Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Q & A with Ivars Gravlejs

Ivars Gravlejs, photo by Līva Rutmane
Ivars Gravlejs is a photographer based in Prague.

BA: I first learned about your work through your book Early Works. It explained some of your progression as a photographer/artist. But I'm wondering if you can revisit that time. What was your childhood like and how did it lead you into photography?

IG: Childhood was a no-future atmosphere. In 1990 my mother was 40 and could not find a job in the new “independent country” because she was too old. All around was banditry, brutal competition and extreme materialism. We (my cousin and I) found an FED-2 camera in our grandmother's room and started to play with it. I was around 5 and he was 11 years old. Materials were cheap, we could experiment. We got equipment for enlarging and developing too.

Why did your grandmother have a camera? Was she a photographer?

No. Grandfather had it, but mostly it was used by my mother and her sister (they are twins) when they were young, just as amateurs.

Did they or anyone else encourage you, or give you ideas about how or what you should be photographing as a kid?

No, they even did not remember how to deal with the camera or how to make enlargements. We faced a lot of errors…We were thinking about what is cool to be photographed, and sometimes it took us one year to realize 36 frames. Actually we didn't do more than 5 rolls of film. Then my cousin lost interest.

Were you looking at works by any other photographers at the time? Or just going forward on your own?

Calendars or newspapers. I liked pictures of half naked women, flowers, trees in the winter. I was collecting pictures from newspapers — sports, cars, but these are thrown out.

What about "fine art" photographers? When was the first time you encountered that type of work?

That was in gymnasium, when I was 16 or 17 or 15.

Which photos?

I was attending a photo course at Centre of Creative Learning in Riga. We were introduced to the history of photography, Weston, Cartier-Bresson…

What was your first impression of that stuff?

Bresson, I remember a picture with man and cat. I was looking at it and thinking, what's so special?

Downtown, 1947, H. Cartier-Bresson
Before that for me fine art was nudes and kitsch photos. But somehow examples from the history of photography were influencing me and I went to the streets. But that's after Early Works.

I love the cat photo. I don't think it's very typical of Cartier-Bresson.

It's very simple in composition.

What do you think of that photograph now?

Bresson loved to photograph catsI've never been in New York and I don’t know how crowded it was when Bresson was there. The photograph is taken after World War II - Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

A lot of your later work involves consciously rule-breaking and tweaking authority. Was the photo-club your first introduction to the so called "rules" of making photos?

My reaction to rules started in second or third year of my studies at the academy in Prague. At FAMU I got quite a big dose, so I started to be fed up. The photo course was based on your own will to attend it or not. In Latvia at that time we had no higher education in still photography.

Meaning in high school or college?

Like Bachelor studies in European system.

How would you describe the general photo culture in Latvia as you were growing up? Were there lots of galleries? Were photographers respected as a profession? Was it something to aspire to?

The few art galleries or museums we had were not showing photographic works. Actually only at the turn of the century did photography start to be accepted as art in Latvia. By the way, during the Soviet times we had quite good possibility for kids to attend different types of courses for free. In each area I think was one photo course, but in 1990 they all disappeared. There were few Photo Clubs with their kitsch aesthetics. 

That's because of the Soviet collapse?

Yes, because the state had no money. 

Similar story today.

Photographers were participating in Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique and a few getting medals, so these ones were more respected, but not really as artists. In fact it is quite sad because in the 90s the photo club photographers were accused of serving Soviet ideology, showing beautiful girls in the flower fields instead of being critical of everyday life conditions. Imagine you are around 60 and suddenly you gain even less respect than before. All of them were self-taught.

The Medium Is The Message, 2008

I think Boris Mikhailov has played against that idea successfully. He made great photos inside the Soviet sphere bumping against their rules.

Yes, but it was a risk. And before you exhibited something you had to pass USSR General literature administration. Often there were very absurd situations and reasons why a photograph was censored and you could not not show the photo at all or had to retouch some parts of it.

So maybe you're coming from a similar place as Mikhailov? I know you're interested in tweaking rules and bringing attention to how crazy certain limitations are. 

