During last year’s Miami Street Photography Festival, one of the judges caught our eye. Her name was Dina Litovsky and despite the fact that she’s a widely recognized editorial photographer, somehow she hadn’t been on our radar until that moment. A few clicks later her vivid and candid documentary photos had us hooked. And when we read an article Dina published on Substack, we knew we wanted to feature her here in the magazine. Happily, she agreed.
Dina’s Substack, In the Flash, turned out to be an incredible resource for street photographers – and any other type of photographer to be honest. We started out reading the article titled, “An Introvert’s Guide to Street Photography – Photographing Strangers Part 1.” In it, Dina admits that her first street images were “mostly people sleeping and side shots taken with trembling hands.” Who hasn’t been there? Dina’s mentor, the infamous Bruce Gilden, recognized they were timid and evasive right away and his unapologetic criticism, constructive though it was, made Dina cry and defensively turn to her very real social phobia as an excuse. Dina says that in response what she got was possibly the best advice of her career. Bruce said, “Who cares? You either get over it or get out of the game.” What follows in Dina’s article are four rules that can help you build your courage, get up close, and get a candid street shot without ever interacting with your subjects.
But In the Flash isn’t just a place for more “photography tips and tricks.” She also dives into some polemic issues and manages to untangle them surprisingly well. Take the issue of consent in street photography, for example. Dina separates what the law states (in the U.S.) from the ethics of taking someone’s photo without consent. “Is it actually unethical to make such images, and is street photography an exploitative practice that needs to be reexamined?” she asks. Dina guides her readers through the issue, helping them think it through both logically and respectfully. She gets to the heart of the matter – the value of art vs privacy – and what it all means for our society.
Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. Not only does Dina give solid photography advice (that doesn’t suck), she’s a fantastic writer and photographer who shares plenty of expertise, fascinating projects, some crazy photography adventures. Reading about the many exploits of a big-time NYC editorial photographer is a wild ride sometimes, but Dina manages to stay relatable and keep things down to earth, even when she’s shooting Fashion Week or sitting across a dinner table from Trump. Best of all, Dina is sure to get you thinking – really thinking – about your craft. And that might just be the most important step you can take towards improving your photography.
Recommended Reading from Dina’s Substack
We subscribed, so should you. Here’s the link. 😉
- Two Against One – Repeating Themes and Finding Your Artistic Voice
- Spending Time with the Amish in the Florida Sun
- The Sticky Issue of Consent in Street Photography
- An Introvert’s Guide to Street Photography – Photographing Strangers Part 1
- Photographing Strangers Part 2
- Photographing Strangers Part 3
The Photographer Behind the Substack
Dina was kind enough to agree to sit down and chat with Bob and I so we could get to know the photographer behind In the Flash even better. As it turns out, Dina’s backstory is just as interesting as her current photo projects. We’re happy to share it with you today, along with some valuable lessons we learned from her along the way.
When Dina was 22, her parents bought her a camera. Had they known it would be the catalyst that would make Dina abandon her plans to become a doctor and dive headlong into the world of photography, they may have rethought their gift…or maybe not.
In any case, Dina started out as we all do, experimenting. She documented herself, her friends, her surroundings, and as she did, her love for the medium blossomed. When she took her first paid job, Dina was floored. “It didn’t seem possible to make money doing something you love so much,” she told us.
While Dina’s love for photography was clear from the get-go, it took her a long time to decide exactly what she wanted to photograph. In her early years, she took self-portraits and shot landscapes, she even photographed weddings for a good 10 years. Basically, name a genre and Dina has shot it. But it wasn’t until she started working on her MFA that she was able to discover where her true passion lied. Formal schooling allowed Dina to focus down and find out that documentary photography was what she loved the most.
Of course, at MFA school you don’t follow trends – it’s art school. So, Dina stuck with natural light and didn’t talk about her guilty pleasure, shooting parties, while she was at school. Thankfully, Larry Fink’s work would change all that.
