Brisbane based digital artist and photographer Jane Long’s series Dancing with Costică drew international attention; her photomanipulation skills which transformed a series of archived 1930’s Romanian photos saw her work published in a variety of media outlets, including ABC NEWS, Daily Mail, PetaPixel and Buzzfeed.

We got a chance to speak with her about the series itself as well as her personal digital artistry journey:

How would you describe your personal style? Where do you find your inspiration?

One of the things that I like to come through in my images is a sense of ambiguity. To me the world isn’t black and white and I have strong feelings about social justice issues. Things aren’t always what they seem, they’re never simple! As to inspiration, I’d have to say that comes from many places. In the case of the Dancing with Costică series, sometimes it’s dictated by the original image and sometimes it comes from somewhere else and I go looking for images to suit. Other times I’m inspired by personal emotions, music or other forms of art.

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You describe yourself as ‘self-taught’ having taken up the discipline over 20 years ago. What inspired you to take up digital design?

It was a bit of a slow progression, at least at first. I was working in an imaging bureau when I was first introduced to Photoshop in the early 90’s. At that stage I did little more than output other people’s work but when we were quiet I got to play and experiment more. Further down the track I started my own business and worked with a very talented designer called Helen Dean who taught me almost everything I know about graphic design. This is still something I call upon when I’m creating digital works, those fundamental design principles. Eventually I discovered sites like Deviantart where there’s a lot of tutorials and like-minded people sharing information and ideas. Eventually I wanted more control over the stock images I was using and discovered photography in general. With each step I was able to express myself better.

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How does your personal work differentiate from your commercial work?

At the moment I’m not really doing any commercial photography work. I still have a couple of long-term clients from my graphic design business so it’s very different from my personal work. I toyed with the idea of opening a portraiture business but I don’t have a really suitable venue at the moment and I’m much more interested in images where I can add an element of “unreality”.

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Your series ‘Dancing with Costica’ has won you international acclaim. How did you first come across Acsinte’s intriguing, beautiful, yet at times disturbing photography?

It was a total accident really! I was looking for public domain images I could use to practice restoring and recolouring when I came across the archive on Flickr. Two images in particular caught my eye – the young couple from “Fresh” and the little girl from “Innocence”. The young couple appeared to be a multi-racial couple and because it was the practice to be very somber in photographs back then, I thought they looked kind of sad. I started thinking about how hard it still is to cross racial divides today and wondered just how much harder it would have been in Romania in the 1930’s. They’re a young couple in love, they should be happy! The little girl from “Innocence” appealed to me immediately as I wasn’t sure if she was happy or sad, good or bad. It just took a little longer to develop the concept for her.

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Following on, what inspired you to use these as the base for the series?

Part of it is about the period and community in which the original images were taken. In some ways they are so similar but in some ways our lifestyles are so different. There’s also a consistency to the archive which really appealed to me. The vast majority of the images are shot in the same studio with the same backdrop and lighting which, whilst not unusual for an individual photographer, I think is quite rare as a public archive.

Can you explain the main technical processes for transforming the images?

First I restore the black and white image with conventional techniques like curves adjustments and tools like the healing brush and clone tool. Sometimes I’ll use frequency separation to deal with tricky areas but it’s not always as successful with black and white images as it is with colour. Then I colour the images using a series of at least two layers for each colour. Sometimes instead of a solid colour I’ll use a pattern or a texture file to give the colour some variation. After that I start to compose the image and create the story. I try to shoot my own backgrounds and props as much as I can to give me control over lighting and perspective as well as copyright. Once I’m happy with the final composition, I add a series of colour toning and texture layers over the top, masking out any skin areas or places where it looks too obvious.

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Do you have a particular favorite image from the series and why?

I think “Innocence” and “Underneath” are the strongest images of the series so far. Both images draw a lot from the originals but both images are a bit “out there” in terms of my story too. I wish I could push a button to make my mind go in that direction every time but sadly I’ve not found it yet! Maybe they just interact with their environment better.

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For you as an artist, what do you consider to be the greatest benefit to using tools such as Photoshop?

Ha ha the Undo button, most definitely! To have a level of control that is beyond the limitations of your mouse or your hand-eye co-ordination! There’s a whole genre of artists like me out there that don’t even know it yet!

What challenges, if any, do you face as a designer and how do you overcome them?

From a technical point of view, resolution is still a big issue for me. I’ve just recently upgraded my camera so my own stock images are more up to par, but working with archival or stock images you are limited by the resolution of the source image. I’m really paranoid about enlarging images too much. It’s a bit of an old school habit, I know, but I’d rather have a good quality image than a large image!

In a more general sense I think I face the same issues as any designer, working to a brief (albeit my own!), trying to create something solid and hopefully meaningful! Because I am my own client, I’m pretty flexible about my briefs! But there are some general boundaries and that also helps maintain quality and provides some consistency.

I think you have to trust yourself a little to create something meaningful (and I mean meaningful to you). You won’t always hit the mark but when you do the image will resonate with you so much more.

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What are three things you’ve learnt whilst in the industry that young creative should know?

There’s no real shortcuts. If it looks amazing it probably took a long time to create! (And you’ll feel better about yourself if you do it properly!)

Learn the principals of design and photography (and much more than that if you can!) Fashions may change but how we visually communicate doesn’t.

Sometimes it takes a long time to find your way. In hindsight I wish I’d trusted myself and my abilities more.

A huge thanks to Jane for speaking with us. You can see more of her work on her website and Facebook page. To discover more about the Costica Ascinte Archive you can discover it here.