PHLEARN MagazineExploring the Surreal Fantasy World of Bella Kotak

Exploring the Surreal Fantasy World of Bella Kotak

Photography was always something that Bella Kotak was interested in, however in the beginning it was more about capturing moments with family and friends. It was much later that she became fascinated with it as a craft. And like a lot of photographers, Bella fell into the craft of photography through Photoshop.

A few years back, she was studying architecture and needed to know how to use Photoshop for one of the classes. This is when Bella decided to start a 365 project. Having come across the idea on Flickr, Bella’s personal goal for her own personal 365 was to become better at Photoshop. But, along the way, she fell in love with everything else, too. The subject, story, light, colors, the gear… it all captivated her and eventually led to her creating fantastic, imaginary worlds and scenes in a unique portraiture style.

We recently had the chance to talk more with Bella about her surreal fantasy images and her journey in the world of photography.

You have said that you were always interested in photography, but when did you begin to consider yourself a “photographer and/or artist”?


I’m not really sure when I began to consider myself a photographer. For the longest time, and even now, I struggle with imposter syndrome. I think it was when I started giving interviews and getting hired for photography jobs online that I realized this was happening. I’m being hired as a photographer, I’m providing a service and that’s when I started to call myself a photographer. Now however, I’ve completely embraced the title of artist. I feel it suits me better. Photography to me is just one tool that I use to channel expression and thoughts.

Did you always want to be a photographer or was there something else you thought you would be doing?


I’ve always had a million dreams for my life ever since I was a child. I never had a fixed notion for what I was supposed to be doing with my life and it’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve struggled a lot with feeling lost and directionless. In the end I decided to just chase what I’m naturally drawn to and what excites me. I love creating beautiful art, I love bringing others with me on a journey, I love sharing what I’ve learned, and along the way I’ve fallen in love with nurturing and creating a community of creatives that motivate and inspire each other. I’ve experienced some amazing things that just wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t decided to follow my heart.

Which artists or photographers do you most admire or have influenced/inspired you?


I have so many people I admire I don’t know where to start! At the moment, Guillermo del Toro is someone whose vision and execution is a huge inspiration to me. I love his use of subjects, monsters, lighting, and colors to create a mood and evoke thoughts and emotions in the viewers. He whisks you away to another world and that’s exactly what I want to do with my art.

Through my fascination with this craft, I’ve noticed that I’ve become a lot more conscious about the lighting and moods in my images. I still have a long way to go and I’m only one person but when I see other creatives aiming high to master their craft, it inspires me to work harder and strive for new highs. It makes my obsession worth it because I can see others working hard too.

Aside from other photographers and artists, who has been the biggest influence with regards to your photography and for you personally?


My biggest influence has got to be my partner and husband, Pratik Naik. He’s a creative too and understands this world and how to handle my artist’s angst. His level-headedness and infinite support has been the reason why my style has grown over the years. His are the first eyes to ever see my work and every time I create a piece I want to wow him.

He may not know it, but he is part of the reason why I’m always striving to make each picture better than the one before. He is also one the hardest working people I know, which also motivates me to get myself in gear and stop making excuses!

Do you have any particular habits that are a part of how you begin your creative process?


I don’t have any particular habits when it comes to starting the creative process. Until now, I’ve been creating very organically, shooting on the go without much notice, using the natural world around me (usually bushes in my neighbors gardens!) and styling with whatever dresses and costumes I have on hand. Location, however, is one of the huge contributors to getting the creative process started.

I’ve started working on a new series inspired by my favorite artists and art pieces that have left a huge impression on me. This is the first time that I’m taking time to prepare for each shoot and crafting an image consciously. Right now, I’m moodboarding, location scouting, and reaching out to fellow creatives whose incredibly talented skill sets I want to include in this series.

What do you do when you hit a wall during your creative process?


Hitting a wall in the creative process is frustrating but sometimes it’s also very necessary, even though it may not feel like it at the time. I hit a huge wall a couple of years ago and no matter how much I tried to push through, shooting and shooting, I just couldn’t break through. In the end, I was utterly exhausted – mentally and physically. That’s when I took a break.

I slipped away from the online world and immersed myself in real life away from the computer. I connected with friends, traveled, talked to other creatives, went to galleries and museums, watched a lot of Netflix, and started catching up with my reading. I released myself from the pressures to create and, over time, I started to identify where some of the cracks had come from. Space can give clarity and when you come back, you’re stronger and hopefully a little wiser too.

What’s the one quote that always fires you up or inspires you (sort of your go-to quote for inspiration/motivation)?

“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

– Nelson Mandela

Every time I feel overwhelmed or am struggling with something, these words really help ground me.

What are you focusing on right now in your work and photography?


Right now I’m focusing on being an artist who’s creating without limit. I want to embrace that and explore to go beyond any unconscious limits I have. I’m curious about what I can create when I release all expectation I place on myself.

If you were able to capture your ‘essence’ (or the essential part of you and what represents your life) in a photo, what would be happening in it?


Probably a whole lot of flowers and unfurling greenery! I’m constantly growing, evolving, and blooming into womanhood. Every day is another day to learn more about myself, to embrace life, and be better than who I was the day before.

What’s your favorite photo you’ve ever captured and why?


That has to be The Kiss. I created that one summer evening deep in the woods with two models, an assistant friend, and Pratik. It symbolizes the romance between loved ones. I captured it a few months before I married my best friend. It was also inspired by Gustav Klimt’s, The Kiss. This is the picture that inspired the idea for a new series!

What do you hope that people take away from your photography?


