In paring down photography to its essential components and experimenting with performative interventions, Nadezda Nikolova Kratzer creates a unique visual vocabulary suggestive of landscapes that exist outside of space and time. Contemplative and ethereal her silhouette images “elevate the human spirit by deepening rather than unveiling the mystery.”
Her contemporary interpretation of early photographic methods eschews the camera by combining the wet collodion process with the photogram technique, using chemistry, light, paper, scissors, paint brushes, and cliché verre. Her practice is inextricably linked to her way of life. The physical process of creating work uses her daily ritual of walking, connecting her to the natural landscape. Nadezda grew up in Eastern Europe before emigrating to the United States. She lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area, California. Nadezda has been represented by HackelBury Fine Art since 2018.
Q&A with the artist
HBFA: Your work raises questions about the world around us, exploring how we are connected to nature. It seems particularly relevant to the recognised environmental challenges confronting us. Have these metaphysical and existential issues been driven by your upbringing and cultural background or since you moved to the United States?
NK: A childhood memory I am fond of is watching educational nature shows with my family. My mother has a bachelor’s in biology and perhaps I inherited the love of nature from her. I would bring nature home whenever I could, whether it was an abandoned hedgehog or collecting plants, sticks, or leaves to press. I always felt connected to nature and animals, and frequently drew them. In the eighties and early nineties when I was growing up, educational shows were warning us about climate change, habitat fragmentation and destruction, pollution, species loss, melting of the ice caps and ocean level rise… the urgency to act was impressed deeply into my psyche. When I was faced with the decision of what to study at college, I was torn between art and conservation, but ultimately felt a personal call, a kind of responsibility, to study conservation.
HBFA: Why is the exploration of art through conservation an important subject to you?
NK: The ideas that come through my art arise from the connection I feel to the natural world, as I simultaneously grapple with what it means to live in the Anthropocene age and as I think about my own footprint. I drive a car (though a hybrid, it is still a pile of metal and battery that used up lots of resources to produce and will take up landfill space), use electricity, have a cell phone, occasionally eat meat—so I am part of the collective pressure our species exerts on the planet. I feel the heaviness of it. But that cannot lead to paralysis, or there is not hope. So, I try to ask larger questions: What will it take to change the way we are relating to nature and the way we are relating to each other? I keep thinking about the structures in which we are seemingly trapped and what it would take to change them.
HBFA: What prompted your move from public policy to the arts?
NK: Despite my best intentions, I wasn´t able to handle being inundated daily with these bleak facts. I found it too painful while studying conservation. The policy and research work were a little easier, but still at some point I felt a strong calling to return to art. Art allows me to process these difficult realities in a way I wasn´t able to do during my studies and prior work. When I became interested in photography, I took classes in historic processes at the University of Kentucky and studied with Mark Osterman—the foremost authority of early photographic methods and an incredible educator—at the George Eastman Museum.
HBFA: Is your response more about contemplation than activism?
NK: I believe so… finding that connection, being present, paying attention. T.S. Eliot talks about finding the still point of the turning world, remaining in the eye of the hurricane so to speak. My work is about noticing a leaf, the quality of light, the shape of the mountain. I see it more as poetic statements that encompass deeper messages than activism. Our home in Oakland is near to redwood trails which have become an important part of my daily routine. From these trails, there is an incredible view of the San Francisco Bay and the ocean beyond. I often hike in late afternoon and I observe the light of human activity and the light of nature. In the last few years, my practice has been to take in the view and not rejecting the parts that are difficult to witness. I think that that is a starting point for salvation. Our media is polarizing, our politics is divisive, we are told to resist, reject, condemn, cancel each other… I am thinking more about how we can be in equanimity with everything—to face ourselves and our own creations without judgement and take it from there.
HBFA: Are there artists you admire who use their art as a tool to communicate these issues in a more politically active way? Do you think it is the role of the artist to highlight social and environmental issues?
NK: We are a visual species, and we live in a visual age, so yes, I believe that visual art is an incredibly valuable tool for activism. I admire the work of Agnes Danes, with her polymath approach to conceptual art, and there are many others who balance art and activism successfully. We purchased a beautiful book entitled ‘Beyond Drifting: Imperfectly Known Animals’ by Mandy Barker at an art fair. It speaks to plastic pollution of our oceans and waterways in a unique and poetic manner. This is the kind of approach to environmental artmaking to which I’m personally drawn as a visual artist. I also feel that music is particularly well suited for activism and I have great admiration for musicians who have the courage to tackle challenging subjects.These ships are filled with stuff we don´t need. This goes back to conditioning and our values. We are products of our time, society and our predecessors. We are accultured into certain thought patterns and behaviours. It seems to me that if we are going to find solutions to the problems that society faces, then they are not going to come from the structures that created them. These are the kind of questions and observations that make their way into my work.
