By Niv Shank
Authentic Moments in Fashion Lifestyle Photography
Niv Shank is a photographer and a videomaker from Israel — Niv comes from the culturally rich family with Middle Eastern and Eastern European roots. The diverse background has opened up the passion to travel the world, discover places and meet people.
The love to document the world and the environment throughout traveling the countries allowed Niv to develop a unique eye — The works are about capturing the authenticity and framing the moment in time that occurs in between real life and fashion lifestyle. On the verge between dream-like visions and reality, the story is told, and the story is genuine. You immerse yourself into the occurrences in the frame and imagine yourself, and the would-be your unique experience if and when the characters would be substituted by you.
To learn more about Niv’s approach to photography from a perspective of building genuine life-like sets to the mastery of working with natural light we decided to call Niv and ask some questions during our chat.
Niv worked with clients like 180LA, Y&R, Katy Perry, Nylon Magazine, Out Magazine, Arena Magazine, Dapper Taper magazine, Capitol Records, EMI Records, People Revolution, and many others.
Stasia: Hey Niv, you’ve been living in the US, Italy, London, and Berlin. You have changed a lot of places.
I’ve been like a gypsy. I think it’s in the family, my grandparents were like this.
I think it makes sense, it feels right since I was a child. I always justified this with photography but it’s not.
Stasia: Yeah, I think it’s nice. Countries are becoming closer, and it's so much easier to travel today.
Niv: It’s much easier, and I think more people are traveling. People travel because it’s affordable and people communicate with others more than before. More people speak English than 10 years ago. I’m a foreigner, but I speak the language so more people approach me now in English. Things are getting more universal.
Stasia: That’s true. It's great to discover countries and cultures around the world.
Niv: I think that’s important there’s so much to see. It’s not like you don’t have money or time to go. It’s really bullshit, you just need to do it, you just need to travel, it’s the best university.
Stasia: In my opinion, fashion industry in Israel is not developed enough yet.
Niv: There are a lot of good creators and a lot of them are also working abroad. This is not the most important thing in Israel. The quality of work is so much better than before. Fashion is luxury, it is something that never developed to the point where people saw it as an art form. There is more of a subject matter in Israel. That was my vibe always.
Stasia: It is more about technology here.
Niv: But I see now that I’m living abroad, and I follow people on Instagram, I see a lot of good artists, and I feel that is pretty amazing.
Stasia: Let’s speak about you, your childhood. It was really fantastic to learn that you’ve been living in Israel. How was it growing up in a city near the Dead sea?
Niv: I grew up in South of Israel in a very very quiet place. It was more quiet and charming at a time. I grew up in Arad, I was a desert boy. My brother developed asthma, and everybody moved to this place. The first 9 or 10 years I grew up in Arad. I’m used to quite, deserted open landscapes. Those pretty, open landscapes that are just a childhood memory are still in my perspective. Later on, the family moved to the center, to Bat-Yam. My mother as an urban person missed the city, she didn’t like Arad. Bat-Yam was also a very hectic place. I moved to Bat-Yam in the middle 80s, so it was pretty rough. It turned out to be rougher, at a time that was really interesting because I grew up in eastern European culture. My father was Polish, born in Ukraine.
When I started to photograph, I used to bring a lot of people to be photographed in Bat-Yam. I was fascinated with the city, the layout was kind of like an island in the center. Sometimes, every now and then, when I go back to Israel, I’m doing little photoshoots in Bat-Yam but more personal. I just really like the Russian peninsula in Israel, I think it’s fantastic.
Stasia: You started to photograph in Bat-Yam. Your career started there?
Niv: To be honest, I grew up with a very strict education so I never thought I’d be doing art. During the military service, I had an accident, and one of my friends suggested to do a photography course. He said that we should do it, we had a year till the end of the military service. It was a really good time to do fun stuff, and I agreed. The moment I started to photograph it totally opened a door for me because I was a bit timid. I think this allowed me to photograph my environment. My environment at the time were people, friends, my brother, and his girlfriend. They were 15, and I was doing really cool sets with them basically taking over the city. When you start, I don't want to say young, but when you start not necessarily a very specific formal education, you just photograph your environment.
