Karina Taira is a very serious lady. Especially when it comes to her photography. The young Japanese-American began shooting at age six. By age fifteen she was working in a photo lab. She started her professional career at nineteen while attending the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Since then, her work has appeared in W Magazine, Big, Rouge, XS, Vellum, Italian Amica, and i-D. She has photographer ad campaigns for Givenchy, Guerlain, L'Oreal, Christian Dior, Diesel perfume, Absolut Vodka, and Max Factor among others. Her commercials range from spots for Alfa Romeo cars to Covergirl Mascara.
For this interview, Taira talks to Vellum from Paris in a rare moment she is not working, which just happens to be on a Saturday around midnight. "My retoucher says I'm a workaholic,: Taira confesses, adding that she herself often wonders if the other photographers have to work so hard. As the moon rises high over Paris, Taira talks about why she likes to put people in uncomfortable situations, what it's like being cursed with a "horror movie" imagination, and how she almost didn't make in out of Art Center alive.
What makes a woman sexy to you?
I think it comes from within. It's something she exudes - almost an animal thing. When you meet a woman who has something just so incredible about her, I think it's coming from the way she moves, her gestures, how she carries and expresses herself, speaks, walks, and interacts. I think it's also about an attitude and the way one approaches life. It's about confidence and sensuality and living in the moment. And having an intimate contact and connection with the people you come across.
You obviously pick up on a lot when you meet someone in person. It must be difficult for you to choose models from their composite cards.
I actually have a really hard time casting in person because I'm moved much more by a model's energy than by how she looks. Sometimes I can't see what the models look like because I'm so in tune to the feeling, which can throw me off because photography is about the visual. So, what I normally do for jobs is hold video castings. It allows me to see the models in movement, but not be effected by their spiritual energy. I can tell better how they're going to look in two-dimension from video. You can also see in video if someone is comfortable with her body. I've shot some gorgeous, gorgeous girls who were either too young or just didn't know hoe beautiful they were, so they couldn't seduce the viewer. I brief my casting directors very carefully on exactly what I want. I like to put people in uncomfortable situations to see how spontaneous they will be in front of the camera.
That makes sense considering your shooting style, which involves a lot of movement and contorted positions. Your models can look a little tormented, yet somehow sexy and sensual. What are your inspirations?
It all comes from my everyday life, my experiences, and what I believe in. A long time ago, before I was old enough to get into nightclubs, I used to study how more mature women moved. I noticed they moved a little bit slower, steadier, and calmer. Even with their eye movements. They had more grace and control over their bodies than the younger girls. When you meet a person, you can tell a lot about then in the first five minutes by their pacing and movements, their mood, if they are sensual, if they are living in the moment, if they're more tactile or intellectual. The tendency to watch people's movements continues to be part of my life and is one of the more philosophical aspect that I apply to my work. My inspirations also come from having a really horrifying imagination and a very dark way that scares me to a point. I experienced a lot of violence when I lived in Los Angeles from 1990-1994. I almost got killed several times. I was put up at gunpoint many times. Then there were the riots and the earthquakes and my college initiation time. All these experiences provoke my imagination, especially when I'm tired. I have sort of horror movie point of view when I walk down a street. The garbage bag becomes a dead person, or I turn the corner and imagine I see a body cut up in the street. I have thoughts of my tongue being cut off. So I have a dark side - I don't exactly know where it comes from. I'm always imagining the worst. It's part of my every day.
I can see its influence even in your beauty work, which is rarely ever traditional. Do cosmetic clients ask you to dial it back or do they five you full reign?
Usually we start with a certain idea where the client will day, "We love what you do, but it's too much. This is what we need." So I make sure they have what they want and than I just go crazy.
On your website you have a separate section for your personal work. How is it different from your commercial work?
Those are just works that have appeared in exhibitions. It's all personal for me.
What were you working on this week?
