Many professional photographers shoot their entire lives without creating an image which can be called iconic—a frozen time and place embedded in the consciousness of many citizens not deeply connected with art or even photography. Portrait and fashion photographer Tanya Chalkin is not one of those photographers.
Her black and white image entitled “Kiss” has become one of the images a generation will long remember. The photo consists of two young female models, lying on their sides, embracing and kissing. Shot from above and taken in 2001, “Kiss” saw wildly popular sales around the world as a poster. In the United States, in particular, it graced countless college dorm rooms. Movie fans may remember seeing it in the major motion picture Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, from Universal Pictures. It’s popularity continues to this day, so much so the photo has inspired its own Hollywood movie which is currently in development.
Raised in the United Kingdom, Chalkin originally hails from Liverpool. Like so many other talented artists coming from that fertile seaport, she made her way to London. She took an art foundation course at Chelsea College of Art and Design, a kind of precursor art program providing exposure to a wide variety of creative media.
Chalkin knew photography was the horse she’d be riding to the finish line. She went on to receive a B.A. in Photography with Honors at the London College of Printing, which has since been renamed the London College of Communication, part of the University of the Arts London.
After university, Chalkin began to work for the magazine Dazed and Confused, where she did some photo assisting. “I worked there for a very short period, because I really wanted to go out shooting,” she says. “I didn’t really want to assist too much, but it’s the best thing you can do. You don’t need to go to college to get a degree. The best thing to do in fashion, portraiture, or anything commercial, is to assist, I think.”
Working at the music magazine Mixman and other similar publications, she began to develop her portraiture. She picked up many assignments from There and Now, a dance music magazine, and eventually was contributing to English newspapers such as The Guardian, The Evening Standard, and The Independent.
Known for her portraiture, Chalkin switched gears and has been working on a campaign for the 2012 London Olympic Games. It involves changing everything she’s built her career on, from subject matter to post-processing. Having never shot cityscapes before, she thought the series needed “to be something really cool about London,” and began scouting locations. The result was a portrait of Big Ben, the Union Jack covering the surface of the Thames. “I just thought I’d go out there one night and play with the light and experiment,” she says. “I experimented, and a few weeks later, I created the image. It took a few months to do.”
One of the major factors for Chalkin’s success with this campaign, she reports, is because of the wide latitude she was given. As long as it’s relevant to London and the sport, she’s free to develop her own concepts, although she does have to receive approval after a shot is completed all the way up to the main Olympic body in Switzerland. So far the response to her campaign has been overwhelmingly positive.
Pulling them off technically is another challenge, altogether. “To do them in poster size, they have to be meticulously worked on so they look really real, and not retouched to death,” she says. “I don’t like things that look like they’ve been retouched, even if they look a bit surreal.”
The Olympic images were shot with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, which has proved much easier than her Hasselblad, an H2D. She shoots a combination of Hasselblads and HDSLRs for her portraiture, although she leans toward the Hasselblads. The other major factor which has changed since she began her career has been her use of film. “There is a massive difference between film and digital, and you can see it,” she says. “For personal work, I might shoot film. Clients don’t want it, so it’s easier to not use film for clients. They’re just not interested in it anymore. For my personal use, I use it every so often.”
For lighting, she uses a range of Profoto products. “I love, love, love the D1 Air 1000,” she says. “I also use the Pro-8a and the Pro-7a. I just mix them all the time, depending on the shoot. I’m a more visual person than a technical person. Profoto, as far as I’m aware, and from what I’ve used, is top-notch.”
Chalkin feels equally at home in the studio and on location. “There are so many advantages to both,” she says. “It’s so controlled in the studio, which is obviously great, but, when you’ve got that moment in a certain spot and you have the right light for you created by Mother Nature, and you get to add to it or take away from it—that’s also really gorgeous.”
Despite all the excitement surrounding her Olympic campaign photos, Chalkin reports portraits are still near and dear to her heart, although they might not look like the iconic poster she’s best known for. “That was part of an advertising campaign originally, and the company went under for whatever reason. I had all the rights, and I just felt it was a moment in time and society.” Feeling the shot wasn’t more risque than anything she had seen growing up, she approached a publisher.
“Obviously they liked it and they took it on,” Chalkin recalls. “From that moment onwards, I’ve had a bit of a fanbase, and people have asked me to do things and the publishers said, ‘Do more and more, more.’ So, I did more of girls kissing, trying not to make it sleazy and just to make it chic and fashiony and sexy and cool. No nastiness in it. I haven’t done any for a little while and I don’t think I’m going to be doing any more for a while. I think that I’ve done that for the moment and I’ve moved on.”
If fans of her portraiture are worried, they needn’t be. Chalkin has many images similar to “Kiss,” including a calendar, and many shots available in poster form. Although she may return to that type of subject matter, it appears she’s becoming known to an even larger audience with her Olympic work. Whether for clients or shooting for herself, Chalkin creates images which stand out in both a frame and in our minds. With decades ahead of her as a creative force, it will be exciting to see where she next focuses her vision, but the only pressure on her is her own. After all, she’s already created one iconic shot for our times.
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