2010's answer to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood is in Bucharest. It may change the nature of modeling.
In the brick-cellar basement of Bucharest's heavy-metal Club Fire, patrons stare transfixed at a slideshow of photographs projected onto a white curtain. Most of the images are of beautiful young women in ethereal settings. Some of the models pose in sunny Herăstrău Park; strum electric guitars on the rooftops of bleak, Ceauşescu-era concrete apartment buildings; or sit in charming Bucharest restaurants.
The images are the works of photographers and models that are among the most popular on the deviantART website. deviantART serves as a place for artists of all stripes to share their work for critique or comment. Online, the site claims 11 million members from all over the world. (deviantART did not reply to requests for comment on this article.)
"We are all friends now," says photographer Iulian Dumitrescu, 24. He and seven other photograhers and models are seated at a table in Curtea Berarilor, a Bucharest bar in the city's picturesque (and seemingly perpetually renovated) old town district of bars and cafes.
They met through Romania-centric discussion groups on the deviantART website. Using a variety of aliases (among them such poetic nom-de-plumes as "WildRainOfIceAndFire" and "ScorpionEntity"), they have forged a network of artists and models that dominate the deviantART photo forums. While Pre-Raphaelite-style imagery is generally popular on the site (which features many wannabe Ophelias and pensive Medieval maidens), the Romanian clique seems to embody the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood spirit itself in that they are a tightly-knit collective of young artistic visionaries intent on sharing a particular vision of human beauty. However, artistic idealism sometimes clashes with the real world.
"I had some problems with my boyfriend," admits model and student Alice Oprescu ("GoceAlice"), 19. "He was extremely jealous about what I'm doing. I was modeling for another photographer from deviantART, and he was like, 'Oh, you go on a date with him! You are cheating on me!' Oh no! I didn't do that!"
Feeling the pressure, Oprescu posted a message to her followers letting them know that she was taking a break from deviantART.
"To show him how much I loved him, I told him, 'I am going to quit deviantART,' " she says. "He accepted that for a while, but then I said, 'OK you're not quitting the things that you like, so why should I quit on something that I like?' " Oprescu and her boyfriend broke up, and new photos of "GoceAlice" have appeared on the site since then.
Oprescu and photographer Alin Ion ("~Alyn3D"), 19, periodically leave the table in order to smoke cigarettes, because photographer Andreea Retinschi ("=WildRainOfIceAndFire"), 25, recently had 1.5 liters of liquid drained from her left lung due to complications from pneumonia ("Nothing big," Retinschi insists), and cannot linger in smoky environments. Retinschi is a photographer who sometimes models--but do not call her a model first. "I'm not a model. I'm a photographer," she said when this reporter committed the error. "So, change the question!"
Her popularity on the site took time to cultivate. "You have one picture that you notice is getting very popular," she explains. "Then you might have a few others from the same series that become popular. Then your popularity goes low again. So you have to make something else that people like."
On deviantART she is a superstar whose images are routinely highly ranked by visitors. She has had a few exhibitions of her works in Bucharest. But her popularity on the site has not translated into an income.
"I'm trying to make money," admits Retinschi. "Aren't we all?"
When photographer Dumitrescu ("=ScorpionEntity") reveals that he, too, is looking to make a living at his craft, Retinschi exclaims, "Oh, I didn't know that! So we're competition! Were you keeping that a secret from me?"
"I'm not competition," Dumitrescu says.
"Of course you are," Retinschi replies sharply. "Every photographer is competition to another."
Horror stories of naive young women seeking legitimate modeling jobs only to fall into the clutches of photographers with seedier intent are as old as photography itself. In her book American Eve, author Paula Uruburu describes how a teenaged Evelyn Nesbit was carefully guided through the world of painters and photographers in 1900 New York in order to avoid a lurid fate as a pornographer's model. The close-knit, family atmosphere of the Romanian deviantART network helps to protect models from unscrupulous photographers.
"We are like a great family," says Oprescu warmly as she surveys the faces at the table.
"Working with friends as models trains you for when you work with real models," says photographer Razvan Seitan ("~Sykeye"), 23. "You must always reflect the model's personality, because otherwise it will show in the photos that she's struggling, and it's not right."
"When you know the model, the model is more relaxed and she is in her world with you," says Oprescu. She turns to photographer Dumitrescu and notes, "When he takes a shot of me, he takes a part of myself."
Their camaraderie becomes clear when one listens to them swap stories about outdoor photo shoots marred by an unexpected downpour of rain, photographs taken by mistake that trumped their posed counterparts, and batteries dying at inopportune moments.
None of the photographers in the group began by photographing models. Most began with animals, landscapes, and architecture before moving on to family and friends. This past experience of working primarily with natural light, coupled with the expensiveness of indoor lighting, is why many of the models are photographed outdoors.
"Usually we shoot in nature," Dumitrescu says.
"Parks, gardens, anything outdoors," Ion adds.
"Recently, I found an abandoned factory where I did some photoshoots."
"And you will tell me where that is!"
"Yes. In the very distant future I will tell you," Dumitrescu says dryly.
To the average person, the fashion industry's definition of beauty is governed by a mysterious elite of magazine publishers and fashion houses. To become a popular model on deviantART requires only that somebody with a camera recognizes and desires to share a person's beauty with the rest of the world (sometimes that photographer and the would-be model are the same person). The rest is determined by the number of views and downloads of that image from visitors to the deviantART website. Unhindered by the filtering process of the fashion houses, deviantART models may stray from the rigorous Vogue template of beauty, which opens up interesting possibilities regarding the future of marketing human beauty.
"My mother is quite excited about my modeling, but when she is pissed-off she always tells me, 'Oh you're never going to be a model. You're too small!" says the diminutive Oprescu. "But I don't care; I'm still beautiful."
"You have to be 185 centimeters tall to be a professional model," model and illustrator Raluca Porumbacu ("*Roxaralu"), 20, says.
"It's quite disturbing because there are so many beautiful women who are small," says Oprescu. "Shakira, is small, and so is Nicole Kidman. But they are great! When you see a real model in real model photos, you say 'She looks like a real model.' But she's just like a mannequin--a plastic one, a beautiful object and nothing more."
The group is downbeat about the future of Romania, a country where political corruption remains a persistent problem. Some go so far as to suggest that those who gave their lives in the December 1989 Romanian Revolution "died for nothing."
"The government is like a club," says Oprescu. "They eat reindeer and they give us all the bones. We're like dogs."
Oprescu's father died from lung cancer in 1998. Her mother, now under extra pressure as the family's sole breadwinner, lives in fear that she might lose her government job, Oprescu says. Most in the deviantART clique want to leave the country behind.
Ion shares a gallows-humor joke: "You're afraid of 2012? Come to Romania, because we're a hundred years behind."
But through photography and modeling, the Bucharest gang has found a means of escaping a world that is too much with them. And despite their concerns about the country's political and economic future, they remain optimistic about Romanians in general.
"I think Romanian women are the most beautiful in the world," says Raluca's identical twin sister Roxana ("*JustMeOnyX"), 20. "And then Russia," she adds democratically.
"Romanian people are really talented," her sister adds.
"They have great ideas and they really want to pop out from the crowd," says Oprescu.
They say their parents support their deviantART modeling. "They like our pictures," insists Raluca. But in addition to wearing long, flowing dresses and evening gowns, the women sometimes wear, well, less. How do their parents feel about the lingerie poses?
"The sexy pictures are not for parents!" Raluca says.