Daniella Midenge moved to Los Angeles for the light.
It might seem an unusual reason to relocate to a new city, let alone another continent. But for the Swedish photographer, film director, model and sometimes-makeup artist, it made perfect sense. That year-round sunshine meant she could create outdoors, rather than within the constraints of a studio. And Daniella has never been one to box herself in. “I love that I’m part of something that’s been provided by mother nature when I’m working,” she explains via phone from her joint home and studio in the Hollywood Hills. “And I think you can sense that, somehow, in the images.”
Even if Daniella’s name isn’t immediately familiar, you’ve likely experienced her work. Her photographs can be found in the pages of Vogue, V Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar. Her notable subjects include Hunter Schafer, Pamela Anderson and Nathalie Kelley. Since moving to L.A. she’s been responsible for pop culture moments like the 18-metre billboard of Jennifer Lopez that presided over Sunset Boulevard last year, along with a widely shared cover story for GQ Style starring Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly. Then there are her iconic shots of Hilary Duff – strong and glowing in that Californian sunshine – which still dominate the top search results on Google for the actress.
Despite her proximity to the A-listers of her adopted hometown, Daniella is endearingly unselfconscious and easy-going, with a sense of humour that can’t be dulled by a long-distance phone call. Her low maintenance approach is perhaps most pervasive in her image making – not that you’d know it from looking at the photographs. “I love small teams,” Daniella says of her creative process. “I don’t need much help [or] much equipment.”
Daniella’s multi hyphenate skillset is on full display for our cover shoot. She did her own makeup, hair, and styling for the shoot, creating the self-portraits on a repainted tennis court adjoining her home-studio. This is Daniella’s creative territory, where she makes her own rules in communion with the natural world. When she can help it, shoots don’t take place until 2pm; that’s when the light is best.
"It’s kind of going back to how [photographer] Herb Ritts was working in the 90s. It’s just a little unusual for our fashion climate now."
Given her statuesque beauty, it’s also not hard to imagine Daniella in another time, right at home in one of Ritts’s supermodelgroup portraits. True to her happily unorthodox career progression, modelling is one of the more recent additions to Daniella’s creative repertoire. As she tells it, it’s just another way to communicate her vision.
Born in Stockholm and raised in Örnsköldsvik, Sweden, Daniella began her creative career restoring oil paintings, before moving on to makeup artistry. “I was good at painting and drawing,” she explains. “I love pictures [and] I love beauty.” But when Daniella began working on photo shoots, she found herself increasingly involved in the image-making process.
"I was with the photographer saying let’s try this, let’s do this side. I felt like I was such a big part of the process, I wanted to have credit for the photo. [I thought], what if I do that too?"
These recollections of her upbringing give context to her expansive mindset. “Both of my parents are creative, and I grew up in that environment. My mum’s an illustrator and painter and my dad was just obsessed with women, I guess,” she laughs. "He photographed them very similar to how I photograph them… Really beautiful. Very French Vogue-y."
A move to the country when Daniella was still a child further fuelled her burgeoning creative life. “I was building little houses from moss and sticks I found,” she remembers. “When you grow up in the middle of the woods, under a mountain and there’s just nature, I think you have to use your own imagination. If you have that, you can turn anything into something.”
Daniella has carried this DIY approach into adulthood and her career. She regularly builds her own sets and has a history of making wearable pieces from recycled materials.
"I have so much stuff in the garage, like broken mirrors and things to play with. There’s so much that can translate beautifully in a photo, even though in real life it doesn’t look like anything."
Waste is an ongoing concern for Daniella, and one that has complicated her relationship with living and working in the U.S. since her move in 2017. In Sweden, a country known for its green credentials, environmental responsibility was a part of her school curriculum, she says. “It’s just a part of what you learn growing up. It’s not a standpoint. It’s just expected.”
Along with recycled costumes and set designs, Daniella tries to minimise single-use waste on shoots and exclusively buys vintage clothing in her personal life. In a happy coincidence, the second-hand shopping in L.A. is aligned with her aesthetic. “I have, friends would say, ‘extreme style’,” she laughs, “like a little eccentric. Here, there’s so much of that.”
Still, Daniella is first to acknowledge the conflicts of interest inherent to working in fashion, an industry with much work to do to address its negative environmental impacts. She has some regrets; a job she wishes she’d said no to. On the flipside, finding aligned clientele is rewarding.
"When you find clients that you feel inspired by, you can tweak how you would usually do things or what you would charge because you’re just like, ‘I want to be part of this’."
Daniella attributes much of the work she’s proud of, especially from an environmental standpoint, to choosing the right collaborators. “One of my favourite stylists, Martina Nilsson … She stands by her beliefs really strongly,” she says. “She’s a vegan; she’ll turn down a cover if it’s with fur. She’s also Swedish, so there’s an undeniable connection there.”
Their work together includes a shoot with Pamela Anderson for the cover of Contributor Magazine’s ‘Nature as Culture’ issue – images Daniella has revisited recently with the release of Pamela, A Love Story, the acclaimed documentary about the actor’s life.
“Oh, I loved her. I loved her so much,” Daniella says of her time with Pamela. “I really admire everything that she’s doing in terms of activism, and on the shoot, it was obviously no fur, no leather, nothing that’s not sustainable."
"She was so fun, so bright, very playful and silly… I felt, with her, that the trust was there instantly."
When it comes to photographing celebrities, Daniella takes a considered approach. In Hollywood anonymity is a scarce commodity, but that’s what she aims to give her subjects. “This might sound really strange but if it’s a celebrity, I don’t look up a lot about them or watch their shows, or whatever it is, before a shoot. I don’t want to come in with too many preconceptions. I just want to meet them as another woman.”
A sense of levity is another signature on Daniella’s shoots, and often finds its way into the final image or film cut. “It’s got to be fun. I think that’s crucial,” she says. “Everyone who’s done something creative, I think, that’s how they started doing it. It’s coming from that playfulness.”
Lately, Daniella has been craving a return to that feeling, using play and experimentation to spark that creative energy. She senses another reset coming.
"I’d like to focus on just expressing freely without any boundaries. You want to attract what you feel excited about, so I need to do more things that are exciting."
And what will that look like, I wonder.
“You’ll see,” Daniella says with a smile in her voice. “I’m not a big planner. I feel it; something’s cooking in there. It’s going to come out.”