A chat with artist and photographer Yelena Yemchuk
Originally from Ukraine, Yelena Yemchuk arrived in the United States with her parents aged 11. A camera given to her for her 14th birthday was to set the course for her creative life in the decades to come.
After studying at Parson School of Design in New York and Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design, Yelena first gained public attention through her association with Smashing Pumpkins. She directed the videos for their singles ‘Zero’ and ‘Thirty-Three’ from the album ‘Mellon-Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ before taking on the art direction for the band’s fourth album ‘Adore’ and its singles.
She also quickly established herself in fashion photography, seeing her work appear in Another Magazine, iD, Dazed & Confused, and Italian, British and Japanese Vogue. She also worked on ad campaigns for Kenzo, Dries Van Noten and Cacharel.
In 2011 her first book was published. ‘Gidropark’ is a step away from fashion photography, documenting summers between 2005 and 2008 around the recreational area along the Dnieper River in her native Ukraine, a place she describes as a ‘Soviet version of Coney Island’.
Not content with only working with cameras Yelena is also an accomplished painter, with exhibitions of her gently surreal work under her belt at the Dactyl Foundation in New York.
At Breed, she really does tick all our boxes and we love her work. We were lucky enough to get a chance to talk to her recently and were only happy to grasp the opportunity.
Did you have an interest in art from a young age?
I think so. Both my uncle and one of my parents’ best friends were amateur photographers who always had cameras on them, so I was around photography from a very early age. Also, my dad’s sister was an art historian and we were always talking about art and looking at art books.
How important was that camera you were given for your 14th birthday?
I don’t think I thought about it much, I just started taking pictures. They were just pictures of my friends.
What do you think you would have ended up doing if you hadn’t discovered photography?
I was really into archaeology and astronomy. I didn’t think I was going to go into the arts till I finished high school. I wanted to be some kind of explorer, which I guess I ended up being.
Who were your earliest creative inspirations?
I think Man Ray, Francis Bacon and Fellini were my first loves.
Do you see photography and painting as closely linked?
Not really, not for me. I find myself using different parts of my brain, and inspiration, to create. But, that said, one always influences the other.
Do you take a different approach to working in the two media?
Yes. For painting I need to be alone and just be with my imagination. It’s really fantastic because I don’t need anyone else to create, I just need to sit and think up anything I want and start drawing. For photography, I think, because I am mostly interested in shooting people and situations, I need to walk around and look for subjects to photograph. So, in that sense I am dependent on others to create, which is a different process.
You’ve also made films and music videos since the start of your career – is that something you’d like to take further?
I love watching films and cinema to me is so inspiring. I always thought I would end up making films, but I got into photography and have mostly spent the last 25 years focusing on it. Recently I have gotten back into making short films. I hope I can continue to do that, it’s really my true calling.
How often do you visit Ukraine?
I usually go once a year, but for the past four years I’ve been going at least twice, sometimes three times a year. I was working on a photo book in Odessa and I’ve also made two short films this year and last year there.
Do you think your Ukrainian background gives you a different perspective on American life?
I grew up there and spent my first 11 years there, which are very much the strongest years in developing who you are. I am very much connected to Ukraine and my heritage.
Do you have a preference for either painting or photography?
No, I love both.
Has the lockdown had an influence on your work at all?
I’ve been painting much more than usual. Since I haven’t been able to move or travel it has saved me! The ability to stay creative – I am very thankful for that.
What are your plans for the near future?
Work on more photo-book projects and make more films and paint as much as I can.
A selection of images from Yelena, showing both photography and art, can be seen here.