Stasia: I was fascinated with one of your recent works, the video ‘Summer Break’ which is fantastic.
Niv: Thank you so much!
Stasia: It is cinema that is so close to real life and also to the cinematic life from the end of 60s-70s atmosphere. How do you capture life as close as it can be to real life but give it a movie feel? Describe the process of working with models and actors during the shoot. They seem like real people but are also distanced from the camera.
Niv: We are all people, and I’m trying to keep it real, the feeling real. I work with various casts of people, some of them are from the agencies, some are actors, some can be Oscar nominees or some who just started which is great. Some people I found on the street. Clearly they are interesting enough and can be models or talents or whatever they want. They really like the fact that you approached them. I think that people, some professionals from the industry and some not, everybody I approached and wanted to photograph or that captured my mind, were special either in the moment or in general.
I don't look for a certain type of people. When I’m testing from agencies I tend to look for people that don’t take the industry too seriously, who are just doing it and keeping the energy and the candid moments, can let go. It’s not that obvious, you become an object that is somewhere in space. People just forget about it, start to have fun, do their thing, and they are not trying to necessarily impress the camera. They don't care at that point how they are going to turn out or if they look good.
I remember when I used to photograph in the past there were always comments as ‘I look so fat' and 'it’s not my angle’. I don't hear that today. It’s not important because I obviously will do my best to make you look fantastic. It’s not relevant to the moment because it’s not about that. It’s about you being in a moment when you need to inspire people. If you will be so cautious all the time about appearance, I don’t think it's going to be authentic.
I think we're getting used to seeing people, the beauty in such a different way than before. We are used to seeing people that have a special look, not necessarily the classic models that appear in campaigns. We see different types of beauty. There is no one form of beauty anymore. I think this makes everybody beautiful.
‘Summer Break’ was really inspired by the culture of the lakes in Berlin during summer. I find it fascinating that everyone just goes to the lakes, some get naked, some not. It is amazing, there is nature as a break in the city.
I brought this group of people that were mainly models. I was really inspired by people that I saw when I was doing a location search. People were going after school, after work with a bottle of beer, chips, sitting down or paddling a boat. It is so cool. I wanted to imitate real life with models. Sometimes it’s a bit more challenging, but I made them feel comfortable enough that after a while they were just having fun and things started to happen, people liked each other. It started to be more like a documentary but let’s say a stylish documentary.
Stasia: And the magic happened. So, the trick is to make people comfortable, give them enough time to become themselves, and then you make it look like a film-like moment.
Niv: So many projects in the past were so well produced. Everyone was well-dressed, the styling, the models, the hair and makeup it just felt too fashion. And I was always looking for something a bit rawer. It’s not wrong to do pure fashion. I like fashion as an element, and I think fashion is such a great way to wear characters but also I despise a little bit that world. You need to do things a certain way. I like fashion as an element, it is fantastic, it is beautiful. But I never really felt too comfortable the idea of calling it fashion. I just wanted to use it as an element among other things, among films that had that 70s look, among the styling that I like, a bit more vintage. Back at the time they produced clothes a little bit nicer, the style and the design looked better, clean shapes and nice fabric. Just something that I like.
Stasia: What happens when you work for a commercial project? How do you stay yourself and true to your values when you work with a client?
Niv: It really depends. I was an option for the big beverage campaign that I personally love. I would work for them for free, I love this drink. I think they were looking to work with me because they wanted to bring that sense of style, lighting and an approach to people that you can call a fashion lifestyle. And I think for them and for me it’s important that I will bring my vision that will go along with the product identity and character.
