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Laura Okita
courtesy of Instagram/@lauraokita_official

Photographer Laura Okita takes the beauty shots of your dreams

TextAlex Peters

The beauty photographer talks growing up in Colorado dreaming of Dior and what beauty means to her

From digital artists to photographers, body sculptors and hair stylists to make-up and nail artists, in our Spotlight series, we profile the creatives tearing up the rulebook in their respective industries.

“I realised I just have a gravitational pull to get as close as I can when taking an image,” says photographer Laura Okita on what drew her from away from fashion photography and towards beauty. “I can’t explain it.” 

It’s this compulsion to get as close as possible, alongside a fascination with faces and the ephemeral nature of make-up – “An artist spends hours to create a look, you photograph it, and that very exact look is gone forever once you take it off. You really capture a moment that will never exist exactly the same ever again,” she says – that has lead Okita to become such an accomplished beauty photographer. 

With her signature closely-cropped shots and gentle female gaze, Okita creates a sense of intimacy and comfort with her subjects which is only enhanced by her soft and dreamy style. Previously a model herself, Okita’s years spent in front of the camera lead her to develop a sensitivity to the needs of her models that translates itself into a protected, serene atmosphere that permeates her images.  

Since falling in love with photography, Okita has gone from strength to strength and today boasts a portfolio including Vogue Italia, Pat McGrath Labs, Marc Jacobs, and Beauty Papers

Here we caught up with her about growing up in Colorado dreaming of Dior and what beauty means to her.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you grew up?

Laura Okita: I was born on a farm in Eastern Colorado, it was very quiet. I learned to work with nature and I think that has always stayed with me – making something from what you have around you. 

I was always very tall, much taller than the other kids in my school. I reached 6 feet by high school. The awkwardness of being tall eventfully turned into an opportunity. When I was 15, I went to a local modelling agency who placed me in NYC and Barcelona. I took a break from modelling and went to the University of Colorado at Boulder, completing a Bachelors Degree in Anthropology. After I graduated, I moved to NYC.

Do you remember the first time you were conscious of your appearance?

Laura Okita: I was on a swim team from age 10-17. When I was about 12 or 13 I saw a picture of myself with some medals I had won in a race. I always knew that I had slightly uneven hips due to scoliosis, but I hadn’t ever been that aware of it. It was really noticeable in the picture and I became very self-conscious of it. It always bothered me until I found a way to use it to my advantage. Whenever I was at a casting that I didn’t want to get the job I would exaggerate the unevenness on purpose. I worked both ways though, I could also use the unevenness positively to give more shape to poses in pictures.

Growing up, what informed your understanding of beauty and identity and the way you presented yourself visually?

Laura Okita: I always loved fashion. I would buy every fashion magazine at the grocery store and flip to the section that laid out the trends for the season. Of course, I never would be able to find the exact pieces at stores in Eastern Colorado, but my grandmother was an amazing seamstress and she would make me things.

By high school, I was very into vintage fashion and thrifting. My favourite was Dior’s New Look. I never was lucky enough to come across Dior in the vintage stores, but I always hoped. It inspired me to follow the current couture collections. I remember watching the Dior couture shows on YouTube and being in awe of the hair and make-up especially. It was so grand like Cinderella.

When I started modeling I would save my favourite pages from the magazines. I was in love with an image of Gemma Ward in a Prada ad (AW04). She had a light smoky eye and a kind of bouffant. I would bring the picture to shoots and ask if I could have that look! I never imagined that over 10 years later I would meet Pat McGrath, the artist who made the make-up I was in love with.

Why are you a photographer? What made you want to become one?

Laura Okita: I was taking continuing education classes for fashion design. Whenever I made a garment, I would take pictures of myself in it. Loving everything vintage, I bought the most affordable film camera I could find on Craigslist. It was a Mamiya RB67 likely from the 1970s. A good 7lbs of equipment. It threatened to break my $20 tripod every time. I just fell in love with using the camera. The sounds of the massive shutter, waiting for the film to develop, it was all so exciting. I started photographing everything, buildings, flowers anything I saw. I would work full time during the day at an office, and edit photos at night and all weekend.  

