Interview #19: Maja Strgar Kurecic (2021)
“Floating Garden” ／ Interview by M. Solav
Maja Strgar Kurečić is a fine art photographer and associate professor of photography at the Faculty of Graphic Arts of the University of Zagreb in Croatia. At the beginning of her career, she engaged mostly in advertising and reportage photography, but has lately started devoting herself to abstract photography works, earning international recognition for her recent projects, the latest of which, “Floating Garden”, explores youth, beauty and transience through depictions of frozen flowers.
Here’s our interview with her.
MS／Tell us about your background and the relation you have with photography.
MSK／My name is Maja Strgar Kurecic. Born 1972, raised and based in Zagreb, Croatia, I’ve been working as a fine art photographer and University Professor of Photography for almost 25 years now. I’m the mother of two great kids and the friend of one great dog. I love the nature; it has always been my favorite source of motivation, an endless source of inspiration.
I’m a visual being. Ever since I’ve known myself, I’ve been attracted to the visual media. Transmitting thoughts and feelings, ideas and stories through pictures has always been a closer way of expressing myself than that of words. From a young age I was interested in graphic design, photography, painting and sculpture. My father and grandfather were architects, so I became interested in architecture too. I loved watching their blueprints and visualizing the spaces in my head.
When the time for enrolling to college came, it was not easy for me to decide. But in the end I chose the Faculty of Graphic Arts at the University of Zagreb — where I ended up doing PhD study — and where I became professor. During my studies, I worked both as a designer and as a photographer. At one point, I had to decide whether to buy a new computer or a new camera from my savings. The decision fell on the camera, and I never looked back!
MS／How did you get to learn photography, what has been your experience?
MSK／One of the biggest influences on my initial interest for photography was my uncle (@deretamax), a professional photographer based in Rotterdam. He used to travel all over the world and shoot stories for National Geographic, Esquire, Air & Space, Holland Herald, etc. Every time he came to Zagreb, he would bring a suitcase full of slides from his travels. We would watch and comment on the photos for hours.
My first camera was grandpa’s Praktica. Her light meter didn’t work, so I initially wrote down the exposure values for each shot for later verification. Sometimes I would sketch the frame before shooting. Composition has always been very important to me. Since photography as a hobby back then was quite expensive (films, development), I soon started applying for a job as a photographer. During my studies at the Faculty of Graphic Arts, I worked as a photojournalist for the biggest national daily newspapers Vecernji list. I was one of the first women among photojournalists at the time (1991–1994), which was during the war in Croatia. I learned a lot about work and coping in various situations from my older and more experienced colleagues.
In addition to my part-time job at the newspaper, I also tried my hand at advertising photography. I shot for advertising agencies Gray, BBDO, McCann, Hand Design… From those days, my photo reportages in the Croatian edition of National Geographic, which were included among the best in Europe, make me the proudest.
MS／How would you describe your general approach to abstract photography?
MSK／I don’t like exclusivity in my work — I believe that dealing with only a certain area of photography would soon become boring to me. Because of my full-time job at university, I have the privilege of not having to make compromises in my photography. I don’t have to accept commissioned shootings anymore. I photograph everything that catches my eye or that I imagine in my head. I don’t burden myself with styles and genres. I shoot color or black and white, depending on the subject and my vision.
I must admit that over the years I have become more contemplative and quite saturated with the obvious reality. I overcame the documentary and narrative approach and found myself in the deep analytical and philosophical fields of experimental photography. There I find creative freedom that I was longing for. I discovered that I have a strong affection for the abstract aesthetic. When I work, I like to follow my intuition, experiment, play with light, materials, shapes, colors. I am currently enjoying the abstraction where I create motives from scratch.
MS／What is the process you go through to curate your own work?
MSK／Usually, I select the best photographs right after the shooting. I do it very strictly, choosing only a very few photos (or none). After a time passes, when I feel my project is coming to an end, then I revise my initial selection. Sometimes it happens that I find real jewels among discarded photos! Also, I find it very useful to show my work to my friends or even my kids — they usually give me very interesting comments that can help me with some selection dilemmas.
If I am preparing a project for an exhibition, then I need professional help with the final selection — a curator usually does this. At this point, it is better not to interfere in this process, because curators need a clear vision of how to present your project to the public. I had 15 solo exhibitions and more than 50 group exhibitions and a very positive experience with curators.
MS／Which projects have you published, and how were they received?
MSK／My recent projects (all in a field of abstract photography) are Other Worlds (2017–2018), Escape Landscapes (2017–2019), Floating Garden (2019–2020) and Lunaria Rediviva (2020). For them I received many awards including: Julia Margaret Cameron, International Color Award, Moscow International Photo, Minimalist Photography, ND Photography, Chromatic, Tokyo International Photo, Fine Art Photography, All About Photo (The Mind’s Eye finalist), San Francisco Bay International Photography Awards, Prix de la Photographie Paris, Pollux Awards. Publications and magazines that have featured my work include F-Stop Photography Magazine, Bokeh Bokeh Photo, Edge of Humanity Magazine, Szeroki Kadr Nikon Poland, La Lumiére Gallery, FotoNostrum Magazine, APP Magazine, among others.
