Ten Meets Photographer Lea Colombo
We’re in Oslo. Well, we were in Oslo. And the reason that we are/were in Oslo and not, as you might think was more logical, in London, where both photographer Lea Colombo and I live (well, since the day before we talk, when Lea received the keys to her new East London flat) is because of the Uncontaminated Oslo Fashion Art Festival. Lea is showing her latest photographic project there as part of The Collective, an exhibition of emerging artists that takes place on the final night of the three-day festival. When we speak, they are still setting it up. She’s just come from the warehouse space where it’s being held. They’ve built a big red box to house some of her photographs. She’s happy.
Hailing from South Africa, Lea Colombo’s rise to prominence in the world of fashion photography could be described as both fast and steep – self-taught, in just a few years she’s gone from shooting backstage images to her editorial work being featured amongst the pages some of the most prominent magazines in the world – Dazed, i-D, Marfa Journal, Interview and many more in between. Her photographic style is recognisable for its use only of natural light, lending her images a quality that is at once spontaneous and intuitive, unguarded and intimate. Lea’s work at the festival, though, photographed in her native South Africa, moves away from the fashion imagery she is known for, documenting instead the lives cane sugar farmers in Durban. The arresting photographs, often saturated in deep red, play with the emotional value and affect of colour. The result is something altogether consuming.
Jack Moss: What first drew you to the photograph?
Lea Colombo: I guess I’ve always had an interest in fashion and photography and I remember having a little digital camera and was always snapping images. I think mainly though it was because I hated high school and the only subject I really enjoyed doing was art. So I realised, ok, I’m going to focus on photography as my main medium and I kind of just gave my all and really excelled at it. And then, from there when I finished school I just moved to Paris and said “fuck it why not?’”
JM: You were born in South Africa, right?
LC: Yes, born in Cape Town – but I’m half German, half Italian. My Mom’s German and my Dad’s Italian, so I speak all languages. I grew up in the sunshine.
JM: So what made you move to Paris?
LC: (Laughing) Do you want me to be honest? I was seeing someon I’d met someone in Cape Town and they kind of randomly like “oh, do you want to come to Paris with me?” so I was like “yea, fuck it. Why not?” And the day before having this whole trip planned for a week it didn’t end up working out between us – which was actually quite great – but I still had the trip so I was like “I’m gonna go”. Afterwards, when I went back to Cape Town everything just lead back to Paris again so two weeks later I booked a ticket and I moved.
JM: I remember I started following you on Instagram when you were doing backstage for Dazed, that’s where I first came across your work. How did you transition from doing the whole backstage thing to editorial, and now, with this exhibition, art photography?
LC: With backstage I saw an opportunity so I just emailed them and I said, “Hey here’s my work I’d love to do this for you” and that kind of built up the work and then the brands kind of started picking up on what I was doing obviously because it was very different to what was happening with other backstage photographs. It was more of an art form I guess? So I started shooting for the brands and then kind of realised that wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But creatively backstage was actually creatively quite amazing because sometimes you literally have two minutes to do your thing otherwise you get kicked out. And then I just kind of started shooting stuff on the side – lookbooks, editorials and it all just went from there.
JM: How do you feel about fashion? Is it something that you’re super interested in? Or, was it more like.. a starting point?
LC: I mean I like it but, it’s not like I’m obsessed with it. I think I have an eye for it, I know what I like. It’s nice to combine photography and fashion. But at the moment I think it’s more about creating my own little world, trying to do more of my own thing, and seeing where I can fit in.
JM: So do you think you are moving more towards art photography now?
LC: Yea. I think it’s just been happening naturally, I’ve always had this interest in the more visual aspect – I think it just happened that fashion was what I ended up working in. But I think the two go hand in hand.
JM: Which I guess is what this festival is about – the link between fashion and art. It seems like more photographers are going back and forth. Do you think that’s more accepted now?
LC: I think its quite open in a sense. Looking around at other people’s work, it’s definitely happening.
JM: Are there other photographers that influence you?
LC: It’s so funny because actually you’d probably expect me to say, “oh, X,Y,Z’s work from the past is great” or whatever but I’ve actually never really taken any inspiration from other people’s work in that sense. I’ve always just taken my inspiration from day-to-day things that I find visually appealing – like colours, things like that.
JM: You didn’t study photography did you? Maybe that approach comes from that…
LC: Yea. I really think so. I’m still learning in that sense now as I go along and I see. Now, I’m slowly discovering people – like, “oh, great that person’s work’ but I’ve never had that as a reference…
JM: So it’s more intuitive?
LC: Yea. It’s about feeling out the space and the people and then seeing what I wanna do and how I can do it, how I can project my ideas.
JM: The work you are displaying at the exhibition here in Oslo, how did that come about?
LC: Well, this was some work that I curated and produced in South Africa in June this year. I started in Cape Town and then drove all along the whole eastern cape up to Durban. I’m really obsessed with colour at the moment and the link with personality – how projecting colour on to someone, how it can say so much and so many different things, Let’s say, you know, I’m projecting red onto my subject and if you look at the image it might evoke feelings very different to mine. About how colour can say so much about a person.
JM: And that intuitive approach was how you shot this?
LC: Yea, it was about creating in the moment. I think that – for me it’s always been important and that’s just how I normally make my work. I mean, of course, there were like one or two things now like the fire shots, those were more planned in the sense of having this idea that I wanted to photograph the sugar cane farmers in Durban and then just planning that. But at the same time it’s just making it work in the moment.
JM: How important is the relationship between the photographer and the subject when you’re working?
LC: Well I think it’s super important because at the end of the day it’s something intimate – you’re stepping into someone’s personal space and it can sometimes be quite daunting when someone’s pointing a camera at you. I know that if someone did that to me I’m like ‘Oh my god I don’t know how to act.’
JM: I hate having my picture taken.
LC: It’s so stressful! It’s so stressful.
JM: Have you seen the exhibition space for tonight yet?
LC: Yea, it’s fine. They’re still like, building all of it. There’s this big red box that some of the artwork will be in.
JM: And you’re happy with it?
LC: Yea! I think so. I was making sure that they had the whole sequences and how I want to display it…
JM: Are you the sort of person after a project who can be satisfied and move on? Or do you always go back and wish you’d changed something?
LC: No. No. No. For me, if it happened that way it was meant to happen for a reason.
JM: That’s a great way to be.
LC: You can only learn and take from it. I would never look back. I mean, at the end of the day there’s no point in reminiscing because it’s not gonna change anything.
JM: And what’s next?
LC: I’m shooting – I’m starting this book project. But I can’t say any more…
JM: Top secret!
LC: (Laughing) Yep!
leacolombo.tumblr.com / www.uncontaminatedoslo.com