Ilya Natarius' bare portraits capture complex truths

Judith Howard

Judith Howard Ilya Natarius

Minneapolis photographer Ilya Natarius values truth. It’s why, in his portraiture, he sticks to unflashy images on 35mm film. In his “Creative Combustion” exhibition, opening Thursday at Gamut Gallery, he turns his lens on 18 makers and their creativity-inciting sparks, be it a geographical location, a mood, or an idea.

“Some people picked very personal locations, which I really did appreciate,” Natarius says of his subjects. “Some people were very honest about what locations they chose and didn’t necessarily try to be super deep, and that was basically what I was looking for out of the whole thing: honesty above all else.”

Take Judith Howard, for example. The dancer, choreographer, and Carleton College professor invited Natarius to meet her at an old dig site in north Minneapolis. The juxtaposition of the graceful, delicate nature of dance and the toxic beauty of the surroundings made for a powerful photograph. “That was the one that had the most stark contrast of expectation,” Natarius says. “It was really interesting to see a place that most people overlook in their daily lives and how it impacts her.”

Another memorable subject was Adam Theis, the man in charge of the Wooden Soul series at Indeed Brewing. He was photographed at the barreling warehouse where Indeed stores its barrel-aged beers. “He’s a very logical person when it comes to deciding how he wants to brew beer,” Natarius says. “He’s got extensive notes on every barrel in the place. It was like standing inside Adam’s head and seeing how it all comes together.”

The St. Thomas grad makes a point of getting to know his subjects before shooting them to get the most authentic image possible. “You have to establish trust with your subjects,” he says. “That way, I’m not just a guy with a camera. They’re not just a subject.”

Natarius, whose family moved to Minnesota from Russia in his boyhood, has been behind the lens since he was 17. One of his first photography jobs was working for a photojournalism-trained boss who instilled in him the ethos of minimal editing. “You make it look the way that it happened. You don’t try to put any kind of a spin on it,” Natarius says of those teachings.

Adam Theis

Adam Theis Ilya Natarius

Hence, the penchant for 35mm black-and-white film. Natarius appreciates the tangible nature of printmaking, the ability to manipulate the paper and the exposure in the dark room he uses at the Minneapolis Photo Center. “To me, 35mm black-and-white is irreplaceable. You can’t replicate that look on computers,” he says. “That look is never going to go away. It’s timeless.”

“Creative Combustion” will include 72 timeless images: one portrait and three additional photographs for each subject. A companion art book, compiled in collaboration with Nadia Honary, Marcos Juarez-Gosselin, and Rita Kovtun, launches simultaneously with the exhibition, and features interviews with the subjects.

But where would Natarius be photographed, had he included himself in the exhibition? Likely outdoors, where he likes to walk, run, or bike with headphones on. Nature and music are his outlets for cathartic release and methods to re-center himself.

In his day job as an engineer, he also manages to find creative sparks, whether it’s deep in the design phase of a new project or trouble-shooting a problem. “I think engineering is just as creative as any art field,” he says. “It’s just that the tool box is different.”

"Creative Combustion: A photo essay exhibition by Ilya Natarius"
August 11 to September 2
Gamut Gallery
All ages

Opening Reception:
(With live music by Adam Conrad and members of Improvestra)
7 to 11 p.m.Thursday, August 11

Exhibit Finale:
(With Qaanaaq CD release party and other bands TBA)
7 to 10 p.m. Friday, September 2
$10 - $15