"When you take a picture in a beautiful place, you have to realize that nature isn't the background for your photograph," says 24-year-old Belgian photographer Maroesjka Lavigne. "Rather, you are its prop. The only thing added to the scene, after all, is you."
During a four-month excursion to Iceland that began with an internship at The Reykjavik Grapevine, Lavigne became enamored of the country's stark scenery and how its people dealt with the challenges of going about daily life in an environment reigned by vast, inescapable nature. Steering away from typical depictions of Iceland's great mountainscapes and volcanoes, her work seeks instead to deconstruct the auras of intimidation surrounding these overwhelming forms, uncovering what makes Iceland a home to those who live there. The photographs carry a sense of familiarity and nostalgia for Reykjavik and its nearby towns that is marked by an uncanny awareness of our limited time on earth, through side-by-side portrayals of human life and the more lasting, terrestrial features. For Lavigne, nature is unconquerable, and everywhere: a small figure peers contemplatively over a bridge, allowing the falling snow to envelop his image in white, while a suburban street sleeps trustingly beneath an ominous, rust-colored sky. In "Ísland," her first solo show opening at Robert Mann Gallery this Thursday, April 3, Lavigne presents the rare findings of her travels in "moments when color, light and subject merge into the perfect image."
"Ísland" was also selected as a finalist in Foam Magazine's Talent Call, and earned Lavigne a LensCulture New & Emerging Photographers Grand Prize. Prior to the New York exhibition, it was shown at the 2012 Photo Academy Awards and the Unseen Photo Fair in the Netherlands.
NOOR BRARA: So, I heard that the initial inspiration for this show came from your getting stuck in a town just outside of Reykjavik. Can you tell me a little bit about this, and how the work grew from there?
MAROESJKA LAVIGNE: Yes! During my internship at The Grapevine, I was asked to travel to towns and villages outside of the city for different assignments. One day I got stuck in a hostel during a snowstorm, and the only other person visiting was this guy who told me he was there because didn't like people. I had to return to the city and that gave me extra motivation, so I drove back slowly through the storm in a small car. Everything, from the sky to the ground, was completely white, so any object that emerged from the snow seemed like a statue, in its isolation. The scenes reminded me of vintage posters, because each of these objects looked like old graphics, and stood out really strongly. It got me thinking about how much more immense and powerful natural forces, like snow, can be compared to our manmade items—my little car, for example, or the red bus I saw driving alongside me. I started focusing on this human-versus-nature relationship for the rest of the internship, which was for a month long in the spring. I returned in the winter because I loved the country and felt I needed to be there for longer in order to fully explore and capture it.
BRARA: Your portrayal of Iceland is pretty unorthodox compared to the National Geographic-style spreads we usually see.
LAVIGNE: I definitely photographed like that in the beginning, because when you first get there, the landscapes are so overwhelming that you just have to take those pictures—partly from wonder, partly to make peace with your surroundings and be comfortable. But, because I was there for such a long time, I started to notice the smaller, more subtle features that make a place a place. I began photographing those moments, because I know that everyone has that National Geographic vision of Iceland, in that it's all about nature in its seclusion—sort of cold and removed from anything real. But it's also a really cozy environment for the people who live there, and everybody tries their best to create a warm, intimate world of their own within this larger realm of overwhelming nature. I wanted to show, perhaps, a human view of it, and that it's a place where people actually live.
BRARA: So, you chose to depict it in a more people-centric way?
LAVIGNE: Yeah. But in relation to nature—I wanted to show how they treasure it, since it's such a large part of their culture. For instance, all the mountains have human names, and they believe they protect them from the weather and from danger. If I ever went back, I would want to study the relationship of man and nature in their cultural history more, since they have a lot of myths and epic stories about the powers of the land—stories about waterfalls and oceans, and what they did for people long ago. Their history humanizes nature.
BRARA: Your photographs capture Iceland's transition from winter into spring, which I thought was an interesting lens through which one can examine the natural world. Can you describe what that metamorphosis looked like and how it affected your work? What is Iceland like between seasons?
LAVIGNE: When I returned in the winter on my second trip, I got to see the first coming of spring. The change was very noticeable, aesthetically for the work, of course, but also in the people. In the wintertime, when there was virtually no light, everyone was so lifeless and almost scarily at one with nature, in their silence. It's like the whole world was sleeping. They had to take pills so they didn't get depressed because one needs a certain amount of time in the sun to sustain a good state of being. I myself didn't take pills, but I was definitely feeling lethargic. Those photos were darker, and much more quiet. I have a funny memory of the first sun arriving in February. Everyone started having barbeques! It was still winter, and it was still snowing, but because the light was finally back, everyone was so happy that the weather didn't matter. It was really great to see, and as the light got stronger and spring finally came, everyone became happier and happier. Light played a huge part in that transition, and showed a very visual energy connection between the people and where they lived. As nature came back to life, so did they. It was much more important than the weather.
BRARA: Even without explanation, it's very clear that your show is rooted in exploring the relationship between the human and natural worlds. Despite the harmonization between people and their surroundings that you've discussed, in several of your photographs, nature seems to overpower, in an almost threatening way, people and the manmade. Can you explain this dichotomy? Is nature also something you feel we should be afraid of?
LAVIGNE: I don't think so, actually, which was another thing I learned by being in Iceland. I was working for The Grapevine when Grímsvötn erupted, and so I drove down to the volcano to investigate. Everything had turned into an enormous ash-cloud, but everyone was there—the tourists, Icelanders, press. They were all crowded around the volcano, completely unafraid and kind of amused. They were talking about how it was really funny that Eyjafjallajökull, the last volcano that erupted before this one, had disturbed all the air traffic above it. Their attitude was sort of like, "Oh, stupid volcano. He erupted again." And they also loved it, because volcanic ash is really good for plant growth. But they don't fear natural disasters like volcanic eruptions because they've been living with them for as long as they can remember. It's as common as a rainstorm or something. So while there is that element of nature being potentially threatening or harmful in the photographs, it mostly reflected my own, older views of it; the people themselves don't fear it, which taught me a lot.
