Flora Borsi has perfected the art of using her own face and body as a blank canvas, delivering an apparently never-ending stream of inventive ideas that push her creativity to the limit.
WORDS TERRY HOPE IMAGES FLORA BORSI
WE’VE SEEN FLORA BORSI ON the pages of Professional Photo before, looking wistfully into the camera with an ice cream cone upside down on her head, for all the world as though nothing was out of place at all. It was one of our most striking covers of last summer, a typically tongue-in-cheek and manifestly surreal take on life from a young Hungarian artist who has been getting herself noticed in a big way through the originality of her vision and the seemingly effortless way she continually comes up with visual ideas that are striking, inventive and highly original.
Aged just 27, she’s already exhibited her work internationally, with solo shows in Europe and the USA, and she was also part of the prestigious ‘Continental Shift’ group exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London and has had her work shown at the Louvre in Paris. Big players have also been keen to be associated with her mercurial talent: her artwork was the face of Adobe Photoshop a few years back, while she’s also been collaborating with Hasselblad.
That’s a pretty impressive list of achievements but you definitely get the impression that Flora hasn’t really got properly started yet, and there’s a huge amount more to come. All the more surprising then to discover that she’s largely self-taught, even with regard to the Photoshop skills that underpin so much of the imagery she creates, and she also works alone, so there is no behind-the-scenes army of make-up artists and prop manufacturers helping her.
“I always adored the work of professional photographers to the point where I was almost envious. I decided to learn as much as I could, so I started to take photographs of myself and edit them on a daily basis.”
Perhaps less surprising is the discovery that Flora has always been into creating things and she’s long been a dab hand at producing something special from the ost ordinary of ingredients. “I was always into something creative,” she discloses. “Ever since my childhood I’ve been drawing, painting, making sculptures and I even tried to sew my very own teddy bear at one point. When I started at school my art teacher noticed my interest in the creative world, so I started to make artworks with oil pastel for her.
“Over the next few years I won more than 100 national and international awards with my drawings and, at the age of 11, I started to create collages and websites. I became interested in photography mainly because of my dad. He’s a passionate hobbyist and started to give me lessons a few years ago.
“I always adored the work of professional photographers to the point where I was almost envious. I decided to learn as much as I could, so I started to take photographs of myself and edit them on a daily basis. I also took on summer jobs to buy studio lights and watched tutorials to learn such things as how to create specific lighting set ups.”
Fired up with a desire to learn, Flora headed to art school to improve her photographic skills, but spent much of her time there practicing retouching and digital manipulation. Following a big health scare, where she was diagnosed with a tumour and spent a terrifying three days waiting for the prognosis, she re-evaluated her life and decided that her art would be her driving focus from that point on.
“I realised then what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be recognised for and what would be the meaning of my life,” she says. “The experience served to give me a big push towards the manifestation of my self portraits: that was twelve years ago and I’m still doing these portraits with the same excitement I always had, but now with much more technical and theoretical experience.”
What helps to differentiate the great artists from the run of the mill is the ability to be inspired by everything that’s going on and to pick out something that others would simply fail to see and to run with it. There are shots of Flora with a charming green hat that’s been made out of lettuce leaves, pictures where a dove appears to
be flying out of a cavity in her chest, a whole series of really clever juxtapositions with animals where one of the eyes is her own and the other that of the creature she’s posing with and images where her face is variously adorned with butterflies, feathers, roses and shaving cream. She’s even produced a remarkable series where’s she’s manipulated her image to the point where she resembles portraits created by some of the world’s greatest surrealist painters.
This ability to keep on creating is something that eludes so many but, for Flora, it almost seems effortless at times. “Usually I’m trying to match elements of this world, which can have a different meaning when seen together, rather than singularly,” she says. “In my opinion everything can be matched with something else and I really like to convey ideas and messages in the symbols of my imagery.