It might be different as well in Moscow or Kiev. In Baltic countries I think it was a bit more problematic to photograph and to have access to information. For example, if you got into Lenin's library in Moscow, you could have more chances to be progressive in photography.

You mentioned the older generation of Soviet photographers who are "self taught". Does that describe you? How much formal photo training do you have?

I was attending a photo corse in Riga and the teacher there is still Latvian photographer Andrejs Grants (Latvian Henri Cartier-Bresson). Then I went for half a year to a very bad trade school and at the age of 18 I got into the daily newspaper. 

Interesting. I didn't know of Grants.

Grants and his colleague Inta Ruka, stayed with so called subjective documentary. The rest from their generation jumped into commercial life. The older ones mostly present a different aesthetic, as I mentioned before.

You took classes with Grants? He taught you the "rules" which you later broke?

He was my pedagogue when I was 16 - 20. That is for 4 -5 years before I left for Prague. My next teacher was Viktor Kolář.
from Ostrava, by Viktor Kolar

I love his photos. He is not well known in the U.S. but in my opinion just as good as HCB and Kertesz. What is he like as a teacher? Or as a person?

As a teacher quite good, but Andrejs Grants was better for me. As a person - kind of zen Buddhist. Maybe too pathetic and conservative. Kolar accepted only black and white from me.

Do you make the type of photos that Grants and Kolar make? 

No, I think I'm too sarcastic and more of a "carnival" type  photographer. But I learned quite a lot from them.

Yes, I know you're sarcastic. I'm sarcastic too, by the way. Which may have led me to you. But what's below that? What photographers do you admire sincerely?

Joan Fontcuberta, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Hans Aarsman. I like a lot work of Thomas Mailaender. Arnold Odermatt, Weegee, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, of course.

Those last two seem quite different than Fontcuberta and Mailaender. They are more interested in straight photography, photography for its own sake, rather than twisting or tweaking it conceptually. Are those the sort of photographs you make yourself?

I'm quite a straight photographer. I’m very sincere. Street situations sometimes, pictures of my daughter…

I guess I would loosely label Grants and Kolar as street photographers.

I think it's quite often called Subjective Documentary?

That phrase works too. I haven't heard that term but I like it. 

It is an absurd invented term from Latvia.

Maybe absurd but pretty accurate.

Maybe, if we consider that there is such a thing as objective.

That's a can of worms.

Yes, yes.

I think I have a rough sense of what "subjective documentary" means but I'm wondering what you think it means. How would you define it?

It’s like a frame of reference in Einsteinian relativity, where reference frames are used to specify the relationship between a moving observer and the phenomenon or phenomena under observation. 

Perhaps your photographs for the Czech newspaper could be considered Subjective Documentary?

That's quite subversive documentary.

They seem to take clear aim at the idea of objectivity, which is pretty closely tied to newspapers. What made you take that job? Did you intend to sabotage the photos from the start? Or did it grow out of boredom? Or a need to break rules?

No, I did not intend to sabotage the photos from the very start. I was working in printed media in Latvia for about 3 years before I went to study to Prague in 2000. After my studies in 2008 I needed money to pay debts and just to live. I was lucky to get this position as the reporter in one of the biggest Czech daily newspapers. I got in “taxi driver” position again and decided to have some extra experience, and started to do some manipulations before photographs were sent to the picture editor. Kind of an experiment within the limits, and at the same time I tried not be kicked out of the job. In fact I was fascinated with digital media. When I was photographing on film in Latvia, it was not possible to do so easy, fast postproduction and smuggle spontaneous micro details into photos. It is quite strange that the newspaper got to know about my art work and still used it. For example, in 2015 they used the most manipulated photo almost 20 times.

Very entertaining project. I'm surprised they're still using the photos.

Well, me too. But it is for free. I do not get paid for it.

So why did you eventually reveal the manipulations? Why not allow them to pass undetected?

I decided to put them in an art context and exhibited them. It's kind of a joke and a critique of the absurdity of media. It did not mean sacrificing the job. I knew I would not be a reporter for more than one year. The economic crisis came in 2008 and instead of 6 photographers in the newspaper remained only one. I got a reputation as a manipulator and was not welcome in the press anymore.

