Veneta Zaharieva: Urban Instability
Cultural and personal dislocation are at the heart of Veneta Zaharieva’s photography, which frequently makes use of layering—visual and otherwise—to transcend objective representations of the urban environment. She offers up her thematic conceptions and obsessions through a complex visual code designed to unsettle rather than reassure. This is particularly noticeable in her “City Fairytales” series, a kaleidoscopic conjunction of commercial and residential buildings seemingly on the point of collapse, the result perhaps of unseen fault lines destabilizing the urban terrain. A licensed attorney as well as a photographer, Zaharieva knows the importance of communicating complex visions with clarity of expression, while ensuring that the end result resists easy interpretations.
Where were you born?
I was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, in a quiet neighborhood (or at least it used to be that way, during my childhood). My mother had me at the age of 40, despite the risk that she might lose her life or me during birth. I have a sister who is 14 years older than me, so that made me the “istursak,” which means “unexpected baby” in Bulgarian. I grew up mostly with my father; my mother had to work from early morning until late evening. My father was very sensitive man with plenty of old-fashioned manners. There was a very old woman in the building we lived in. She was the wife of a famous Bulgarian painter, so every time we met her on the stairs my father saluted her by lifting up his hat and calling her family name. I remember that pretty well because I never saw anybody else doing that. Looking back, I realize that my father lived in a time he didn’t belong to—he had an aristocratic childhood, but lived as a working class fellow after the socialist revolution. That drastic change made him extremely sensitive, with nothing but beautiful memories about the times he used to be happy and carefree, along with my grandmother, grandfather and uncle.
City Fairytales, 2005
Did you develop a visual sensibility at a young age?
I spent some time writing about my father because of this question. Being mainly with during my years of growth, I realized how painful life was for him, how much he missed the “old times,” and how disappointed he was with his everyday reality. I have my father’s sensibility; I know what pain is by looking at the faces of people. My intuition never lies, and I gradually developed the ability to see beyond surface appearances. There were times when I was frequently left alone for long periods of time without toys to play with. I developed an ability to see in ordinary things imaginary toys and to play with them in a self-created reality, invisible to all but me.
Did your environment help steer you towards a creative path?
I’m not sure, because I grew up with the dream that I would one day become a lawyer, as my grandfather was. I never had the chance to meet my grandfather; I knew his face only from family pictures, but I know he was a great man and I wanted to be just like him. Looking back at that time, I cannot see anything that stimulated or suggested “artistic development,” even on a primitive level. After my first year at school (at the age of eight), my parents signed me up on a competitive swimming team. My life became very predictable: classes, swimming practice, homework. Only the weekends were different. I’ve never been good in drawing or singing, but I was good at writing, an ability that appeared after high school. I improved my writing skills during law school at Sofia University.
City Fairytales, 2005
When did you begin taking photographs?
Fairly late, compared with most photographers. After graduating from law school in Bulgaria, I applied to the University of San Francisco, School of Law, to continue my education. Before my acceptance, I moved to the United States to see what it was like to live there. I was 24, and that’s when I had my first camera. I knew nothing about how to use it, so I took some photography classes at the City College of San Francisco. I became hooked on the medium, and spent two semesters studying photography.
What formal training have you had?
After my graduation from USF, I returned to Bulgaria and practiced law for about two years. But during that time I never stopped taking pictures. I also read photography magazines and attended every photo exhibition in Sofia. I wanted to learn more, so I applied to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and was accepted in Illustrative/Fine Art Photography.
Have you been influenced by any other photographers? Some of your “City Fairytales” images evoke certain Harry Callahan composites.
Everything influences us or evokes certain thoughts or dreams. I respect artists who go beyond the mainstream and conceptualize their visions through unusual moods and tones. I’m amazed by the Pictorialists. I find the work of the Dadaist artists striking even today.
During my time at the Academy of Art University I discovered the images of Alfred Stiegltz, Josef Koudelka, Alexander Rodchenko and Harry Callahan. More recently I have been inspired by Michael Kenna, Simon Marsden, Misha Gordin and Stanka Tsonkova-USHA.
City Fairytales, 2005
What’s the photographic scene like in Bulgaria?
