Back to Writing / 5-10-2005

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Nadya Lev. Photo by Jerry Bennett.
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The subjects of fashion and fetish photographer Nadya Lev's photographs possess haunting gazes and wear costumes telling bizarre tales. They rise up starkly in sharp lighting, arresting and captivating the viewer with something erotic though distant, something delicious though hollow, something solitary and something riveting.

Sez G: You're only 22 years old, and already you've shot a Skin Two cover and a lot of the biggest names in fetish and fashion; yet you're going for a career in multimedia authoring. What is it? Please tell us it doesn't mean you'll stop shooting fetish!

Nadya Lev: Interactive art is something I've always studied alongside photography, and it's something that interests me just as much. I've experimented with "dynamics photos" that change in subtle ways as they appear on the screen, as well as photos that alter themselves in response to user input. That's why I never really saw a division between my pursuit of photography and multimedia design. I've worked professionally in both fields, and love it either way. It's all towards the same goal for me.

Sez G: You give your father, photographer Yuri Lev, a lot of credit for inspiring you to pick up a camera on your own. When did you start shooting and how did he guide you?

Nadya Lev: My dad is my biggest critic and my biggest supporter. He critiques my work ruthlessly and always pushes me to do better, better and better. When I became interested in film during high school and digital in college, he was there every step of the way to help me figure out cameras, learn lighting techniques, and even managing photography as a business.

The most important help he's ever given me is his insight on the more abstract aspects of photography, such as composition and color. I still learn something new every time I discuss photography with him. Of course, he wasn't thrilled with my subject mater when I started, but he's since accepted the fact that fetish imagery is one of my interests.

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Sez G: When did you turn your camera towards the fetish world and why?

Nadya Lev: I started by photographing these hairpieces I used to make when I was 18. I had my own online hair company called Plastic Honey, and I made custom fetish hairpieces out of rubber, plastic, computer circuitry, LED lights, electroluminescent wire and other junk like that. Photographing my hairpieces was the most fun part of running my own business, and when I realized that, I abandoned the hair and focused more on photo.

Sez G: A lot of your subjects appear to possess an almost surreal combination of hollow power. What kind of direction do you give your models to achieve this? What else do you do to help set the tone?

Nadya Lev: I think it's important for me to work with models who naturally feel a lot of the things I aspire to capture. Many of my models tend to be artists or performers of some sort, so everything that comes through in the pictures - their power, their certainty - appears because that's actually who they are.

In the end, it's probably a mixture of my mood and the model's mood, which is why you may end up with weird juxtapositions such as the one you describe. With Lilah, my main model, we actually come up with scenarios to help us figure out where the picture is going. For example: "you're the mob leader and you control everyone in town - the pimps, the whores, the politicians, the bankers, the person who's looking at this photo of you right now." Some of the shit we've come up has been so crazy, we could never repeat it to anyone… but it worked.

Sez G: Okay, we'll allow you a few secrets! You're originally from Moscow. How do you think that has affected your art?

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Nadya Lev: Growing up in the Soviet Union was a great time. When I was little I didn't have much exposure to the horrible aspects of it, so all I got to see of the Soviet regime was the beautiful, red, absolute, unmitigated totality of it. The banners, the marches, the fireworks, the militia in their starched uniforms and polished boots, the songs, the Red Square, the showers of red carnations and red ribbons in schoolgirls' hair - all of that left a profound imprint on me.

I actually haven't done as much as I plan to with it yet, but all those ideas of totalitarianism, militarism, uniformity, factory life, assimilation and hate - believe me, they're brewing.

Sez G: And now you're in Philadelphia…What do you think of Philly and its fetish scene?

Nadya Lev: The great thing about Philly is that it seems to be this filthy, unwelcoming ghetto-fab urban wasteland on the outside, but there's a lot of hidden beauty if you know where to look. It's a great place for artists to grow because everything is dirt-cheap.

The Philly club scene nurtured me tremendously, because dressing up for the club instilled me with a certain sense of fashion, dancing instilled me with a sense for posing, and the music instilled me with a sense of atmosphere. Of course, I met some of my best models at clubs here in Philly. One of those models was Lilah - I saw her dancing and she saw me and instantly we felt this connection and became fast friends. We started making pictures together only weeks later, and we continue to work together as much as we can.

Sez G: Do you have any fetishes? Where do you find your inspiration?

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Nadya Lev: My biggest fetish that's manifested itself in my photography is my love for intense clothing that reshapes the body. My inspirations are pretty diverse, and come from so many places I have trouble organizing them. Cenobites, cyborg technology, Victorian whalebone corsets, pre-Raphaelite art, high-tech weaponry, film noir, post-apocalyptic survivalism, sensuous layers of layers of chiffon and lace, prosthetic body parts - these are a few of my favorite things, and I think that the more mixed-up and intermeshed they are, the more I like them.

Sez G: What else do you do outside of photography?

Nadya Lev: I go to school, but I'm about to graduate. I like to write, read, paint, draw and make websites. I worked as a teacher for a while. I taught kids web design and digital imaging, which was a great experience. I like to chill with my friends, two of whom - Nicomis and Lilah - happen to be some of my favorite models. My friends are all very creative people, and we always support each other in our projects and gain inspiration from each other.

Sez G: What's coming up for you in the future?

Nadya Lev: I want to do more photos that have some kind of meaning. I've only been doing this for a year and so far most of my photos have been baby-talk, babbling to prepare for the kinds of things I really want to say when I finally gain the knowledge and skill to say them. I want to get away from the whole "pretty girl wearing a pretty outfit" thing and start doing photos with more tension, setting and story. There will still be beauty and sexuality in them, but there will hopefully be something more lasting to hold on to.

Seems to me you're under-crediting the incredible power your photos already possess, Nadya, but we can't wait to see how your future art will develop! To learn more about Nadya Lev, visit

Nadya Lev - by Sez G.