MARTINA HOOGLAND IVANOW — CONTEMPORARY 212 (2004)
By Penny Martin
Painterly. Poetic. Nostalgic. Ambiguous. When flabby adjectives like these pop in a critique of a photographer’s work, it’s a sure sign that the author is struggling to get past the surface of the image in question. These hoary terms suggest experimental lightning or decorative printing technique, certainly, but what they don’t do is to give any sense of whether the approach communicates anything relevant about the subject rendered. It is frustrating then, that these stalwarts of casual criticism are so frequently levelled at the photography of Martina Hoogland Ivanow, an image-maker whose mesmerising technique reveals so much about her working process.
Two recent bodies of the Swedish photographer’s work demonstrate how the signature aesthetic of her prints has been put to strategic use during the eight years since she graduated from Parsons, as she grappled with the conflicting demands of personal and commercial work. The 200 or so images that make up the ” Speedway” project, recently exhibited in part of the Natalia Golden Gallery in Stockholm, reflect the key characteristics that have come to identify a Hoogland Ivanow at first glance. Arresting subject matter – in this case, men partaking in the highly precarious sport of speedway racing and the people that turn out to watch them – diffused by focus so soft and lighting so low as to almost remove any trace of the form depicted, often throwing the scen into partial blackness. In pictures such as Untitled ( 2003 ), in which the rally spectators’ bodies are almost edited out by darkness, and the roadside dirt on the which they stand is abstracted into a desert scape, it is perhaps understandable that commentators have been spellbound by the technique alone. Yet Hoogland Ivanow is anxious to point out that, far from being arbitrary, her idiosyncratic execution serves a function.
I’m not aware of constructing a technique’, she explains, ’lighting a selection of subject are choices that every photographer makes, that combined to make a personal statement. If I choose a very soft lighting, it is to capture something that’s very hard to take in.
The visual filter Hoogland Ivanow lays over her subjects has been a distancing device she has used since college, when emotionally- challenging themes were at heart of her practice. More recently , it could be a metaphor for the mental distance between the photographer and her male subjects, as the exotic world of male ritual has become her overarching fascination. ’With ”Speedway”, I was very drawn to the danger – the sport is so ambitious, dedicated and lustful.
In the end, ”Speedway” is very little to do with the sport and more about human psychology; they’re like symbols, failed individuals. There’s a really dark energy at the bottom of the project’. Despite Hoogland Ivanow’s emotional attachment to the series, it was not one she initiated. The four winters spent shooting at a competitions staged in Outer Mongolia, Siberia and Berlin were a suggestion of the filmmaker Jonathan Green, who, having seen her breakthrough project in 2000 of Sumo wrestlers portraits, challenged her to begin the project. It is clear that Hoogland Ivanow enjoys a unsolicited brief – a central feature of the fashion industry for which she photographed intensely for the first six years of her proffessional career. ’Sometimes it’s good to push yourself to do things you would not choose to,’ she concedes, ’being thrown into almost any situation, strengthens you. ’This period spent working in London won her the most prestigious, sought after advertising campaigns for Prada and Miu Miu, but she swiftly found the industry’s perspective commissioning impaired the crucial balance of her work. For Hoogland Ivanow’s images to succeed, it’s subject has to be sufficiently substantial or hard hitting to contrast with the seductiveness of her image-capture and printing. ’With fashion,’ she says, ’I had a hard time because it became ”soft with soft”. With something that was edgy or explored the limits of beauty, then it seemed to work. But when things get safer or more stereotypical, I personally find it hard. Like ”oil with oil”, it just kind of slips away. In keeping with her photographic approach, Hoogland Ivanow felt the need to create a barrier and moved back to Sweden. This has allowed her to increase the distinction between her ongoing male ritual studies – including Turkish oil wrestlers and resurgent Cossacks – and the commercial work supports them.
Paradoxically, this geographic shift has reinvigorated her all- important emotional commitment when it comes to fashion. A new project, commissioned for the ’Fashination’ exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, has even forced a minor revolution in terms of lighting technique. Hoogland Ivanow has begun using harsh sunlight to cast shadows over figures, introducing a new lighter aesthetic and once again proving that this young photographers’s approach difficult to define. Though not yet fully resolve, this constant exploration suggests new directions for her commercial projects and it will be interesting to see how she introduces this development into her personal work. For a practitioner so acutely aware of her own need to be convinced by and immersed in her subjects, it should be no surprise that, to reaffirm previous enthusiasms, some distance was required.