I've been working nonstop on my books. I print at home and also with my lab. The upkeep of my books is very time consuming!
Only if you constantly produce new work, which you do. Your style has gone through so many changes in just the last three years.
It has. And it's funny, since last week I've been up day and night working on another thirty images or more, so all my current stuff is going to be old in another two weeks. I like to change directions. I also like to challenge myself. I give myself little tests, almost like school assignments, or a rule to stick to. For example, I'll decide a picture must be in hard light, then try and figure out how I can make it beautiful. After a while I get bored doing the same thing so I want to change, but I have to watch it because I do that a little but too quickly, then people can't keep up.
You seem very ambitious and self-reliant. I understand you didn't use any assistants for at least the first decade of your career. Have you finally relinquished a little control?
I have got assistants, but some photographers rely on their assistants to light for them. Then there is the other group of photographers like me who know exactly what they like. I will never relinquish my lighting. For me, lighting is very personal. The light is the signature of the photograph. It's what you're saying, the kind of lines you're drawing, the kind of skin you're showing. And because lighting affects everything - textures, highlights, how the skin appears, the way the clothes and make-up come across - it greatly affects the sensuality of the photo. In a way, lighting is very primal and intuitive for me. Even when I try to do what's "modern" by other standards, I can't because it's not contemporary to what I feel.
How long have you know you wanted to be a photographer?
I've been shooting since I was age six. I would have my friends stand on the tops of cars and shoot them from below to make it look like they were flying. Around age eight or nine, my girlfriends and I would put together fashion shoots. If they weren't around, I would get out the make-up and dress my brother up like a girl. It was never even a question of what I wanted to be - I was just taking pictures. Then around age fifteen I got serious about fashion photography and started working in a lab.
Do you consider yourself overly ambitious?
Sometimes I feel I'm working so hard and wonder if it's this hard for everybody else. I know some photographers socially, but I don't know their work ethics. So, I've asked my retoucher of he sees other people working as hard as me and he said, "No. You're definitely a workaholic. You're totally obsessed." He asked me once what I do in my spare times, and I told him I work out, but even that I do on a treadmill because I can't lose one minute in front of my computer. Not even the times it takes to get to and from the gym. He said, "God Karina. You're so American."
You're not so American, really. Your parents are Japanese.
Yes, my mother if from a beautiful island in the north of Japan called Hokkaido, which is very close to Russia. The town is called Otaru. Strangely enough, they have beautiful European-inspired canals there and it is an extremely artistic town with glass blowers, sculptors, and amazing food. And my father if from Yoron Shima, which is in the deep south. They have their own language, so I can't even communicate with some relatives from there. This island looks like paradise. The sand is very famous because when you look at it closely, the individual grains are all the shape of miniature stars. And when the tide is low all these amazing sand banks appear. It's very tropical and lush place with sugar canes and palm trees. It's very different from my mother's homeland.
Where do you live now?
It's funny you should ask because I'm selling my apartment in New York, and the last time you interviewed me three years ago, I was selling my apartment in Chelsea and moving to Soho. Now by the end of this summer, I'll be moving again. I love my place. It's gorgeous. But I'll start looking for a bigger space in the city this June.
You seem to spend a lot of time in Paris. Which do you prefer: Paris or New York?
I love New York one hundred times over.
So, you truly are American.
I don't think of New York as being "America." It's the center of the world! It's the coolest, hippest place with the most open, liberal people who are the youngest at heart. There is the most positive, supportive, free-spirited energy here. There is no other feeling like it in any other city in the world.
Where do you see yourself in the next ten years?
I hope to be in New York with a part-time home in Italy, maybe Tuscany. I love Italy! Hopefully by then my Italian will be fluent. And I hope to be directing feature films and doing a commercial here and there, working on art books and exhibitions and campaigns with a little magazine work in between. I just want to be creative and also have time to enjoy life. And I want to worry less about my career and just go with what comes my way.