Sample Spread from Early Works, 2015

How did Early Works become a Mack book?

I sent the book to First Book award competition.

I didn't know that. So it won?

No. Because of 2 pages, it would make a scandal but Mack wanted to publish.

Is that the part of the book that says "CENSORED"?

Yes. There is an edition of stickers made after the book went out but I think they are hidden too.

The stickers show the censored images?

Missing parts of photos.

The pages must've been pretty bad if Mack wouldn't run them. What was censored?

Children games in doctors.


It depends how you define or interpret it. For me at the age of 10 it was  - adult games or doctor games. But for someone who might buy the book it might be a big provocation.

Apart from the censored section, how close was Mack's final version to what you'd originally sent them? Did it change much?

A bit, a few details. Basically it stayed the same, just a few millimeters bigger, I do not why. Better printing. Some people say that self-published is better because of more mistakes in text or more gray printing and it is uncensored.

Maybe. You self-published the recent Useful Advice For Photographers, right?

No, that is by dienacht Magazine. It was my practical work for my Master degree at FAMU academy in Prague 10 years ago. I made a few self-published too.

It's a great booklet. I find it amusing that in almost every case the "wrong" photograph is more interesting than the "right" one. I know it was meant as satire. Joking aside, I'm curious if you have any general ideas for making "right" photographs. 

For the inspiration I studied quite a few Photography handbooks. Sometimes I found there more absurd extremes of right/wrong than in Useful Advice For Photographers. At the same time I collected opinions and beliefs about good or bad composition in photography. The book is based on formal qualities like composition, lighting, exposure or sharpness. 

What do you think goes into making good or bad photographs? Are some photographs "better" than others?

About making good or bad photographs Hans Aarsman did very good presentation at TEDxOf course life would be much more easier if we lived in a black and white value system. Hitler would like it for sure. I think mostly right/wrong depends on context and initial aim. 

I like the Early Works book. As you probably know it's quite different than most Mack books, which is why I was curious how they came to publish it. Mack is close to the center of the fine art photo world. So it was striking to see that world critiqued so sharply from within. If you'd self-published I don't think it would have the same impact because it would be coming from an outsider's perspective.

Sure, I think it is a good combination.

I don't understand the earlier comment about "more mistakes in text or more gray printing". Are those things you wanted?

Not much intentionally. It just makes it more authentic.

Mistakes = authentic?

The book was done in 2010. Three copies. I put together it in +/ - one day for the exhibition in France. And if we interpret it as a kind of Eastern European kid's book from 1990, mistakes are a part of it. Punk, looser .... from the east.

Mack wouldn't allow you to insert deliberate mistakes?

Maybe, but there are few mistakes anyway.

from Useful Advice For Photographers

Erik Kessels has a recent book about Failure in photography. He might agree there is some relationship between mistakes and authenticity. It could also be related to the recent wave of interest in film/vinyl/books/analog process, since mistakes are part of anything analogue.

Is it a new book? Is it a good book?

I don't have it. But I agree with the premise that mistakes can sometimes be more interesting than perfection. In photography but also in music and other arts.


Maybe it's that everything commercial/monetary seeks perfection, often unwittingly. Perfection is the syntax of advertising. So there's an informal tie in the mind. When you see perfection you associate it with the market.

Mistake have an aspect of humor. Incongruity.

Mistakes and incongruities can hint at absurdity. And there is definitely humor there. 

Are you an Andy Kaufman fan?

Haven't seen much, but yes. Tragic. He passed young, and no one took seriously what he said about the cancer he had.

He did something similar in comedy to what you're doing in photography, breaking rules and poking fun at rules. Questioning shit. And in regard to mistakes, he would incorporate deliberate mistakes into his material, so that the audience wasn't sure where the line was. If you can do that effectively, it's a very powerful device in comedy or in photography.

I'm doing my PhD research related to humor in contemporary art.

You're doing a PhD in photography? Why? To teach?

Not in photography. I'm going to the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and in Bratislava. As well to teach, even though I'm teaching now anyway, but who knows. In the future it might be more difficult without a PhD to teach. It is a good job - you read books.

