PPD Master Series: Maxim Guselnikov, From Russia with Love (and Talent)

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday May 23, 2018

If you’ve ever wondered about the state of creative photography in Russia, you only have to look at the work of Moscow-based photographer Maxim Guselnikov  to know that it is alive and flourishing. Guselnikov’s natural-light portraits, shot on location and in the studio, offer a fascinating glimpse into the often mysterious and intensely beautiful character of Moscow and the surrounding countryside. And his young models, a mix of amateurs and professionals, have some of the most enchanting faces that you’re likely to find anywhere.

Interestingly, as intensely beautiful as some of his shot locations are, Guselnikov says he grew up in a suburb of Moscow that was hardly stimulating visually. “I was born and have lived my whole life in the city of Mytischi which is satellite city to Moscow,” he says. “There is nothing special in terms of landscapes or architecture but it's famous for making subway buses for the Moscow Subway.”

Despite the success that he’s had and the sophistication that is apparent in his style, Guselnikov is relatively new to photography. He got his first camera in 2010 to try out photography as hobby. “We had some cameras in our family, but I never was that interested in photography until I bought my first DSLR,” he says. “Of course, back then I couldn’t imagine I would make it this far. I never had any plans of becoming a famous photographer.”

Guselnikov says that he had to rely almost entirely on his own ambitions and determination to learn photography. “I’ve never studied photography anywhere and I can call myself a self-taught photographer,” he says. “Unfortunately, in a country with such a rich background in arts there are no universities where you can learn photography so I simply had no choice but to do it on my own.”

Nor has he ever assisted any photographers. “I didn’t have enough connections back in the days that I made my first steps in photography so I had to do everything myself and learn from my mistakes,” he says.  In fact, he says, a bit of artistic impatience played a role in the growth of his creativity. “I’ve read lot’s of books on photography but I’ve never finished any of them since I was too curious to try the ideas that I got from them as soon I’d read them!”

Today, Guselnikov has turned that learning curve around to teach other photographers across Russia and Europe. And, in fact, teaching has become one of his primary sources of income. “I earn money with teaching in all kinds of venues from video tutorials and online Skype sessions to lectures and masterclasses,” he says. “I do some commercial shootings as well, alongside with promotional work for Tamron and I sell pictures on Trevillion, a big international agency which sells images for book covers, album covers, posters etc.”

Recently I interviewed Guselnikov via email from his Moscow home and was almost as impressed with his nearly-native fluency in English as with his photography. We talk about his work, the state of the photo industry in Russia and his passion for Tamron lenses.

PPD:  A lot of your work is portraiture, shot on location. Is that your preferred subject?

MG: Yes, I prefer to shoot environmental portraits which show not only the person but the location around him or her. I think this kind of portrait is one of the most interesting since it provides so many ways to show mood, atmosphere, emotions and synergy between subject and location, especially if it was well thought and prepared beforehand. But besides that I do a lot of studio shootings, more classic type of portraits.

PPD: You have a lot of beautiful portraits on your website. Are these personal shots or are they done for clients?

MG:  Most of them are my own creative shoots made for my own purposes. They are made on TFP (“time for prints”) terms with the models and I do all of the shot planning myself. Also there are some images from my masterclasses and workshops and few more from recent travels. Most of my clients are not interested in being published which I totally understand.

PPD: Is the professional photo industry in Russia an active and growing business?

MG:  Well I have to admit that right now we have great generation of photographers who got pretty popular, people like Sean Archer, Tatiana Mertsalova, Alexander Vinogradov, Georgy Chernyadyev, Efim Shevchenko, Dmitry Rogozhkin—I can go on all day long. Somehow all those great artists grew up alongside each other and now influence lots of creatives all over the world. But the industry itself has been under stagnation for a couple of years now due to economic crisis.

Despite that we have lots of great professional and enthusiastic models and dozens of great studios so I guess I can clearly say that the industry base we have is great and I hope that photo industry will rise up in coming years. As for me, I have business possibilities not only in Russia but in Europe and maybe one day I’ll expand to the United States and Canada as well. Luckily, I’ve studied English my whole life so it has helped me a lot to get into foreign markets.

PPD: The young women in a lot of your shots are extremely beautiful and graceful looking. Are most of these professional models?

MG: Yes, most are professional models. I prefer to work with them since they understand how to position themselves towards camera and some of them even understand the light and optics so you have to do much less direction during the shoot. As for their appearance it is quite obvious that we have lots of beautiful girls here—sometimes during a single ride on subway you may notice dozens of good looking girls. But as I said, to become a great model you need to get some experience and understanding of the shooting process.

PPD:  How do you get your models to relax in front of the camera? Is there a lot of direction from you?

MG: Well, there are a lot of ways to get people comfortable in front of your camera. The key to a good connection is the way that you communicate and for that you have to throw in some psychology. The way you approach your models depends a lot on their online behavior in social media and their personality of course. After you do some research browsing through profiles and comments you get an idea of  exactly how you should build your communication with any given person.

For example, to get some topics during the shoot I look in their current posts on Instagram and maybe they’ve been to a new movie or a concert that we can discuss. Discussing the topics that strongly relate to your model is really important. It will make her or him feel that you share their interests and by that they will open up their personality much easier and faster. As for directions, yes, I tend to take over the whole posture of my model and direct them precisely.

PPD: In a lot of your portraits I’ve noticed that the hand positions are very elegant and seem very important to you. Is that something that you pay particular attention to?

