Kristina Shakht shares the healing story behind her photo essay Emmi and the Orchids – a “comforting” study of the female body captured from her Brooklyn bedroom
Though she lived in America as a child, Kristina Shakht spent the majority of her formative years in Saint Petersburg, Russia – her mother’s hometown. It was here that she fell in love with image-making, playing photographer with “little cheap toy cameras” her parents bought her and enrolling in an arts school at just four. But Shakt never felt at ease as a female artist in Russia and, after some soul-searching in Berlin, the photographer returned to US soil two years ago, settling in New York City.
Here, in America’s teeming cultural epicenter, and one of the country’s most badly affected areas by the pandemic, Shakht photographed her intimate Polaroid series Emmi and the Orchids from the confines of her “tiny” Brooklyn apartment. A soft and loving study of the female body, the images capture a model, Emmi Shockley, in a series of black and white portraits of simplicity and warmth. But the photo essay has come to represent more than just a creative project for Shakht: “As a sexual assault survivor, for me this story is a way to heal and reframe my experience,” she tells AnOther.
Drawing inspiration from paintings such as Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna Litta, and the statues of Greek antiquity, which Shakht admires for their natural beauty, the series aims to dispel feelings of shame and celebrate the female body just as it is. “After I shot [Emmi] I started playing around with flowers on some days when I’d feel depressed, and then it all came together in a layout and looked very organic, pure and beautiful,” says Shakht of the instinctual floral component of the story, which pairs Emmi with dreamlike Polaroids of orchids. “I feel like we are very distant from nature and have a lot of shame, guilt and taboos around the female body... I think it’s just natural – like these flowers are natural.”
The series also represents an exercise in creative freedom for Shakt, who is more aware than most of the persecution female artists face in other parts in the world. “I’m talking about Russia now of course, and Julia Tzvetkova’s case,” says Shakht. “She is facing two to six years in jail for posting her drawings of vagina-shaped flowers on social media. So for me [the series] is first of all political, even though you can’t see that intent in the story, but it’s definitely one of the driving forces behind my art now: speaking without words about things that bother me.”
This creative clarity was, Shakht says, brought to focus during the stillness of lockdown – a challenging period which sparked new inspiration, self connection and renewal. “I honestly think slowness gave my work quality,” she explains. “I was able to experiment, not rush and try new things. Different formats, films and subjects – New York, the female body, and isolation.” As for her hopes for the series, Shakt says: “I want this photo essay to be a work of love and give a feeling of safe space, the feeling that you get when you look at fluffy clouds or walk barefoot on the grass. Comforting, new and clean.”