How does one go from a career in web design, to modeling, and then to shooting book covers? Quite naturally, actually. After picking up a camera in late 2006 ILINA Simeonova—pronounced “ee-LEE-nah”, stylized as ILINA S.—became a bit obsessed.
“It was a new way to express myself creatively, that gave me amazing freedom. I started sharing my work on Flickr, which kept me accountable and pushed me to create new photos every day.”
To date, her photographs have been published on over 350 books covers and in countless ads and magazines. In many of the photographs, she’s the model as well. In addition to the creative self-expression, photography has helped her live out her dream of being a professional model…” or at least my own weird version of it” as she puts it.
She was always into fashion and dreamed of becoming a professional model after booking some gigs when she was a bit younger, though it never materialized as a full-on career. With a particular interest in self-portraiture, ILINA had her work cut out for her—she could still model while also expressing herself through her photography, highlighting the fact that “with nobody there to tell me I wasn’t thin enough, or tall enough, or to point out my numerous physical imperfections…I could channel my visual creativity in this new way while learning the technical side of photography without even noticing.”
After developing a following on Flickr, she drew the attention of publishers and stock agencies. Her simple narrative style turned out to be the stuff book publishers were thirsting for and by following her fascinations ILINA developed particular strengths. “I didn’t try to shoot things that don’t come naturally to me, like events, or documentary. I didn’t shoot crime or horror scenes. I shot bright, poetic pictures of what was easily available to me: myself, my sister, my friends, my surroundings. I used my pre-existing skills in makeup and styling and my ridiculously extensive wardrobe—full of unwearable fashion items—finally came in handy!”
Here ILINA shares the stories behind the shoots and creative process for a few of the most memorable book covers she’s done, including a couple awarded via ImageBrief.
“Recently, I was commissioned to create a cover image for the book Circling the Sun by Paula McLain. It tells the story of Beryl Markham, the first female aviator to fly across the Atlantic from East to West.
I was the designated model for that shoot, because of a slight resemblance I have to the character, particularly in profile. I also happened to own a wig that matched her hair style exactly (but that’s not surprising—I own over 50 wigs, which is part of what helps me look so different in all my various pictures). The shoot came together well, but I wasn’t satisfied with the natural resemblance. I ended up photoshopping my features quite a bit, to make it really believable I was Beryl.
The final cover was a composite of eight images altogether, all but one personal stock. It was fun working on such a challenging task. But what was most satisfying was working with an art director like Robbin Schiff, who was so committed to excellence, and had such a great eye for detail. She helped out with the props and the concept, and had a crystal-clear vision from the start. I also absolutely loved how the design communicates the vintage feel through textures and typography—amazing work by Laura Klynstra. The best covers are always a result of great teamwork.”
“Equal of the Sun was my first license through ImageBrief. It’s a novel about a Persian princess in the year 1570. Now, neither was my model Persian, nor was the photo meant to depict a princess from that era. But somehow, it fit just right. If it wasn’t for ImageBrief, this image would have never been found by this client. No stock agency would have keyworded it as ‘1500s’, ‘Persian’ or ‘princess.'”
“The Sweet Spot cover features my sister. It’s this particular photo that made me learn a lot about shooting people. My sister is gorgeous and photogenic; she’s always loved being in pictures, and we get along great. However, our shoots weren’t working out very well. Even though she’s usually eager to model for me, she never seemed to enjoy it much once we started shooting. As much as I tried to give her clear direction and make her feel comfortable, her poses often seemed forced, and her inner light seemed to dim down. I tried to be encouraging, but she often felt frustrated and told me the shoots made her feel somehow inadequate.
This particular shoot wasn’t going very well either, until I said, “let’s take a break”. I wanted to clear the air a bit. We started talking and joking around, and then she started flirting with the little red feather. I sneaked a few shots, and magic happened.
What I realized that day was that all this time I’d been forcing her to be someone she’s not. There’s this certain type of image that sells very well for book covers – the moody, feminine, vulnerable, pensive look. It comes naturally to me when I do self-portraits, but my sister has so much sass and playfulness inside of her. I’d been ignoring that, while trying to get her to be ‘me’. Once I started encouraging her to bring her own personality into her modeling, her light went on, and she was bursting with ideas for poses and scenarios to shoot. Our shoots came alive, and were now a lot more fun. Not surprisingly, they also resulted in much more interesting and engaging images.”
“This cute couple are my sister’s friends. Neither of them is a professional model, and it was their first time posing for artistic pictures. It was also my first time shooting a couple, and I didn’t really know them well, so I was a bit nervous. But they were quite nervous themselves, and so I focused on trying to make them feel comfortable.
The big surprise for all of us happened when they actually started posing. They completely forgot about me and entered their own little world. Everyone’s nervousness quickly disappeared. The shoot resulted in some super cool images and they were thrilled when they found out they were published on a book cover. It’s the first of many for them, I think.”
“This was my second license through ImageBrief. I have to say, in some ways ImageBrief has made me a more creative photographer. The briefs often give me ideas I would have never thought of otherwise. For example here the original image very much contained me in between those curtains there, looking into the camera all mysterious, and making the curtain fabric flow in the air like that. That was my original concept, and it just never occurred to me to see what it would look like without a person… until this brief, which was looking for ‘A home that seems to be haunted but is not disheveled.’ The client was seeking an image that’s ‘warm’ and ‘subtle’. The reference image showed a window with a curtain. Suddenly, this shoot from years ago came to my mind, and it all just clicked. I photoshopped my mysterious self out, and voila. Haunted home!”