It's funny because when I was a model, to me, the photographer was definitely a man’s job. I never had any interest in it. I wanted to be an astronaut or Indiana Jones when I was little but never thought about being a photographer. 

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?

Laura Okita: I’m very inspired by colour and texture and things from nature. Usually, my mood boards have paintings and fine art. I am inspired by the model – what hair and makeup or type of look works best for her. From there I try to blend that idea with the overall concept. I usually shoot film. I have started collecting film cameras and have quite a few different cameras that I switch between.

When I am shooting, I like to feel the connection and mood with both the model and team. I don’t like using a tripod because I can’t move freely. I want to create a moment, I like it to feel somewhat organic. I think I am very sensitive to how the model feels from being a model myself. It definitely influences the shoot. I try to avoid extremely cold environments or uncomfortable locations. That is probably one of the things that lead me to beauty photography – it’s the most protected and serene environment to work in.

Is beauty something you try to capture in your work or something that you reject? What is your relationship to ‘beauty’?

Laura Okita: It really lies in the definition of beauty. I definitely reject standard ‘beauty’ and the concept of it. I don’t really shoot traditional make-up or glamour. I like the non-traditional, the interesting, creative. I like small little ‘mistakes’ or something just a bit off. I think each model (and every person) has some uniqueness to capture. For me, what makes an image beautiful is the feeling and that is why I like shoots to feel organic and in the moment. It’s a relationship shared between the whole team that you bring to life.  

As a student of Anthropology, I get to see the variety of beauty of the world both historically and present. I think that is what drew me to Anthropology. Piercings or tattoos, body modification, age, make-up, every culture has extreme differences as to what they value. There is so much richness in beauty in the modern and ancient world from images painted on a pharaoh’s coffin to the Yanomami Indians piercings, Geisha hair and make-up and headdresses of the Aztec. Not only is beauty relative, it is also wonderfully unique and diverse.

Why does the body and particularly the face that fascinates you?

Laura Okita: The face is where most of our emotions and feelings, that through which our inner-selves are most expressed.

Do you ever get tired of looking at faces?

Laura Okita: I never get tired of looking at faces. I actually can’t stop! Even walking down the street, or at dinner, I see faces and beauty. That’s one thing I love about NYC, there are so many different people.

Did working as a model and being in front of the camera teach you anything that you now use when you are behind the camera?

 Laura Okita: I remember always feeling like I was doing something wrong on set as a model, especially when everyone is staring at you looking irritated. Now I know its because they are thinking about to how fix the hair or should we add accessories. I try to explain what’s going on the model and communicate with them so they are involved in the process as much as possible.

Looking back would you have done anything differently?

Laura Okita: I wouldn’t do anything differently, but I would tell myself that there will be more and better things. Sometimes a story doesn’t end up getting published or there are a lot of other disappointments in the industry. Just keep going forward. Let it inspire you to try again instead of feeling down.

How do you think the industry has evolved since you first started out? 

Laura Okita: I think it’s changed so much! There were very few female photographers when I was a model. I never shot with one. Now, there are more females working in photography and production, video. The age minimum for models moved to 18 for runway and a lot of big brands are now adopting it for their campaigns too. I think that’s great and necessary. There’s more accountability and transparency. It’s a safer industry now and more professional. I’m also excited to see there’s growing diversity both in front of and behind the camera. 

How do you think our understanding of beauty has shifted with the evolution of technology?

Laura Okita: On one hand, it has given us a false unattainable view of beauty through Photoshop and filters, as well as an oversaturation of what we constantly look at. On the other hand, I think social media has given a space for different voices that may never have been heard before. It's a new place of opportunity and exploration. We are connected with the whole world now. Before technology and specifically social media, all you could see was what was chosen to be shown and put in print mediums or on TV.

What advice would you give to young artists hoping to get into the industry?

Laura Okita: Find your voice and what makes you you. There’s a lot of no’s and disappointments but don’t listen to it. Use everything to make you stronger and work harder. 

Who would you like to shine a spotlight on next? 

Laura Okita: I’d love to see a spotlight on the make-up artist Marla Belt. She’s extremely creative and talented.

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