When Italian fashion house Valentino wanted to promote its limited-edition Valentino Garavani by Pierpaolo Piccioli bags, exclusive to the Middle East, it naturally wanted a photographer based in the region to showcase them.
And that's where fashion photographer Abdulla Elmaz, who lives in Dubai, stepped in.
“I had just posted [on Instagram] an animation of a Balenciaga shoot and I received a WhatsApp from Valentino,” Elmaz recalls. “I got put into a call with a big group – about 10 people – and that’s when I realised the number wasn’t from here. It was the Milan team, saying they wanted to shoot with me.”
While there was excitement over the opportunity, there was also one major problem. Australian-raised Elmaz knew he was going to have to race against the clock, as the UAE had just announced restrictions on movement due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We had planned to do something later, but we had to do something quickly. Realistically, I would have loved to shoot this a month later, but we shot it five days after they first contacted me.”
The images that he was asked to create were then animated, in collaboration with animator Jiawa Liu.
Elmaz shot three Valentino bags: the Garavani SuperVee with its distinctive large logo hardware, the Rockstud Spike and its familiar metallic covering, and the VSling.
But this was no simple shoot. The photographer had to make sure he had not only a beautiful image, but every element needed to make sure Liu was able to turn each into an animation.
The playful results feature a SuperVee bag seemingly magically balanced on the end of a finger, or a RockStud Spike held aloft by a shadow hand. In one image, a SuperVee has white roses raining on to it, while in another, white roses fall in front of the bag as it oscillates between black and white.
There is also a RockStud Spike framed by ropes, while elsewhere it appears on shards of mirror that endlessly come together and move apart. The VSling, meanwhile, appears as a tunnel, created by three bags.
The results were not merely created in Photoshop, but physically constructed on set. “We had three strings on each bag, attached to six stands. It was so hard,” Elmaz laughs.
“The yellow mini bag was actually the wrong size, so we had to shoot the next size up and retouch it to make it look smaller. That was very tough. By the end of the day, I was lying on the floor breaking the mirror into pieces for the mirror shot – here was glass everywhere.”
Most unusually for a still life shoot, Elmaz used natural light. “I don’t like using lights because it makes everyone’s work look the same,” he explains. “I would rather do it all daylight. That’s one of the reasons why I like being in Dubai, because it’s always sunny.”
Elmaz has built a name for himself using this technique, and adding extra light to the face using torches. And with such a unique style, it's not surprising he has caught the eye of other big international companies, as well as Valentino.
“I have been approached by Hermes – who wanted to fly me down to Rome, but obviously I couldn’t go because of the virus – and I was approached by Stella McCartney," he says.
He was also slated to have an exhibition of his work in Abu Dhabi this year.
“I was meant to be doing my first exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat, but then the lockdown started, so it’s been moved to January next year. I wanted a wall of plastic chairs – literally thousands of them. They recently showed me some mockups, and then a few days later the lockdown happened.”
Although Elmaz's star is very much on the rise, just a couple of years ago he gave serious thought to quitting. Originally part of a successful photographic duo, that partnership fell apart without warning, leaving him stunned.
"We did a shoot for Numero Russia and the next day my business partner said 'I'm done'. He just packed up and left. I took five months off.
"All of my personal work is like therapy for me, it has to mean something. After I went solo, I did a shot I called Imaginary Friend about being on my own, and not having that person to rely on. Everything I have done that is my personal work has been part of my story."
Whatever fear he may have felt then, today Elmaz can celebrate collaborating with one of the world's biggest fashion houses.