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When Animals Are as Photogenic as the Star

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Shooting a portrait of the actress Isabella Rossellini can be a photographer’s dream. A former model, she’s a natural performer (as the daughter of the actress Ingrid Bergman and the filmmaker Roberto Rossellini) with a camera-ready charisma and a frolicky personalty. Once, for a shoot for The New Yorker, she wore a hamster costume.

“She’s just so far out and wild and game and beautiful and so much herself,” said Jessie Wender, a former photo editor for that magazine who now works in that role for The New York Times’s Culture desk.

In the planning for an article on Ms. Rossellini’s new theater venture, “Sex & Consequences,” a comedy about animal reproduction that will be livestreamed from her Long Island home, Ms. Wender sought to commission photographs that would capture more of the actress’s untamed spirit: portraits that would include sheep, dogs and chickens, all of them co-stars in the production. Naturally, Ms. Rossellini was eager to play along.

Ms. Wender called on the photographer Camila Falquez, known for her distinctly formal yet whimsical portraits. “I was just excited to see what they would do together,” Ms. Wender said. “Camila is so good at creating these worlds with people.”

Because of Ms. Rossellini’s busy schedule, Ms. Falquez would have only 45 minutes to create that world. She intended to take all of the shots outside in the actress’s garden while keeping a safe distance and wearing P.P.E. Outdoor-only shoots have become common for Times photographers during the pandemic, but before the shoot, the forecast called for rain. Still, with Ms. Rossellini’s limited availability, they decided to proceed.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Ms. Falquez said, “so I decided to light a little candle in my altar and ask for the best.”

On the day of the shoot, it began to drizzle, but then it stopped, and the overcast sky that remained served as one huge, soft source of natural light, the best condition for an outdoor shoot, Ms. Falquez said.

The animals all lived at the home with Ms. Rossellini, who also owned an off-site organic farm. “They’re super friendly, they come right up to you,” said Ms. Falquez, whose approach to her unpredictable subjects was simply to let them do their thing. As she hunched down to snap, they milled around the garden, ambled up to smell the camera and followed Ms. Rossellini around the house.

“I can’t believe this, I love my job,” Ms. Falquez recalled with a laugh.

She didn’t want a precise, preconceived vision for the shoot before meeting Ms. Rossellini, so she packed all of her studio’s fabrics, props and backdrop stands to ensure she would have what she needed. After the two made selections together, Ms. Rossellini ducked inside for a meeting. When she came back out, Ms. Falquez had prepped three sets: She draped a red-orange fabric in the yard for a session with the animals, set the blue fabric against a wall for close-ups of Ms. Rossellini, and placed a medley of objects — eggs, vegetables, a red rocking horse — on the porch in front of a white fabric.

Picturing herself as a decades-running performer like Ms. Rossellini, Ms. Falquez said, “I would be tired of getting my portrait taken on a stool and in a suit when your universe is much more complex than that.”

So Ms. Falquez went for it, Salvador Dalí style. They both did. For one shot, Ms. Falquez said, Ms. Rossellini was excited to put a doll on her head. “‘And should we put the chicken in your hands?’” Ms. Falquez said, to which the actress responded: “‘Oh, yes! I’ll go get the chicken.’”

They spread feed in front of Ms. Rossellini to keep the sheep in one area. Ms. Falquez followed them with her camera to get a shot of one. “The closer you got, the faster it would run,” she said. She got lucky for a split-second and snapped.

They popped from one set to the next in 20 minutes; Ms. Rossellini was amazed by the time. Then, for the rehearsal, which took place outside the house, Ms. Falquez watched from her laptop outside for safety reasons. She placed some objects from the shoot around the screen, stepped back and photographed it, to the delight of Ms. Wender, who noted the clever play on a still life of the times.

Looking back, Ms. Falquez said she realized the meta aspect of the shoot. She, an artist, was figuring out how to do her work, capturing another artist who was figuring out how to do hers. Ms. Falquez had been ruminating on the effects of the pandemic for months, and on that day, she recalled thinking about how unifying it seemed. “What’s beautiful is that Isabella Rossellini is changing how she does her thing. Even that woman,” she said. “We’re all in this together for real. And actually, I’m really happy with the photos. It’s art evolving through a lot of pain and challenges. It’s all of us.”

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