What conclusions have you reached so far about humor in contemporary art? Or in contemporary photography?

Not yet. It is in the mix of basic theories - incongruity, release and superiority. I am only halfway. It can be dysfunctional comedy or functional comedy. It is up to each individual. 

I'm not in a PhD program but my informal conclusion is that photographers (and maybe other artists) take themselves way too seriously. Often the more serious a photographer takes himself or herself, the worse the photos are. If I see another fucking portrait of a person on a bedspread staring wistfully at the ceiling I'll shoot myself. And the reverse is true too. It's difficult to make humorous photos without being dismissed as inconsequential.

Yes, it is kind of sect, photographers - the serious ones with great pathos. And it's not funny to read theories about humor. 

Which photographers working now do you think make funny photos? 

Mostly amateurs, and artists who use vernacular photographs for their own projects. For example thisor the book Unfortunate Selfies by Joachim Schmid.

Who uses humor successfully?

Vendula Knopova (the book Tutorial), Camille Laurelli, Jasansky and Polak, Joan Foncuberta, Thomas Mailaender, Juergen Teller, Zbigniew Libera, Oskar Dawicki…

Is the basic premise behind your PhD the idea that we need more humor in art?

No, I will analyze some of my projects, how they are related to humor. It is more about introducing the context.

And you're doing 2 PhDs?

Yes, the other one is about Russian artist Avdei Ter-Oganian, who influenced me quite a lot

I don't know that person but I will look him up. 

Here is my short intro I made few years ago: 

Sounds like a real provocateur. Now I really think you need to investigate Andy Kaufman. He was the original prankster / performance art genius, in a similar vein to Avdei Ter-Oganian.

Yes, I will make for sure more research on Andy Kaufman.

Leaving aside the topic of humor, what is your general impression of the contemporary photo world? Which photographers do you like? Where do you think it's heading? What kind of photos will artists be making in 10 years or 20 years? 

In 20 years all the cameras will be linked to the Internet, and photography will be controlled either through augmented reality or by default built-in programs in cameras. It won’t be for free and people won’t be free to photograph whatever they want. Artistic photographers will make beautiful abstract images mostly for decorative or therapeutic purposes. But the ones who will have bits of silver halide most likely will be under the law. In such a configuration people will find out immediately when you photograph them. If your intervention with the camera is objectionable for them, they will quickly fight back and virtually compress you. 

According to André Stanguennec photography should not be an autonomous artistic medium as painting, and it should not be purely an aesthetic medium, as it was in modernism. Photography should not be used in order to speculate on the meaning of art, as it was in postmodernism. Photography should be purely accidental, without deliberate intention to make it artistic. Follow this idea and as a photographer you might find yourself very far away from the “Contemporary Photo World Shopping Mall”.  Although genetic disorder and sufficient intellectual disability will help people to photograph entirely descriptive documents. 

Can you please tell me a little bit about the following projects. How did you conceive them? What do they express?

Shopping Poetry?

Consumeristic DaDa. Fetish of goods. Rhyme. My commercial art project. Kind of Pokemon Go with a poetic mood.


For the art festival “Survival Kit 4” in Riga, I was invited to make project dealing with intervention. I made different stickers with the inscription SUPER. The stickers were available for free at the festival entrance and visitors could attach them in the exhibition space. This positive intervention changed the meaning of every artwork there. I’m not really sure if festival organisers understood my sabotage.

New Wave in Photography?

It is the same as the video LA-LA , the fascination with user friendly applications. I collected pornographic images and deformed them with Photoshop filters - Wave, Twirl, ZigZag . From the harsh reality I made beautiful abstract photos. 

Are you religious or spiritual?

No, but the background from where I come from is linked to Paganism.

What is your relationship with boredom?

Do you know if there are some theories explaining boredom?

1 comment:

Hernan Zenteno said...

Just I wanted a selfie with the photo of the man and the cat at the show in Buenos Aires now, is one of my favourites of Bresson. I wanted share it with my girlfriend. But no, it was forbidden. I understand to forbid a selfie, but photos in a show of Bresson. Wha?