21 year old Cate Underwood had already worked with ELLE, L’Officiel, Harper’s Bazaar, Playing Fashion, VAGA Magazine and many others. In 2010 she became a winner of Bazaar Fashion Forward contest in nomination – best fashion-photographer. Success in this field didn’t intervene with her start as a fashion model – she already worked in Paris, New York and Berlin. Our fashion-editor Nadiia Shapoval decided to learn how she manages to do so much and how she started her career as a photographer.
If not me than who? And when if not now?
You started photographic work at the age of 19…
- Frankly speaking, I started shooting fashion pictures even earlier, in 18, on the fourth month of pregnancy. If you look deeper, when I felt a new life rising inside me (and I had a clear understanding that I am going to have a baby and give birth to a new life) – my own life began to change. Everything became different. Virtually I was giving birth to two children: Eva – my daughter and photography. I was going to dedicate them all my time, because my personality and career was developing along with them.
you can’t get a bad shot if you have a good taste
What was your first camera?
- At first I took photos using a digital Canon, but at the same time I was always interested in film-type cameras and became mastering all possible variants. Almost at the same time I shot my first editorial for TOP10 magazine, after that – a beauty session for Playing Fashion. That’s how it all started.
Just like that? You started taking good pictures from the very beginning?
- Not quite so… I think if have a good taste, you can’t get a bad shot. I didn’t possess all technical skills when I just started, was not capable of working with lights and models… I just passed along my mood, reflected my style and taste.
I always tormented myself, asked: “Do people see what I want to show them?”
And of course you were inspired by works of other photographers?
- Of course, I always look up at the works of my favorite photographers. Such as: David Sims, Willy Vanderperre, Alasdair McLallan, Peter Lindbergh…
And what’s your style?
- It’s hard to answer just like that. What I can say with certainty is that for the first two years I always tormented myself with a question: “Do people see what I want to show them?”. Is the level of my pictures high enough to reveal my personal photography style… Was really worried about it. But with experience came a moment when I stopped self-analyzing, looking for answers and started doing what I like. Hard to remember a specific moment, when I came to this understanding, but I can honestly tell you that I never thought of what my style is like.
But to speak like that, you had to put quite a lot of efforts in your work. Can you name a session that developed your choice of what to shoot and how to do it. A so-called milestone.
- During session, a team is an essential element. When all organizational aspects are set up properly, if I trust the hairdresser and makeup artist, and have trusted stylists nearby – the session will be most successful. For example my first serious session was fashion-model tests for Marfa, which we carried out together with a great stylist – Yulia Pelipas. For the time I even didn’t have my own camera, I had to rent it. Then I was shooting a cover page for Playing Fashion together with stylist Venya Brykalin and top model from Odessa – Victoria Sasonkina. We put so many efforts and desire to make it all at the highest level possible. It’s really hard to forget all this. I remember a trip to Odessa by bus to catch Sasonkina at home, as she had a flight in the evening. We photographed everything and were really happy, as it was our first serious project, but the most offending part was that we were not permitted to publish it at first. It turned out that “Women” model agency prohibited Sasonkina to be published in Ukraine. They were afraid for the results and did not believe that good photos can be made in Ukraine. But we didn’t lose hope and made a complete page proof, post production and sent it straight to the main offices of New York and Paris for them to finally approve it. That was really a time of great unrest. We expected a reply from them, and eventually the picture was not only published, but placed on a sedcard of Victoria Sasonkina for the show package. In general this cover was a landmark for me.
You should do only the things you personally like
You often work in pair with a stylist Venya Brykalin. Tell me about your relations with him.
- You know, Venya takes very special place in my life. He is another milestone in acquiring self confidence. He believed in me and gave me a lot of everything. He was my master. He didn’t teach me to take photos, but he gave me a part of himself. Venya is a person with whom I am ready to work till I’m old. He is extraordinary, has an incredible intuition. If I choose fashion models with potential, Venya sees it from the first glance. He has a good eye for talents and a great taste, I like what he does.
