An image from the "Psychics" series, by Elle Muliarchyk.

Elle Muliarchyk: The Allure of Executing the Impossible

Belarus-born artist Elle Muliarchyk was named a finalist for Miss Czech Republic at age 14, “discovered” by famed fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier at age 16, and disillusioned with her modeling career by age 21.

Fortunately, reinvention comes naturally to Muliarchyk. When her fairytale dream of being a fashion model turned sour, she found a new outlet for her creativity: guerrilla self-portraits secretly conducted in the dressing rooms of high-fashion boutiques like Hermès, Prada, and Jill Stuart. The project caught the eye of the New York Times in 2006 (see “Pretty Larceny”) and Muliarchyk was on her way.Since then, Muliarchyk has reinvented classic saints and martyrs as pop icons for her “Begotten” project and created a Wim Wenders-inspired short film for T Magazine. She just wrapped a new “Psychics” photo essay for issue No. 6 of Dossier journal (see image above), and will soon debut a video collaboration with Phillip Lim in Hong Kong.

We talked with Muliarchyk via email about learning how to communicate your ideas (the hard way), embracing “lucky mistakes” (after you get mugged), and learning how to run on adrenalin (because you only sleep for four hours).

What’s the most challenging thing for you, creatively speaking, right now?

The more work I do the more opportunities come my way, and since I usually spend from four months to a year to complete a project, it’s hard to have several of them going on at the same time. I change my lifestyle completely according to the project I’m working on, it often requires me to live in a different universe surrounded by different people, the way an actor prepares for a challenging role.

What role does your experience as a fashion model play in your photography? Does it give you a unique perspective?

They are two completely different things. When I work I’m like a sound-barrier-breaking train, in a constant adrenalin-driven trance. Yesterday I had 4 hours to do an important shoot with a 35-person crew and 2 trucks of equipment. I had to attend to every tiny detail, treat every one of those people on the team with appreciation.  Even when I work with a tiny team, I must be super-focused. Every second makes a difference. On the top of that, under all this pressure, I try to create captivating imagery. At those moments I have to “turn off” my “modeling” part of the brain and tap into the part that is responsible for creating images. Modeling to me is a performance art, it’s very internal, it’s like your body is making love to the clothes you wear, or having a conversation with it. Photography is like hunting in a dangerous forest, or being in a combat.

You mention the necessity of appreciating your crew members. Did you have trouble managing/leading people on some of your early big projects – after being used to working alone?

Right now it’s super-easy and great fun. Even a few days ago – I had six 67-year-old men wearing black wool coats on the beach at 95 degrees, and they all came up to me and said it was the most fun thing they’ve done in years! But in the beginning I was a total disaster. If an assistant of basically anyone would ask me – “What do you want me to do?” I would say – “I don’t know!” I even had a super-embarrassing blunder of saying to the make up person that “I actually don’t usually care about makeup since I can do it on the model myself.” It was a ridiculous thing to say and the girl was crushed and angry for the rest of the day.

Photography is like hunting in a dangerous forest, or being in a combat.

I didn’t know how to communicate my ideas, since I don’t bring so-called “references” as other photographers do – pictures by other photographers. So I decided to make drawings for the model, stylist, and make-up artist.  And in order to communicate my lighting idea to the assistant I did miniature light tests at home with Barbie Dolls. I learned that one should never show any insecurity about the shot, even when the shot is not working out, you need to appear as if you know EXACTLY what you are doing and that the things are going according to the plan. It’s like riding a bicycle – you can’t hesitate for a second, otherwise you fall down and bring the whole card castle down with you! I had to learn to be the General of my battalion.

Tell me more about your new “Psychics” project for Dossier.

