Yelena Yemchuk's beautiful new photo-book is a love letter to one of her closest friends
The relationship between artist and muse is by definition unique: in its practice, its participants, its style. Often explored and theorised, there is something endlessly intriguing about the collaborative pairing – whether between lovers, relatives, acquaintances or friends. Ukraine-born, New York-based photographer Yelena Yemchuk met Annamaria Gallizio when she was around 18 years old and has been shooting her intermittently for over 20 years, in what began as “the total muse situation” and has solidified into a cherished relationship. “It became like an organic love letter to our friendship,” Yemchuk explains. “She was so open to me.”
Anna is Yemchuk’s new photo-book, a gorgeous compilation of her photographs of Gallizio from the last two decades of spontaneous shoots (whittled down, painstakingly, from “hundreds and hundreds” of images). The publication – which is designed by Studio 191 and published by United Vagabonds – takes you through the friendship via sumptuous black and white shots of Gallizio playfully posing, reclining, and staring, often nude, into Yemchuk’s lens. A section of colour photographs is presented too, many of which were taken earlier this year – testament, if any were needed, to the endurance of Yemchuk and Gallizio’s friendship. While Anna is not arranged in a particular order, chronologically or otherwise, certain images hint at being of the same day or time, and so flipping through the book is akin to witnessing the relationship between these two women evolve. “It’s like watching a woman grow up,” says Yemchuk. “Watching somebody change, and grow up from a girl to a woman.
“And it was also like watching me go through the process of photography,” she continues – photographing Gallizio became an opportunity for Yemchuk to experiment with and develop her practice and style. “When you’re out of school, you’re trying to figure out your eye, really figure it out. And there she was. It was like my first experiment with someone out of school, without the teachers, without the opinions, without all that. Just me on my own, one hundred percent. That’s why it became such a powerful relationship in that sense. It was like, there we were, figuring it out together.”
Obvious, then, is their closeness: how well they know one another and how, as Yemchuk puts it, “there’s a lot of trust” between them. Each photograph boasts an absence of inhibitions, owing both to Gallizio’s beguiling presence in front of the camera and to their intuitive spontaneity. “Everything has to be organic and experimental with her,” Yemchuk says. Anna is exemplary of how powerful the female gaze can be – but equally to categorise it in such a way seems reductive, because it is so very singular. As Yemchuk details: “What I love about the project is that’s a celebration of a female that’s not an actress or a model or a known person, which I think is refreshing. Also it’s woman to woman, where there’s not a child or a lover or a family member. A real friendship, which I think is unusual.”
And this friendship began when Yemchuk spotted Gallizio in a restaurant, aged 18. “I was going to Parsons and I got a summer job in New York at an Italian restaurant in Soho,” Yemchuk remembers. “I saw Anna and her boyfriend at my first day of work, and I was like ‘oh my god, this is the most beautiful couple I’ve ever seen’. You know as a kid you’re like ah!” Though they became friends that summer, it wasn’t until a trip to Gallizio’s native Italy a while later that Yemchuk “really started photographing her”, in her hometown of Alba in the north of the country. (Gallizio’s mother and grandmother, Renata and Anetta, were also photographed during this trip, and appear in the book.)
Of course, it was never with the idea of making a book that these photographs were taken; Yemchuk rediscovered many of her photographs of Gallizio – some long forgotten – through the process of archiving her negatives. “I was like ‘wow, we should find all we can on Anna and prioritise that’, because I realised I had all these negatives I’d never printed,” she says. “It was so exciting to find all these shoots that I’d never even looked at except on a tiny 35mm contact sheet. So that was very, very fun. That was amazing.” Anna by no means marks the end of this longstanding relationship, either. In fact, while over the years the duo have seen gaps as long as two years between shoots, Yemchuk shot Gallizio again just a couple of months ago. “The book is already out in Japan, so we went for the book launch and we ended up shooting again of course – I mean, how could you not? In Kyoto and Tokyo. It’s the best, when you can, and you have the person you’re excited to photograph.”
Anna by Yelena Yemchuk is available now, published by United Vagabonds.