It’s a bit tricky because working alone is sometimes much easier than working with a lot of people. When you work alone, you have much more freedom to go with the things where you want them to go and to change them when you see that they aren’t necessarily going in the direction you wanted.
You see the actors not comfortable in the water, maybe the water is too cold, maybe while they are in the water somebody's watching and they feel insecure. Then you change the location and direction to make them comfortable. It’s very very important. Sometimes when you’re working with big clients, you don’t have the time or the freedom to change things on the spot when you see something not going well because everything is set up and a lot of money and people are involved. You’re there to do what you’ve been talking about before eliminating surprises or spontaneous moments. It’s got to be very pre-organised.
Stasia: Who inspires you or affects your work? A film director that you love or a movie that inspired you throughout your life?
Niv: Wow, so many film directors. Since I was young, I don’t know why but I was watching a lot of European movies. People would go to the beach on Saturday, and I would stay home and watch French films. I remember when I was 13 my sister came from the boarding school and took me with my friends to the movie 'Bitter Moon' directed by Roman Polanski. This was so good, there was attitude, Paris, dancing. It was very inspiring, a bit darker than my style, but I was really fascinated by the bohemian lifestyle. 'Bitter Moon' was a big one.
I was fascinated by another movie, it’s a bit smaller, but as a teenager, it impacted me, 'The Basketball Diaries' with Leonardo DiCaprio, especially the scene, I don’t know why but I can never get it out of my mind, where he’s running in the fields, very high on drugs.
I love 'Revolutionary Road'. They all are different, but I like intimacy. In 'Revolutionary Road', I like the fact that the only normal character was the crazy guy. I like pure honesty.
Stasia: What is your favorite spot in the whole world? What makes this spot special for you?
Niv: That’s a tricky one because on a personal level I am absolutely in love with the Dead Sea. I guess because I grew up not that far. I like the light and the colors, the concept of pure beauty and the mud. In this place, I feel like a kid, but I don’t know if it’s necessarily the best spot to shoot, it’s very sharp to photograph there. The Dead Sea is my favorite place, but in terms of the best location to shoot it is different.
Stasia: You took part in several exhibitions before. Your last one was last year. How would you describe this experience?
Niv: What is interesting about exhibitions is showing your work. People come and express their thoughts about the photos, and you hear a lot of decent stuff. It’s very exciting to see your photos printed for an exhibition when you are presenting art. It’s very special to be an artist especially those days for me because I was growing up very practical and I’m doing something that is not that practical. I feel free, I feel liberated.
Stasia: New Year’s Resolution is a popular thing to think about when the New Year starts. If you remember yours at the beginning of 2018 is there any specific goal that is yet left to be fulfilled this year?
Niv: Wow, there are a lot of New Year’s Resolutions every year. I’ll be honest with you, I notice that I’m getting more into the motion because I feel it combines more elements of art as people, personalities, and movement. It combines music and fashion which I like to use as an element. I made a promise that I’ll dedicate more time to it. You always promise and I feel you never do enough. But I felt I was leaning more this year to try and find more voice with this project as I was getting more and more interested in it.
I promised myself that I’ll go back to live in Europe. I kept it, and I’m very happy to be in Europe again and to be not that far from Israel, also not too far from other cities in Europe that I like to work at. It’s a lot of traveling. There are more New Year’s Resolutions for the next year but I'll keep it for the next interview.
Stasia: The series with Katy Perry, I have to say it was quite interesting to see her in a different angle as a different personality, as a real person. What was the main idea behind the shoot and the aesthetics for the shoot? How did you get this specific look and feel?
Niv: That’s a really good one. This was my first big assignment. I was in New York, I just sent an email to the editor who said there’s a singer you might want to shoot. I did a little research, and I had a feeling she’s going to be big. There was talk about her, but she wasn’t as big as two months later. He asked me if I live in L.A and I said I’m based between New York and L.A, little lies always help to get you on the way somewhere. It was a very strong direction, a magazine wanted to photograph Katy for the new music issue. The references were of Farrah Fawcett, a famous actress in the 70s with this nice 70s haircut, a bit romantic with the 70s glam.
