Photographer Polina Osherov may live in Carmel, but, she says, "I consider myself completely international."
Osherov was born in Russia and did most of her growing up in Australia. More on that soon. At the moment, she's sitting in her Stutz Building studio, a high-ceilinged black box that's been made to seem much larger than it is by an enormous swoosh of white paper soaring up from the floor to the roof beams.
The paper backdrop is meant to create an illusion of limitless space. Overcoming limitations has been a hallmark of Osherov's work, both as fashion photographer in a market not known for its flair, and as an activist at the heart of a collaborative effort called Pattern, trying to make fashion a more recognizable part of the Indianapolis scene.
"There's a lot going on and maybe you have to work a little harder to find it, but it's here," Osherov says with a blue-eyed glint that, combined with a raspy laugh, gives her a slightly mischievous edge. "It's happening."
Cameras are second nature to Osherov. Her father was a highly regarded cinematographer in Moscow. But being of Jewish heritage, the Osherovs had an uneasy life in the Soviet Union or, as Osherov says, "My parents were not very excited about being part of the communist empire."
The family was allowed to apply to emigrate. The process took more than two years, but finally resulted in a move to Melbourne. Although this got the Osherovs out of a repressive environment, it was a temporary setback for Osherov's father. "He was one of the top filmmakers in Moscow but, in Australia, he was just a weird-looking dude with an accent."
Osherov's multi-lingual parents found work as language translators. Then, at about the time Osherov was graduating from high school, they were offered jobs by an organization in Chicago that wanted translations of religious tracts for distribution in the post-Glasnost U.S.S.R. The family moved again.
"I'm an only child," Osherov says, "so I didn't have any say in it."
Osherov received an international student scholarship to attend St. Xavier University on Chicago's southwest side.
"I was the typical college bachelor of arts student who went through everything, from graphic design to architecture, to political science," she says. "I ended up with a degree in physician assistance studies. I could have been a doctor!"
Osherov met her husband of 17 years, the successful motivational speaker Ben Glenn, at St. Xavier and helped manage Glenn's speaking career, as it took off throughout the Midwest. Frustrated with the high cost of living in Chicago, not to mention its cold climate, the couple decided to move to Indianapolis. "Three hours south made a big difference for us financially and weather-wise - and still allowed the business to continue."
They arrived in the Circle City in 1999.
On a lark
Osherov didn't begin to think of herself as a photographer until she had the first of her two children. "In the digital photography age you see a lot of people, especially those in retail photography - the ones that shoot kids, weddings, seniors - are women. They started with shooting their children, and then found out they were good at it," Osherov says. "I fall into that category. I was reminded how much I loved it."
But when Osherov tried her hand at photographing kids, weddings and seniors: "I hated all of it."
Then she stumbled upon an ad on Craigslist. Photographer Jay Gambino needed help shooting a fashion show. "I called him on a lark," Osherov says.
The experience not only provided Osherov with entrée to a new scene, it gave her the chance to stretch her abilities. "I had always been a natural light shooter, but I felt that to go to the next level, I had to understand strobes and get familiar with [other forms of artificial lighting]."
She brought a strobe to the fashion show and duct-taped it to a pole. "The pictures turned out great. They were different."
Soon Osherov was meeting people in the city's burgeoning creative class and doing self-assigned fashion shoots, "to expand my craft and get the hang of it." Things, as she puts it, "snowballed."
Osherov says her feel for fashion has been a work-in-progress. "I remember when I was younger, I would look at the runway stuff - the fall issue of Vogue that's two-inches thick - and skip over all of it because I didn't know what I was looking at. So much of it is pretty outlandish. Who is going to wear this? Who can afford it? But I've since learned it's more intricate than that. It's everything, from shoes to hair to make-up. A lot of it's in the details, then how that translates to real life. How you interpret it. There's a whole creative process."
She says it took her years to understand the real importance of shoes. "I could not wrap my mind around how women could spend $200, $300, $400 on a pair of shoes. But I've finally grasped that the outfit starts with a shoe. You have a great shoe, it literally can take the entire outfit from boring and mundane to the most stylish, chic thing ever. It's completely bizarre, but I get it now."
For Osherov, a successful fashion shoot often begins with what she calls "stories" that might be inspired by run-down buildings or a beautiful natural setting. "I'll percolate on that. I don't know that there's a formula. Usually, I accumulate ideas and inspiration when I'm not actively trying to think about a shoot. Like any creative person, you just have these notebooks and you collect pictures and it all marinates. Then, one day, you see a location or a model and you go, 'Oh, yeah! I've been thinking about this for a year.'"
Osherov's work displays an unabashed theatricality and romance. Although she understands the appeal of photographers who work against expectations by deliberately looking for ugly or otherwise disturbing imagery, "that's too deep for me," she laughs. "I'm in it to make beautiful pictures."
"I think it catches someone's eye if they can somehow relate to it," Osherov says of her image-making. "It's a situation they've been in, or they want to be in, or they can imagine themselves being in. I think my goal is to create a beautiful image that is a fantasy of sorts that a consumer would buy into."
