INTERVIEW with the artist Maria Mavropoulou
(Current exhibition/participation: Modern Love – Love in the Age
of Cold Intimacies, Museum für Neue Kunst, Freiburg, Germany)
PhotoArtBLOG/Birgit Wudtke/October 2020
Dear Maria Mavropoulou,
Your entire oeuvre spans a period of about six years. Considering the formal strength and the powerful content of your photographs, this is an astonishingly short creative period. Your pictures have an iconic power and work in particular through their reduction.
Since I have had some experience with the Hasselblad camera, I like the choice of the square as a format, and I want to ask you more about your point of view in this interview.
In photography, a circular incidence of light is recorded and transformed into a rectangular image. Basically, this incidence of light, formed through a hole, is always cut off by the various possible formats. The formats are constructed. The square can depict the largest possible area of the circular incidence of light. The square viewfinder of a Hasselblad also tempts one to place the object to be depicted in the center and to orient oneself accordingly to the middle. I have often found the moment of recording and centering on the subject to be “meditative,” although meditation and photography are not generally viewed as existing in a relationship, especially in the West. In Western culture, the square format is not considered ideal from an art-historical point of view. The principle of ideal aesthetic proportions is that of the “golden ratio.” This is a principle that has its origins in mathematical literature extending back to ancient Greece and was particularly prominent in the fields of philosophy, theology, the natural sciences, and handicrafts during the Renaissance.
While looking at your photographs, the question arises of whether your image formats were created from a technical precondition of the camera, or whether you constructed these formats in post-processing on the computer. Many of your motifs have a large proportion of gray or black. Do these surfaces correspond to actual situations, such as the fog or the darkness, or are these computer-generated or digitally modified parts of the image? To put it another way, would you describe your images as “photographs” or as “photographic computer-graphics,” meaning images that have been finalized in their formal composition and aesthetics on the computer?
The choice of the square was initially totally intuitive. As a student at Athens School of Fine Arts, I was practicing in painting and I always had to choose the format of my canvas and, of course, my subject. I kept making these choices when I used photography, although partially they are predefined by the medium itself. I didn’t use a Hasselblad, I had an ordinary Nikon, which of course had, and still has, rectangular files, and I wouldn’t always wait for photographs to “happen.” I was usually inspired by something I saw, or I had an idea in my mind of what I wanted to shoot and would go for it. I would construct the image either physically or digitally. Having a background in fine arts, I consider myself an artist and I take advantage of the “creative freedom” this brings with it.
My images are loosely tied to the real world or to the moment in which they were captured. There is no “decisive moment” depicted in them. I feel that the rectangular format has more to do with the notion of time (i.e. films, moving images), while this is not the case with the square format. I also frequently place my subject in the middle of the frame, and a square format definitely seems to be a better choice for achieving the symmetry I’m looking for. As you say, the square is the format closest to a circle. This was something I also had in mind, especially for the “Desire for Consciousness” series, where the depicted objects can also be perceived as symbols. My square pictures show only a part of a circle. They could just as easily be expanded in any direction, but I have to stay within “printable” dimensions!
There are images in my “Inner State” and “The Desire for Consciousness” series that were shot just like this, and others that needed hours of editing to achieve the final result. As to whether my images are “photographs” or “photographic computer graphics,” I would say they are simply images. There is such fluidity between different mediums that it’s difficult to make such categorization. For example, are there any “straight from the camera” photographs when software is embedded in all cameras manufactured today? When does a photograph stop being an edited photograph and become a photographic computer graphic? Furthermore, 3D technologies create perfectly realistic images. CGI (computer-generated imagery) imitates photography and video and algorithms create content on demand with impressive results. All these technologies are based on photography. They are fed with images on an unimaginable scale in order to produce more images. What are these images after all?
I recently found this sentence on Instagram: “We are a sad generation with happy pictures.” This “saying” has in fact been circulating for a number of years, and not only since 2020, which might be quite an extreme year for our generation. I guess there are wealthy people with big homes, gardens and family cars who have survived the period of the global pandemic, political and social upheaval and environmental disaster well so far, but apart from them, the vulnerability and mortality of humans is especially evident this year. The images produced and circulated around us, however, rarely show vulnerability, fear, dirt.
Susan Sonntag said, “(…)Nobody exclaims, ‘Isn’t that ugly! I must take a photograph of it’. Even if someone did say that, all it would mean is: ‘I find that ugly thing… beautiful (…)’” (Sonntag, On Photography, NY 1977).
How would you describe the interplay of beauty and horror in your art?
Unfortunately, as a society we depend more and more on how things look rather than what they really are. Observing life through the distorting prism of social media can even be dangerous to our health, according to psychologists. Images can easily be misleading. This is not new, however. Images have been used for demagogic purposes and propaganda, or to establish status since Antiquity by kings, aristocrats, dictators, governments, and religions. Images were always produced under the auspices of powerful patrons and belonged to them. What has changed in recent years is that anyone who has access to a camera can produce and control his or her own images and share these at their discretion. Of course, most of us don’t want to share anything other than happy and important moments we are proud of. We continue to use these images to achieve more or less the same goals as those with this power who came before us. We want to establish ourselves. It’s still a matter of status.
Returning to your question though, I would say that happy images are not always beautiful images, nor are sad or horrifying images ugly. For me, beauty is mostly associated with form, not with the content of an image. There are images of awful events that are beautiful in their form. There is such a contradiction between those two qualities of an image that it may even be unethical to call such images beautiful (for example, the image of “The Falling Man” by Richard Drew; an image that struck me as not many images have). That being said, I think it is easier to explain the relationship between beauty and horror in my practice. In a world flooded with all kind of images, I feel that beauty is still a tool for attracting attention with the aim of pinpointing issues that might otherwise appear dull and boring, or even so trivial that we no longer see them anymore. Beauty is always an eye-catcher, but what I always look for in an image is a second layer, some kind of a surprise factor or the refusal to give all its meanings at first glance.
(Interview October 2020)
A selection of six images was chosen for this interview. The individual works belong to different series of images. Maria Mavropoulou has written her own lyrics for these different series, which can be found on her website: www.mariamavropoulou.com
1. Maria Mavropoulou, Inner State, untitled, 100 cm x 100 cm, 2014
2. Maria Mavropoulou, Family Portraits, the lovers, 100 cm x 100 cm, 2018
3. Maria Mavropoulou, Inner State, untitled, 100 cm x 100 cm, 2015
4. Maria Mavropoulou, The Desire for Consciousness, untitled, 100 cm x 100 cm, 2012
5. Maria Mavropoulou, Untitled, 100 cm x 100 cm, 2014
6. Maria Mavropoulou, The Desire for Consciousness, untitled, 100 cm x 100 cm, 2013