Words: Chris Zacharia
Naked torsos, male and female, spill out of a cluster of slate shards like crustaceans crawling from their beds.
A knot of limbs, male and female, hirsute and smooth, lie tangled on a bedspread dappled with discs of sunlight.
A female silhouette dangles underwater, legs and arms akimbo, the dreamy blue light casting an icy glow.
These unusual images are the work of a single imagination. Laura Zalenga, an award-winning German photographer, has amassed a huge following of fans with collection after collection of original conceptual photography.
Ahead of her appearance at The Photography Show in Birmingham (17-20 March), we spoke to Laura to find out more about the woman behind the images.
‘I’ve never been to Photography Show before’ Laura begins excitedly ‘But I’m looking forward to getting wider image of the possibilities of the genre, seeing different approaches. It’s about the energy – the atmosphere of a place where people come to be inspired, you can feel it’
Most of Laura’s work is self-portraiture. Does she ever get mistaken for just another selfie-addict?
‘There’s a big difference between a selfie and a self-portrait’ Laura explains. ‘Self-portraits are a way to learn about yourself. Whereas a selfie…’ she trails off.
Laura Zalenga is a new breed of artist. She doesn’t live in the cosmopolitan bubble of a big city. She doesn’t spend all her time with a group of artists. And she’s built up most of her following through Instagram.
So where does a selfie end and a self-portrait begin?
‘There’s no strict line between the selfie and the portrait’ Laura replies. ‘But the main difference is that it’s disposable – a fake moment. A big smile, in front of the Empire State Building, saying ‘hey mom’!’
You won’t find shots like that in Laura’s portfolio. Her intimate, carefully crafted self-portraits have a deceptive simplicity to them. On first glance, they look polished and composed; but when you look again, darker elements begin to bleed through.
Long-distance shots of bodies against the horizon begin to seem voyeuristic. Close-up self-portraits take on a haunting quality.
Laura has over 100,000 followers on Instagram, but she doesn’t seem to have sacrificed her creativity for it. Scrolling through pages of striking, moody photography, I notice something I’ve never seen on social media – triptychs: images broken into three individual panels, sitting side by side to tell a story.
‘It’s against the algorithm, because the left and right panels aren’t always the most engaging’ Laura explains So why does she do it?
‘Sometimes I’m stubborn!’ Laura laughs. ‘Ultimately I’m doing this for me, so…isn’t that ok? A big part of you is doing it to break free, there’s something inside of you trying to break free, so you do it because it feels right, not because you’re trying to get 7,000 likes’
‘You’re trying to express something about who you are’ says Laura. But doesn’t that make them more artificial than a selfie, which are often off-the-cuff?
‘Yes, that’s true’ Laura smiles, ‘But with a selfie you’re rarely trying to understand who you really are. Self-portraits are a way to learn about yourself’
Eager, thoughtful, and warm, Laura’s personality seems much brighter than her ethereal, otherworldly photographs might suggest. But I still can’t help myself, and I push her further on the point – how can self-portraits help you learn about yourself?
‘Quite simply, you’re spending time with yourself. You’re reflecting, contemplating, considering. And how often do we actually spend time with ourselves?’
She’s not wrong. Social media has a lot to answer for. Does she feel that Instagram is harmful to photography?
‘There’s a positive part to it and a negative part to it. The internet has inspired me, helped me to meet other people, it’s brought me jobs and recognition, you can polish your ego on it…but you can end up comparing yourself to everyone on the planet. It’s a total exploding crazy overload – people look at photos for a fraction of a second’
Laura’s voice, a warm, gushing mid-Atlantic sing-song, shares the clarity of her photography.
‘The same things work, so you find the same things everywhere’ she muses. ‘There are people with 1,000 followers who I’m like, wow how are you doing this incredible photography? And then there’s someone with two million followers who only posts photos of puppies and bikinis on the beach!’
I can’t help but agree.I suggest that Instagram could devalue photography, because anyone and everyone can be a photographer.
‘It’s already happening’ she agrees eagerly. ‘There’s so much on the internet for free’
So has it mader her life easier?
‘You can be a photographer, but it’s no easier to be an artist. Meaningful things aren’t made easier by Instagram’
There’s a smile in her voice suggesting that she knows all too well the difficulty of producing something meaningful. Yet there’s an openness to Laura’s thoughts that makes talking to her feel intimate, as if we’ve known each other for much longer. Pretty soon we’re talking about art, and how all artists share similar struggles regardless of their medium, and how she started out.
‘I started 10 years ago. It was super cheesy – I’d been doing all these other things to find a creative outlet, like drawing and painting, but my Dad inspired me to try photography, and I clicked with it. You’re not waiting as long as painting, which means you can experiment a lot’
‘My mum’s an architect and my dad’s a carpenter, so I always grew up thinking in an artistic way – I was always drawing stuff and building things’
Although her photography has changed a great deal since then, her lifestyle hasn’t. After a few years of living in Munich, Laura now lives in a small town in Baden-Württemberg. Is it harder being an artist away from the big city?
‘Maybe a little’ she says. ‘It doesn’t make much of a difference to me, because all my work is online. I don’t think I ever had a paid job based in Munich while living in Munich. It was easier finding live models, but…’
So what will Laura be talking about at The Photography Show?
‘Mainly about the power of self-portraiture. But I’ll also be showing my favourite photographers’
Laura’s excitement for the show comes through. Despite the fact that she’s won several awards, has been profiled in national newspapers, all before the age of 30, she’s endearingly earnest and self-deprecating.
‘I made a list of all the people I’m excited to see – including client stuff, I’m so bad at that – and a lot of interesting artists, like Amy, Seb Nelson, Gerrard Menkovics, so many people whose pictures are striking and whose ideas are original’
Has she practiced her talk?
‘One of my all-time phobic fears was speaking in front of people’ Laura admits. ‘Even if it was a four-line poem, I couldn’t sleep the night before. But when I talk about photography, or things I really care about, I’m still scared but it feels much more natural, and when you’ve inspired people – then it’s all worth it’
Book your tickets to The Photography Show, 17-20 March, here
Laura Zalenga spoke to Chris Zacharia. She will be talking on 18 March and 19 March – book your place at her talk here