Interview by Sam Desmond

With her portfolio spanning three major categories of photography, Lexi van Valkenburg, has built her work on connecting with her subjects by translating their vision through her lens.

Your portraits of women capture and convey so much dignity, even when there is nudity, how do you do that?

I think having a 16-year-old daughter makes me, even more, attune to the idea of photographing a full person, not a body part.  There’s a humanity in nudity.  It’s distressing how young girls are conditioned to do near-naked selfies, but boys aren’t.  I think photographers have a special responsibility not to promote exploitative nudity.

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So how would you promote dignified beauty through your artwork?  Can you take out the sexual aspect?

I think that’s a false correlation.  I have portraitures of women who embrace their sexuality—even with a sense of playfulness, but never fall prey to the “Instagram” posturing.  I would love to do an exhibit featuring my portraiture of women.  It’s something about capturing the duality of confidence and vulnerability that translates to an artistic instead of an exploitative piece.

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Any particular models or subjects that stood out in having the ability to “own their narrative”?

This one woman, a former model, great clothes, fabulous apartment.  She was able to convey different times in her life when she was emotionally accessible.  It was like photographing through a window what kind of person she was in that moment of recollection.

There’s a lot of coaching involved in portrait photography, how do you handle your role of Director?

On the day of shooting it is all about making that person feel comfortable with you, getting to know them and them you, developing trust. Always listens to your instincts and always be honest, when you’re shooting people. If you don’t like how they are styled, tell them, and then work with them or their team until you’re happy with what you see. They may disagree with you but in the end the goal is for the best photo, you’re the artist and that’s your responsibility.  My study of dance and theater definitely helps me as a photographer, there are aspects of shooting that are similar to being the director and a choreographer

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Have you had any experience being on the other side of the camera?

As a child and teenager I studied dance and theater and did a post graduate program at the American Academy of the Arts.  I worked as an actress for a number of years in New York City.

Were you anxious to be on the other side of the camera/viewing?

My grandfather, whom I was very close with, was a professional cameraman. He went on to own a production studio that made commercial/industrial films. I think I inherited a certain intangible visual ability from him, but also an appreciation for the medium as a whole.  I began photographing professionally in a kind of learn as you go manner, and even as I mastered my camera, and other aspects of shooting, I sometimes still felt amateurish.

And you’ve compiled such a broad portfolio.  Are architectural or landscape subjects bigger divas than people?

(Chuckles) Well, a shoot for a portrait is usually a few hours, but landscape architecture shoots are dependent on season, shapes, angles, light and time of day. Also, it’s important to really understand the design, more often than not, my client is the designer, and I want to fully understand their vision so I can capture it aptly and with reverence.

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What technical points do you have to give attention to for landscape architecture?

Flowing curved edges, topography, layering, depth and color–it’s much more difficult to capture, compose and frame.

If you could sum up the different challenges in architectural/landscape vs. portrait photography for a novice, what would it be?

Architectural challenges often have to do with weather and conditions, shooting in low light or harsh shadows, around unappealing aspects of the design etc.  With portraiture my biggest challenge can be the subject’s nerves. You have to put in the time to make them feel at ease. Tension is so easy to see in photographs, it lives not only in their faces, but in their bodies, limbs, posture etc.

You’ve described such a wide breadth of skills necessary to have the expansive portfolio you have, how did you get the confidence to branch out into different niches?

I wasn’t confident at all in the beginning!  I recognized that I had a talent and a passion for photography but needed the technical chops. So, I began studying at ICP. I studied for several years.

What advice do you have for photographers just starting out?

Social media provides such a platform—embrace this type of marketing.  Facebook is not the best for photography, Instagram is better.  Don’t take it to heart if people follow then unfollow you.  You can’t be thin-skinned, but always be supportive when someone else offers their work.