While finishing a triple major in Art History, French Literature and Women’s Studies at Columbia University, Cesarine started shooting for New York model agencies to build her portfolio and those of the agencies’ new faces. A move to London followed where she did a shoot for a new magazine that generated her first tearsheets. She soon parlayed those into commissions for British Vogue, GQ, Glamour, Marie Claire, Tatler, InStyle and Harper’s Bazaar, as well as many other international publications and advertising campaigns. Her career as director began with her first short film City of Love, featured at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.
Over coffee at a café in Paris where the New York-based photographer, director and magazine mogul is in town for the City of Lights fashion week, we discuss her life and work on all sides of the camera.
DPP: One of the things that has brought you a great deal of success is your conceptually driven series. How do you develop your ideas?
Indira Cesarine: I work very thematically. I like to have an idea and really develop it. Throughout my career, I’ve always gone through waves. In the mid-’90s, I went through my night phase where I was obsessed with shooting after the sun went down, using the ambient light—moonlight, neon signs, shooting through windows with streetlights. I did so many editorials with the night look. I will expand on a theme for a few seasons, then move on to something else. My work goes through waves of concepts of lighting, as well as content. Before, a lot of my shoots were highly lit—very lighting-driven. At the moment, I’ve been exploring the simplicity of daylight in entertainment and talent-based portraiture. As I mature as an artist, I’m finding it more interesting to work with subjects that have a story and to develop concepts to bring out their personality. It could be with an Olympic athlete or a politician or a musician or an amazing actor doing groundbreaking work or developing a new direction.
DPP: Such as your work with Vanessa Hudgens.
Cesarine: Her previous image was totally different. She had teen icon status in America. I thought, she’s growing into this very sophisticated actress and nobody has really caught this new side of her work in still images. The public eye still saw her as this teenage girl. She has all these new movies coming out where she’s this amazingly sophisticated, sexy seductress so I thought, why not push some boundaries and present her this way.
DPP: Do you sketch out concepts before a shoot like this?
Cesarine: I’ve done storyboards, and I’ve found that in the end I often throw them out the window. I tend to be highly instinctive. For a lot of my shoots, I’ll have an overall idea of where I want to go, but will allow the shots to happen in situ. I’ll have an image in my mind of where I want to go with it visually with ideas regarding the styling and the hair and makeup. You need to know what you’re going to do with the lighting so you can prepare for it. I find improvising I can go with the flow and get the most out of each situation. I don’t like to copy previously existing work, and I find this is the best way to be consistently original.
DPP: When you work in the studio, you really sculpt the light.
Cesarine: I was working with a lot of gobos and the Profoto ZoomSpot. Rosco has a huge line of premade gobos, which I’ve used, and I have some custom-made, as well. I’ve also used black foil to cut my own patterns with an X-acto® knife.
DPP: How are you incorporating video in your workflow?
Cesarine: I do a lot of video on my shoots and tend to shoot photo and video simultaneously. I’ll have my Mamiya RZ with a digital back and have one or two Canon EOS 5D Mark IIs set up on either side and have them running at the same time that I’m doing my stills. Sometimes I’ll have an assistant pan with one of those if I need it. I’ll also have one or two additional camera operators, one doing behind the scenes and one shooting from 45 degrees to the side. If I’m shooting primarily with flash, then I’ll have Kino Flos set up at the same time for the video.
DPP: The Seduction video with model Barbara Fialho had a very cool effect. How did you achieve it?
Cesarine: The sparkle and glittery effect is actually an overlay I shot separately. When we did the production, I knew I wanted to bring in these elements of light and movement and to create that magic aura of a tingling sensation. I asked myself, when you’re thinking of "seduction," what does the sensation of your skin tingling look like? The overlay on top of all the imagery helped achieve this "sensation" effect. I put glitter in water and did macro shots where it was creating fragmented light and then layered it with the footage of the model in Final Cut Pro 7.
DPP: How did your magazine, high-lighting multimedia, come about?