Unfortunately, we do not have a photographic tradition comparable to the Czech Republic or Poland. Photography was always subordinate to other forms of art (like music and sculpture) during the Communist era. Today, there are many digital artists who share their work on the Internet, but most of the critiques come from people who don’t have a clue what photography is all about.
What gave rise to the “City Fairytales” series, and what led you to the layering effect?
I used to frequently encounter statements along the lines of: “Photography is merely about the reproduction of reality,” and “There is no creativity to photography because the camera does all the work.” I have always found such attitudes to be narrow and reductive. The “City Fairytales” series is my reaction to such statements, and with these images I have tried to create alternative realities. My intention is to “sound” their echoes beyond the obvious, and to encourage viewers to see and think beyond the image itself. Even more, I want them to be able to feel the image, even if they do not understand it. I try to evoke controversial emotions and imaginary in each viewer’s mind because I believe in the subconscious world and the power that resides within it. The layering technique is done in camera, and is utilized to achieve a more complex and ambiguous vision. It is also proof that photography need not be limited to simply pressing the shutter and capturing “reality,” but that it can also be about imagination and pre-visualization.
In other words, you find straight images confining?
I believe that the straight images can be expressive if the photographer has the vision and the ability to make a unique statement.
City Fairytales, 2005
So you find a greater “truth” in a non-representational approach to the urban landscape?
I cannot say definitively, but in general, yes.
What themes or ideas are you trying to communicate with this work?
Most of the houses you see in this series are already gone. Developers indifferent to their beauty destroyed them in order to build modern, sterile buildings. My reaction to this process was to visually preserve as many as possible while conveying their story, so that people might discover what they blindly passed by every day.
Do you work with silver-gelatin, digital, or both?
I work with silver-gelatin, cyanotype, salt process, gum dichromate or digital, depending on the message I want to convey. The “City Fairytale” series is full of symbols, signs and perspectives, so I find it expressive enough to print it with digital inkjet. Alternatively, there are series that I find it necessary to print with a cyanotype emulsion. In general, the final presentation is part of the process, and it depends on what I aim for in terms of statement and vision.
What symbolic representation is the layering meant to convey?
It allows me to present in visual terms a different kind of reality, not one you can necessarily see or touch. I view reality in line with Einstein’s general theory of relativity—that is, not in an absolute, literal way. Just because one cannot see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The layering also symbolizes how a particular issue or problem might be best addressed through multiple perspectives.
City Fairytales, 2005
In addition to imbuing the images with a lot of visual energy, this layering projects a sense of instability, both literal and metaphorical.
I totally agree. Although truthfully, I do not care what the reaction is as long as there is a reaction of some sort. Basically, the interpretation is left to the mood and intelligence of the viewer.
The visual distortion also conjures a Gothic atmosphere, casting the city as a kind of foreboding, unstable environment. Is this your perception of the urban landscape?
Yes, it’s fair to say that an “unstable environment” is implied in my images. We are generally comfortable with the urban places we grew up in; however, we sometimes also fear them due to the unpredictable ways in which they change. For example, I grew up in a neighborhood of Sofia where many creative people lived—artists, journalists, university professors and the like. After democratization, wealthy people from small towns began buying property there, and that old neighborhood spirit went away. The new arrivals seem to care only about money, and don’t realize the potential for community. There is no “hello” when you meet someone on the stairs, no smiles. In this regard, time moves fast and brings many, often unwelcome, changes.
This is a depopulated vision of the city. Why have you excluded people from it?
I find the depopulated approach as an unexpected solution to an understanding of the urban environment. For me, people are the ones who suggest what the time frame is. I see the time frame as the key ingredient to this series: The lack of it pushes you into asking questions, into exploring your feelings and imagination.
City Fairytales, 2005
This approach contributes to a certain dreamlike atmosphere.
Absolutely. However, I believe in the subconscious world and the great power that resides in it. In my images I constantly provoke the conscious part of the mind, so that the subconscious one arises and expresses itself. I think people who look carefully at my work are capable of their own interpretation, which I find exciting. I would rather provoke unexpected interpretations than underestimate the viewer’s intellect by presenting only a single, unalterable point of view.
(I profiled Zaharieva in the April 2008 issue of Black & White magazine. Visit her work at: http://www.venetazaharieva.com.)