I’m super, super excited about it! I spent two years doing research and laying the grounds for this project. I wanted to explore how our exterior, our outer “shell,” can affect and help us design our fortunes – but in a fun way. So I asked Meghan Collison to undergo a dozen dramatic transformations and pay visits to 12 psychics in NYC and Brooklyn. Polina Aronova, the fashion editor of Dossier, created the most iconic NYC/universal archetypes that a woman usually tries to establish with the clothing she wears. They were “Upper East Side lady,” “hippie,” “goth girl,” “stewardess,” “blogger,” “girl from Mid-West,” and many more. And the trick worked!

Each of the old psychic ladies saw only the “fake” Meghan in front of them. And they told her a different fortune according to the particular disguise Meghan wore. None of them could even tell she was a model!  I was really fun and absolutely fascinating to witness! Poor Meghan, she was pretty freaked out by the end… They were all crazy characters. One of the psychics was the daughter of famous Psychic Marie, who was the subject of Bruce Springsteen’s ballad. According to legend, Marie was the one who foretold Bruce he would be a famous singer when he was only five years old!

I spent two years doing research and laying the grounds for the project.

I shot the short film guerrilla style – with hidden cameras. (That’s why you almost never see the psychics’ faces. I got only one of them to agree to appear on the camera, and in exchange I had to give her the dress I was wearing! She loved fashion!) The “look” of my little film has a voyeuristic feel, since you are inches away from the girl, you are with her on this journey… It’s different from most fashion short films now that tend to be shot on Red and Phantom cameras (super-heavy, ultra-hi-res cameras).  The photographic essay will be in the September issue of Dossier.

You’ve done a number of photo projects without the proper permissions. How much does a thirst for risk-taking, adventure, provocation factor into your work?

I don’t even think, “Oh, I want to do something dangerous.” It happens like this: I come up with a particular project, which seems to me super-easy to do, but shortly it turns out nearly impossible to execute. Like shooting secretly in 500 churches, or on the rooftops of high-security skyscrapers in NYC, or in the case of my recent “Psychics” – using hidden cameras to document a model who transforms into various characters and hears her fortune(s) at very private psychics all over NYC.

Instead of giving up and just hiring actors and set designers I prefer the “real” thing. As they say, reality is better than fiction, so it inevitably puts me face to face with amazing adventures and, sometimes, dangerous situations. And this is my drug, that’s why I do it – for this experience. When I work in those “dangerous” situations, I have to improvise and invent so much. Also, I find situational and time limitations contribute to a particular “look” and lucky mistakes that would not happen in the studio.

Any good stories of the “lucky mistakes,” where something great came out of some hardship or fuck up?

The first one was in London. I got mugged by eight men, and they got everything but my camera, which had been attached to the tripod. While I was wrestling the camera out of their grip, the tripod broke in half and bent. The next day this bent stick became the most ingenious “custom made” monopod that I used to take new pictures with a perfect angle in the tricky situations – while on the move at the ice-skating rink and on the moving carousel! The stick was gone when I was mugged the SECOND time during my other shoot, and I’ve never been able to replace it!

I come up with a particular project, which seems to me super-easy to do, but shortly it turns out nearly impossible to execute.

The most recent was during the “Psychics” shoot for Dossier. I couldn’t convince the psychic to collaborate at all but the model wanted to take some cash out of the ATM, while I was waiting for her 30 feet away, the psychic’s husband returned with plastic shopping bags full of food, and the wife was looking out from behind the curtain, I clicked! So I got this most amazing spontaneous moment that was MUCH better than the one I wanted!

What is your schedule like on a day-to-day basis? How do you manage your time working on so many disparate projects?

I work from 8am till 4am. I guess I’m constantly running on adrenalin. But my day doesn’t end when I finally get to bed. My mind is racing with plans and ideas and I spend 4 hours of my scheduled sleep in a creative half-sleep delirium. I often dream up specific images that I sketch as soon as I wake up, and later recreate them as close as I can photographically! I wish I had a camera with me in my dreams and woke up with the snapshots under my pillow!

–> View Elle Muliarchyk’s portfolio

This interview is part of our regular series of talks with creative professionals from the Behance Network. Stay tuned for more insights from top-notch creatives around the globe.

More insights on: Risk-Taking

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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