Sensitive, determined, insightful, inspiring; Irina Lis Costanzo, also known as the “Lara Croft of photography”, is much more than a successful artist behind a camera lens. She is a passionate seeker of the perfect frame, a believer in simplicity and grace, a person with an eye for detail that goes way beyond the obvious.
Vana Antonopoulou interviews our favourite cover photographer.
Born in Belarus, Irina Lis Costanzo is, nevertheless, a citizen of the world. Well, she has travelled around it many times in search of the perfect setting or the ideal light to shoot her fashion editorials.
She considers herself an explored of beauty and an artist behind the lens, although self-taught (at 14, she borrowed her father’s camera to shoot a friend and discovered her passion for photography). She has collaborated with a plethora of magazines and, after 20-odd years on the job, has her own fan club and a well-established reputation for excellence, reliability and a unique vision. She is, also, a woman of style, as well as essence. Not to mention, IQBeaute’s favourite photographer.
Photographer, creative director, creative consultant. What inspires you? And what makes a good picture?
That’s a strong and important question. Let’s start from what makes a good picture. From early on in my career, I lived by one simple mantra: a genius is 1 percent of inspiration and 99 percent of perspiration. After over 20 years of work, I still believe this is the most accurate concept of the work of a real artist. A good picture, which some people think that it just takes one click to make, is the result of profound study and mental work. You need to be ready. You need to know what you want, what you are going after in your shoot. This is the fundamental thing. After that, a good management and production goes together with a good team.
As for inspiration, I just like to explore and to play with the light. In my opinion the word “inspiration” is heavily overrated, when it comes to art. Art is in my nature, it is my way of life and it does not depend on the things which come from outside. Inspiration as a word means that you bring in something from outside. For me, it is the other way around. I have this fire inside me, which I exhale (not like a dragon, though, lol), which I bring outside, putting it into a form of art. Then, you may ask how I choose the form, and here’s the answer: I look for the simplest and the clearest way to express myself every single time.
Although you’ve studied fashion business at the prestigious Istituto Marangoni, you are a self-taught photographer. How hard was it to succeed in the, often, brutal world of fashion photography?
As you fairly noticed, the world of fashion photography is not that shiny and peaceful as it may seem from the outside. I had several hard moments in my career, which made me consider quitting. The essential thing in order to succeed in my field of work which is extremely competitive, is to be psychologically strong and solid, ready to say no, to defend your value as an artist and as a human being. In fact, there will always be clients/colleagues who will try to use you for free, who would like you to lower your prices or make you do not only your job, but also theirs. Actually, both my studies at Marangoni and, after that, the internship at Gucci Group opened my eyes to the world of management, of how you buy and sell, and this was essential knowledge for surviving as a creative professional. In the end, it turned out that, for me, it was always harder to leave the profession than to go forward with it, as my clients kept calling me again and again, as well as my curiosity and imagination did.
What are the most important lessons you’ve learned along the way?
For now it’s “take what resonates with you and leave what makes you feel bad, as soon as you realize it”.
Do you think you have a distinct style in your photos? How would you describe it?
I have my own vision, which I face every new project with. I don’t like the idea of working in only one technique, as photographers in the 20th century used to. I like to explore different lights, different lenses and effects, but still I often hear the kind of “I knew it was your picture when I saw it!” feedbacks. Therefore, I believe, the creative should answer the question “do I have my own vision and what is it?” while those who see the image, can answer the question about the uniqueness of the style.
Which famous photographers influence your thinking, your photography?
As for the photographers, probably all of them did and do in one or some other way. I love certain works of Peter Lindbergh, of Paolo Roversi, for example. But how can I not name Helmut Newton or Herb Ritz? If we talk about non-fashion photography, I follow Paul Nicklen with great pleasure. I can go on and on with the list…
The biggest, however, influence on my vision is that of Salvador Dali. It is not even influence, but rather a huge support that I find in his art: I tell myself “you see, a person with a vision similar to yours managed to remain himself and to be adored, valorized, appreciated; even if lots of people didn’t understand him”. I feel a deep connection with his vision, colours, shapes. For me, each one of his work is full of meaning, which you cannot decode with words and you actually don’t need to.
