The Dirtier the Better: Interview with Photographer Pari Dukovic

Photographer Pari Dukovic has managed to balance the fine line between fine art and editorial work with ease, producing images that play with exposure, movement, and a sense of ephemeral energy.

At 28, he is not afraid to push boundaries to create photographs that are strikingly different, whether it’s documenting fashion week, Turkish wrestlers, or New York street scenes.

Although Dukovic’s photographs regularly appear in publications like New York magazine,EsquireTime, and The New Yorker, they are visually arresting in a way that glossy, sharp studio portraits are not. They are grainy and imperfect, blurred and frayed, tactile and emotional. Nikki Minaj floats in a sea of gauzy pink, lashes dashing under electric green lids, frozen in movement. A pair of delicate hands are blurred and shaded with blue, as if underwater. A burlesque dancer, head back, wrapped in a pink boa, balances a cigarette on the tip of her mouth. These are the moments Dukovic sees, at once impressionistic and gritty.

I visited the photographer in his small midtown office and sat with him amongst folders of archived negatives, a high-end scanner, and boxes of high ISO film (which he buys in bulk and saves because the rolls he wants are harder and harder to find these days). Dukovic, humble, yet confident, with a light accent and boyish laugh, shared his story.

Could you talk a little bit about how you got into photography?

It’s actually my dad that exposed me to photography. He doesn’t shoot—he doesn’t have any interest in that, but when he was a little kid, his parents would send him to work at a photo studio in Istanbul. It was one of those old portrait studios where they used glass negatives. During the summer, he would work in the archive there and make some extra cash. So he was exposed that way, I think, to the beauty of photography and how magical it is.

Then when I was like eight or so, he gave me as a present, a Zenit Russian camera, a 122, all manual, and I just started taking family pictures, nothing really special. I was just wandering around with a camera. It was just about when I was around fifteen that I started really seeing the power of photography and what you could do with it. My father got me a Cartier-Bresson book for my birthday. I was living in Istanbul, and looking at his pictures of Paris—those beautiful pictures with the street photography.

Is that where you were born?

Yes, born and raised. I feel like I caught the very last seconds of old Istanbul during my teenage years. There were still these old stores, old shops—you could still feel that old style there. So I would just grab my camera and shoot in the streets. And I still do street photography. I have an interest in being out there, in capturing that energy, capturing the movement, and I try to bring that into my work, whether it’s fashion, whether it’s portraiture. I try to bring that kind of energy into it, that looseness. And that’s how it all started.

And then you came to New York?

I ended up going to RIT [Rochester Institute of Technology] upstate. I did four years of Photography and Art History. Then after graduation, I moved to the city and started working for a photographer called Platon—he does mostly politicians and portraiture. I met him when he gave a lecture at RIT. He was working with film too. I ended up interning with him in my third year, and right before I graduated, he offered me a job. So it was really good training being there. I learned a lot about the industry.

And were you also doing your own work after graduation?

Well, when I graduated, I looked at my portfolio, and it was just a combination of all the training that I got. I thought, “Ok, I’m just going to chuck all this work I did in school and start over and do what I really want to do.” So I picked up a point-and-shoot 35mm camera, and because I was working full-time, I just started doing a documentary project of my journey to work. Wherever I was going, getting around in New York, on the weekend– that really started becoming my personal body of work. And processing it at home, looking at it, seeing what the accidents were, trying to learn from the accidents. Sometimes I would shoot 20 rolls and be like, “Fuck, there’s nothing in here.” But slowly, I kept developing and developing and I really created an aesthetic that I was happy with.

When did you start the wrestler project?

It was something that I used to see when I was a little kid, you know, every year in the news, and I always had it in my mind. It has an old world charm to it—it’s just from a different time period. So I arranged the trip to Turkey. I went out there and I photographed the Kirkpinar festival. It was really great because I just put what I learned from the street work into it. And it’s amazing to have two different projects that really talk to each other.

How did you move into shooting for magazines?

It was around that time that I was just transitioning to my own career, so I took that scary step of just saying, “I’m going to go on my own.” I told my boss, and I remember thinking, “This is the last paycheck in my bank account.” I got into PDN 30 at the time with my street and wrestler series. That helped me in terms of being able to knock on the doors of magazines. And New York magazine was the very first publication that said, “Let’s start working together.”

Amazing. And how did you get the fashion week assignment?

Well, Jody Quon, the Photo Director (at New York) is just an unbelievable person, really. She is just one of those photo editors that has a true passion and energy for good work, and she wants to do different things. I’m very lucky to work with people like her because she really tries to push me and push the photography level. So I did two or three assignments for them—little ones. And then she called me out of the blue, and was just like, “Would you be interested in going to Paris and Milan, and documenting all these fashion weeks?” And I was just like, “Are you kidding me?” Literally, when I got the call, I could not believe it. I was just so excited. And I knew I was going to do something really good with it because I was ready to photograph it in a different way. I was shooting my Burlesque series at the time, and I think maybe she saw something there–I don’t know what she saw, but maybe she thought, “This kid can photograph style,” or maybe she saw something unique that I could bring to the project. And then I went to the fashion shows—first time ever in my life. I didn’t know anything about fashion. I still don’t know anything about fashion.