BRARA: One example of this idea that comes to mind is the shot of the girl in the white sweater standing on a beach in front of the ocean, with her hair blowing in the wind. Her somber expression seems to connect to the fast-approaching tidal waves in the background, which gives the photo an eerie, apocalyptic feel. Can you tell me a little bit about what you were going for when shooting this?
LAVIGNE: I have a lot of portraits in my series, and they're all people that I've met that I feel have a very specific Icelandic face and look about them. I liked to put them near nature, or some space that had to do with nature, because I feel like you can see, in their faces, that they grew up in these kinds of environments. The waves in this particular photograph are dangerous, but she isn't intimidated, and her somberness reflects a sense of calm. She's not nervous. If I took a picture of myself in front of those waves, it would be different, but it felt right for her because she looks like she's part of the ocean—like she has the waves inside her, too. I liked to find the places that matched the people I photographed, that captured or articulated something about their personality.
BRARA: I think that applies to your indoor portraits as well. I'm thinking of the photograph of the very still-looking man wearing neutral colored clothes and shades of brown, sitting at an oak table in a tavern. There was definitely an inner/outer sensibility there—his stiff posture exuded a kind of wooden behavior that was visually present in the wooden table, and window frames.
LAVIGNE: Yeah, I really tried to show that connection. He was a writer, and was kind of eccentric—he loved the character Tintin and always carried different bowties with him, so it was a perfect place for him to be, where you could just picture him sitting there, very still, and thinking to himself, blending into the wood. He almost reminded me of a wax figure. I also photographed his sister, who I thought had the most interesting face. I just wanted a straight portrait of her, a clean image, using a spotlight. I asked her to sit in my kitchen, on a chair, and just said, "Look at me."
BRARA: I thought the slight tilt of her face was interesting in that one, and it really called attention to her strong features, perhaps in the style of that type of "Icelandic face" you sought out.
LAVIGNE: Yeah, those features were especially present in the women—the women in Iceland are really strong, and you definitely feel that just by looking at them. It's a great culture for women's empowerment as well, so I wanted to emphasize that. The strength in their features reflects the strength of their natural world, which was something I wanted to convey in the portraiture, too. They're so connected to where they're from, and you can see it so clearly. I don't feel that's as true for most of the world. It really made me think about our relationship to the planet in terms of our actually being a small part part of its décor, and not the other way around.
BRARA: You have several images one might expect to see when going through a body of work chronicling time spent in Iceland, such as the image of people bathing in the Blue Lagoon, the isolated yellow house in the snow, or the photographs of mountains taken at different times of day. Others are a little more eclectic and difficult to interpret, like the one of the shrimp in the kitchen sink spiraling towards the drain, or the stuffed birds on small pedestals with placards behind glass. Can you tell me a little bit about these more "random" images?
LAVIGNE: I think the shrimp image is one of my favorites, because it was one of those daily life oddities that I happened to notice. I was staying with this girl, and she always ate them and left some of them in the sink after she was done. I thought it was kind of strange, but when I looked at them, as an image, they just seemed really pretty, and really graphic with all the stripes on their bodies. I included the picture because ultimately it explores the human and nature relationship within the context of the home. It's not your typical way of showing that interaction, and is perhaps more playful and not as serious. The stuffed birds were photographed in a museum in the fjords. It was a surreal place, in the middle of nowhere, where you have all of these animals outside of the museum as well as in it, which added to its strangeness. I took the photograph with the flash on to make the birds seem a little eerie, a little bit alive—I was going for something from Night at the Museum. These symbolic photographs captured the moments where the natural and man-made relationship was explored in a much more micro, less obvious way that was simply a result of my being able to spend more time in Iceland to find them. They're kind of my own little discoveries.
BRARA: Going back to the idea of our being "part of nature's decor, and not the other way around," does this concept hold global relevance for you? Have you seen examples of it in other parts of the world?
LAVIGNE: I recently went to Israel, actually, just to examine and photograph the country itself, without intending to start a political discussion of any kind. We drove through the desert and arrived at a camping space in the middle of nowhere, and there were all of these red umbrellas everywhere. And I was like, "Who brought these here?" I felt like I was on Mars or something, in terms of the environment, but there were still these human creations of umbrellas, to protect yourself from the sun, even in the most deserted place. I think you do get a sense of that everywhere in the world, that there's this push and pull between our power and nature's. And while nature wins and we are what's added, there will still be images like this to make you think of the fight. I think it'll be a theme that I can use for the rest of my life, because it never ends. It's everything.
BRARA: What's next for you?
LAVIGNE: I feel incredibly lucky—I graduated with this project and now it's in New York. In April, I'm going to Seoul, where I'll be doing a documentary-style project on girls getting plastic surgery there. It's an interesting way of exploring our relationship to ourselves, and how we still feel this need to corrupt or enhance what's already beautiful. South Korea just became the number-one country in the world where plastic surgery is most common—a lot of the girls get the double-eyelid surgery as graduation gifts from their parents. And some of them get implants to make the shape of their heads look more Western. It all really interests me, though, because it's cheaper there, and I wonder if one day everyone will get their surgeries done in that region and if we'll all look alike because of it. It really examines and criticizes the future of natural beauty in relation to what we can manipulate—what are we headed for?
MAROESJKA LAVIGNE'S "ÍSLAND" IS ON VIEW AT ROBERT MANN GALLERY BEGINNING TOMORROW, APRIL 3.