Wonder, and a new found love for nature and flowers! I just hope that for a moment in time, as they look at my work, they forget their troubles and are whisked away to a magical place. I think a great photo is one that makes you stop and connect with either the subject or the story the creator is trying to express. If it makes you feel, think, or moves you in a particular way, then that’s a successful photograph. I truly believe that it doesn’t even matter what medium it’s shot on, whether camera or phone, as long as the intent is conveyed.

How important is it to you to connect with your subject to help bring out their true self in the photos?


It’s so incredibly important for me to connect with my models. It’s this inner light that brings an image to life. This is why I always shoot with models who are either friends or people I’ve worked with before and admire. That connection is beautiful and I truly believe it’s the heart of my work.

If you could take you photography in any direction, without fearing rejection or failure, what new thing would you want to try?


This is where I am right now. It’s the space I’m building a personal collection of imagery in. Creating without fearing failure. I’m exploring shooting underwater, in locations with lighting setups, working with a variety of interesting people and models and just pushing myself past limits. I have no idea what direction this will lead me down but I’m ok with that. My goal is to enjoy the process and embrace the journey.

There was a breathtaking shoot you did for Faerie Magazine for their Tolkien-themed issue. Tell me more about how this shoot came to be and what the images and being featured in the magazine meant to you.


Thank you so much. That shoot came together though Ian Hencher who was the Elf King model in the shoot. He reached out to Faerie Magazine and they suggested we create something for their Tolkien issue. When Ian came to me with the concept, I jumped on board as I’m a huge Tolkien fan! I live in Oxford – the same place where LOTR was written. I walk the same woods that inspired the Ents, I take country walks in landscapes that look like the Shire and I create magical worlds where I imagine elves to live in. We shot this in early spring and it’s one of my favorite sets of images.

You have several stunning image stories in a number of publications. Is there one of these collections that is more special to you?


It would definitely have to be In Bloom. I started creating that project in 2014 and through it I’ve grown and evolved into the artist I am today. Through the series I’ve explored ideas, channeled my inner journey, created characters, fallen in love with the seasons, worked through my own personal winters towards the light and life of spring. It’s a body of work that holds a very special place in my heart.

What is it about the fantasy side of your work that you gravitate toward versus just producing more simple images of what is physically in front of your camera?


I love all aspects of photography. The more simple, moment-catching images are wonderful but the fine art side allows me to create as an artist. I’m conscious of every detail, light, pose, expression, movement, prop, etc. Just as a painter releases their imagination on a canvas, I do the same as I pull the pieces together in front of me and then enhance the expression later through post-production. I find the whole process so fascinating and fulfilling.

If you were mentoring someone interested in moving their art in the more surreal direction, what is one of the key pieces of advice you would give?


Experiment and practice your ideas! Be open to a variety of ideas and focus on creating for yourself. Create your own techniques and ways of doing things. There’s no failure in art or life. Just lessons learned and then you try again.

What is your thought process when determining whether an image or set of images should be finalized as black and white versus color?


It depends on the image and the mood I want to convey. For portrait/emotion-driven imagery, I love to go black and white and it strips away the distraction of color, leaving the purity of expression behind. That works really well in my opinion.
For my personal series, I love to play with color. To show how beautiful, lush, and alive the world that we live in is. I use color to enhance this expression.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have encountered with your fine art fantasy work?


Believing in myself. I sometimes feel like I’m a fraud or failure and logically I know this isn’t true. I’ve been working hard on changing the way I think/talk to myself and building a stronger foundation of self-love and inner belief. No one can do that work but you and I really don’t want to look back and wonder why on earth I was holding myself back.

During your travels, you have captured some breathtaking images. Of all of the amazing, beautiful places you have traveled and photographed, what is one that really stands out photographically to you? And what is one place you have yet to travel that is on your list to see?


It’s hard to pick, but this year I had the opportunity to visit and teach in Joshua Tree, California and that was a really beautiful location! The light, the wild backdrop, the incredibly beautiful souls that modeled for me. I’ve started working on those pictures and I can’t wait to share them soon.

Hawaii is on my 2019 list of places to travel to and shoot. I can’t wait to lose myself creating in its glorious nature and light.

With the fantasy style of creating that you do, do you see the world as if you were behind the lens (or in front of the monitor in post), or is that a mindset only for when you are shooting/creating?


I would say both. There’s magic in front of my camera as I shoot – the light, the model, the moment. And later when I’m on the computer, there’s wonder in the possibilities – pulling together pixels, playing with colors, the influence of the music that I listen to at the time. All these moments come together and the final photo is a result of the whole process.

Can you tell us about Fine Art Actions and how that collaboration came to be?


Fine Art Actions was born from inquiries I’d receive asking about my color toning process. I didn’t really know how to describe what I do in Photoshop and so with the help of my partner in Photoshop, Pratik, we decided to collaborate and create a platform that helps our fellow creatives realize their color toning visions. We’re currently undergoing a rebrand and will be launching a brand new site in January! Here is a little sneak peek: www.thecolorlab.com. There will be lots of new products from us and collections from leading photographers. It’s so great to see how our color community is growing and how many artists are now using our tones.

One final question as we wrap up. How has PHLEARN impacted your work, or has it helped you out in any specific way?


I’m very familiar with PHLEARN! I think it’s an incredibly inspiring platform that is a huge resource for both aspiring and professional photographers. It was where I learned a lot about Photoshop in the beginning of my journey.

Whether she is deep in the forest with just her equipment and a model or stepping outside of her comfort zone in a studio environment, Bella Kotak is creating some of the most fantastical images today. If you want to keep up with Bella and see her other amazing work, you can check out her website. You can also follow all of her social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Dena Withrow

Dena is a full-time graphic designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist photographer. In addition, she is a very proud mom to one son and four wonderful dogs. Her love for both writing and photography came at a very early age and has stayed with her ever since. Born and raised in Georgia, Dena still resides in her tiny hometown, along with her husband.

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