“Fashion industry puts you down sometimes” – Interview with photographer Birgit von Bally

Birgit von Bally
Image: Magnús Elvar Jónsson

We all love beautiful designs, fabrics and shapes no matter if created by established haute couture designers or newcomers. And they all have one thing in common: their designs would be nothing without fashion photography. In our mini interview series you will get to know several Hamburg based young, ambitious female photographers whose names we will surely be seeing again. The first one is Birgit von Bally (29) who will tell us about girly photography, the worst of typical fashion shoot posing and her current project “Naked Madonna”. After having lived in Munich, San Francisco and Reykjavík, Birgit discovered her love for photography during a trip through New Zealand.

Margarita: Birgit, “Naked Madonna” is your thesis for Communication Design at HAW Hamburg. How did it start with photography and what did you do before?

Birgit v. Bally: I was born in Munich and moved to San Francisco to work at an advertising agency for several months after highschool because I just wanted to get away from this microworld there. After I got back home, I decided to study illustration and communication design. In March 2007, I moved to Hamburg to study at HAW. During my studies, a friend of mine took me to one of her shootings and I experimented with her camera – which turned out she actually liked it. I always loved painting with oil paint before discovering my love for photography. During a trip to New Zealand, I shot a lot of portraits and landscapes with my Hasselblad. That was when I knew: photography is what I want to do.

What are the pros and cons of analogue and digital photography for you?

Well, I know what happens during the analogue process. When I was a young girl, we used to hold a negative into the sunlight and observe what happened to it. Digital photography, in contrast, seems so abstract and not organic to me. I only have 12 pictures on a 6×6 medium-format roll and I need to handle it carefully. I choose analogue over digital especially when it comes to shooting portaits, because I communicate with the models while I adjust the settings as light, focus and frame which takes a bit longer with my medium format camera. So  they easily forget about the shooting situation. The moments and portraits I try to capture are not easily taken if people are too concerned about being  photographed.

She is an israeli girlfriend of mine, I took her picture in Tel-Aviv. I wanted to show her the way she is – a tough woman. Of course I do not know every woman in Israel, but a lot of them are very alike: fighters and tough souls. I liked that.
Image: Birgit von Bally

What do you attach importance to during analogue photography?

I like the pictures three-dimensional, vivid. I guess this has its roots from my painting. I prefer surfaces over lines.

But do you mean Terry-Richardson-vivid?

No, certainly not. Terry Richardson sets the flash head-on, so that everything looks very one-dimensional. I used a bidirectional light at one shoot for example, so the faces get a very special depth. I am not a fan of neither Terry Richardson’s work, nor the way he treats his models nor how so many people seem to ignore these facts.

“Naked Madonna” is portraying 16 young women during or after they gave birth to their children. Which kind of feedback did you get for the project?

 When I told my friends and colleagues I will be taking pictures of naked mothers, the first (male) reactions were “oh, can I assist you?”. Well, they are not all bad chauvinists, it just obviously made them feel uncomfortable. During the projects implementation, the comments on it became more interested and less shallow. It was my first time in nude photography, so it really cost me quite an effort to say something like: “ok, now we’ll start, please take off your clothes!”. I wanted to capture the newly learned self-esteem of these young women because many of them started to respect their bodies after having been able to see what they can create with them.

“This was a very intensive shooting in the tideland. At the end of the shooting, the model almost got bitten by a small crab. The fashion itself was so special because of its mirror parts which made it look disconnected from reality. Self reflection was the main theme of the fashion design, so I chose this location as it was a wide-open, empty space.”
Image: Birgit von Bally
Fashion design by Martha Binkowski

You also did a lot of great jobs in fashion photography. Would you like to continue that?

I always liked the team work on a fashion set. What is important to me when it comes to fashion photography is the story which is being told by the pictures, an idea or a philosophy behind it. Besides, I do not agree with so many people saying that models do not matter. They do. And there are some of them you cannot work with. Tricking them to get a certain facial impression is possible, but not for a whole series, that is when it becomes too exhausting. If a photographer tells a model to shut her or his eyes, this in fact is a bad sign. Also, we are pretty much used to photography which includes so much posing and retouching. Especially in fashion photography, I am very aware of this as the fashion needs to be displayed aesthetically. But it felt good to work in different other fields of photography. But when I do fashion photography, I also prefer to integrate different levels of connotation. In one of the shootings with the stylist and fashion designer Fiona Tretau we picked out the boredom of youth and having too much time at hand as a central theme, which was at the same time an allusion to this typical girly photography with pastels and innocent pictures in the woods or  meadows.

Do you prefer to work with models or amateurs?

I would rather prefer to work with new faces as they are more open-minded. But of course it has its advantages to work with established models for a (fashion) job. What always astonishes me in a negative way is to see how damn young new models have to be when they are starting out. Some of them are still kids when being photographed in “sexy moves”. I wonder why it seems to be impossible that an adult woman, who is able to reflect on these things better, could do the same job. But that is what the magazines apparently want to see, always the same poses and faces. Fashion industry puts you down sometimes.

“This fashion shoot tells the feeling of being old when actually being young through this pair of siblings, so bored of themselves. Playing a role one does not fit into.”
Image: Birgit von Bally
Fashion design by Fiona Tretau

What are your next plans?

Having shot my first short film which was already featured at the Berlin Fashion Film Festival, I would love to proceed in this direction. Film is a very appealing medium to me. I also plan to shoot more on location than in studio because you literally have more space for your ideas this way.

Dear Birgit, thank you very much for the interview and best of luck with your new projects!

Image: Birgit von Bally
Styling: Fiona Tretau

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