An interview with Masha Cavallier
by Maggie Terlecki
Editor’s note: One day, as I was roaming the net as I usually do, I fell upon a wonderful photograph. The scene was in the snow with a girl suspended in the air with wolves around her, some watching , some adoring, some protecting. It was gorgeous! It was the stuff of storybooks, fantasy and fairy tales. Wow! Who did this?
Her name is Masha Cavallier. Her fine art photography just blew me away. They are sensual, romantic and the stuff of dreams. I’m pleased to share this amazing photographer with you.
To start off with, I notice your name is quite special, Masha, (the same name as Leonard Cohen’s mom) and I believe it is Russian for Maria, right?
Yes, you are absolutely right. My formal first name is Maria. My friends and family members call me Masha though and I obviously like it better because it sounds softer and less official.
Five years ago I moved to Canada from Russia along with my husband and son. In Russia, we lived in the small city of Vladivostok on the far-east coast within a stone’s throw of the Russian-Chinese border and right on the coast of the Japanese sea. You can only imagine how badly I miss the sea living in Toronto now. It seems people who have lived in coastal cities have a different mindset, a unique sense of freedom, if you will. As if the big body of salt water can give you something intangible that can unleash your imagination ten fold and make you “soar”.
Masha, I was intrigued and went to see where you lived. I learned a few things including that Yul Brynner was from there! So close to China and Japan and right on the ocean. How wonderful. I can see how you miss it. So, I’m curious why you moved to Canada? Do you hope one day to go back? Or move closer to the ocean? Is Toronto what you hoped it would be and how difficult was it to adapt to a completely different place and culture?
That’s true. Yul Brynner was born in Vladivostok. There is a statue of him there and his name is also engraved on the Vladivostok International Film Festival award. Strangely enough, despite his international fame, very few locals in Vladivostok know anything about him.
As for immigration, the decision was made a while ago when career wise, me and my husband reached the proverbial ceiling in our home city and it was time to move on. Also, Canada, with its stable economy, extremely friendly and tolerant people, is an ideal place to raise kids. We felt at home on our very first day on this soil and still have this feeling. It’s always hard to reset your established life and start from ground up in a new country but looking back, I see how rewarding it turned out for us. We are happy to live in Canada and very grateful for the opportunity this country gave us to grow professionally. ( editor, who is also a Canadian, completely agrees )
Masha, your fine art series all seem to fall in the fantasy realm and I’m very curious about this.
Absolutely. There is nothing more exciting than to show a person a different version of himself/herself in the context of the imaginary world. And when they see the final work, this world might look quite real to them.
I can only imagine being able to do this, if you are someone that has looked inside themselves to find not only who they are, but who they can become. I often find that people who have gone through some hardships, are those that look into themselves for strength. Is this your case, Masha, or were you always this introspective and able to look deeper inside?
I wouldn’t call myself a big expert in psychology or somebody who could reveal and analyze the hidden human characteristics or traits. If anything I’d call it intuition.
Also, the camera provides me with a great advantage to see things I wouldn’t notice without it. It complements my vision in a big way. It’s one of those cases when the tool deserves a big credit.
I am in love with your fantasy series. They are simply wonderful. So, although I have been through your portfolio and seen that you are an excellent photographer in many other domains that are more on the commercial side, it is your fine art that intrigues me the most.
Thanks for your kind words and for the opportunity to tell you more about my works. I really appreciate it.
As you have probably noticed already people are my main subject. I love people. I just believe that each and every one of us is beautiful and unique. Aside from our every day life, we also seem to belong to what I call ‘unconventional reality’. The camera is like a window to this world. It allows me to ‘un-hide’ people’s features that they may never notice themselves. I am always very excited about every new transformation that occurs right in front of my eyes with my models when they are placed in the settings I individually create for them.
Many of your images have people that are flying or give the illusion of floating. Some seem to be swept away, others, more in control. Can you tell me more about this concept that seems to be a common thread in several images.
It’s always difficult to speak about concepts. They seem to come about when you least expect them. What I see, feel and dream about – anything can contribute to it. For the most part, even though I may like the initial idea, I don’t even know how the work will pan out. In other words, after diligent planning when everything on the paper looks solid and promising, you may come over to the setting and find the «wrong» light conditions or a model’s mood can dictate a different approach to the whole shoot. Whereas it may sound like a disaster for a commercial shoot, I fully embrace those unexpected things that get in the way and make me deviate from the initial plan. I am extremely flexible and make my decisions on the spot. It partially explains why some people “fly” and others don’t.
When things go wrong, you become more creative? Do you have an example you can tell about?
Well, first of all when something goes wrong, I am obviously getting nervous. At that moment, it’s important not to lose control over the situation. I know it’s easier said than done. Basically, I avoid being a perfectionist and see the obstacles in everything I haven’t envisioned in my initial planning. This world isn’t perfect so instead of making it look exactly like you want and sweating over it, be as flexible as you can possibly be and embrace everything new and unexpected. Resistance and inability to adapt to the environment around you, leads to nowhere and can kill the whole photo shoot.