“Everything has meaning, but the point is what I’m prioritising and what has my attention. Sometimes my focus is on delivering emotions, such as fear, love and so on. At other times there’s a lot going on outside of my private life which would be hard to ignore, so then I’d rather work on themes of society and the problems of the world on a wider scale. In my brain I’m just connecting visual symbols with aesthetics and emotions. Usually a picture is based on my intuition. I think about an event in my life or from the world, and a visual reflection just pops up in my mind. I create a sketch to see if it’s a working idea and then work out what I’ll need for the shoot. Then I just go and do it.”
Photoshop is one of Flora’s most valuable creative tools and she uses it with relish to create imagery that’s extreme enough to match the outer reaches of her vivid imagination. She doesn’t hold back, and if going just that little bit further to tell her story is what’s required then she’ll go for it. But reality is still at the basis of what she’s looking to achieve, otherwise she would have found a different medium other than photography to use in her art.
“The results I’m pursuing wouldn’t be possible without the use of Photoshop,” she admits. “Photography is the main material that I’m using, and without its tools I would have been a painter or some other kind of a storyteller. That said, there are other times when I’m really against postproduction, so I dive into a more conservative type of photography and create something closer to reality, so the only thing that’s left to do once the picture has been taken is a little colour grading. It all depends on the message I’m looking to convey.
“And I always work totally alone. Sometimes it’s really hard to catch the moment, and basically it’s all down to luck. The biggest
ABOVE: For her animal series Flora combined the eye of a particular creature – which ranged from cats and dogs through to birds, lizards and even a goldfish – and then applied make up to herself that was appropriate and which matched her concept.
challenge I face is managing the depth of field in my images since I’m working with a medium format Hasselblad and associated lenses. There’s something scientific about these optics. The depth of field I’m achieving with my Hasselblad is more like I was working with an f/1.4 or f/1.8, even if the aperture I’ve set is f/11 or f/22. To solve this anomaly, I’m using an iPad with live view so that I can see exactly what I’m getting!”
Flora’s studio is her living room and she likes to have everything in one place because, once an idea is in her head, she becomes really impatient, driven by wanting to get her idea into a tangible form. “If everything is close to hand then, once I get inspired, I can produce the photographs that I have in mind. I’m working with Profoto B1 and sometimes A1 lights as slaves and it’s really handy to use this equipment because there are no power cables, just batteries. Meanwhile my regular light shapers are a three-foot Octobox and a small beauty dish.”
Like the true artist she is, Flora is uncomfortable talking about monetising her work, but is now generating an income through limited edition prints and occasionally she’ll collaborate with companies on commissioned pieces. She also works with photographic companies such as Hasselblad that she feels an affinity with, and she was found by them after they saw her work featured online.
“Hasselblad discovered me on Instagram,” she says, “and we’ve worked very closely together. When the new X1D II 50C came out I used it pre-launch to create some images and it helped me to get the most desirable result that I could ever have envisaged. My favourite lenses to use are the XCD 45mm f/3.5 and XCD 90mm f/3.2. The details, tones and colour depth of this camera is amazing: I can enlarge a picture made with the X1D or X1D II more than four times and it still looks perfect. I like to work with big pixel sizes, since I love printing huge editions!”
Given the nature of her work and the fact that her home is her studio, Flora was able to carry on working during the most intense period of lockdown and she tried to take the positives out of the situation and use it, as she does with everything else in her life, as inspiration for her projects.
“It was hard, but not harder than anyone else’s experience,” she says. “In my situation there was no big change, since I’m doing everything by myself, in one place. For me lockdown was actually a great opportunity to appreciate my experiences and to recall heart-warming memories of great accomplishments in my career.”
It’s clear that the future holds much for Flora and she’s most certainly a name that we’ll be hearing a lot more about in the future. “Sometimes other people can see your potential better than you can,” she muses. “This happens with me a lot: curators found me, so whenever I had an exhibition, it was because of them rather than me! I’m looking forward to the things that lie in wait for me and I’m focusing on the present and the things that I can control. Everything else is related to faith and destiny.”
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