Fantastical, ethereal, and magnificent; Bella Kotak is clearly a photographer with one foot firmly placed in another realm. Yet through her work she actually celebrates the majesty within our own world. Though these images look like they are ripped from the texts of writers like Tolkien, Guin, or Salvatore, Kotak tells us that they are “…all captured in locations we walk by, often overlooked, a quiet beauty that exists alongside us.”
Kotak is currently working on two projects in tandem, In Bloom and Enchanted Worlds. Though differing in concept, both projects draw strongly on the themes of nature and femininity, and aim to evoke a sense of wonder.
She began work on In Bloom in the summer of 2014. The series focuses on a journey of women coming into their own, using the natural world as a canvas. She explains that “each picture leads the viewer through a wandering, weaving storyline that captures the growth, strength, and power of all that is feminine beauty.”
The second series, Enchanted Worlds, is the more otherworldly project of the two. Featuring mythical creatures and a more dreamlike quality, the images are “born from my love of nature, creating fairy tales in slips of time, and capturing magic in the most ordinary of places.”
Kotak’s appreciation of strange wonderlands and the stories contained within them was ignited in childhood. “I can almost remember the exact day I realised that worlds existed within words and pages,” she says, “I loved devouring books at the library, losing myself in greek myths, fables, magical creatures, and children off on adventures.” It is her belief that every one of us maintains a connection to those formative years where, as she puts it “…we soak in all the world through a colour-filled filter.”
Rather than conjuring her images into existence with a magic wand, creating these uncanny environments requires some real world dedication and specialist tools for each shoot. Kotak depends mainly on her Canon 5d Mark III camera and a 50mm f1.4 as her go-to lens. For larger gallery prints that require the additional detail and color rendition however, medium format is her signature style. On those occasions she brings out an extraordinarily powerful Phase One XF 100MP system with its 55mm, 85mm and 105mm lenses. Kotak always processes the images through Capture One followed by careful composition and colour toning in Photoshop CC.
“I find that attention to detail is what sets a great picture apart from a good picture,“ says Kotak. It is indeed this same sense of quality control that dictates how she pulls her shoots themselves together. In the planning stage of each one, she collaborates with several creative designers (including her partner Pratik Naik) who are credited in every completed work. Like Kotak, the members of these teams she assembles understand how clothing, hair, lighting, and location can express a strong sense of character. “All these individual elements combine together for a unique picture that tells a tale,” she says.
Some of the techniques used to bring these tales to life can be a little unconventional and proved a little dangerous on one occasion. When asked about any interesting experiences she’s had, Kotak answers in glee.“An interesting moment was dealing with a fire on a shoot! Sparks from a smoke grenade caught some dried flowers that I’d used to set up a scene on fire and I had to quickly pull the model out away from it!” Since then she’s always prepared with lots of water and a mini fire extinguisher when using smoke effects.
Ignoring the creation of fire-hazard mists, the other recurring motif in Kotak’s style of storytelling is floral imagery. This is no coincidence as it was a chance encounter with flowers that gave her the inspiration and drive to continue to pursue a career in photography. Kotak tells us how several years ago when in a creative quagmire, “I noticed that a florist nearby where I worked that would leave their bins at the front of their store. Bins filled, and sometimes overflowing, with discarded flowers.”
A seed of an idea sprouting inside her compelled Kotak (after asking permission) to dive into the bins and gather as many of these abandoned blossoms as possible. With a mountain of salvaged flowers and a willing friend she began a simple shoot on a summer evening. That picture, titled “moonflower”, inspired the rest of the In Bloom series. Kotak fondly describes that photo which changed her perception so greatly as “An ode to Spring, new life, and a beautiful awakening.” Above anything else, she says, “the whole inspiration of In Bloom is that it’s a journey of my growth and that every inch of it has my mark.”
Not only did that epiphany outside a simple flower shop result in the creation of her impressive body of work, but it gave Kotak the desire to help provide future creatives with their own eureka moments. It is this drive that led Kotak and Naik to found of the Photoshop action sharing platform, Fine Art Actions. The site provides as a marketplace for Photoshop content but also acts as community for budding digital creatives.
More than anything else though, Kotak hopes her work encourages others struggling with ideas, to strive on so that they can find their own creative voices.
“Inspiration to fuel the artistic passion that dwells within, to work hard to find that voice and share it with the world,” she says, “We’re all one of a kind and as such, all our life stories are unique.”