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Following in the footsteps of photographer Olga Karlovac

On to my next photographer to research - this time I have chosen Olga Karlovac. I came across her work recently and was struck by its originality and moodiness. A contemporary abstract expressionist photographer, Olga was born and raised in Dubrovnik, and is now based in Zagreb. The blurb on her website states:

"Olga uses her camera to capture fleeting moments and emotions. Working exclusively in black and white, predominantly after dark and in rainy conditions, her abstracted images blur the lines between figuration and visual poetry. Her dreamlike scenes lead us down winding streets and invite us to linger and lose track of time, to recognise the familiar within the barely there."

I was intrigued as to how she came to develop her style, and what I could learn from analysing her work.

Olga's first career was as an economist, and she turned to photography to find a more human way of expressing herself away from the world of economics. In an interview with the Personal Work Journal in November 2022, Olga talks about this transition from economist to photographer, having found she needed a way of expressing herself 'as the system we live in doesn't really bring the best out of us' - another connection with my own experience.

Olga has self-published three books which are a record of her life before and during the pandemic: the disarray; before winter, and escape (see her website). Given my experimentation with ICM (intentional camera movement) over the past couple of years, I was drawn to Olga's work initially because of her use of blur and motion to convey emotion. When asked about her style, Olga responds that she came to it accidentally, through experimentation, and she uses black and white instinctively because it is simple and strong, and motion blur because she takes a lot of photos on the move, either when walking or riding in a vehicle. Olga produces her mysterious black and white photographs of street scenes through homing in on shadows, reflections and contrasts. She notes that

"for me, it’s more than just capturing a shot that freezes things. I think you get a wider perspective. But it really came intuitively and I think it gives other dimensions to an image: it becomes a period in time that offers many different ways to see things."

I have been intrigued during this research project as to how artists find their 'style', their 'signature', so that their images are recognisable as being theirs, such as Margaret Soraya and water photography, Rachel Talibart and seascapes, Valda Bailey and abstract multiple exposures. Olga uses the word 'intuitively'. This resonates with Alister Benn's advice not to seek one's creativity/enlightenment through rationalizing and intelectualising it but through listening to your passion and responding to how you feel.

But interestingly, she continued with this approach when she got positive responses online. Instagram provided her with an international audience, and helped to sell her work. But would she have continued in this style without this external validation? To go back to Alister Benn, he advises us to distance oneself from such external validation completely, as you end up constantly compromising your true self to fit in, to be acceptable, to be seen as competent. And so it is fascinating to discover that Olga did not intend originally to publish her first photobook. She made it to save the memories of a specific time in her life and was not creating for an external audience. This also resonates with me as I started this website for much the same reason, not really expecting a wider audience than close friends and family. But I do find Alister's advice really hard to follow, as being 'approved of' has been instilled since childhood and is so ingrained. I do submit images for challenges and competitions and sometimes find the experience bruising.

Another aspect of her approach that I am drawn to is the way that Olga has included her poetry in her photobooks. Here is the beautiful introduction to her 'escape' photobook:

in the blink of an eye

in the moment between day and night,

somewhere at the edge of darkness and light

walking down an empty road below the mountain of memories

while strong winds from the north carve your marks all over my skin

i feel your breath

and i imagine…

Alister Benn's talk with Maraget Soraya introduced me to a new way of looking at photography, which he suggests is to "try to find the link between the five magic beans of luminosity, contrast, colour, atmosphere and geometry, and my inner emotional spectrum". Analysing Olga's work, such as the street scene below, through this five trigger lens, I can see that she clearly uses luminosity and contrast to emphasise the darkness of the figures against the light background, giving the image energy. The choice of black and white manipulates the mood of the viewer, which links with the atmosphere created by working in the rain. The final aspect is the geometry of the image, and here there are straight lines and jagged shapes, which Benn suggests can be confrontational, but there is a contrast with the curve of the head of the foreground figure, which is calming.

What I particularity appreciate is that I get the sense of walking with Olga as she is taking the image, seeing what she saw in that moment. So, is it a spur of the moment decision to take it? According to Don Springer in his foreword to Olga's book 'before winter':

"The distortions in Olga’s photos are deliberate and planned. Perhaps they are not distortions at all. Olga’s photos conjure up dreams. Each one is a dream or part of a dream or part of the dream world Olga tunes into. We are not gifted the crutch of 3 dimensional reality. We are presented a new vision of a world that invites us in. It puts in front of us images that come from Olga’s eye, heart and mind. It puts those images in our path and we have the catalyst Olga gives us to discover what is common between us and also what is unique to us.”

In another fascinating article in the RPS Women In Photography magazine (Sept 2022 p47-52) Olga is clear that her images are unplanned. They start with a mood or feeling inside, and when these are reflected in the scene in front of her, she presses the shutter.

"I know that an image is successful if it brings back the smell of rain or petrol, the sound of footsteps, the comforting warmth of tram radiators, etc. And even more so if it evokes an emotional reaction in the viewer, if the photo's energy transports you to places of your own and feeds your imagination".

Photography for Olga has become a way to release personal stress, to express difficult emotions without having to explain them in words. Have I also done this? In part. I do find that photography is a way for me to escape the everyday, to spend time in nature or just to focus on something playful, but I do also write and journal.

Now that I have become more familiar with Olga's work, I am now wanting it to rain so I can get out and experiment!

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