A dynamic woman of many talents and with a deep love for history and culture, Laura Okita [website] [instagram] carves her own path in the creative arts. Creating art constant in aesthetics, where vintage elements permeate her universe, the Brooklyn based artist talks to The Forest about photography, fashion, her interest in old artefacts and everything in between.
Interview by Demetrios Drystellas
Describe Laura with three words.
Determined | Clement | Vintage
What do you love the most about Brooklyn?
I love the culture. Artists from around the world come to NYC and a lot of them tend to live in Brooklyn. There is such a strong sense of self and style and the completely uninhibited expression of this is evident everywhere. When it translates though the entrepreneur, I see a vibrant love of Brooklyn’s history evolving into really amazing spaces. An old closed butcher shop becomes a gourmet small batch smorgasbord, done exactly the same way as an old-time butcher shop, but with a modern touch that brings together the community through partnerships with the farmer’s markets and local craftsmen. There are designer shops mixed with vintage clothing curated in a way that it feels natural to hang them side by side. There is new music with old tunes and antique instruments. You can put your hair in a finger wave and sip a sidecar while listening to Jazz at a new hotel. Brooklyn is the past living through the future.
Model, anthropologist, fashion designer, blogger and photographer, among others. Is there an interaction between these fields?
I always have had a love for history and culture. I think that most artists have a passion or background that defines their work. For me, it’s the past, vintage fashion. This definitely shaped the type of designer I wanted to be.
Modelling for me, however, was less of a direct choice. I was always very tall and wanted to go to NYC, so it was something I tried out. I liked travelling and meeting new people, but I could never do it for more than a few weeks or months at a time. I was always itching to be on the other side of the lens. That was 15 years ago and I never shot with a female photographer so it never really occurred to me to try out photography.
Around the time I started designing, Instagram and blogging were getting popular. I found it to be a great outlet to place my designs somewhere. Naturally, I used myself as a model and started photographing myself in my designs. From this, I found that I love photography. I have mostly put everything else aside now to pursue photography.
There is this trend about a vintage feeling in many visual aspects of western societies, How was this taste acquired?
I’ve always loved vintage things. I can remember asking my mom if I could try on some of her clothes from when she was little (when I was about 6 or 7 years old). She laughed and said I wouldn’t like them because they weren’t cute, and of course she didn’t have them anymore.
I was obsessed with collecting vintage jewellery in high school. There was a magical feeling about having something that saw the world before you. It’s always been a romantic idea I’ve had, thinking about who owned it, was it special, all the things an item had seen and places it had been. For my high school graduation, I wore a vintage dress. When I started designing or planning photoshoots, I was irresistibly drawn to vintage fashion. It is so embedded in my brain and my subconscious. It’s just always been a part of who I am.
How was the transition from Boulder to Brooklyn? From vast expanses and mountainous vistas to the urban jungle? Do you miss it?
I loved Boulder so much. I would leave modelling in NYC because I wanted to go back to a semester at school there. When I moved to New York City, if I would have lived in Manhattan right away, I do not think I could have survived it. The first time I ever visited NYC, I actually cried and wanted to go home. It was so loud and dirty and busy feeling. When I eventually moved here, I moved to Brooklyn. Brooklyn, compared to Manhattan, has a calm quietness to it. I think it’s also that special cultural feeling that made it possible for me to stay. Now, I love Brooklyn and it’s my home.
You have modelled for an extensive time, would you like to share more about your experiences and the reason behind the desire to model?
I wanted to be a model for the chance to see more of the world. I grew up on a farm in Eastern Colorado. I wanted to be somewhere that I could actually shop for the dresses listed in the editorial pages of the magazine.
I can remember thinking how special New York was that these clothes were actually available there. I was never very focused on being a model. I loved roaming around on the in between time of castings and exploring new places. I lived in Barcelona for 6 months while modelling. That was my favourite place to be.
I think the worst thing about fashion is when people think that because it’s “fashion” they can get away with whatever they want. They can overwork people, underpay them, pressure people or be unprofessional. I think it’s important to stand up for yourself as a model or an intern or assistant and to remember that everyone deserves respect.
What attracted you to switch sides of the camera and enter the world of photography? And how did you develop your style?
I was always so frustrated as a model, either feeling trapped in a bad shoot or left out of an inspiring process for the great shoots. As I mentioned before, I had never shot with a female photographer and so it never occurred to me until I started my blog. Unless you count the disposable vacation cameras of the 90s, I had never really used a camera before. Digital cameras are very expensive, so I decided to start out experimenting with a film camera – it didn’t hurt that film cameras are vintage either ;).
