Some of us have been asking ourselves this question for years: how would Victorian-era dresses look if seen through state-of-the-art camera technology? Luckily for us, a young photographer based in New York went a little further ahead and documented it so we all could see gorgeous dresses in the most gorgeous of settings. Let’s dive into the past with Isabel Malia and her beautiful work.
The essential gear of Isabel Malia
- Sony A7RIII
- Sigma 35mm f1.4 DG DN Art
- 50mm lens
Old film is a vibe, but digital lets me explore, so when film gets expensive, I just shoot digital! I use a Sony A7III with a Sigma 35mm 1.4, and I used to be fond of a solid 50mm lens when I started. I have created a lot of custom presets over the years that emulate old films from all decades, and I’m still making more. I have really been loving Polaroids recently, as sometimes I get too impatient to wait for color negatives.
The Phoblographer: Tell us a bit about yourself as a photographer.
Isabel Malia: I’m a lover, I’m a fighter, I’m an artist. I am fueled by the art of the past and the art that it continues to inspire to this day. I had always loved old things, which is why I started collecting old gunner sax dresses from the 70s when I was 18, then started collecting 100-year-old cameras in my 20s, and now I collect artifacts from the 1800s to use in my art. I love creating photos of people who look as if they were lost in time.
The Phoblographer: Why did you get into photography?
Isabel Malia: A popular photographer told me I wouldn’t make it if I stayed friends with him (I was modeling then), so I said screw it, I’ll take my own photos!
I’ve been shooting since 2019, although I feel like until a few months ago, I just spent those years learning how to take a good photo; now I’m taking off with exploring style!
The Phoblographer: What project are you currently working on?
Isabel Malia: I’m working on a project called Victorian Revival, and it is my most recent photography project; I started on it a few months ago after acquiring everything I needed to work on it.
I photograph real dresses from the 1800s on models in locations usually just as old as the garments! The reason for this project is that I’ve always used vintage fashion, and I wanted to go further. I wanted antique garments to match some of the antique cameras I have. I ended up going down a rabbit hole of victorian clothing, and I knew I had to photograph it!
These dresses need models that fit them exactly since they are very fragile and they have pretty custom measurements. One dress has a 22” waistline and is made for someone who is 6 feet tall! This made shooting them difficult, but I was lucky enough to find models that fit through a series of model calls.
I usually take these photos at old parks or abandoned buildings as my next step, which is a whole process of its own. Many places need permits or permission to photograph anything on the property, so abandoned places were optimal for these shoots!
In the end, I was able to make haunting and beautiful images that teleport you back in time!
The Phoblographer: What goes through your mind when creating these images?
Isabel Malia: I usually create storylines in my head; it’s hard not to do that when you have 200-year-old objects. You start to wonder; who wore this so long ago? What did they do all day? How many parties did they attend in this? Whose funeral was this pouring gown made for? Those types of things. It’s fun to create a mood and a character with the models because there’s so much depth when you ask them questions about what you think these artifacts remind them of. It’s exhilarating to bring new stories to unknown objects like these.
Mentally, I’m influenced by my recent emotions and thoughts about relationships and how women are expressed in the modern day. I like to try and feel a healthy midpoint combining the antiques being used and new generations of people. Sometimes I wonder if any of the original dress owners thought their garments would be worn by someone 200 years later (Props to their seamstress and garment makers!).
Mechanically, I try to get as many photos on film and digital as possible, because the stability of the garments is never guaranteed, and they will break down eventually – so every shot counts. It is also very difficult to find models that fit these garments perfectly, as the measurements were custom back then.
The Phoblographer: Natural light or artificial light? Why?
Isabel Malia: Natural! But ideally, both. Sometimes I throw a strobe on just to get a little extra light and detail in some shots. But mainly, I rely on natural light; since my style is very natural and romantic to begin with, I try and keep it that way without introducing too much production.
The Phoblographer: Do you feel you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why?
Isabel Malia: Creator! I feel the style is inventing characters and playing dress-up with unlimited details being added to get the perfect mood. Sometimes I do feel like a documenter, though, especially in moments of laughing and goofing around with the team!
The Phoblographer: Please walk us through your processing techniques.
Isabel Malia: It usually takes me a few days to edit, scan, develop, and deliver all my photos. I have at least 3 different cameras at each shoot, so it’s a lot to go through all at once.
The Phoblographer: Why is photography so important to you?
Isabel Malia: As a woman, it’s important to me because I feel my most beautiful when I’m photographed with other women of styles similar to mine. I love embracing femininity and pretty things, and I love being a safe space for people to do that when they’re working with me! I want everyone to feel beautiful, especially those who don’t often get to see themselves or people who look like them in soft feminine settings.
The Phoblographer: What motivates you to shoot?
Isabel Malia: Loving myself and others – but also spite. I’ve said before, a popular photographer told me I wouldn’t get anywhere if I cut ties with him, so breaking out of that toxic community really motivates me to do better and be better for the sake of the community. I like that I am a safe space for models to express themselves, no matter what size or color they are. It makes me want to keep going knowing I’m motivating people out there to embrace aesthetics and how they feel most confident.
The Phoblographer: What photographers are your biggest influences? How do they affect who you are and how you create?
Isabel Malia: Brittneypanda, Sydney Shea photo, Karen Jerzyk, Vivienne Mok, Bella Kotak, and Yourgirlchuck are huge influences on my work in both style and work ethic!
All images ceded by Isabel Malia. Used with permission. This interview has been lightly edited for grammar reasons. Be sure to visit Isabel’s website, Instagram, Twitter and Tumblr to see more. Want to get featured? Click here to see how.