Cesarine: The Untitled Magazine was originally launched as XXXX Magazine, the idea of the title being that the "xxxx" was a placeholder for something to be discovered. For thousands of years, the "x" has stood for "the indefinable," "the object of mystery." For me, the x’s were also about multiplying one media with another, bringing sound, music, video and stills all together. It becomes a mathematical equation multiplying itself. It might have been lost on a lot of people who thought, what is this, some porn thing? It never was meant to be a reference to erotica. I loved the name, but felt it needed to be redefined, so I rebranded it as simply The Untitled Magazine. The new name has for me the same meaning, yet has far more commercial viability and emphasizes the art side of the magazine. There are millions of pieces of art that are called "untitled". In the magazine, I like to mix things up, featuring established photographers such as Antoine Verglas and new wave youth culture photographers like Jessie Craig.
DPP: The great photographers seem to have in common backgrounds that give them a lot of depth to pull from. Your studies have obviously contributed to your work.
Cesarine: I have a triple major from Columbia University, and I went to Choate Rosemary Hall, which is one of the most esteemed boarding schools in America. I’ve always been highly academic. I’ve pretty much read every major work of philosophy and studied the masters of the arts and the various art forms. Art history is really about the culture and the society of the times they’re created
in. You have to read and understand what was going on at that time in history to understand the work of art. I want to bring all this to the table with my photography. My inspiration has always been drawn from highly conceptual and philosophical subjects.
DPP: Helmut Newton talked about The Grand Illusion as a reference; Peter Lindbergh cited the film Metropolis. When you pull from that depth, the resulting images can be much more meaningful.
Cesarine: My short film Second Circle was inspired by Dante’s Inferno, the "second circle" being the circle of "lust" in his verses from this historic book. I love using these interesting references. At home we had an amazing library. You’d be surprised where your references come from. From all these books I became a bit of a dreamer.
DPP: Where are you from originally?
Cesarine: I was born in Iowa. I didn’t grow up in a fashion family. My mother is highly supportive of the arts. She’s a lawyer and highly academic. She was a great role model. She was an orphan from the age of 11. She was a careerwoman before there were careerwomen. My father is more of an entrepreneur. He worked in the auto industry and also in real estate. They had five children, and they encouraged us to follow our dreams. Everybody thinks that the Midwest is full of hicks who live in trailer parks and mobile homes or on the farm and they’re cowpokes. Des Moines has a highly developed culture. I took classes at the Des Moines Art Center, which was designed by I.M. Pei. We have a great public school system in Des Moines. They were teaching art history from 3rd grade. I remember studying about Picasso and Monet. I was studying French from age 11. I went to live in France when I was 12 with a French family in Metz in an exchange program. I was so inspired—this experience really opened my eyes. That same year my father took me with him on a business trip to Tokyo. I wanted to explore the world.
DPP: How did you develop the technical side of photography?
Cesarine: While going to Choate, I would go to the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan during the summer break. I also had a darkroom and studio at Choate Rosemary Hall’s Art Center, which was ironically also designed by I.M. Pei. I started photographing models for the Elite Model Agency right after I graduated high school. My older sister who was modeling hooked me up with them. They were paying me to test models for their portfolios, and at the same time I was developing my portfolio. Then I started working with Ford. I did the first photos for a lot of all young models like Carolyn Murphy and Mariacarla Boscono. I photographed about 2,000 models in my testing days, all medium-format black-and-white and color film.
I moved to Paris while I was in Columbia University as part of their studies abroad and tested for all the big agencies here. I also did two years of modeling while I was at Columbia, but I felt I could better express my point of view from the other side of the camera.
DPP: What was your breakthrough?
Cesarine: After Columbia, I moved to London as a model and continued shooting. I met the editor of a new magazine called Don’t Tell It and showed him my photo portfolio. He gave me 10 pages in his launch issue. I did a story called "Tropic of Cancer," which was a Henry Miller reference. I photographed five girls behaving badly in 1920s decadent Parisian style. I became the magazine’s New York editor covering fashion shows and wrote features for them, as well. I photographed and interviewed Molly Ringwald for them and a lot of other interesting stories, and I did a shoot for each issue.
DPP: The industry has really changed since you first picked up the camera, and you seem to always be on the first wave of its evolution.
Cesarine: You have to be more of a creative director these days. Just taking a photo really isn’t good enough anymore. Anybody can pick up an iPhone and be a photographer today. You’ve got Instagrams and Hipstamatics, and these images are getting published. You’ve got to be able to produce the whole package—the photo shoot, the video campaign, the viral marketing campaign. Everything is evolving and coming together. You have to be thinking, how am I going to make this a vision that’s creating a movement?