And he never does what he doesn’t like as well?
- Yes, and its most important. You should do only the things you personally like. And it’s not important if it won’t bring you much profit at first. Don’t switch to something other. Because it will bring fruits, sooner or later. I want to tell you that it’s the only way to succeed. Most important thing is not to betray yourself.
I remember your November session for L’Officiel – there were bigboards with pictures of Masha Kirsanova, made by you all over Kiev…
- Yes this was quite a contradictory session: cover photo and the editorial itself was a subject of dispute throughout the whole world. And the opinions were as wide as the poles apart – some people liked it, and some intensely criticized. I was working with a stylist Yulia Pelipas and she had to order some things from Moscow. It turned out impossible to find them in Kiev. She did a hard work, but completely uncovered the meaning “Fetish” for this editorial.
I took pictures for chicken feed
Frankly speaking for the onlookers, who only heard of you or seen you in-crowd – so beautiful and successful is simply hard to understand how you managed to achieve all that at the age of only 21…
- You have no idea of how mush efforts I put into all that. Honestly, free of charge with losses to myself. A lot of physical and moral strain and much time. I was taking pictures at night clubs for chicken feed, because I understood, that there are privileges - I met people, was in everyone’s sight. Actually I spent all weekends in clubs, and between all that I managed to breastfeed a child until she reached 10 months. I took Eva to footages, and she slept in baby carriage or was brought to me every three hours during long sessions, so I could come out to the car and feed her.
I remember the first time I came to your place, Eva was in baby-jumper and often got into pictures. Actually your home studio gave start to about 10 successful Ukrainian fashion models, and all of them after your Polaroid sessions went to work abroad…
- Yes, I called it an “ugly studio”, in fact it was just a room without furniture with only one source of light. Frankly speaking all new face girls I photographed went abroad. I am so pleased to see Zhenya Savchenko, who during the first visit to Paris with my tests in the book, left behind the coolest Dior and Rick Owens shows.
it was simply a pleasure for me to change diapers
And you seen your baby so seldom…
- This is not true. During the first year only I was with my baby. Didn’t leave Eva with my mom or grandmother. I wanted to be with her, it was simply a pleasure for me to change diapers. I was told “You won’t remember the first year when you give birth” – not true. Not true! It was a great year and I was happy that I live on my own, and not with mom or grandmother. Not all together. Nobody follows me, tells me what to and how things should be done. I did everything on instincts. And now Eva gets older, and it is really easier to leave her with my mother. Actually I do not have a choice. If not me than who? When if not now? And I’m 100% sure that if I won’t be happy, my daughter won’t be too. For me it’s a disaster to stop working. I would die. My work is my life, I don’t split those two notions.
How much do you sleep?
- I try to bring myself to discipline, but I remember how it all started. I was terribly late to a session, but I had a child at breast, so I didn’t go to sleep until it was 3 am. on purpose, I was doing retouching work. Generally I work 24 hours a day, my working day never ends. One session is never an end. You can take photos in four hours time, but retouching takes at least three days. So I trust retouching to myself and one more confident person.
Where did you learn to do retouching so great? Your post production is really on a high level.
- All by myself. I tried this and that. Literally did what I felt needed to be done. I’m sure that any professional retoucher would do post production in a more simple way, because he was taught how to do it. I had my own ways, which I figured out by myself. And in general, retouching is very important. About 30% of it – is your own vision, 30% - team on the shooting area and 40% is the retouching itself. Sometimes it is not necessary and the session will be successful. But I’m a perfectionist. If I do my job, I need to do it perfectly, or not to do at all.
Underwood – pull yourself together!
Where do you get strength to get up every day and do something new?
- I just gave myself a goal and it is in my principles not to reveal it. I am ready to do everything to achieve it. Ready to continue working 24 hours a day. Yes I can get tired, burst into tears from all this stress, but I always try to calm down and tell myself: Underwood – pull yourself together!
And why everyone can’t pull themselves together as well?