Just to illustrate what I mean, let’s take the photo of «flying» Anastasia with umbrella as an example. I planned a different backdrop for this photo. It was supposed to be a row of old, abandoned houses. My plans were ruined when one of the neighbours at that location strictly objected that I take any photo of this place. We could have argued with him or even call the police and let them decide who is right but we preferred to leave, because for me, it wasn’t about winning the battle. It was about retaining composure and making sure I am staying on task. Of course, I was crushed. My hands were literally shaking. But in about 100 meters from that place, we found a beautiful bridge with a nice view. It became our new backdrop and that’s how «My November» was born.
Yellow wall series was pretty much spontaneous too. I wanted to make the girls flying but in the process I managed to take a few great portraits of Julie – she was phenomenal in her new role. I took full advantage of it. This series is special to me. Julie inspired me for much more than I thought in the beginning.
I love the idea to letting go and let my photography lead me – not the other way around. Some series work immediately whereas others need to be shelved for some time. There is a number of projects now, I deliberately stepped aside from and refused finishing up. They aren’t quite open to me yet.
Like a flower that is still a bud, not yet ready to bloom?
I’ve also noticed the theme of books. In THE READER, we see a young woman by a small window. She has a satchel with books in it and there are books strewn on the floor. The light casts onto her and the wall, we notice that she is also within a book. There is a lot going on here, tell me more.
This series went through several phases until I finally figured it out. I had a few sketches but was in search of a model. I never worked with Leila before and hadn’t even seen her before the photo shoot. She transformed my idea and took it to a completely different level. Leila has a great inner-strength – she is a girl holding a book she is a main character in.
In the other Reader image, we see her reading and seemingly swept away as the wind is in her scarf and her hair and gown. Is this the conclusion, she’s on an adventure?
Exactly! She is the hero of her own adventures. It’s the kind of reality each of us can create. Let fantasy take part in your life and it will show it’s capable of transforming the inner and outer world. The flying scarf is just emphasizing the weightlessness and tranquility of the scene.
Again I see the flying, floating happening in the series called Gravity and again we see the theme of books with the little boy flying through the sky. I love how he’s riding a book like a sailboat through the clouds,following an adventure. Tell me more about this and how this concept came about.
One of my favorite works. It portrays my son Matvey. At the time, he was actively learning how to read. So the idea was pretty straightforward – I wanted to inspire him to keep going and make the process a little bit more story-like. Let alone, it’s kind of fun to fly over the city you just read about in the company of books.
You seem like such an amazing mom and one that certainly would give her children wings to fly. Tell me a little about your parents and what you were like as a child and growing up.
My parents (mother is a school teacher, father is an engineer) always fostered creativity in me and my brother, who is a professional musician and writes lyrics and music. I don’t know what made me decide to major in History and Philosophy because as far as I remember, I was always into drawing, sculpting and doing things by hand. I would say, my mom and dad, like no other people encouraged me to pursue my dreams, to see the world through my own eyes, build my own impressions about the things I am exploring for the first time. They are the ones who prevented me from turning into a conformist and to be as hungry for new adventures as I am, still today.
By the way, I wrote about my dad in my blog recently – Happy Father’s Day
In the Siberian Fairytale, the girl is suspended with her arms out almost like
a cross, very God-like. The huskies or wolves seem to have different connections
to her. Some seem to be guarding, others adoring. What is going on here?
Siberian Fairytale is influenced by Russian folklore and the snowy, lonesome Canadian winter. A Canadian forest in winter is just as romantic as a Russian one and for a person with a vivid imagination, it could also be a nice place for the fairies to live in. These fairies should always be guarded and accompanied by the wolfs. She looks like an ordinary woman until she soars into the sky.
Some of your images have quite intense colors. They really grab my imagination
and make them seem very dreamlike. Was this the intention?
J’adore les couleurs! I must say I worship black-and-white photography but my personal world is filled with colors! Fine art is famous of its somber atmosphere and dull color schemes. Quite possibly, I will eventually sway to that side later in my career as a photographer. For the time being, I am obsessed with colors and I can’t get enough.
They are wonderful and show your colorful personality!
Thank you! It also shows my irrepressible character.
The girls being swept away; they have translucent shawls over their eyes and their faces. I noticed this elsewhere also. Is there a significance to this?
Those semi-transparent blindfolds mean we can see just so much with our eyes. In other words the reality is brighter and more vibrant than we think it is. Color plays a critical role in that photo. I adore that bright yellow wall!
For most situations, do you try to choose models to work with your ideas, or you have someone in mind and they inspire stories and ideas in you?
Each case is different. Usually when I am determined to have a shoot with a particular person I already know when, where and how it’s going to take place.
