Sven Kristian is a Cape Town based photographer whose work is characterised by dramatic lighting and contrast, and cinematic references. Sven works across genres, but is most interested in the dramatic potential of fashion photography. We chatted with him to find out more about his process, creative influences and his residency stint in Iceland.
What was the first photograph you ever took, and what prompted you to take it?
I’m not sure what the actual first image was, but I do remember taking a very out of focus underwater shot of what looked like it could have been a yellow fish, back in 1993. It was either a fish or pollution, who knows, but we were on holiday and my mom bought a disposable camera for under water use and that’s one of the only images that came out haha. Having said all this, photography never really interested me much until well into the 2000s, which was when I seriously started thinking that this could be something I wanted to do, so lets say my first photograph was of an old Volvo parked in a street in London. What prompted me to take it? The cast of light at that moment.
Since then, has your style and approach changed? Please tell us how…
In 2008 I started getting into photography, but I only really photographed friends at parties and some graffiti and architecture in London and I would often leave my DSLR packed away in a cupboard for months to follow. Everything only started falling into place properly in 2011 when I moved back to South Africa to study photography at City Varsity after deciding that a career in hotel management was not going to be the way I wanted to spend the rest of my life. In 2011 I learnt that photography is not just about documenting people or events or daily observations, but it can also be used to document something staged, something setup, something conceptual. I learnt about the possibility of creating art through photography; this changed everything for me, and I never thought about it like that before that time. I have my lecturers to thank for that.
Is there any single image that has profoundly impacted your work, and if so, how and why?
I cannot really say that one single image has impacted my work, as I have interest in and respect the works of so many artists, but from a commercial fashion stand point, I instantly fell in love with the works of commercial photographer Signe Vilstrup, all his stories are works that you just want to dive into and become a part of and explore. I don’t know, it’s just really beautiful editorial stuff. This is all very subjective of course!
From a personal perspective, there is an image of me, looking scruffy and dirty, screaming whilst typing on an old typewriter, with books ‘flying’ out and away from the typewriter. I created this image in first year at college, in 2011, and it is my first conceptual image, the decider that the possibilities in photography are endless. The assignment was to randomly (blindfolded) point to 3 different words in a dictionary. The words I pointed to were ‘vicious’, ‘compete’ and ‘muck’. So I created a small series of images conceptually explaining how viciously competitive these creative industries (photography, film, writing etc) can be at times. I hope that when you see the image it will make sense. 😉
Your photographs have a glamorous, romantic and slightly decadent tone to them. What inspires you aesthetically and how do you manifest this in your work?
I love cinema and cinematic lighting and film grading, so, without being an expert at it, I do try to create this aesthetic in my work where possible. Whether I achieve this or not is debatable, but it’s what inspires me and I enjoy the results.
I’m a big sucker for creating mood with artificial light (flash) whilst mixing that in with the available light, and this is often how these results come about. The lighting plays a big part to getting that cinematic and sometimes surreal feel. The grading and selective contrasting then also just adds a huge amount of aesthetic value to my work.
As a commercial photographer you’re often working to a brief. How do you go about ensuring that each project feel uniquely yours?
As I continue to get more involved in commercial fashion, editorial, advertising and fine art photography, I do hope that potential clients will be interested in hiring me for the style that I shoot in, wanting a similar aesthetic in their images; my signature of sorts. It would be a great achievement for me to be commissioned for my style and aesthetic.
Where do you start when conceptualizing a fashion story? Please tell us about your creative process…
An idea can come from anywhere really, a line in a book, a movie title, a dream perhaps. But once I know what I would like to try to achieve, I always back it up with references for myself and for the stylist and make up artist, so we can all be on the same page. A big part goes into researching online and finding visual references to assist with the concept/idea. Once we have that, quite a bit of time then goes into finding a suitable location. After that we can continue into what styling and props would suit the concept, location and palette of the story. Then the make up artist gets her/his chance to put their flavour to all that, and that’s kind of the process in a nutshell.
What does post-editing bring to photography, and how do you like to incorporate it into your work?
I do quite a bit of post-production on my images, however, I do strive for a great result straight out of camera. This ensures that we have a lot to work with when in post-production and also gets the team and model excited during the shoot when we preview. So, unless it’s a heavily conceptual composite I am doing that requires manipulation in post, it is mostly colour work and grading that I do post shoot.
You recently went on a residency in Iceland – what inspired you whilst you were there; what caught your eye, impacted your creative reference, what cultural insights did you experience…?
Iceland is one of the most beautiful countries I have ever experienced and I am truly fortunate that I had the opportunity to spend two months as an artist in residence there. It is a country and a landscape unparallel to anywhere else on earth. Films like Oblivion, Prometheus and parts of the series Game of Thrones were all shot in Iceland, so basically if you are searching for surreal ‘alien-like’ landscapes, Iceland is where it’s at! The highlands are so unique in form and shape and unlike anything else on earth really, volcanoes beneath glaciers surrounded by black rock and green moss with glacial rivers of the bluest colour flowing all around you and milky blue hot spring water surfacing through the black rock leaves you with such unique beauty!
It is difficult to not feel inspired by what you see around you in Iceland. I created a photographic series of conceptual landscapes whilst there, that fuses geometric forms, lines and shapes with the natural flow and forms of the country’s landscape.
Has this influenced your commercial work? If so, in what ways?
I had this question recently at an artists’ talk we (my partner and I) did about our experiences in Iceland, and I am pretty certain that it has had an impact on my commercial work, but I would not be able to pinpoint how it has impacted it creatively. However, when we were at the residency, I spent many hours in studio doing post production on my landscapes and this allowed me to discover new things in photoshop. So from that perspective it has helped me commercially. But when I do fine art, I like to try keep it separate from commercial work, so if there is any influence from the one to the other, I like to let that happen naturally and not purposefully.
What are some of the themes that you are interested in and explore in your work?
I can’t really say that I am interested in specific themes as such, but rather I explore mood, tone and light a lot more, it’s a combination of things really, I draw inspiration from existing films and one frame could inspire a whole story! My collection of film screen grabs is pretty much as big as my collection of fashion references.
What are you reading, watching, listening to right now?
I’m not on a novel right now, but I do still need to finish ‘Slash,’ the autobiography of the guitarist of the band Guns ‘n Roses which I started a while back. Other constant reading I’m doing is online research into DIY DSLR film-making. And I am also constantly reading and purchasing fashion magazines that I am really winning at collecting right now.
I’ve just watched American Hustle, which is a great reference for women’s vintage styling and make-up/hair. Then I’ve also just watched The Dallas Buyers Club, which is just awesome! It was created on a ridiculous shoestring budget, but you could never tell that when you watch it; maximum production at minimal cost! A true example that one can create greatness if one is resourceful, which I often am and need to be at this stage of my career.
I am currently listening to the entire discography of a recently discovered post rock band called Hammock. It is so, so beautiful. Its all very alike, but epic! For fans of Sigur Ros, Explosions in the Sky, Cinematic Orchestra and Mono.
What can we look forward to seeing from you soon?
I’m not sure what season has in store for me, but my aim for 2015 is to get some fashion films on the go and just some basic conceptual video material, mostly with no dialogue, only accompanied by music which I also want to write and record myself. I have a small music history that I would like to bring back to life, and I think creating music to accompany my fashion films and shoots will be a great package. Exciting times ahead!
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