MG:  Hand position is an important aspect of a model’s position and left undirected it can and has ruined a lot of shots. Because hands are a very delicate substance it is super easy to over-pose them, so I’ve analyzed the way that hands were positioned in some classic paintings and in the movies and came to the conclusion that it is very important to make models use their hands to interact with their environment or their dresses. The natural position of hands immediately starts to blend nicely in almost every scenario and the interaction between subject and location will show a strong bond between them. So the secret is that you have to make your model pick or touch something and that will do the job.

PPD:  One portrait series that I find very haunting is a little girl holding a teddy bear in front of an old house. What was the idea behind those shots?

MG: Well, that shoot was inspired by horror movies such as The Shining and The Amityville Horror. The shots are really just collective images of my own impression from both movies put together in the frame. Actually it was meant to be much darker and gloomier but the model's mother was afraid her daughter would be too scared so I had to soften it. But anyway I like the result.

PPD:  Some of the architectural settings are very beautiful, very elaborate. Are most of these shots done in Moscow?

MG: Well, unfortunately Moscow is not famous for scenic views. While in Moscow I mostly shoot in studios. In Russia we have lots of great locations both architectural and natural and I prefer Saint Petersburg and regions closer to the Finland border. But since I travel a lot I have opportunities to access locations in Europe such as the Marmosaal in Sankt-Florian monastery in Austria, or Zaanse Schans in Netherlands. But for me the place that impresses me most is Iceland. I finally visited there last year and I have to say that this is photographer's heaven, there are just so many possibilities and so much diversity in terms of landscapes.

PPD:  The lighting on these portraits seems natural but it’s so perfect, is it a combination of lighting sources? Strobe?

MG: No, I shoot with natural light in 99.9% of my shoots. I never was into strobes and all that stuff so I’ve just had a camera and lenses with me so that's how I’ve understood how to work with natural light indoors and outdoors. Actually, I am so lazy I don’t even bring reflectors or diffusers with me and work only with available reflective surfaces and light options.

PPD:  What Tamron lenses do you use most often in your portrait work?

MG:  As a Tamron ambassador I’ve tried almost all lenses that the company produces but I’ve ended up with a nice set of my favorite lenses, the Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD, the Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8 Di VC USD  and the Tamron SP 85mm f1.8 Di VC USD. I do love primes for their image quality (IQ) and creaminess of background blur, but for some particular scenarios I may go for zoom lens as well, the 15-30 for example. The fact that all lenses I use are stabilized and weather sealed brings confidence while shooting in harsh weather conditions and in dim light.

PPD: Do you have a favorite Tamron lens?

MG: Yes, my favorite lens is the Tamron SP 45mm f/1.8. This glass is just beautiful. These days everyone goes crazy about sharpness but only a few people understand that sharpness and creamy bokeh are on opposite sides and most of modern super sharp lenses suffer from busy bokeh. And in that case I love the cinematic creamy bokeh it produces. I think this lens produces the best background rendition I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a lot. Also the distortion is so minimal that you can easily shoot indoors at architectural locations and not worry about vertical lines distortion and for me as an environmental photographer this is very important.

PPD: Is there a quality to the Tamron lenses that you particularly like?

MG:  For me the thing about Tamron lenses is that they are perfectly balanced – IQ, bokeh, size, weigh, set of features. You just can't go wrong with it.

PPD: Tell me about your workshops. What is the primary topic?

MG:  Well, since I’m good in environmental portraits those are the main topics of my masterclasses. I’m breaking it down into elements such as character, location, color, optics, composition and of course developing your visual experience and getting inspiration. Environmental portraits are like puzzles, you can throw in only a few elements and it will work but some ideas demand lots of research and character development so all elements should be put in. The more attention to details you put, the better the outcome. Producing good content takes time and this is the thing I'm trying to clarify to participants. Besides that of course I show my post-processing workflow and my image selection, RAW development, color grading, retouching, etc..

PPD:  Where do you teach?

MG: I do a lot of lectures in Russia and last year I visited 25 cities across the country, as well as Europe – Cologne, Milan, Prague, Linz, Tallinn and soon to be others.

PPD: What is it about teaching that you enjoy?

MG: I enjoy encouraging people, making them understand things that were unclear for them and, of course, inspiring them to break the mold and go full speed. Another thing that I like about teaching that it helps you to completely understand the topic you’re teaching and I’ve come to very important conclusions about my photography during all those sessions.

PPD: I know that you’ve taught and worked in Cologne a lot, what is it about that city that appeals to you?

MG: My connection to Cologne appeared out of nowhere when famous German photographer Sacha Leyendecker who lives there got in touch with me and asked if I was up to do some collaborative shootings. He visited Moscow a few months after that, we worked together and discussed the way we can work together and after that we had lots of successful events both in Germany and Russia, masterclasses, workshops and shooting events.

PPD: Have you taught in the United States yet?

MG:  Not yet but I have few students from there and they’ve booked online Skype sessions or bought video tutorials. Of course I'm planning to visit the U.S. with some workshops and lectures one day but it strongly depends on hosts inside the country. I don't have connections such I have in Europe and in Germany or Austria, for example, and arranging everything being on the other side of planet is too risky. But still, it'll be a great pleasure for me when it happens.

PPD: Do you have any project ideas that you’re looking forward to?

MG:  Nothing particular yet but this year I've decided to challenge myself to shoot only the models I haven’t yet worked with. And I have to say that it is pretty tough and unpredictable but this is the way progress comes.

PPD: Do you have any advice for others looking to jump full time into photography?

MG:  Get some patience. Even if you're not happy with your current results and you're aiming for something better, put a lot of effort into what you're doing and don't give up and you'll see the result after a while. Just as I said before, creating quality content takes time so you have to wait and be aware of it. This is what lots of photographers overlook (me included).


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