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Interview: Svjetlana Tepavcevic on Means of Reproduction

Means of Reproduction no. 807 -- Svjetlana Tepavcevic

Currently on exhibition at photo-eye Gallery is a selection of work from Svjetlana Tepavcevic’s series Means of Reproduction. Tepavcevic makes color portraits of seeds and seed pods with an interest in their transformative power. Historically many images that have been made of seeds or botanicals were created for scientific purposes, like the cyanotype photograms made by botanist Anna Atkins first published in book format in 1883 (Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions). Tepavcevic’s images can be appreciated on a scientific level, but their creation is not so much driven by science alone. Tepavcevic’s images are inspired by her wonder and fascination with the natural world. Often times when she finds her subjects she has no idea what they are — even well into the image making process. I believe that the artists' fascination can been seen in each image that she captures — a reminder to the viewer just how beautiful and complex our natural world is. Perhaps it was that same type of fascination that lead Anna Atkins to Botany. In celebration of the Means of Reproduction exhibition, I have asked her to share a little bit more about her work. -- Anne Kelly
Means of Reproduction no. 406 -- Svjetlana Tepavcevic
Anne Kelly:     How were you first introduced to medium of photography?

Svjetlana Tepavcevic:     I never owned any kind of camera until the fall of 2006, when I took my first photography class. Growing up in the former Yugoslavia, I didn’t have access to a lot of visual art other than movies. When I came to the U.S., after having lived through the siege of Sarajevo and disintegration of my homeland in the bloody war, I studied communication because I needed to understand why human beings behave so brutally, why propaganda works. Art is a form of communication, and it can be socially conscious and used for political purposes. I found myself taking art history courses. And going to museums became a regular habit.

At UCLA, I discovered great avant-garde films from the 1920s, Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a City and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. Expressive and experimental, they are still fascinating. I studied Leni Riefenstahl’s “wonderful, horrible” films (to borrow from the title of Ray Müller’s film). Being mesmerized by all these great black-and-white films must have left an indelible imprint on my mind, even though I wasn’t consciously aware of it.

I was also intrigued by still photography. I saw a Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective in Berlin just a month before he died in 2004, and a couple of great Helmut Newton exhibitions. And many others in Los Angeles. When I finally had an opportunity, I signed up for a traditional darkroom class. For me, photography was synonymous with black-and-white expression. I bought my first camera, Pentax K-1000, and some black-and-white film. I researched different instructors at UCLA Extension. One of them stood out. It turned out she printed for some of photography’s great artists. Since that class, I have learned so much and have been consumed with making work.

Means of Reproduction no. 627 and no. 701 (diptych) -- Svjetlana Tepavcevic

AK:     Who are you influences?

ST:     I find the issue of influences a complex one. Everything that surrounds us, where we are from and where we live, influences us in some ways. But there is also that the inner voice that determines what you respond to, and how and what you express when you create your own art. It’s mysterious and many times I am surprised by it. Where does that voice come from? I don’t really know.

Art we engage with surely has an impact in some way. I love many art forms other than photography. I was incredibly moved by Zarina’s exhibition Paper Like Skin. Zarina is an Indian-born printmaker and sculptor whose work deals with identity, exile, loss. I realized I was especially attracted to small desert pods I had because they are cocoons, they represent shelter, a place that is home. As I was making my cocoon images, I wanted to crawl inside them. I also wanted them to become large sculptures, big and actual physical spaces. Engaging with Zarina’s exquisite, tactile artworks made me see this more clearly.

Marah Macrocarpus pod from 4/13; outer
shell opens up and inner part, which has
four seed chambers, is exposed.

AK:     Tell us about when you found the first seed pod that inspired this project.

ST:     The first one I found, in June 2009, is cocoon-like inner part of a seed pod. I didn’t know what it was then. It was damaged and weathered by time, but still stunning, intricately constructed and delicate. The plant is called Marah Macrocarpus or wild cucumber. I saw it frequently in my hikes in Los Angeles. The seed pod, when fresh and whole, is green and appears like a cross between a porcupine and a small cannon ball. The plant is native to Southern California. It looks like it’s strangling trees and shrubs. After finding this one, I began to pay attention to other seeds and seed pods. They are so wondrous and I was so unaware and ignorant of them.

Means of Reproduction no. 615 -- Svjetlana Tepavcevic

AK:     You describe your images as portraits – please talk about this.

ST:     I love portraiture. Great portraits have a sense of mystery and presence, you can engage with them many times. When it became clear to me that Means of Reproduction was becoming a project, I started thinking about what I am doing. I thought of Karl Blossfeldt’s work. But I didn’t think my primary aim was to show stunning design alone. I want to imbue each subject with a sense of individuality and mysterious presence. I thought of Irving Penn’s great portraits and stunning platinum palladium prints, of Richard Avedon’s large portrait prints that stopped me in my tracks when I first saw them, of Martin Schoeller’s surreal face close-up portraits. Seeds and their vessels are usually very small and come in large numbers. Isolating and enlarging an individual one abstracts it and makes it appear surreal. The project falls into still-life genre, but I keep thinking they are portraits.

AK:     You start by selecting seeds and seed pods that interest you --- sometime you are not sure what your subject is until after it has been scanned — please talk about this.

ST:     When I find them, I am not concerned with what they are. I must be attracted to them for their symbolic quality. I didn’t know what most of them were until being asked to identify them for publication last fall. I actually didn’t intend to reveal what they are. Isn’t it amazing, these things are all around us and we are mostly unaware of them? We ignore the complexities of the natural world. Identifying them has opened a new way of thinking and learning, which is always exciting. Now I try to identify each plant right away. I think it doesn’t take away from their mystery.

Means of Reproduction no. 1192 -- Svjetlana Tepavcevic

AK:     You had mentioned during your talk that you do not seek out your subjects, they must cross your path naturally --- however many of the seeds you find are not originally from the habitat that you find them in. Anything you would you would like to add about that?

ST:     The first astonishing seed pod I found presented itself to me without my looking for it. I thought about that and set it as a rule for the project. It’s about being aware of the world around me. The exception is that I accept gifts from a couple close friends.

I am finding out that plants are migrants too, probably in large part due to our own migrations. We have altered our environment significantly. For example, Means of Reproduction no. 804 is Ailanthus Altissima or tree of heaven. It got the small seed branch in my image in L.A. from a tree that was cut down. Ailanthus Altissima is deciduous and native to China and Taiwan. According to the U.S. Dept of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, it is distributed throughout the U.S. and listed in four states as a “noxious” weed. I found a branch with dried seeds from the same type of tree on the grounds of Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu house.

Means of Reproduction no. 804 -- Svjetlana Tepavcevic

AK:     Tell us about your process.

ST:     The physical print is the most important expression of the image for me. I work hard on printmaking. Time in a very important element in my work. My process feels like that of an excavation. It’s a very instinctual, I listen to the inner voice. I also allow time to have its say. I make a print, and come back to it a few months later. Then I see it anew and know right away whether it stands or if it needs more work. I think I am never done. There is always something to improve, to change, to make better.

AK:     What is next?

ST:     I will be developing this project into a book.

Svjetlana Tepavcevic has also recently produced an exhibition catalogue of her Means of Reproduction series. See page spreads from the book or purchase it here. See Tepavcevic's work, including her The Sea Inside series, here.

The exhibition continues through July 13th. For more information or to purchase a print please contact Anne Kelly at 505-988-5158 x121 or