Born in Russia and now based in Berlin, Ekaterina Sevrouk was a finalist for the Oskar Barnack Award 2017 with her excellent series I Came As A Stranger. This particular work was inspired by painters and poets of the German Romanticism movement and Sevrouk’s art history degree has heavily influenced her conceptual approach to photography. As Sevrouk herself states, her series Last Paradise was inspired by 17th Century religious paintings and sees the artist once again re-contextualizing her subjects during the creative process. In contrast to her previous series, I Came As A Stranger, which positioned African asylum seekers amidst the breathtaking landscapes of Austria’s Salzkammergut, the subjects of Last Paradise are stuffed animals from natural history museums across Europe, adorned with exotic flowers and photographed in front of a colorful studio backdrop. This time, Sevrouk’s work takes its technical cues from studio portrait photography and was shot with the Leica S. We spoke with the photographer about how she went about creating this series, the reason she chose to focus on taxidermy exhibits and the relationship she built up with these stuffed animals.
You were born in Russia and studied at the Neue Schule für Fotografie in Berlin. How did you first discover your passion for photography?
I was inspired by the possibilities of visual art – especially painting (which I pursued since early childhood) and photography. My father, Sergey Sevrouk, was a military photographer. It is a great honour for me to use the same medium as him.
You were a finalist for the Oskar Barnack Award in 2017 with your series I Came As A Stranger. That project took certain aesthetic cues from German Romanticism and this series also has a fine art feel to it. Where does this influence come from? And what, in particular, inspired the aesthetic of Last Paradise?
My art history degree influenced me to utilize famous artworks in my projects. I used motives of 17th Century religious paintings (especially Rubens), in which saints and martyrs were depicted, surrounded by flowers.
What is the concept behind Last Paradise? And what were you hoping to express with this project?
I wanted to draw attention to the destruction of our planet’s nature. The taxidermic exhibits are metaphors for the destruction of nature, which we are trying to ignore so that we can live in our wonderful European paradise.
How did you go about finding the taxidermy exhibits, which you photographed? And how was it working with these rather unique subjects?
I contacted various museums: the Natural History Museums of Dublin and Vienna, as well as the Haus der Natur in Salzburg. Luckily, all three institutions agreed to cooperate with me. I spent the most time in Salzburg and am very thankful for the support of the staff. To access storage halls closed to most ordinary people and work with these valuable exhibits was absolutely mystical.
Taxidermy nowadays can be seen as rather morbid, while the staged nature of these dead animals is also reminiscent of trophy hunting. One could argue that the animals also represent a kind of “dead zoo”. How much were you aware of these negative connotations? And how did you go about re-contextualizing the exhibits?
In my opinion, these negative connotations are outdated because hunting for the sole purpose of gaining specimens is banned in most countries by now. Museums usually source them from zoos (when animals die) or when they are confiscated at border crossings as illegal trophies. I used the taxidermied animals as the subjects, the main characters of my photographs, removing them from their museum context. They were depicted as the residents of the “last paradise”.
The use of color in this project is a key feature. Despite the endangered nature of these animals in the wild and the sense of loss that surrounds dead animals, your use of bright, vibrant color creates a celebratory feel to your images. Why did you choose such colorful backdrops and bright flowers?
The answer to this question has multiple layers. Bright, saturated colors are used in nature mostly by poisonous animals to warn potential predators and by harmless animals, who pose as poisonous as a form of mimicry. Historically and culturally, colors have contextual values for us: red is the color of blood, energy and danger and green symbolizes life and nature. This iconography of color, which I do not want to go into in this interview, is important in religious art.
The use of flowers to decorate the dead is a common practice around the world. To what extent were you referring to this funerary custom? And were you attempting to beautify the death of these creatures?
It is most appropriate to cite from Thomas Mann’s Zauberberg here: “Reduced to order and put into words, they would have been something like the following. In one aspect death was a holy, a pensive, a spiritual state, possessed of a certain mournful beauty. In another it was quite different. It was precisely the opposite, it was very physical, it was material, it could not possibly be called either holy, or pensive, or beautiful — not even mournful. The solemn, spiritual side expressed itself in the ceremonial lying-in-state of the corpse, in the fan-leaved palm and the wealth of flowers, all which symbolized the peace of God and the heavenly kingdom, as did even more explicitly the ivory cross stuck between the dead fingers of what was once grandfather, and the bust of Christ by Thorwaldsen at the head of the bier, with towering candelabra on either side. It was these last that gave a churchly air to the scene. All such arrangements had their more precise justification in the fact that grandfather was now clothed for ever in his true and proper guise. But over and above that raison d’etre they had another, of a more profane kind, of which little Hans Castorp was distinctly aware, though without admitting it in so many words. One and all of them, but expressly the flowers, and of these more expressly the hosts of tuberoses, were there to palliate the other aspect of death, the side which was neither beautiful nor exactly sad, but somehow almost improper — its lowly, physical side — to slur it over and prevent one from being conscious of it.”
Through the posing of these animals during the taxidermy process, as well as through your own staging of them, they develop an almost human-like quality. Did you develop a relationship to the exhibits while working with them?
Surely I did. I was always wondering about the beauty of the exhibits and the high mastery of the taxidermists who made them, giving them a “second life”.
Which of these images is your favorite? And why?
The gorilla King Kong, because it was hard to set up an installation with this heavy specimen. The gorilla, taxidermied in the 1930s, is notable for its anthropomorphic pose, the stance of a strong man.
You shot this series with the Leica S, which is known as a high performance, professional studio camera. What kind of a set-up did you use for shooting these images?
I used a 70 mm lens (equivalent to a 50 mm lens for full frame cameras). It is my favorite lens. I constructed studios in the storage halls and used portrait lighting and long exposures.
What do you consider the advantages of shooting with the Leica S?
The Leica S is one of the best photographic devices, comparable to the Rolls Royce in the world of cars. One can always be sure that all pictures made are ideal and perfect. When working with perfect data, you do not worry about possible camera mishaps, you do not worry about whether the camera will take a good picture. You can concentrate on the creative process.
How much post-production work went into editing these images?
Not much. I mainly intensified the colors of the images. It was important to create a “poisonous green” color; however, medium-format cameras such as the Leica S make this viable.
What projects are you working on at the moment? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the future?
My next project will be Andere Städte, andere Räume (Other Cities, other Rooms), devoted to the life of female immigrants of the 1st and 2nd generation and the influence of diasporas on the life of women in modern European society. I am also planning a project set in central Germany, thematizing the former Iron Curtain, a border between the capitalist and socialist worlds.
What advice would you offer to your fellow photographers?
You can connect with Ekaterina and see more of her portfolio on her official website.