When I called photographer Martina Hoogland Ivanow in Stockholm to discuss her upcoming exhibition Far Too Close (which opened October 11 at the Gallery at Hermès), I was sitting outside of the public library in Rathdrum, Idaho, population 6,969. In a quest to gain perspective on my New York City-based life, I had sought out the serenity of Northern Idaho and this was the closest place I could find with an Internet connection and decent mobile phone reception.
As Martina and I spoke, it became clear that it was this very notion of “perspective,” and the weight that we ascribe “home” and “away” that she set out to explore in Far Too Close. Shot over seven years, the project is, in Martina’s words, a “play with the idea of distance, emotionally and geographically, and the way people build up a pattern of perspective—both in the sense of being far from an object or place, or close to it.”
Juxtaposing vast images of the edges of continents or desolate landscapes with intimate family portraits and domestic interiors of her native Sweden, scrutinized to the point of abstraction, Martina constructs a visual commentary on not only how we see the world around us but also how we don’t see it; how our emotional distance from the foreign allows us a vantage point rarely afforded those people and places closest to us.
Intrinsic to this examination are universal questions of physical and emotional retreat; poetic impulses; and the weight of history. And while Far Too Close more often further mystifies than clarifies these concepts, it also profoundly proposes the notion that perhaps perspective is more affectingly gained through examination than by escape. Here, Martina tells us a bit about her own investigative process.
Erin Dixon: How did Far Too Close manifest?
Martina Hoogland Ivanow: As a photographer you tend to travel a lot, and I tend to question why it is easier to describe things that are far away, with an emotional distance, while the things that are closer to you seem to be harder to grasp.
Erin: Was there a particular moment when you thought: I need to pursue this—or was it an accumulation of all of those moments traveling that pushed you to this exploration?
Martina: There were a few different moments… When I was living in New York City, as soon as I got back to Sweden I would go swimming in a lake. I’ve always liked those two opposites, juxtapositions—how they attract each other. And I tended to travel like that; I would go to very isolated places. So [this project] became a personal question and challenge to myself: I’ll see if I go to these ends of continents if I fall over the edge into myself. Then, I started to think, historically, how a seemingly distant place had placed so many people in the same frame of mind. And also, politically, geographically, these places had so many similarities. That led into this question of: Why do you have to go so far to take a step inside of yourself? Why is it so much easier to describe things that are emotionally distant and also geographically so far away?
Then there was a moment when it felt really important to include anything that was home, or supposedly home—whatever it is you’re deciding this [far away] place is far away from. So, I included all these family portraits and family interiors and that’s when this project started to become a bit more interesting. It was a process. It was something that took time to shape itself. That’s what makes it special.
Erin: Within that, how did you select the “far-off” locations for the project?
Martina: They are places at the end of continents or places where people—because of the perception of them being far away—have hidden things that they didn’t want to be found. For example, in Northern Russia the Kola Peninsula has military bases, prisoners… It’s a place to hide the nuclear waste, and things like this; [these “far-off” places] tend to have dark histories. Then there’s the poetic perspective of being close to yourself in a desolate space, so certain people are drawn to them. They are also, most of them, the endpoint of the continent. I would almost look at a map and start to research a place and then just go there for a couple of weeks and see what I would find, especially at the beginning. At the end, I would be more specific with what I was trying to find, but this tends to be the case with every project I do. I try to be a bit loose at the beginning and it becomes a bit more focused towards the end.
Erin: Is there one place that particularly resounded with you?
Martina: The Kola Peninsula is very special, and the Russian places in general are amazing because they stretch over such a big piece of land but they have so many similarities. Also they’re so populated because it was a way to [claim] land, to build these cities in these very desolate places.
I was [in Russia] for the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II so I stumbled upon all these English veterans who hadn’t been there since then. I found myself at all these ceremonies and watching parades. It was so strong for these people and having these men crying made me more aware of the fact that I don’t really have a relationship to this place, so I really tried to describe my distance and take a lot of pictures from above and far away. I was trying to visualize or describe this emotional distance. Even though of course I can relate to that pain as a human, I wasn’t a part of that war. I live in a country that hasn’t had war for hundreds of years. That was maybe the most important trip. It was also the last one so I was clear on what I was going to do.
Erin: And how did you select the images of home that you did?
Martina: When I moved back to Stockholm, I had this thought that the things I could share and see in some of my relatives’ houses—the books, the interiors, a pillow or the textiles—were things I would find in my own home. And maybe these things were related somehow to a family bond, more than the emotional closeness. So [with the images] I was trying to describe the place, rather than the closeness to the person or the intimacy. In some places, I did this very intentionally, finding that particular light where they were abstracted. I guess I was also, in various ways, making the images so close that you couldn’t see—so that when I would place them alongside landscapes or travel images, they would also create a pattern or rhythm of perspectives. I was conscious to do things closer in, so close that you couldn’t see anything. I was trying to describe this lack of perspective, the irony that it is hard to see things that are so close to you.
Erin: What are you working on now?
Martina: I haven’t quite pinned it down yet but I found myself, maybe six months ago, looking at the work I’ve made since I came back from Berlin, where I lived for a year. I saw how I had been shooting various things but also how they were all linked to each other without me really being aware. I thought they were three different projects, but they really relate very well. I can’t really explain it well yet…but it is definitely a continuation of my Satellite project. I also started working on this film about this dancer and doll maker. It’s about this woman in the ’50s and ’60s and about the emotions she created in others. How she woke so many aberrations and so much anger and irritation. She’s a bit haunting, so I decided to make something about her.
Images by Martina Hoogland Ivanow. Far Too Close is on view October 22 through November 26 at the Gallery at Hermès, 691 Madison Avenue, New York, New York.