I was going to ask you that actually—I wanted to know what it’s like to go there, being someone outside of the fashion world.

In terms of my work, I love being in a place where there is energy and chaos. Fashion shows are the perfect fit for that. There is so much craziness going on and, in a way, I know how to clear up that mess visually and really focus on a moment that I’m interested in capturing. It was no different to me than being on the streets and photographing people just doing whatever they’re doing. There’s this situation called “first looks” where right before the show begins it’s the very first time the collection is on the models. So you’re behind the rope, and there are like, 30 to 40 photographers, and everybody is pointing their lens in the same place. So how do you make something new out of that? I always try to avoid those moments, where the model comes in and picks up her bag and smiles. That’s one thing I want to stay away from. I always try to get that quiet moment, before the model kind of wakes up to our presence and starts putting on the act.

Since I didn’t know anything about fashion, I didn’t even know who the people were. And I think that was a huge advantage for me. I think my naiveté really helped me to do unique work, because I wasn’t connected or imprisoned by “Oh, I need to shoot this person because this person is important,” or anything like that. I just went with whatever felt interesting to me. I mean this sounds crazy, but when I did the Nikki Minaj photo, I honestly didn’t know who she was [laughs]. She arrived to the show in New York and all the photographers went mad. I saw this colorful character and I thought, “she looks interesting, what can I make out of this.” It’s not like I had a sitting with her or anything like that. She was just coming down the corridor to wait for the show to start. And there were all these flashes going on around her. Millions and millions of flashes. I opened the shutter just enough to steal the little flashes from the other photographers. And that’s how I created that moment.

What kind of camera were you using when you went to fashion week.

I shoot a lot with point-and-shoots called Ricohs. Because that’s another thing—I believe a certain camera gives you a certain way of shooting, a language. I think it’s a physical thing, shooting, and the point-and-shoot cameras allow me to really move around. So I had a bunch of Ricohs on me, about six of them, because they are all loaded with different film and I had this vest on me, with all the color film I’d shot. People thought I was going fishing or something [laughs]. I looked like a lunatic.

How much freedom did you have to make images like this for the magazine?

I was really lucky because Jodi Kwon gives the best art direction ever. She said two things to me: “open canvas and do what you want to do.” And that was the key ingredient in going out there because I didn’t feel pressure. I tried to bring my artistic background to those pictures too, you know, the painterliness. I would just go and steal all these moments as they happened.

Was it strange for you to transition from doing street photography to studio shoots with a celebrity?

I try to create a situation where I can move around the person, so I don’t feel limited. My biggest fear is to make something boring that you have seen before. I try to keep pushing it, thinking how can I bring excitement to the photograph and just make it different than the things you are used to seeing in magazines—and right now, I feel like there is a lot out there that all looks a bit similar. When I do an assignment, I try to produce material that I feel will stick with me.

Are there other photographers or artists that inspire you?

Many, many, many. I’m looking at Man Ray a lot. I love his sense of beauty mixed with that dada surreal aspect. His images make you interested, not just in the clothes, but in the psychology of the girl at that moment. He takes that photograph beyond just being a fashion photograph. I’m really obsessed with his work. I realize how smart he is with the way he approached style and beauty and fashion and portraiture. He captured that awkward moment in portraiture, which you don’t see now—things have gotten very cold, and static.

Your work has a lot of movement and motion. It’s blurry, but it’s visceral and tactile–it’s very different from the digital crisp, sharp studio images that we’re used to seeing. How would describe that aesthetic and how you got there?

Well you really tapped into that one word: tactile. That’s the one word that I use the most. I really want you to be able to feel it, to touch it. That element is very important to me in a photograph, and that’s why I shoot film. That’s why I shoot high ISO film. And I develop it in a certain way. I develop at home in my bathroom. I even change the chemistry a bit to make it grainier. In some ways, I’m like the opposite of all that let’s-make-it-clean mentality. The dirtier it gets, the better it is for me. Right now, all of these digital cameras out there are so sharp and clean and I feel like, in some ways, the image loses emotion, it loses atmosphere, and it just compresses things. Even the lenses that I shoot with—I use lower-end lenses that aren’t as sharp– the cheaper Nikon lenses. Because otherwise the image is so sharp that you see the veins in the eyes. I don’t want to see that in a portrait. I just want to see something emotional. I think at the end of the day, that’s what a good picture is—does it move you or not?

It’s almost a shame now that kids are only learning in digital because there is a lot less room for mistakes—you know, I think mistakes and accidents are good thing when you do art. And not having too much control is a good thing. And when you print in the darkroom, you really understand how a photograph really should look. I like the discipline film brings to my work and the pace it brings to my work.

-Gina Pollock

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    Found this piece I wrote on Pari Dukovic back in February. He’s now the Staff Photographer for The New Yorker. I’m...
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    SMOOTH
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    Pari Dukovic’s photography regularly appears in magazines like New York, Esquire, Time, and The New Yorker, but his...
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