Emily Nathan Conjures a Tale


A sweet, sweet treat for us today, my pretties. Emily Nathan, who shoots lustrous, gorgeous lifestyle and travel work commercially, sent over some scans of a personal project she’s getting underway. And the project is Fairy Tales, which I think pretty much nails the zeitgeist on its darling little head.

Nathan was kind enough to share quick web scans with us, which is awfully generous– I can understand when people want to wait until a project (or one’s files) are complete. These here are straight off the boat from Romania, where Nathan shot her last five tales. Seems fitting, right?

So consider this a sneak peek. Or a little taste– like porridge. Find the one that’s just right.

Ahem. As per usual, I asked some questions.

What made you decide to start a project about fairy tales? is it about nostalgia, or storytelling, or both (or neither)?

The project evolved out of a conversation with an editor I have worked with at the New Yorker. She was looking for a modern image of Adam and Eve and was wondering if I had one. I didn’t, but the request sparked my interest. I feel a pretty deep cynicism towards most conceptual photography but I liked the idea of working with allegorical stories. I liked delving into deeper questions and levels of meaning through the conduit of stories we already know.


What do the darker images mean? The portraits? Are they allegories for things in your own life?

The darker images are a more literary look at the characters (a closer reading). When I started researching the Grimm stories again I was reminded about how very dark they are! Fairy tales are creepy! All sorts of awful stuff transpires.  Trying to nail down any of the stories in one picture (an initial goal) has been a big challenge because so many bad things happen in most of the stories. (I generally avoid depicting the horrific stuff though because its not my thing).

Also– so much of our cultural use of fairy tales is really twisted. Every fake-boobed bottle-blond freak on any MTV reality show is always talking about the fairy tale wedding she wants or is spending 500k having. Real fairy tale weddings usually have someone getting their eyes burned out with coals, or their heart plucked out by ravens as well as the doves flying around.


The portraits and personalities are the way I see the stories. I am looking to find the timeless characters (via casting and directing during the shoot) within the models. But at the same time I am  trying to bring the models’ individual humanity and quirks to the timeless characters. The viewer should bring the rest.


Why Romania?

Oh lots of reasons. It’s Romania– come one!

What’s your plan for this project, how long do you think it will take; have you already decided which characters you want to portray?

The project is really evolving as I shoot it. I have always wanted to just shoot rather than think through photos in the past. I could care less if a picture has great thought to it but isn’t fascinating and beautiful to look at (even in an ugly way! Pictures of ugly or difficult  subject matter can still be beautiful in some way). As I do more and more production with clients I have found that the meetings and prep for big jobs have really lead to better photos in many cases. Still, by forging ahead and  shooting though I am building the direction of the project and seeing what really shines.


From the start everyone wanted to know if I was doing a book. At first I thought no (because its so much work and money for each image– I couldn’t imagine a whole book) but now I think a book and a show would be amazing. I think a book with a few images from each story as well as some contemporary fiction with stories that relate tangentially might be perfect.

I am trying to portray characters that are well known and that are immediately recognizable. So not sure how many and how much time (or money!) I have shot seven stories so far. I think 15-20 would be more than enough (and I have my next project in-mind as well). Likely it will take another year or two to get there.

Does your commercial work contribute or inspire the project? I know you shoot lots of kids— do they play into some of these fairy tales inadvertently?

The commercial work pays for the project!  I have learned so much from commercial work about production. Also– since I shoot so much commercially, all of the assignments I have done obviously then become the tools I use when shooting for myself.


I love working with kids because I am a watcher. I like to put people in situations (and sometimes clothes, locations, light, time of day etc. and photograph how they truly respond— as well as direct them).

Kids do well under those circumstances. Kids also live more easily within their imagination than adults. If I could work with some great adult actors I think they would work for the tales as well. Maybe not– maybe real people would be fine. Hmmm. I don’t know. Kids are the heroes of fairy tales and my pictures are simple (not a lot of room for all the secondary people) so I guess I focus on the heroes? I am also clearly a sucker for natural beauty and kids are usually more naturally beautiful…


I can’t wait for that little red riding hood.

See more of Nathan’s work, here.
And learn a little bit about shooting Lifestyle– Nathan was an expert in our School of Stock article.

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