There’s something intrinsically glamorous and performative about flash photography. If the camera has the power to turn the world into a set, then flash is the spotlight. Full-frontal and glossy, the flash makes a moment into a highlight and the subject into a star. 25-year-old photographer Kate Bellm turns her playful subjects into vixens with a burst of bright light. Limbs, lips, breasts, and butts, are all perfectly lit against paisley wallpapers and plush furniture. But while Bellm’s fashion photos ooze sexuality, it is almost entirely removed from her personal work, which ranges from raw, silhouetted portraits to photos that play with color and form.
Despite being based in Berlin, Bellm has shot for a myriad of international publications, including Interview, Tush, Elle, UK Vogue, and L’Officiel, and has exhibited her work in Paris, London, Philadelphia, and Zurich, as well as Berlin. She travels a lot, and is currently on a five-month trip through Morocco and India. Before she left, she sat down with BULLETT to answer a few of our questions.
I want to talk about sexuality first, which is so strong in your photos. Do you think gloss and sexiness is intrinsic to fashion photography, and to your style? As a female fashion photographer, what are you trying to say with that?
[My nude photography] just sort of happened in the most natural way with me and all my friends. Sometimes being naked just looks better, and that’s how it is a lot of the time, we just want to be free and running around and that’s how the pictures come about. In terms of fashion, I don’t really set out to make it crazy sexy. I like young, kind of naked styling, like you know how teenagers are way more exposed? I’m trying to be more teenage than really sexy, you know, but it always just comes out super sexy.
Do you find that because you’re a female photographer it’s easier to get models to take off their clothes or be sexy in a way that they’re maybe more apprehensive about with a male photographer?
It’s definitely easier. For me also I’m like really free, I would get naked as well, I don’t care. I would never push a girl too far, I would see if she’s comfortable with it, and then it usually just happens. It’s not about being sexy, it’s more about having fun, so I feel like it’s much easier for me, definitely, to get them naked [laughs]. But a lot of the girls I shoot naked are my best friends, or my sisters. People who are extremely close to me and trust me.
What’s your favorite female body part to photograph?
The butt [laughs]. I love the lips as well. I love photographing lips and ass.
You’re quite young for such a successful photographer. Has it been difficult to face the industry at such a young age?
I really don’t feel like I’m “facing” the industry. I just do whatever I do. I never follow the rules, I’m not with an agent, I just shoot whatever I love, my girlfriends and boyfriends and everything around me and that becomes my work. It’s really not about following the industry for me. I try and stay as much out of the rat race as possible. I get busy, but it’s not like I work a lot of commercial jobs. Everything is quite specialized for my style.
Without an agent, how do you go about getting your work published?
People just contact me. And a lot of my work goes unpublished; I shoot a lot, and sometimes people don’t want to take it. I’m happy to use all that stuff for my personal projects. Everything can be used for other things.
Your personal work and your fashion work are very different in style.
My personal work goes totally into my personal life, which shows a lot of nature and is super unglamorous. And then my fashion work is just the most glamorous stuff out there. That comes from where I grew up. My life now in Berlin is super different from how I grew up, where all the girls dressed up and wore heels, so that’s where I get that style from, because at eighteen I was just shooting my friends who I was going out with and they were amazingly dressed the whole time.
Why do you love Berlin, why did you decide to stay there?
Well, Berlin helped me become an artist, just changed my whole approach. As I said before, it took me out of the whole rat race, and gave me a freer state of mind about how to live, and how to have less. In Berlin I basically spend all my time scavenging old stuff and making it into something new, like an art piece or a piece of furniture. Life is so much more than just photography here, I learn so much stuff all the time just from all the creative people around me. And I have a huge space, and it’s cheap. You can cycle around, there’s a ton of nature. There are so many things in Berlin that keep me here, having to do with quality of life.
Do you find that it’s a hard city to be based out of for work?
It’s really hard. I travel all the time. When I get to shoot in Berlin it’s super special, because I always have amazing people and locations, and ideas that have been brewing in my mind for so long. But Berlin is way slower and work is like not at all on par with London, New York, Paris. You can barely ever shoot here.
How do you go about casting models?
I really like young, cute girls but with a strong personality, who aren’t afraid to have fun and break free, because I understand how uncomfortable it is to be in front of a camera. If someone even tries to take a photo of me I freeze. But when someone can just relax and we can get into the groove it’s just so good. In terms of casting, I shoot a lot of friends. My main model is my best friend Minnie. Sookie, another girl, is a smaller model who’s more of a character. I’ve been shooting them since they were like fifteen. It’s kind of a love relationship. I also like that heroin-chic look, which is quite strong in Berlin. All the schoolgirls walk around here looking like that.
The women in your photos seem empowered by their sexuality and nudity.
Actually, a lot of women ask me to shoot them naked, so you definitely see it in those photos, cause the girls want it. If I felt like a girl was not comfortable then I wouldn’t take the photo.
What do you think the differences are in shooting men and women?
Women are a different process: hair and makeup and all that. Boys it’s just so easy, it’s just about warming them up and making them have a laugh and feel comfortable. I don’t really shoot glamorous boys, more skaters and kids hanging out, they’re always like stoned and don’t give a shit. I just make them laugh and take a photo.
What’s the story behind the color war photos for 032c?
I had some small paint powder vials, and just for fun we were throwing them around while [the boys] were skating and it was looking fucking cool, so then I thought, oh my God, I have to do this bigger, so the next day I went and I spent every penny in my bank account on big bags full of that stuff. We all had this crazy energy on the shoot, like everyone running up walls, running into each other, smashing paint powder everywhere.
What do you feel is your relation to color in your photos?
My first influences were Mario Testino and David LaChapelle, and I was just so into hyper-realistic color. I had started with only black and white film for the first seven years, so when color came into my life I just instantly went into shooting this super fashion-y colorful bright poppy stuff, and that just always stayed with me. I don’t shoot that much in black and white unless it’s portraits.
You’re going traveling for five months. Is it for work or pleasure?
It’s both, making art and taking photos. I’m going with my boyfriend who’s an artist and we’ll go and build tree houses and wigwams and collaborate on photos.
Where are you going besides India? You said Morocco…
Morocco on like a skate and surf tour. We’ll shoot the boys on like camels with surfboards. It will be so sick.
How would you define the relationship between photographer and model?
From one shoot you can become really good friends with someone. The girls are nearly my age so I usually get along really well with the models. I try and make them feel as happy and comfortable as possible. I have really small sets so it’s really an intimate feeling, there’s no extra assistants, there’s no lighting or anything. It’s just a different feeling, more friendly and happy…I hope!
I think that sounds like the ideal kind of way to shoot. That’s how you create something strong.
Yeah, most girls say they like it because I’m quick, and I know what I want, and as soon as I don’t like something I’ll change it, because it’s not like I have to move lights around, or beckon my fifteen assistants, I just sort of do it and it’s done. I’m pretty hands on, I tell the girl exactly what to do, I see positioning well.
It’s extremely beneficial to have that kind of self-assuredness.
My girlfriends who are models gave me all the advice I needed when I was just starting, everything like, how do I know when a girl feels uncomfortable when she’s naked, you know? Like these girls that have been in the industry for 10 years and told me everything I needed to know.
What would be your favorite abstract idea or emotion to capture?
It’s all about like young, goofy, teenage attitude, you know, like teeth and crunchy eyes, just like an off moment that’s just full of happiness. Definitely vintage feel, with some sunshine in the background.