Behind the Image: How Chiara Zonca Creates Cinematic Self-Portraits

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Known for staging captivating and otherworldly self-portraits, Chiara Zonca shares her creative process with us, from location scouting and inspiration material to lighting setups and gear advice.

Words and Photography by Chiara Zonca

This image, a self-portrait, is one of the first I shot from my upcoming new series, She Moves While Earth Sleeps. It’s the story of a woman trapped between dream and reality. For the reality portion, I wanted to shoot in a retro 60s and 70s inspired interior, somewhere that would give my photos a cinematic quality. My goal was to create a world of its own, borrowing references from mid-century Americana, sci-fi, retro-futurism and other cultural elements I personally enjoy. 

The nostalgic element was particularly important to me when creating my sets. I wanted to live forever in them in a way, to be my character and live her life. I wanted the viewer to feel a sense of longing for a past era that no longer exists. Crafting a fantasy world for me was the ultimate freedom. It was a very liberating experience and a perfect form of escapism from the grim reality we are living in today.

It reminded me of those old film noir movies where the intruder lurks in the shadows.”

How did you find the setting for this photo?

As I was traveling through Southern California, I knew I could find a short let property inspired by mid-century modern architecture to get that 60s and 70s feel. Turns out it wasn’t as easy as I had hoped. Most houses I found were way too polished and modern. I needed something modest but with an authentic retro vibe.

As soon as I saw this small pool house available to rent on Airbnb I knew it was the one. The owner kept everything pretty much as it was in 1960. It had that perfect mix of old Hollywood melancholia and the sadness of broken dreams. Marilyn Monroe herself allegedly swam in that pool. That was a great find and I shot so much material there I made the location the official home of my character in the series.

Why did you want to take this photo?

This specific photo came to my mind after wrapping the first day of shooting. I was having a glass of wine outside by the pool right after sunset, the house lights were on as it was getting dark. The water had an eerie reflection from the windows, the colours looked amazing and the atmosphere felt incredibly cinematic. It reminded me of those old film noir movies where the intruder lurks in the shadows. I knew I had to shoot that scene with my character gazing at the camera, as if she was being observed from the outside. I thought it was a great way to pull the viewer into the story.

What was your lighting setup for this scene?

For this image, I kept the lighting pretty natural. At first I tested the indoor light setup of the house to figure out the combination I liked the most. The cottage had some really cool vintage lamps that were slightly tinted, one was warm and orange, one more green and cold, giving it a very natural, cool tone overall. After picking my favorite combination, I had my assistant pointing a light at me outside to brighten up the side of the house where I was standing. I shot it at blue hour, this way there was still some definition in the shadows while getting that nice reflection in the water from the house.

I exposed for the mid-tones and then scanned and graded the film a tiny bit to match the real life scene I had in mind. Overall colour grading was extremely minimal. I even kept a little bit of Portra 400’s trademark greens on the highlights.

When shooting self portraits on film it’s really useful to take a couple of digital photos beforehand.”

What gear did you use to take this photo?

I used a Canon 5D Mark III to take digital tests. When shooting self portraits on film it’s really useful to take a couple of digital photos beforehand to test the lights, exposure and my overall performance. The actual photo was made with a Hasselblad 500c medium format film camera. Lens was an 85mm f/2.8. Film stock was Kodak Portra 400 exposed for 800 and then pushed one stop.

I love the colour richness, the atmosphere, the delicate sadness to it.”

What do you think makes it a great photo?

I love this photo because it came out exactly how I envisioned it, which is rarely the case with my work. My photos seem to come up either worse or better than I expect them to be, which can be exhilarating and frustrating at the same time.

In this photo, I love the colour richness, the atmosphere, the delicate sadness to it.

Is this project going to continue in the future?

This series is still open and it’s fascinating how this photo was my first push to shoot it, even before I had figured out the reasons why I wanted to create it. Slowly, with time the story is revealing itself to me, along with deeper motives for producing the work in the first place. 

Ultimately I’d like this series to turn into a book, which is why I approached it with a storytelling framework in mind. Last October I released the first part of the story, which is basically a teaser of what’s coming – you can’t really tell the full narrative from this first set. Part two will hopefully be released by early Summer and the book will come at a later stage. Basically, I see this photo as the inception of an extremely exciting and fulfilling project that I cannot wait to keep sharing as it unravels.

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Chiara Zonca

Chiara Zonca is an artist currently living in Western Canada. Her mystical aesthetic evokes dreamy landscapes that seem to exist beyond time and place. Otherworldly colours and brilliant framing in Chiara’s work implores you to slow down and meditate on the beauty of our natural world. Chiara shoots with Urth lens filters.