MS／Are you a member of any association? How has your relation with social media grown?
MSK／I am an active member of the Section for Fine Art Photography in Croatian Association of Artists of Applied Arts (ULUPUH), and Croatian Press Photographers Association (CPPA).
Regarding social media (Instagram, in this case), I must admit that I have accepted it as a mean of showing my professional work only recently. For a long time, I used Instagram only as a personal diary, posting photos taken along a way with my mobile phone. I posted quite rarely, mostly on vacation (and never used the hashtags).
But this summer, I decide to post on regular basis my photographs from Floating Garden series. I was preparing this series for the solo exhibition this year (in Kranjčar Gallery, open from April 22 to May 5), so I was interested in the reaction of the wider audience on Instagram. Now, I am grateful for this experience, because I discovered some great artists, and groups — like Hintology!
MS／As mentionned above, Floating Garden is your latest project and will soon be exhibited in Croatia. What’s the story behind it?
MSK／I started the Floating Garden series last summer. It all began with a single rose. The rose my daughter received for her 18th birthday. This rose prompted me to think about youth, beauty, transience… I wanted to somehow preserve it from decay, so without much planning and thinking, I put it in the water and iced it. After a while, it came to me how to shoot it in order to emphasize the delicate structure of the petals and maintain the natural color. In addition to rose petals, I began experimenting with other flowers, leaves, twigs, grasses, seeds — everything I would find in my garden. Currently, I dedicate every spare moment to work on the series.
MS／This picture is from a series called “Lunaria Rediviva”, and you have several other fascinating series, including “Escape Landscapes”, “Other Worlds” and “Mindscapes”, which are featured at the end of this interview . Could you tell us more about them?
MSK／Lunaria Rediviva is the Latin name for the perennial plant that can be found in the woods of Europe. When the flowers fall off in late summer, translucent, elliptical, flat seeds pods appear. Their appearance is reminiscent of the Moon (lat. lunaria). Although, at this stage, the plant is completely dry and looks dead, a new life will sprout from the seeds. Redivivus means ‘reviving from a dry state, brought back to life, living again’. In my photography nature has always been my favorite motive, an endless source of inspiration. In natural and delicate world around us I find many metaphors for life and transience of our human existence. For this series I was inspired by Lunaria rediviva — its fragility but also its strength to revive every year.
In my Other Worlds series, I have created the motives from water, paint, oil, and other liquids that I could lay my hands on. I began experimenting with different liquids and colors, developing a unique process of melting ice blocks and mixing them with oil and water. In addition, I paid a lot of attention to the lighting as the most important element in achieving three-dimensionality of tiny motives in a small glass bowl taken from above. It took me two years to improve and refine the process in order to make these photographs. All photos were taken with Canon EOS 6D camera and Canon EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM lens. It needs to be said that no post-processing was used for creating these photographs. I used Photoshop only to transfer photographs from the raw format.
From the Other Worlds series starts Escape Landscapes (@my_escape_landscapes). This body of work has been taking in the same way and similar conditions. This time I do not point to the vastness of the Universe. I wanted to take abstract motives that are more ambiguous and don’t necessarily look like something specific. In the beginning, I did not know what I was doing, but the excitement that I felt told me to proceed. My motivation was curiosity and the pure pleasure of creating images from the water, paint, and liquids that came under my hand. Although these photographs look like an abstract expression of colors and shapes, they imply much more. They represent metaphorical landscapes, places where I escape from daily anxieties and the real world. What drives me in creation is the endless search for unfettered spaces and boundaries where we are standing and step into the infinity of the imagination.
For Mindscapes series, as well as for Other Worlds and Escape Landscapes, I used my camera as a tool to capture the motives I created from scratch. I do not interpret the reality around me — but the one in me. I create new reality (motives) according to my inner voices, emotions and moods. I search for broader spaces and wider horizons; my work is my journey to freedom, an open flow of pure ideas. With Mindscapes series, I wanted to connect with my past work in analog photography. I created motives with my old darkroom chemicals that I used for toning and dyeing prints some 20 years ago. Then they were my tools — and now they become my motives.
MS／What are the lessons you’ve learned through these experimentations?
MSK／What I have learned so far is that in creative process it is important to trust your intuition and give time for your ideas to develop. I create with passion, guided with my intuition. All I determine in advance are the colors and the liquids that I will use. Then, I experiment and wait for things to happen, enjoying the unpredictable and unstable world that I created. I explore my “imaginary landscapes” and capture the most exciting moments of elements fusion. In this creative process I like the element of surprise. (I have the feeling that without surprises, the magic of creation would be lost).
Maja Strgar Kurečić is a fine art photographer and associate professor of photography at the Faculty of Graphic Arts of the University of Zagreb in Croatia.
At the beginning of her career, she engaged mostly in advertising and reportage photography, but has lately started devoting herself to abstract photography works, earning international recognition for her recent projects, the latest of which, “Floating Garden”, explores youth, beauty and transience through depictions of frozen flowers.
Interview by M. Solav.
Find more at Maja’s website: www.majastrgarkurecic.com.