Τhe most important lesson Ι’ve learned as a photographer, is “take what resonates with you and leave what makes you feel bad, as soon as you realize it”.
How do you hope people feel when they look at your photos?
Every shoot I make is made as if I could show it to myself while I was a lonely, scared and sad young girl. If I could, I’d show her my works to cheer her up. To give her hope, to give her a new point of view on things. To encourage her. Hopefully, this is what others perceive in my work: a warm welcome, an encouragement and hope. I know that a number of girls who I went to school with and who have been following me for years on social media, started to work as photographers. I like to think that one of the factors for their passion was the influence of my work. If it is truly so, I can call myself a happy person.
Lis, you have invented a special “uniform” for female photographers. Although it seems so obvious now, when you use it, we have never seen it on anyone else before. How did you get the idea?
I was searching for the most comfortable and universal outfit for my job for a while. I needed not only a comfortable one, but a good-looking one as well, since we often do a lot of backstage photos and videos. I was searching a look, which would help me to manage two different photo cameras, and at the same time protect my shoulders, knees, spine and neck, during the movements and efforts, which every photographer makes when shooting. On the other hand, I wanted the look which would not be too sports-oriented as style is concerned. It was before the shoot of an episode for World Fashion Channel in Sardinia, in August 2021, when I really decided to put together all the necessary body protections, camera supports and other photo stuff in a comfortable and yet cool look. As a person, I am pretty shy and was hesitating if it was a good idea to appear dressed as… Lara Croft. But the risks were taken and it turned out that both team and client liked my invention.
What is your definition of beauty?
Oh, love this question! Have you ever noticed that when you like something it seems brighter than everything else does to you? More sharp, more colourful, kind of shining with all the colours of the rainbow? Something, you want to look at again and again? Something you go back to whenever you need to lift your spirits? This is beauty. And art.
Who is your beauty inspiration? And for fashion?
I am a big fan of well-made colours, as well as of the game of light and shadows, when it comes to beauty brands. For example, there’s this small British brand, Sarazaar cosmetics. Love them! Same for fashion, I am looking for the colours, plus the shapes. There was this really amazing collection of Iris Van Herpen last summer, which I’m still in love with. I also miss a lot the genius of Alexander McQueen. Tom Ford is also among my favourites, because of the simplicity and practicality of his style, which is also sexy and, at the same time, commercial.
What is the best beauty advice you have received?
To make sure that my body has all the vitamins and other nutrients it needs. It changed the quality of my life, of my skin, nails, everything. When they say “beauty comes from within”, it’s not a joke. It really starts from a healthy body.
What are your dos and don’ts regarding style?
I believe that the rules exist to break them. For me, the most important thing in every look is its practicality, comfort and harmony. Also, I don’t think I will ever wear something orange –it makes my skin look greenish.
What is the one beauty product you always carry with you in photoshoots?
There are more than one. I always have my Bionike Defence face cream with me. I also use it for the lips instead of lip balm. Sunscreen 50 from Bionike, again, especially in summer. Highlighter from Benefit. And some organic essential oils. I have two “pushers” for those: DoTerra and a small Italian online distributor.
What is your favourite scent? And perfume?
I have a very subtle sense of smell, really sensitive. My favourite scent is that of a snowdrop, a small violet flower, which grows under the snow in the beginning of April in my hometown. Its smell is so delicate, so magical… Also lilacs, magnolia, lemon, I can go on for hours. In fact, as I mentioned before, I have a pretty big collection of organic essential oils, which also changed my life, together with vitamins. Sometimes I even dream to launch my own brand for essential oils. As for perfumes, being very sensible to scents, I avoid those containing certain chemicals, which for me smell like rancid sunflower oil. I use Cartier Declaration, as it is free of that stuff. I also love Lalique, Amethyst Eclat and Soleil. Amouage is also among my favourites.