I didn’t really live in L.A, and I thought, where will I photograph. I got there two days before, and I spoke to Katy’s stylist who was super nice who I think is still her stylist. She said don't worry I’ve been working with her for a while and she's great. I didn’t really know L. A well, so I got there two days before and found a location. I didn’t know how she looked exactly and her hairstylist came, and I thought she is cute. Katy came later, she felt really comfortable because she and the stylist are good friends. I noticed she tends to work with friends which is something I really liked about her. She brought her best friend to the set, he was assistant to the stylist. She‘s surrounded by a lot of good friends, she’s very friendly.
Katy was very specific about the way she wanted to make things, and I had a different direction from the magazine, so I was kind of in between. My approach to situations like this is to let people do what they want, and let them express themselves. She was also very energetic. I thought she would get tired and then we will do things and I think that’s what happened.
90 percent of the beginning of the set, it was toying on with the direction. It was very cute and candid, but the last photos were the photos that we used because Katy got to be more calm and more light. I was able to get the portraits that I wanted to use. A lot of people were involved and it was very spontaneous. We ended up with Katy Perry in this area in L.A that is not something you would see today because there are so many people involved that will make sure editing is exactly the way it needs to be. I think it was a bit of a documentary piece. She loved the photos.
Stasia: They are amazing and genuine. The work with color, light and the shadows is special. Also in L.A, you can catch the right light, in Israel I think it would be very difficult to accomplish that crispy feeling. Also, it is a little bit not as something filmed today rather with aesthetics of the past.
Niv: Thank you. To be honest, I shot this story with my very first camera that I bought in Israel a long time ago, a very cheap camera. When you use old camera and films, it looks like old because it is the way they used to shoot back in the 70s. You expose everything according to the way you want, and you create that 70s style, the analogical style.
Stasia: Yes, it is magical.
Niv: You do not get to do those things later on because everything is well produced and directed. A lot of the photos photographed during the day, all those people that were involved - it’s a bit like a documentary piece. They were playing on a basketball court and were all in the same car doing fun stuff. And looking back I see it as a fun day.
Stasia: I’ve seen that you are working on the pre-production of the project ‘Breakfast with Vitamins’ so I wanted to speak with you about your next steps and perhaps several words about the project that you can share.
Niv: Yeah, of course. I started to realize that all the ideas that you have you need to write down because otherwise, you will forget it. A lot of time you’re like what are you doing, that’s crazy, it doesn’t make any sense. 'Breakfast with Vitamins' was inspired by an Italian dancer I’ve seen, I wanted to do something with her, and this story came into my mind. It's a short film, video art about a very stylish woman going to this breakfast in a fantastic stylish hotel and has a lot of vitamins. She’s a big vitamin consumer and takes a lot of pills. She drops those on the table and starts to check what is what and what to take when. Then she’s a bit confused and leaves the room. When she’s going through the room, she’s taking a little nap, and she’s going through a dream sequence.
I love dream sequences, I like to play with the line between reality and dreams. In her dream, she has crazy visions in a deserted spot or dancing. More to see when it will be ready but basically, it is a fine line between reality and a dream. It’s something that I was exploring before with a music video ‘Fall’ that we filmed in Israel about a girl that is in a facility and she’s escaping in her mind to nature.
'Breakfast with Vitamins' should be a really moving piece, with dancing, nice style, crazy. Was supposed to be shot during November but a lot of artists are involved with different schedules. It’s very important to write the ideas down, and when the time is right to get back to them, otherwise you will forget. We should film it in December - January.
Stasia: The story you described reminded me of that Twin Peaks scene a dreamlike one with Monica Bellucci. Thank you Niv for your time, it has been a wonderful chat!
Niv: Hopefully we’ll get a coffee in Israel someday!