- Everyone is trying to find an excuse. But when it comes to your future and your goal – you have no right to fall back. I have a creed: everything or nothing. Many people come to me for advice, or just to have a chat, they tell me a lot of information about their problems and misfortunes. I listen and I want to help them. But I had such situations, when I shared my problems with someone and talk about things that troubled me, but nobody actually believed that I had problems. I usually hear: “Oh come on, you are doing quite well”. But it is not true, I had many things in life, and although I’m 21 I feel like 30 from the inside.
And yes, I don’t feel like 22 as well. But this feeling helps models and photographers at this age to create remarkable pictures…
- Yes and you know, all those dramas in personal life - they nurture you, give strength and possibility to show those feelings during shooting and on photos. This is sublimation. In a whole, life experience is necessary for a model, so she can show a specific emotion. I’m not speaking about photographers – for them it’s a “must have”. If you solved your problems with head on charge and didn’t escape, you gain wisdom. With every fuck up you’re like a phoenix. You lived it through and ready to live through an even bigger fuck up next day. Personally, I find salvation in my work.
And why did you decide to become a model?
- At first it was like a fond hope, my mother was a fashion model in Ukrainian House of Models. I remember from early childhood, during vacations at the seaside, mother showed me correct model poses and took pictures. And it was completely natural for me. I wasn’t afraid of camera. There were a few unexpected encounters in my life, when I was offered to become a model. When I was 15, scout Giya approached me (he discovered Vodyanova and some other girls), he was well-known at the time, but I told him that I was going to a training camp to Germany. I played court tennis back then.
I would never do an honourless action to anyone
I didn’t know that you were going in for professional sports…
- Yes, and to say more – for six years. At the age of 10 I started playing tennis, and this is already late. Children in this age already play like pros. I trained very hard. I recall crying if I was sick and had to miss training. For six years I even slept on tennis courts, all of my awkward age passed somewhere without me. I was placed bets on, I played for a German club and all I seen was tennis. It was normal for me. I exhausted myself, and didn’t stop even if it was very hard, I could run sprint crying. But at the age of 16 possibility to play in Germany vanished and we had no tennis in Ukraine. If we return to my modeling career, it happened much later. When I already became a photographer, I shot model tests for Star System agency, and Vova Yudashkin – director of Kyiv branch, sent my polaroids to Paris. They all were quite surprised and wailed something like “where have you been earlier?”. This is how I started working.
For me modelling – is also a sport! Does Fashion weeks casting remind you of a real sprint?
- Yes, all this excitement and sportive interest from tennis moved into photography and modelling. There’s a competition in every work. But I never think about rivalry, I don’t know people I went over, or stalled. No. All must be done naturally, through your personal efforts. It all comes gradually, all has its time. I would never do a honourless action to anyone, trust in my own powers and don’t think that creating obstructions for others is a way to achieve something.
What would you recommend to novice models, which are so anxious to get into fashion industry?
- In any case there is have to be a desire. And you must be aware of merits and disadvantages of the work, about underlying problems. It only seems that a model doesn’t need to be smart to work. Models, which are not – just appeared here by irony of fate – and will disappear the same way in a year or so. And the ones, who have wisdom and strength – work for 10 of 20 years. I don’t think that 25 is a sunset of modeling age. All models from 90th are still working. All of them are personalities. Modelling is a chance, a set of circumstances, you need to be liked by someone and you will work. It all comes like after a click. You can work for seven years and don’t achieve anything. But if you have enough patience and if you are dedicated to your work – it will shoot one day.
Where do you see yourself at the age of 26, yet you will be so young, but with your work efficiency it’s hard to even imagine!
- For me, relevant age is thirty years. When I think of this age, I understand that by then I must have everything. To do so I have nine more years. By this “everything” I mean… You know, I feel like I will never stop. Honestly.
Location: Aroma Café
Text: Nadiia Shapoval
Original source of interview in russian: Bestin.ua
Nadiia, that was the best talk ever. thank you, dear, for your honesty and how my cheeks were blushing after those energy between us.