaining her love for illustration and how important other forms of art can be for keeping her own batteries charged. “I really try not to look at photography because I hate to be influenced by what’s popular right now,” she elaborates. “You have to evolve and you have to change to survive in this industry, but you have to be you.”
As I will learn, being Natasha V. means being in constant movement: always thinking, always driving, always willing to get in early and be the last to leave. It comes as no surprise to discover that she is an avid runner—not because of her lithe physique, but because of the energy in her voice and the restlessness in her eyes. V.’s aesthetic pairs a gift for conceptual storytelling with a deep palette, all with the aplomb of an artist who has mastered her craft. She has placed work in publications like Elle, InStyle and Red while building relationships with clients like EOS, Holt Renfrew and Hudson’s Bay.
As president of Blu Design and Communications Inc., a New York–based design, advertising and branding agency, Liz Padilla has worked with V. many times. “The two that stand out in my mind the most are the Hazelton Lanes spring campaign and Beauty Underground for Hudson’s Bay,” she says. “These two projects gave Blu creative freedom, and with the help of Natasha, we were able to get the strong, captivating images that delivered… [Natasha] not only delivers on the proposed creative, but then goes one step further and puts her spin on it, giving you the shot that you usually end up going with.”
There is a clarity to V.’s work that stands out in a field all but besotted with lush opulence. Whether of fashion or food, her photographs are effortlessly clean and elegantly simple, with crisp lighting and refreshingly cool colors; here beauty speaks for itself in soft tones, with no need to shout above the din. If all this sounds dispassionate, make no mistake: V.’s aesthetic is nothing if not sensual. By nature, fashion photography is a study in fetishism. But her images have a palpable sheen, as if everything has just been wiped down but is still wet to the touch. Food is voluptuous, visual umami: pale squid backstroking in a lake of swollen orange segments, half-finished meals where disemboweled pies totter amidst crumbling wedges of rich cheese, fine napkins and sleek cutlery.
V. and her agent, Jooli Kim of JK Productions, Inc., have been collaborating for three years. After hearing about her from an art buyer, Kim—who was struck by V.’s use of color and patterns—kept tabs on her for some time before the opportunity came to work together.
“I think Natasha’s work is a standout because she can create the modern, unique, classic image,” Kim offers, before breaking that down further. “The classic quality is within her photographic approach, avoiding the overly retouched result and attempting to get most of the shot in-camera. The unique is [her] creative process ... [it’s] what inspires Natasha, making images new again. And the modern is her beautifully effortless aesthetic.”
When I arrive at V.’s studio in Toronto’s east end, a shoot for Dauphine Magazine is already in full swing. The photographer is centered in the high-ceilinged room, circling her subject, a diamond-encrusted alligator necklace. V.’s assistant and a product stylist move about her in complementary orbits, the three of them acting as one; adjusting this, adding that, crimping and smoothing, and all the while shooting, shooting, shooting. At a table off to the side, a representative for the jeweler and an attendant security guard look up from their devices to watch this delicate ballet, which has been going on for hours. If V. feels any pressure, it doesn’t show. She greets me and is as affably unruffled as she was sipping cocktails the night before at Bar Isabel. And why not—this is her element.
For all the activity, V. runs a lean operation and is more dependent on imagination and intuition than on gear. A cluster of grapes isn’t working as an accent to the jewelry, but a quick nibble turns it into a naked stem that makes the shot. “I don’t like using too many lights. I rarely have more than three or four lights on set,” she says. For her, lighting is about subtlety and nuance—something that is suffused throughout the tableau and not a spotlight. Her energy and her insistence that they try seemingly everything make it easy to forget that she has been here all day.
“You never look at it and say, ‘Oh, it’s good enough!’ It’s about pushing as far as you can with the ideas and not being satisfied. You have to treat every job like it’s the biggest job you’ve got so far,” V. insists.
That persistence comes up again and again when you talk to her clients, past and present. Nathalie Cusson, creative director at Scooter Design Inc. in Montréal, remembers one project vividly: a story about fragrances for Canadian magazine Glow.
“The article was about how, throughout the world, scent preferences vary with cultures,” she remembers. “I wanted a cityscape made out of bottles. Easier said than done. We worked a lot at ‘making it work,’ even after the day of the shoot, in post-production.” Even when Cusson began to doubt her own idea, V. kept plugging away and, lo and behold, that same image ended up winning awards.
Born into a military family in the former Yugoslavia, V. grew up moving often, eventually settling in Sarajevo. She went to university with an eye on the arts but found herself growing bored with one thing, then another, until she took a black-and-white photography course. It was love at first sight.
“I was imagining myself being really old, like 35 or 40,” V. says with a chuckle, “wondering what could I be doing in life where I would not be bored, and the answer was this. Because it has to be different; it’s not a routine. You cannot ever be in a routine in photography.”
Ironically, her first project was essentially a still life: a study of empty shoes and how they take on the characteristics of their owners. V. was a quick study, debuting her first exhibit at the National Museum in Sarajevo at the ripe old age of 21. Caught up in her new passion, V. barely registered the turbulence building under the surface of Yugoslavian society. Tensions that had been worsening since the death of strongman Josip Tito in 1980 were pushed to the breaking point by the fall of the USSR, and civil war broke out in 1990. V. had traveled to Belgrade seeking supplies for her next show only to find out that she could not return home.
To escape the growing chaos, V. emigrated to Canada in 1994. She landed in Ottawa and quickly enrolled at Algonquin College, eager to pick up where she had left off. It was there that she first worked with color and never looked back. In search of better professional opportunities, V. moved to Toronto in 1998 when the city was in the midst of a film production boom. She found a gig assisting a fashion photographer and, after a few months, was offered some freelance work shooting jewelry for one of his clients.
For the next year, she kept assisting while building her own portfolio on the side. Once she started reaching out to ad agencies and magazines, she met a rep right around the same time she got her first assignment. It was an advertising shoot for Quo cosmetics, and the ad agency was looking for a new approach. Instead of a product shoot, it went for something a little more conceptual, which was perfect for V. They ended up using crushed makeup to spell out smudged messages. “It was a small shoot, but it got a lot of attention because it was a new approach to the market and so much different than everything else,” she recalls.
When I ask how her work has changed over time, V. mentions dimensionality. Saying that she used to shoot everything “flat,” she points to an early beauty shoot where she took close-up portraits of a dark-skinned model whose full lips were made up with eye-popping pastels. Depth, texture, contrast and color all hang in a balance, resulting in a photograph that is eye-catching, sophisticated and beautiful—all at the same time. The project is a remarkably limber bit of advertising, but more importantly, it gave V. a framework for rounded, more sculpted images.
V. is at the point in her career where she can look back to see how far she has come as well as look ahead to new challenges. “As a younger photographer, you get hired because of your creative vision, but you get into all the layers of advertising, and you get boxed in,” she explains. “It took a long time for me to really push my vision—to add my voice and know that people are going to listen.”
On the question of the future, she stays true to her nature: there will be no standing still. She is looking for the next level, and that doesn’t just mean bigger accounts and more resources. It means pushing everything, across the board.
“Ultimately, the challenge is how to take my career further. That can be new visual themes, new, subtler ways of lighting things, or even how to take my lighting techniques and apply them to moving images,” she says. “We will see how I progress and where I finish, but those are the things on my mind.” Her answer, then, is firmly in character: always hungry, never satisfied, eyes firmly on the horizon. ca