from the series Rosemary & Thyme by Katya Ilina © Katya Ilina
Katya Ilina’s third-place entry, David, is taken from a series of portraits that celebrates positive body image and questions notions of masculinity and femininity by highlighting their fluidity. Themes of identity and gender expression are central to Ilina’s work, and the series, entitled Rosemary & Thyme, subverts time-honoured tropes of representation in Western art by depicting male sitters in poses traditionally found in portraits of females.
‘From Velázquez to Ingres, painters have portrayed men in positions of power, or as muscular heroes in battle, whereas females are often pictured naked and reclining, communicating softness, weakness and openness to gaze,’ explains Ilina. ‘I wanted to borrow the so-called feminine body language from those paintings and juxtapose it with male sitters. Being physically and emotionally strong still dominates Western ideologies and expectations of “real men”, but it’s important that contemporary men have the right to be vulnerable and gentle, and not feel ashamed of that.’
In creating the series, Ilina took inspiration from Grayson Perry’s book The Descent of Man, which looks at how rigid masculine roles can be chronically damaging to men. Her images explore the ‘infinite interpretations of how a man can or should look’, with each sitter representing different ethnic and cultural backgrounds and sexual identities. She was introduced to David Adelaja through a modelling agency, and photographed him at a studio in Toronto, using a digital camera and natural light. ‘Nothing is more beautiful than natural lighting, while digital gives me maximum flexibility when shooting and editing. I often shoot outdoors, but for this project a studio was the only option due to the intimate nature of the portraits, the need for constructed sets, and the cold Toronto weather in March.’
Having never posed shirtless, David was hesitant about participating, but was reassured when Ilina showed him moodboards explaining the concept of the series. Together, they experimented with several different positions and gestures before deciding to appropriate the body language seen in Titian’s Venus of Urbino, with David photographed against a fabric backdrop to replicate an Old Master setting.
Born in the Russian city of Perm in 1990, Ilina bought her first camera as a teenager during a ‘life-changing’ summer exchange in small-town Montana, where she encountered the local cowboy culture. ‘It was so unfamiliar, I felt an urge to document the places I saw and people I met,’ she recalls. Since then, she has spent several years working and exhibiting in Europe and Asia, and is now studying for a BFA in Image Arts: Photography Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, while taking on personal projects and freelance fashion assignments.
‘My interest in identity and gender comes from my experience of living in different cultures and from the frustrations I felt growing up in Russia, which is still a very patriarchal society,’ she says. ‘In my work, I strive to show beauty in all its forms. I’m interested in things that make us human in the modern world and everything I do comes from my personal experiences, one way or another.’
INTERVIEW BY RICHARD MCCLURE