I went to the store to buy a camera. The guy working there told me that I would have an easier time with a double lens camera because the rangefinder that I wanted was too difficult. I went with the rangefinder because it had interchangeable lenses and more exposure options. When I went to another store to get a body cover for it, the guy working there told me that he would be surprised if I got one correctly exposed shot and not to be discouraged with my first roll of film. I shot the whole roll just fine and I’m not really sure why I was treated like I would be unable to work a camera. I was a Chemistry major in college before I gave in to my passion of Anthropology (to the distress of my parents). A little math and physics never intimidated me. I am still surprised that people unintentionally treated me with such prejudice, I assume because I was a young woman.
I love vintage photography so I think my style has developed from photographers mostly of the 1950s.
I remember dressing as George Washington for Halloween one year. I thought I could make a pretty convincing George. When I saw my pictures, I realised that I am a lot more feminine than I feel. My husband and other people often tell me that I am very soft and kind feeling. I think that this is unavoidably translated into my pictures.
It is quite interesting that you to begin with a rangefinder, a trademark of photojournalists, most photographers dealing with portraiture or fashion really desire a Hasselblad. Why did you wish, to begin with, such a specific camera?
Growing up in the 80s I think 35mm film just felt more familiar to start out. I was lucky to pick up a Leica lens at a clearance sale in NYC one day. Even though I didn’t have the body for it, it was too good to pass up. Part of the vintage collector in me. I do have a Hassel now, but I still prefer my Leica.
Do you approach film and digital differently?
No, I try to blend them so it’s not always apparent which is which.
Has your modelling experience influenced your current path as a photographer and if so, in which way?
It definitely has. As a model you are frozen, starved, ignored and worked to exhaustion while no one seems to remember you are a person and not a dress form. Doing my own styling, hair and makeup, has also given me insight into the other positions of a photoshoot. I will pick up clothing samples for editorials to help out stylists. People don’t realize how much physical work it is to be a stylist.
If it’s freezing outside, I might take my coat off so that I can understand the comfort level of the model. I try to take care of people I work with. A lot of work in fashion is done for portfolio; even big artists keying a huge runway show may end up negative for that job. I think in the more difficult or unpaid situations it’s even more important to respect those that help you.
Your most treasured items in your possession?
My vintage 1950s engagement ring.
My husband chose it by himself and surprised me in Hawaii with it. It is designed after a button. Vintage clothing used to be made with such beautiful buttons (almost like jewellery) that you would remove the buttons before discarding or repurposing an old garment. They were also commonly repurposed as jewellery.
A love for old artefacts, vintage fashion and anthropology. Was Indiana Jones your favourite movie character in the past?
Omg, I had to laugh when I read this question. It’s like you read my mind. I was pretty obsessed with Indiana Jones. I was going to marry him in the 2nd grade. lol
Fast fashion has become a reality with the Inditex companies and H&M. Consumers in western countries benefit from purchasing products at a very low price, which may end in the landfill within a couple of years. Do you think this model will change, or is it inherent in the capitalistic model of economy?
I think that this is a result of a strong economy and a different generation. My Grandmother would save every jelly jar and use them for something else, even for packing lunches. Now, we don’t even put all of our discarded containers in the recycling bin.
The issue to me is not just clothing, it’s seen everywhere. Unfortunately, overconsumption is so intertwined with our economy. It’s a trend that has to get sorted out by translating problems into solutions. I think there are a lot of great initiatives for recycled and green fashion, I hope that we can see more of that. Buying vintage is one way to go, but we can also generate jobs with upcycling vintage and pre-worn clothing.
What is your opinion of the fashion industry and are there changes you would like to see?
I think fashion has always been a wonderful outlet for artists and self-expression. I see the changes I would want already taking shape. I’m so happy to watch more doors opening for self-taught artists and a huge growth in supporting women in the industry. I think a lot of this may have come about through Instagram.
Social media; boon or bane?
Boon. As long as it remains free (not too controlled by the apps themselves) it’s a wonderful new door for freedom of expression and has opened the world’s eyes to so many new voices.
How spontaneous is the photographic process for you? Do you do spend time pre-planning and storyboarding or do you rather let creativity flow during the session?
I always plan a shoot beforehand. It drives my husband crazy that we will be walking on a Saturday and I look distant and then talk about how great a street is and he always says. “when are you not shooting in your head?”
I stock these locations up. It’s always very stressful though in New York to get a location with a base and to get the weather to work on your side for that day. I do a lot of planning for the mood and inspiration board but it always changes a bit the day of the shoot.
I like to involve my hair and makeup artists in decision making with the model we have. I may not always change my initial idea, but I like to hear everyone’s opinion. Of course, on location, you really have to go with the flow. Sometimes construction pops up overnight or there are more people than you expected or the sun just doesn’t work with the spot you want.
I recently had a shoot in Colorado where everything was perfectly planned to the exact pose I wanted the model to do, but when we got there, it was swarming with flying bugs so we had to shoot in a different part of the location with the help of fans and bug repellant.
A strong preference for locations, instead of the usual studio setting, can be seen in your work. What attracts you to it and what do you look in locations when scouting?
