IVARS GRAVLEJS. DISRUPTING PARADIGMS
by Polina Shubkina


Ivars Gravlejs is a Latvian photographer and photography professor at the BUT Faculty of Fine Arts (Brno, Czech Republic). Born in 1979, in Riga, Ivars was growing up at the time of great change and transformation in the Latvian society, a result of Perestroika (“Rebuilding”, a term coined by Mikhail Gorbachev in Leningrad and popularized by the media) which means the collapse of the Soviet Union. His work fluctuates between personal documentary photography and conceptual internet art.

As Gravlejs approached his teenage years, he began experimenting with art-making techniques that directly harnessed his scathing perception of the surrounding environment. His childhood archive of collages and photographs was released in the 'Early Works' book in 2015.


'Early Works: SHIT'97', 1997, Ivars Gravlejs ©


'Early Works', 1990's, Ivars Gravlejs ©

'Latvian Girls and Boys' (2006) is a series of photographs selected by Ivars Gravlejs on the largest social networking website in Latvia "Draugiem.lv", which was launched in 2004. This selection includes snapshots of anonymous young people, captured in grotesque situations (often staged), showing an idea of what the Latvian youth scene looked like back then. It made me think about the changes that social media photography went through during the past 11 years as well as the changes social media platforms brought to the processes of creation, circulation, and use of personal photographs. The prevalence of online venues has increased people's dependency of the feedback from their followers in the process of building the self, in particular among the young generations; however, it also made the general public closer to the notions of self-visual representation and imagery curation. The visual language of photography has never been so dominant in the past.


'Latvian Girls and Boys', 2006, Ivars Gravlejs ©


'Latvian Girls and Boys', 2006, Ivars Gravlejs ©


'Latvian Girls and Boys', 2006, Ivars Gravlejs ©

The pictures we make for ourselves are treasured less for their quality than for their context. These photos were taken out of context and assigned a new role by the artist, challenging the identity and history of their subjects and creators. The images once were a part of the complex network of memories and meanings, making sense of the daily lives of its owners, by arranging and sequencing them in the series, Gravlejs is inviting the viewers to translate those private meanings into more universal.

I find the 'Latvian Girls and Boys' series a great example of early 21st-century middle-class youth culture preservation, as the beginning of 2000's was the time of an increased informality and emotional disclosure on social media. Younger people were capturing each other drinking, provocating and even attacking one another; they became a darker phenomenon in the history of social media photography, not only in Latvia. With the invention of Snapchat and Instagram stories, it seems that the wildest and most bizarre material doesn't survive longer than 24 hours.


'Latvian Girls and Boys', 2006, Ivars Gravlejs ©


'Latvian Girls and Boys', 2006, Ivars Gravlejs ©


'Latvian Girls and Boys', 2006, Ivars Gravlejs ©

Could you briefly describe your adolescence as it relates to your later development into a photographer? When did you start photographing? 
IVARS GRAVLEJS (IG): Fascinated by its magic, I began to play with photography in the early childhood. My cousin and I found FED-2 camera in grandmother's wardrobe. Soon we bought the 35mm black and white film and focused on the things what would be cool to photograph. It was not an easy task. Sometimes it took one year to use 36 frames, and we faced a lot of continuous failures. But in fact, my dream was to become a businessman and to have a careless life, to drink red wine and to drive an expensive car with a beautiful girl next to me.

How being the head of the photography department of the Fine Arts Faculty at the Brno University of Technology influences your photographic work and vice versa?
IG: Less energy for my personal work. I'm becoming more mature, yet cynical. Disrupting paradigms and forcing myself and my students to question the parameters of the reality tunnels. For example, our latest collaboration was on application 'PicToMars'. Together with French artist Camille Laurelli, Czech artist TomᚠJavůrek and students from Brno and Bratislava we realized workshop called 'Strangers on the way'. We invented an application with the aim to create a visual paradise on Mars. When you take the photo on your mobile device, the application 'PicToMars' evaluates the quality of the image. Only photographs with 100% of ART factor are delivered to Mars. Imagine a place full of pleasurable images only.

You have been an art educator for a long time now, how did your teaching method evolve in the past years?
IG: Yes, almost for 14 years in different institutions and teaching formats. My latest teaching method is based mainly on consultations and spontaneous experiments.

What motivated you to study at the Academy of Performing Arts - FAMU in Prague?
IG: The lack of photography education in Latvia and the lack of my knowledge about other schools or possibilities to study still photography. Experience at FAMU was great. I got funding from Latvian Culture Capital Foundation, so I didn't have to work.

Please tell us about your first photo book, what work does it include?
IG: My first photo book was about cars, naked women, and Olympic games. Unfortunately, it does not exist anymore. But the first book which was officially published under title 'Early works' is about "enfant terrible" pushing the limits of photography and getting on the everybody's nerves. At the same time, it has a strong socioeconomic background from the collapse of Soviet Union. The structure of the book is in a modernist manner. My childhood photographs are categorized in sections like experiments, montage, pop-art, concept, actions and performances, and finally my teachers from the primary school.


'Early Works', 1990's, Ivars Gravlejs ©


'Early Works', 1990's, Ivars Gravlejs ©


'Early Works', 1990's, Ivars Gravlejs ©

Could you please tell us about your 'Photographer without Camera' series? How did it start? How did you choose the images for the final selection?
IG: I did not own a camera for several years. It was the only way to practice photography without being able to afford one. During the residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, it was a pleasure to visit MediaMarkt and Saturn stores. The final selection was based on aesthetics, but I would not call it the final selection. Even without a camera photographer remains a photographer, it's the way of thinking and perceiving the world. 


'Photographer without Camera', 2011, Ivars Gravlejs ©


'Photographer without Camera', 2011, Ivars Gravlejs ©


'Photographer without Camera', 2011, Ivars Gravlejs ©

How would you describe your artistic practice?
IG: Several aspects are close to the features of a clown practice. Breaking the norms, playing with expectations, manipulating, parodying. It is grotesque.

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking?
IG: It is just more straightforward visual communication than it was before the digital environment.

Three books about photography that you recommend?
IG: Hans-Peter Feldmann: 'Buch/Book No. 9'; Pierre Bourdieu: 'Photography: A Middle-Brow Art'; Georg Winter: 'Ukiyo Camera Systems'.