A Personal Style Emerges
Fink’s black and white photos taken with flash at parties (gasp!) inspired Dina to go out and shoot the subjects she was interested in, to show her work in fine art settings, and to experiment with flash, something she found to be extremely freeing. She could “make her own sun,” painting with light instead of being limited by available natural light. And her contrasty, flash-filled party photos were a hit. In fact, they gained so much traction that editors began to seek her out specifically for those kinds of photos. For the first four years of her editorial career, Dina only shot party images. She became the photographer specializing in off-camera flash and every publication that hired her expected a series of dramatically lit photos, which they promptly received.
The going was good, but Dina mused that the tricky part about developing a personal style is that it’s easy to get stuck with it. As you can imagine, being asked to create the same kind of images year after year and project after project can get a bit boring, not to mention limiting when your focus is documentary photography.
On one occasion when she was asked to shoot a project on vacationing Amish communities and told the editor she would not be using flash, as it wasn’t subject-appropriate, she nearly lost the project. But if there’s one thing I noticed about Dina, it’s an unwavering trueness to self. Dina was able to convince the editor to let her work with natural light. She then infiltrated a closed community in what would turn out to be a fantastic documentary project filled with candid photos featuring only natural light.
When Dina talks about staying true to her vision she speaks with the voice of experience. When I asked her if her varied origins, her identity, (she’s a non-religious, Jewish Ukrainian immigrant who moved to New York when she was 11 years old) shows up in her photographs she replied yes without a second thought. Dina believes you can’t get away from yourself in your art and if you try to, the final product will likely be underwhelming. She admits that on the few occasions she attempted to shoot an assignment by molding her own style to fit the publication’s, the photos didn’t come out great. Lesson learned. Now, Dina shoots exactly as she would for herself, no exceptions.
An Imitation-Worthy Creative Process
Shooting for herself works. Dina’s resulting projects, both personal and professional, are stunning. But it’s not a process she leaves to chance. No doubt, working as an assignment photographer for more than a decade has helped Dina streamline her process, but I think there’s more to it than that. Dina is strong-willed (I doubt you can be an editorial photographer in NYC and not be), she stands up for what she believes in, and she’s extremely organized and a hard worker. She seems to have harnessed those qualities to create projects that make an impact – even when they just start out as something she’s just curious about. Here’s a few lessons I drew from our conversation on what makes her creative process successful.
Choose projects you’re interested in.
A lot of Dina’s personal projects were born out of editorial assignments that she found personally interesting. Others were simply labors of love. How does Dina choose a project to work on? She shoots things she is curious about, or things that she’s unsure how to feel about. If she isn’t fascinated by the subject, it won’t make project status.
Take advantage of virtual drawing boards.
There was a time when Dina would work a project to completion and then release it to the public as a finished product. Thanks to Instagram she’s found a new way to work. Dina uses the platform as a virtual drawing board – a safe, creative space where she can release new projects in increments, as she creates them. This allows her to get feedback and adjust projects in real time. Dina took this approach while creating her project “Dark City.” If one photo got less likes than others, she would pause to think about why that particular image didn’t resonate. Not only did this approach allow her to make adjustments to her project before releasing a finished project, but it also caught the attention of publications who ultimately hired her to do similar work. It’s a great way to stay in front of editors and publications, while at the same time securing valuable feedback.
Learn to think.
Dina might seem like a natural born writer, but when she started In the Flash about a year and a half ago, she admits that writing about her photography meant stepping out of her comfort zone. Ultimately, Dina says it improved her photography. It forced her to think out loud about concepts and thinking, she says, is harder than it seems. Why did she take certain approaches? Why did she fail at something? Answering those sometimes difficult questions helped her find answers that had eluded her for years prior to regular writing. “With photography, you can hide behind metaphors,” she says, “but you can’t hide with writing.”
Know when to stop.
All of Dina’s projects are limited time productions. Dina explained that after a while she gets oversaturated with her projects and seeing anything worthwhile to add to the project becomes impossible. When she “stops seeing” she knows it’s time to bring her project to an end.
Step out of your comfort zone.
Dina is all about growth and progress, even when it’s painful and anxiety inducing. The results prove that it’s worth it. Her latest endeavor? TikTok. A lot of publications now want vertical videos, something she hasn’t worked on in the past. Lack of experience won’t stop Dina. “You can’t go against a huge public trend,” she mused, “you’ll get left behind.”
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