I like for my pictures to feel like a frame out of something happening. I just don’t feel like I can get the story when shooting on a backdrop or in a studio. For my locations, I just look for somewhere accessible that fits the story. Sometimes I have locations that I want to shoot as the main inspiration and other times I find a location that compliments my shoot. It’s always a mix for me. If I can find a vintage location it’s always exciting for me.
How do you select the models you collaborate with?
I am always looking for the girl who to me looks like the character I want her to be for that shoot.
What is something we don’t know about you?
I met my husband who is from Japan while playing Kendo.
I always wanted to try some type of fighting sport or martial art, but I didn’t want to actually hurt anyone. I thought about trying western fencing, but after seeing a practice, it just didn’t have the feeling I wanted. I later discovered Kendo and loved it from the first practice. It is so deeply connected to Japanese history and culture.
One night, I was sitting after practice watching the advanced class and saw this guy. He was so good, but very mysterious and always in and out of the dojo so quickly. My Sensei was a photographer and a few days later asked me if he could take my picture in the Kendo armor. He introduced me to mystery guy who I learned moved to NYC as a makeup artist. We all three collaborated on a shoot a few weeks later. I instantly fell in love with the mystery guy. I kept offering to teach him English and help him with living in NYC. He couldn’t guess I liked him no matter how much I tried to show it and thought I was just extra nice. after 2 months I finally told him outright and we have been together for 7 years now and married in 2013.
I love making my own beer, maybe because I’m from Colorado.
I guess it comes from Chemistry and living in Colorado where there are supposedly the most microbreweries per capita in the country. It’s really easy. You just brew a huge tea of barley, add hops. Then you let it ferment for awhile and hope it doesn’t explode all over the apartment, then you bottle it. As long as you follow recipes and keep the bottles clean it’s easy. The beer has so much more flavour than store beer and it has a lot of vitamin B. I haven’t had a chance to make a lot recently. I have a lot going on all of the time with my blog and designing and photography!
And I played water polo in college.
How would you define beauty, and are there any occasions where this feeling of beauty captivated you?
Beauty is a feeling to me. Some people have a feeling or aura or a look in their eyes, a way that they carry themselves. I usually see this when I photograph non-models. Models are usually trying to do their job, to pose, to be what the photographer wants. I think that a lot of them have a hard time freeing that inner spark behind the lens at work. When I photograph singers or dancers, they have a way of bringing so much more presence in a picture. I love when I can capture that moment.
Is there something else you would like to try in photography?
I would love to work with a large format camera.
If you were 10 years younger but knew everything at that age that you’ve actually learned over the last 10 years, what is the one thing you would definitely do differently than you did?
Growing up in my generation (at the end of GenX), it wasn’t as popular for women to pursue careers. I always thought I would get married so I never focused on a career. I put everything into following my past relationship, being flexible to his career as much as possible. There is nothing negative of course about wanting to be a homemaker, it’s a very important role, but it wasn’t for me. I would tell myself not to be afraid of pursuing my own dreams. Being happy with myself makes it easier to make others happy anyway. I’m so lucky my husband is such an amazing partner and supporter of my work.
A guilty pleasure?
I collect too much vintage. Books, cameras, dresses, jewellery. I have a whole second room of vintage things.
I can spend an entire day binging on Netflix and ordering takeout
Is there a talent/superpower you would you like to have?
I would love to be able to travel in time.
What would you do if you were invisible for a day?
Go into all of the castles and private galleries and amazing places that you could never see without special permission. I would love to try on all of the historical collection’s garments at the MET.
What did you want to become when you were younger?
Do you ever get disappointed with your endeavours and how do you overcome this feeling?
I think I’m constantly in a state of disappointment. I say that fashion is a cycle of hope – stress – disappointment. I had a lot of hard criticism when I started out. I would get so depressed that I almost quit, but I found that the only thing that made me feel better was shooting again.
It’s funny that those seem to have been some of my better shoots. I think I put so much of me and so much hope in every project that it’s impossible not to feel down when I don’t succeed in the way I might have hoped. It always just makes me want to show that I can do it better. I always want another chance.
And what is your biggest dream?
To be a contending photographer.
What would you do, if you knew you would not fail?
I was always too afraid to be an artist because I thought that it would be hard to support myself and there would always be failure in art. I was not happy with a safe career at a desk and one day decided that not trying is worse than failing so it I would be a photographer either way.
Rembrandt | Deborah Turbeville | Christian Dior
Here be Dragons (Sharon Kay Penman) | Outlander | The Arthurian Legend
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai) | Monty Python and the Holy Grail | When the Last Sword is Drawn (Mibu Gishi Den)
Ella Fitzgerald | Lana Del Rey | The Beatles
If you could work with one person who would it be?
What does fulfil you as a person/ what makes you happy?
When I’m with people I love and they are happy
What should we expect to see in the future?
I hope to be photographing more editorials