21 Jan Featured: Unexpected Connections by Photographer Mareli Esterhuizen
It is through unexpected connections that Mareli Esterhuizen develops her narratives. “I love the tension between elements placed together as well as the awkwardness of the new imposed relationships,” she says. Her most recent photograpic exploration, ‘Quandary’, pairs synthetic hair with fruit and vegetables in a series of eccentric still life images. In the ongoing series ‘Clothed’, it’s as though people become props in a theatrical stage of Mareli’s own making. We spoke to her about her journey so far, how her aesthetic has developed over time and what influences her work.
What sort of environment did you grow up in? Was there ever any indication that you’d be doing what you are now?
I grew up in a very supportive, loving family environment, but never had any major artistic role models in my life. From a very young age I loved being creative and during my primary school years I always had a little workstation where I was very busy designing clothes for my range of paper dolls. I also entered our annual flower arrangement competition held in the town hall and loved styling and arranging the flowers. I was never really exposed to photography though.
What is your earliest photography-related memory?
I was in high school and my dad’s cousin showed me his photographic portfolio while we were on holiday at our beach house. Something inside me just came alive and from that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I have never doubted it or looked back.
Tell us about your experience studying photography at the NMMU.
I absolutely loved it and have the most unforgettable memories studying there. We had incredible facilities from the darkroom to the studio to the equipment. We spent hours printing, shooting, coming up with the craziest concepts and making magic with our cameras. It felt like nothing was impossible; our passion could make anything happen!
How would you describe your style or aesthetic, and how has this developed since you first started out?
I think my style is quite fluid and it changes all the time. In my first couple of years of studying I was very inspired by the works of Nick Knight and his use of colour. I loved fashion photography and wanted to pursue it as a direction.
Between my 3rd and 4th year of studying at the NMMU, I took a break and travelled abroad for a while. When I came back to do my degree, my vision (and subsequently my style) changed slightly and I started working mostly in black and white and used quite a lot of layering. My biggest inspirations during the time were Robert Frank and Christian Boltanski and my work became slightly more sinister and complex. At the moment I am very much drawn to colour again and have found a great love for still lifes. I love creating unconventional links through objects placed together using colour, texture, shape or subject matter.
What are you influenced and inspired by?
I find great inspiration in spontaneity and discovering the new and unexpected. I like to give context to arbitrary objects and see how a narrative can evolve through unsystematic connections. I love the tension between elements placed together as well as the awkwardness of the new imposed relationships.
How does your approach differ when you’re working on commercial projects, as opposed to personal ones?
It all depends on the project, but I try to stick within the parameters of the brief of a commercial project, while still pushing the boundaries both creatively and visually as far as I can. It is still a great learning curve to be completely free within my style with a project that doesn’t leave enough room for spontaneity. I find that I can’t shoot my best work when I feel claustrophobic within the brief.
Would you say that your style of shooting is more spontaneous and intuitive? Or is there a fair amount of planning involved?
I think it’s definitely a mixture of both. It also depends on what I am shooting. Commercially I like to be a little more prepared, but if I’m shooting a personal project I make sure that there’s lots of room for spontaneity. I would write down a couple of ideas to start off with and from there it usually evolves and sometimes grow in a direction that I would have never expected. I also let the environment dictate part of the process. I can easily change my entire concept at the last minute if don’t feel like it’s coming together as planned. I’ve always loved change and don’t hold onto my ideas too tight-fistedly.
Tell us more about your Quandary series and the inspiration behind it. Is it something you plan to add to continually?
Quandary started as an experimental test shoot, which was done as a pitch for an advertising agency. I ended up enjoying it more than I could imagine. I’ve always had a great love for still lifes and food photography and knew that this was definitely something that I would like to investigate and take further. The next step would be to team up with a hair stylist and take the concept further.
The Quandary series is one example, but many of your images feel very “designed” – in the sense that elements have been carefully or meticulously arranged within the frame. Would you agree and, if so, why do you enjoy working in this manner?
I am passionate about precision in composition and the way various elements within the frame influence each other. Every single arrangement of line, structure, shape or color will tell a unique story.
When and why did you decide to begin your own photography school, School of Light? What have you learned through the act of teaching others?
It was never something that I really planned, it kind of fell into my lap. It was a friend’s school (previously called Fast Forward) where I had been teaching on and off for a couple of years. He sold the school to me and after a couple of years, the design studio where I was working at the time, CLRS & Co., redid the corporate identity and we changed the name. This was a very exciting process.
One of the greatest lessons I think I have learnt is patience and perseverance. Watching the students work transform and seeing how they become passionate about light and photography is one of the most exciting things. I’ve also learnt that you really have to keep up with technology and you can never stop learning and evolving as an artist, a photographer and a person.
Are you involved in any other creative pursuits?
Whenever I find time, I try to collaborate with other artists, designers and stylists to shoot creative projects and participate in exhibitions. I dream of publishing a book of creative writings and photographs – so that is something that is always in the back of my mind and that I’m working towards.
What do you love most about what you do?
I love it when the unexpected happens. It’s almost as if something else takes over and I become part of such a beautiful, spontaneous process.
What can we expect from you going forward?
In a personal capacity definitely more group shows, collaborations and hopefully another solo exhibition before the end of the year. I would also love to do my Masters as soon as possible. As far as School of Light is concerned I would love to grow the SOL team and the offering of courses.
Quandary series (#1)
Quandary series (#2)
Clothed series (#1-5)