TARA VIOLET NIAMI
Tara is the daughter of an Iranian documentary filmmaker and Australian entertainment lawyer, raised in Los Angeles, CA. Her unique perspective consumes her creative endeavors, as a writer, musician, photographer, artist.
How would you describe your style?
Cinematic. I try and think of my shoots as a little film about the person or character.
How did you get started with photography?
My parents bought me a point and shoot that I shot with when I was twelve on a vacation in Europe. My first real experience with was when I took an intro to black and white film photography at my high school.
What do you think contributed most to becoming the photographer you are today?
Growing up with a lot of movies. My father is an independent filmmaker and he showed me classics ever since I was little. The first film I fell madly in love with was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s fantastical, Technicolor masterpiece The Red Shoes.
What’s your main camera? Main lens? Why?
I often use my Nikon D90 but to tell you the truth, it’s not my favorite. My favorite camera that I use most at school is my Nikon FM 10. My favorite lens to use on that is my 50mm though I love the distortion of a wide angle lens, especially when shooting portraits normally shot with a 50.
What interests you about portraits?
I don’t really think about them as portraits. Instead, I try and often imagine the person as a part of their surrounding landscape. For that reason, I often call my photos “landscape portraits”. The figure might still dominate the landscape but they wouldn’t be who they are without it.
Where do you usually draw inspiration?
From so many different influences. I was first a writer before I was a visual artist so I’m attracted to words paradoxically enough (is that the right word? I don’t know…) That’s probably why I love films so much, I love the rich complexity of characters portrayed on the screen and I try to represent that in my work. I’m inspired also by photography from a hundred years ago-the pictorialists and other photographers who experimented and tried to elevate photography to the status of fine art. Interestingly, I think that’s still I think about photography even though when it’s everywhere. I love elevating the medium and using photography as a way to express rich emotion and atmosphere rather than capturing beauty in more simply superficial and technically-minded ways.
How do you come up with an idea for a shoot?
I browse through images until one or a few speaks to me. Sometimes these are film stills, sometimes they’re paintings, sometimes they’re photos. I latch onto something and it sparks something in me, some sort of flame that burns and burns until I have a more fully-fledged idea. It’s hard to explain. It’s the same way I write music and poetry; though I often have some sort of reference point the idea just comes out of nowhere, out of the air. When I write a song, the words just float in my head and urge me to sing them. That’s how photography is. My camera asks me to take the photo. Sometimes I listen, sometimes I don’t and I wish I had.
Do you like to plan ahead? Or go with the flow?
I used to work completely spontaneously, which people wouldn’t really guess when looking at my work. I would have an idea, it would pop into my head and I’d plan it merely in the moment. These days, I often make moodboards or little photosets or folders of references to draw from. Often the shoot takes its own course though and my idea changes, evolves, sometimes even fails but that’s okay too.
Where do you find models?
My models used to consist of myself and my friends but these days I seek out strangers. I use modelmayhem, the site, a lot but I use it with things in mind. I search for people with interesting looks who have the ability to embody emotion, to portray characters as though they were acting in film stills, e.t.c. They have to be on the same page as me and ‘get’ my work. I’m not photographing them just to portray how pretty or gorgeous they are-I want them to be a part of the world I create in my photos.
How do you find your locations?
They’re often places I know very well that I’ve lived in or around or else they’re places I have seen and want to explore.
Where is your favorite place to shoot?
A park or garden. I also most of the time shoot in the house or dorm I am living in at the time.
What’s your favorite lighting setup? Least favorite?
I rarely use lights, I prefer natural lights. When I do use lights, I love drama-a lighting set-up that gives me shadows and bright highlights. I like to break the rules and go for theater instead of flattery.
How do you set your exposure for a shot?
First try to believe my light meter (see when the ‘ticks’ on my digital camera are on ‘zero’ thus being ‘correctly exposed’) but often it’s wrong. I shoot all manually so I adjust my shutter speed and aperture accordingly. I usually just make sure my shutter speed as at least as fast as 1/60 of a second but the choice of aperture often really matters. I want to try to use the depth of field to my advantage so often I end up sticking within the range of f-stops that produce either ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’ depth of field.
Do you tell models how to pose? Or let them do their own thing?
I often pose them but the best poses usually come out of them spontaneously posing. Sometimes a model will be stretching, relaxing, looking a certain way just naturally and it will by far surpass the pose I put them in artificially.
Any tips for working with models?
Think of it like this-you are the director and they are the actor. If something isn’t working tell the model don’t let them keep doing it and mess up your photo just because you want to be polite. They are used to being directed. If they are doing something well tell them that. If you don’t say anything they’ll think they’re doing something wrong. It’s a really organic and beautiful relationship if you two work well together. You’ll feel comfortable with one another and inspire each other.
What do you think is the best advice you could give a model?
Don’t force anything-just feel what the photographer might be going for. Feel it in your bones. Express it in your posture, your gesture, your face. As someone who has been on both side of the lens (my own lens and other people’s) I have gained a lot of insight that helps me direct other models. You just have to let go a bit and feel confident in your abilities. Don’t think you need to pose a certain way because it’s ‘trendy’ or anything like that (that whole ‘pout’ and make your shoulders concave thing really bores me to be honest). Try to vary your facial expressions instead of keeping your face exactly the same in each shot. The photographer is trying to tell a story or show variation.
Any camera tricks you’d like to share?
You can make anything look beautiful and interesting even with cheap tools. I’ve shot through plastic bags, tulle, pieces of broken glass, used a webcam as a camera. Never think it’s the photographer that makes the photo nor is it wealth that makes photos work. It is the passion of the person behind the camera.
What camera trick helped you out most?
I have no real tricks up my sleeve just experience.
Any advice for aspiring photographers?
Shoot for yourself more than anyone else. If you are in it to be successful then why are you in this field? You do not need to prove anything to anybody-just make work you love! Be conscientious, ethical, kind (whether it is about making sure to not cross the line in your art- the VICE spread fetishizing suicide definitely did that-or it is trying to show diversity in your work or not photoshopping someone’s face to make them as ‘perfect’ as a Barbie doll) and let your vision drive you! Read as much as you can about the history of photography-educating yourself about what came before you is so helpful. People think Photoshop changed photography and you couldn’t make a person float or switch faces of two subjects or layer images before it. That’s just silly! In the late 19th century people used their own two hands and the darkroom to ‘photoshop.’
What advice has helped you the most?
Don’t be unnecessarily hard on yourself. Believe in yourself. It is enough that you are passionate. It is okay to mess up-not even the most ‘talented’ or ‘successful’ photographer has taken a masterpiece after masterpieces. Everyone has flukes-that’s how they learn!
If you feel like there’s anything more to add, please walk me through the process of a regular shoot with you.
It’s just an organic experience. Again, it may not always go well but I usually know when it does. Often I make ‘good’ images I am just searching for something beyond that-something that makes my mind spin, that makes me feel something-you look into the eyes of the subject and you see melancholy, the landscape is something out of the imagination of the Romantics, e.t.c. I just love photography so much. I try to keep the element of ‘fun’ in it. Even on a serious, more tragic (thematically I mean) shoot I want the model and I to have a good time and feel comfortable.
Follow Tara Niami on flickr / tumblr / vimeo.