"One thing I'll say about shooting in Indiana is it forces you to be really creative," Osherov says. "I've done some shoots in cornfields. I love that. I think we have some great skies. And those roads that lead off to the horizon - I like that."
She also appreciates the creative opportunities afforded by Indianapolis' relatively small market size. This is a blessing, but also a handicap. "There are creative opportunities galore. Fiscal opportunities? Not so much. At least not yet. There are so many people that are extremely talented and who are hungry to work with others. People will donate their time for hours and weeks and months. But none of it pays, by and large. At least not in the fashion photography field."
Osherov calls her cohorts in the local fashion scene "pioneers." This group, based, for the most part, Downtown, is "pushing on all levels: design, art, architecture, interior design, photography, fashion. To them, it's important and exciting. It's exciting because you can see things evolving in ways you might not see in other cities, where the movement is more slow. Indiana is so convenient and cheap. If you can have the convenience married to a dynamic cultural life, not only will it attract more talent, it will boost the city economically."
The trouble, says Osherov, is that the city's wider population remains skeptical about the value of the arts. It also suffers from a case of collective low self-esteem that causes them to think that creative enterprise, like the fashion industry, is for other cities, but not for Indianapolis.
That's where Pattern comes in.
Cutting out a pattern
"I think that style - how people carry themselves and dress themselves - is a really good indicator of how they feel about themselves and their prospects and what the future holds," Osherov says. "I'm not one for settling and I think that taking the time to evaluate how you look every day is an important indicator of how you're living your life.
"I hate to say this, but I can see how some people would say that if you end up living in a city like Indianapolis, you are settling. If you really have ambition, you wouldn't be here, you'd be on a coast. Pattern is about trying to change that perception as much as possible."
Pattern grew out of conversations and late-night rants among a circle of local fashionistas who felt representation of their industry in Indianapolis media was insufficient. This was about two years ago. At repeated gatherings, the group began to outline an ambitious to-do list that included the creation of a downtown fashion district, where designers could work, have showrooms, small shops and manufacturing cells, with apprenticeship opportunities for students. They also tried to connect with the seven or eight existing fashion programs available throughout the state.
These efforts bore little fruit, largely, says Osherov, because the group was trying to run before it could walk. "It was a huge undertaking and none of us was qualified to take it on."
But their efforts were generating enough interest to catch the attention of Broad Ripple branding and identity guru Kristian Andersen, who volunteered his services.
Andersen suggested the group was trying to do too much. It was also presuming that a fashion community already existed. He offered Verge, the networking group for the city's IT community, as a role model for emulation. "They started out with five guys in a bar," Osherov says. "Now it's a very dynamic community that's making a lot of things happen and bringing money to Indiana."
Hence Pattern, the aegis for a grassroots movement aimed at creating enough critical mass around local fashion so that city leaders begin paying attention. Through its website, patternindy.com, Pattern has been organizing monthly meet-ups, typically drawing from 60-100 people around such topics as fashion photography, street style and small business resources. It has also published an eponymously named magazine.
Pattern magazine first appeared last spring. A second issue is due this fall. Osherov, who serves as editor-in-chief, says the magazine is meant to serve as a physical manifestation of the group's larger goals. "Pattern represents fashion lovers and consumers and creators. We're in Indianapolis. There's this movement. Hopefully, the quality of the magazine makes people sit up and say, 'What? This was done here? In Indiana?'"
Osherov recalls running into Mayor Greg Ballard at a public event shortly after Pattern's first issue came out. She ran out to her car, grabbed a handful of copies and put them in the mayor's hands. "I got a picture of him holding it, which is awesome because if we can keep adding to our numbers there's money out there to get something going."
"It would be a dream come true to have big companies bring their productions here because they recognize they can get a great photographer in Indianapolis and they can do it for less, with less headaches," Osherov says.
Be that as it may, she finds the Midwestern ethic of learning to do more with less congenial with the way she works. "I love that I can shoot a $100,000 production here for 50K. That's great. I'm not that greedy. I don't have an apartment that costs me six grand a month to worry about."
But there's something else Osherov finds appealing about her adopted home. "My ability to have relationships that are real. I'm not in this to cut anybody out. I love that Indianapolis has this very communal spirit. We're all in it together. I hope we never lose that. New York is too vast for that. L.A. is too fake. There's a Midwestern authenticity that's really important and sets us apart.
"I love it that if people Google fashion in Indianapolis, our website pops up and they go, 'Hey! This is actually pretty good.' Something changes there. If we do that to enough peoples' minds then maybe, eventually our reputation will evolve to something more than Colts, a racetrack and corn."
Read the first issue of Pattern magazine below.
[A+E] Film + TV, Environment, Current Events
[A+E] Theater + Dance
[A+E] Theater + Dance, Jazz + Blues + R&B
[A+E] Theater + Dance
[A+E] Visual Arts + Museums