I also noticed that you use models that are not all the typical 17 year old. They have very unique faces and different ages. Is this important to you?
Yes, I’m never specifically looking for model-like people and tend to work with ordinary ones – «people from the street». Age doesn’t make a huge difference but models over 30 inspire me more.
I wanted to show them as warriors. But didn’t want to plunge too deep into the fantasy genre though. That’s why they are in their familiar gym settings.
The land warrior subdues the one in heaven.
Your work impresses me so much. The compositions are beautiful, as are the colors. There is such prettiness but besides all that, there is so much meaning that is attached to them. When I look at them, I always find deeper meaning. I’m curious how inspiration for these works happens to you. At the spur of the moment and you can pull the deeper meaning after the fact, like thinking about a dream you had, or you see something that gives you an idea? How does Masha come up with these ideas that create stories that with one photo have so much to tell?
Some concepts come about pretty spontaneously and as fully-fledged image sequences. It often happens when I am under a strong impression about something happening in my life. Other ideas are born first as rough pieces of the puzzle and it takes time for them to mature into something I can start planning to execute.
Nothing can replace the actual interaction with the person I consider to be a model though. It remains the most effective component of ideation. People are an endless source of inspiration; they fill the world of my photography with life and meaning.
There are obviously other photographers, artists and illustrators whose works inspire me. As much as I hate plagiarism, it’s hard not to fall victim to it when you see other artists’ great photography and your first intention is to do something similar.
The dolls. OMG! These are so awesome. The blank stares, the glint in the hair that makes it look like it’s out of nylon and not real. Is this a statement about women being objects or how we need to make ourselves pretty to feel validated? Or was it just a bit of fun? Also, I would love to hear about the shoot. I cannot imagine keeping my face so serious to get that doll-like effect. Was it difficult for them to keep straight faces? How did you pull this off?
Yes, it was doll’s fantasy story. I’m in awe of everything that has to do with dolls especially the ones that are highly-detailed so they look almost real. Then I just thought to flip that concept and make people look like dolls instead. And in order to emphasize “the dollness” of my models even more, I made their eyes different colors.
You’re right. It sure was a lot of fun. I could reiterate myself again about the reality we create ourselves – this time it was me, like a doll surrounded by live dolls. By the way, the girls were ecstatic about this idea! Their ages are as follows: 5, 10 and 27 years old.
As for the photo shoot it was important for me to convey all the little nuances to the girls – to help them stay in the flow. I went through tons of reference materials right before the event. We rehearsed against the mirror, how to stay immobile with a frozen smile. In the end, the girls were exhausted by the long preparation process (make-up, hair styling, facial drawings) and when the actual photo shoot started they literally had glass eyes.
In your stylish 1930s set, It feels very much like shot behind an old apartment building in Montreal. The post-processing is very well done and everything pulls us back in time; the props, colors, and the hair styling . There is a twist though. The woman playing the part of the male. Tell me about this concept. Is it simply fantasy, or are you making a statement?
I love vintage photography. My secret dream is to make a series dedicated to different historical periods. The thirties appeals by its moderation and asceticism compared to the roaring twenties. I’d say that I am more interested in stylization and overall look and feel rather than being precise at depicting all the little details. Therefore, I intentionally got rid of most color and used sepia.
As you’ve rightly pointed out there is a twist. Both female and male roles are played by girls. Why? Well, the woman’s role changed dramatically over the last century. If a modern woman is somehow moved back in to the thirties along with all her responsibilities and ambitions, whose place she would take? The man’s one.
You cannot know how pleased I am that you agreed to this interview as your work is simply outstanding. There is this thing about the division between photography and drawing/painting.; when something needs to look very real and is complicated, it is easier to take a photograph than to make an illustration. The same goes for the reverse. It is easier to draw fantasy than to photograph it, but you have crossed this bridge and brought your vision to photography. You’ve used textures and composites and pulled it off remarkably well.
Thanks again for having me and for all the kind words about my works. Although it’s been said countless times by many renowned photographers that camera brand or its price has nothing to do with the quality of the images you take, some people still prefer to challenge this statement. I like the Ansel Adams’ quote that summaries it pretty well:
“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.”
So very true!
And lastly, Masha, what are your hopes and dreams or have they already all come true?
Well, I just hope that this is still the beginning of my career as a photographer and there are many more interesting twists and turns, the future holds for me. I also hope my husband and son will keep supporting me in this endeavour, as much as they have so far.
Masha Cavallier is both a fine-art and commercial photographer and also a designer with a unique vision. She is a sensitive and creative soul and her voice comes through in her exceptional art. She lives with her husband and little boy in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
All of these images are parts of series. To see the images that belong to her series, please visit her website here: Masha Cavallier
Want to follow her on Facebook? Masha Cavallier’s Facebook Page
Come Fly with Me – an interview with Masha Cavallier by Maggie Terlecki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.