HBFA: Is this art mindfulness? Being in the present and appreciating what is there now and not looking beyond. You speak about this idea in your work of the ´human imprint’. You are not trying to cleanse the landscape or create a purity. It is very real. The human imprint is part of what is there. In your work, I see a representation of the cosmos, in which our insignificance is set against the grand scale of the universe.
NK: Right, Looking at something that is banal, commonplace, and finding the presence of something greater. This idea is perhaps captured by the philosophical and metaphysical concept of immanence—that the divine, the holy, is present in the entirety of manifestation, not just the things we find beautiful. It is easy to experience spiritual epiphanies in pristine nature but how do I recognize the same presence when, for example, from the ridge where I hike, I observe giant cranes and massive cargo ships—emblems of our consumerist society?
Nadezda Nikolova: Unique Works4 February - 1 April 2023HackelBury Fine Art, London is pleased to present Unique Works, a solo exhibition of work by Nadezda Nikolova in which the artist seeks to capture a singular sense of oneness...
HBFA: You talk about the idea of chance. In your work, there is the control and surrender to what is going to be. The idea of letting chance take its course and perhaps the need to have more faith. You talk about simplicity and intricacy. Is there a balancing act in your work?
NK: It is exactly that: letting go of expectations, surrendering, trusting that the outcome may be much more riveting than the original idea. Sometimes, things just come together and surprise me—that’s the darkroom magic. The photogram is a rudimentary medium, which speaks to the simplicity you mention. I use scissors and paper to create simple shapes. But there is also the complexity of working with a fluid and volatile medium that changes in response to use, age, temperature, humidity, etc. There is also the complexity of coaxing effects with precise brush strokes and spays of chemistry, as well as timing the exposure and development exactly right, where seconds, even milliseconds, matter— and making these decisions instinctively, since the outcome only presents itself in the final step of fixing the image. If we are speaking in metaphors, then the artifact of chance is the beautiful complexity that brings meaning and excitement to life. The key is finding the balance between the control and surrender and having the fearlessness to embrace the unknown.
HBFA: Frank Lloyd Wright said truth is more than facts. You talk about the truth. Can you expand?
NK: Truth is such an elusive concept, especially in our age of information (and disinformation): It seems that the more we are inundated with data and news, the less hold we have on what is real and what is true. In its most universal form, I believe that Truth is something we reach for through artistic expression, be it music, visual art, dance, etc. In many ways, truth depends on one’s vantage point. Still, I believe that there are certain universal truths, like beauty of natural forms and the elegance of mathematical equations that underlie physical laws, for example. Circling back to the concept of immanence: If all is sacred, then by extension, each one of us, our ignorance, flaws, and transgressions notwithstanding, possesses equal and absolute worth. If we were to internalize this Truth, then war, hunger, poverty, homelessness, refugee crises—these brutal manifestations we take as given would cease to exist.
HBFA: Speaking about truth. Your interest is in analogue photography and the idea that analogue is permanent and can´t be changed whereas digital photography can be manipulated. You are interested in the idea of chance and are happy to accept that?
NK: Just on the basis that is an object, the analogue photograph has a presence that feels more real than a digital image. Furthermore, while all photographs are in essence abstractions, the photogram, compared to a lens-based image, literally represents the physical object whose silhouette is registered on the light sensitive emulsion. So, in that sense, one could argue that photogram is more real than an analogue lens-based image. And, as you note, my work embraces chance to a certain extent, which in some way speaks to the randomness and entropy of physical existence.
HBFA: What are you working on at the moment?
NK: My latest series, ‘Elemental Forms, Landscape Rearticulated’, builds on the preceding series ´Elemental Forms, Landscapes´, taking it to higher planes of abstraction. The series explores a lot of the ideas I talked about earlier—meaning, identity, perception…
HBFA: Do you feel that the experience of the past year will have any impact on your work? In a way your work was already dealing with some of these issues like the importance of nature and our response to it.
NK: At the start of the pandemic, it felt like the whole globe was blanketed with a thick layer of fear. As I continued with my hiking practice, it was interesting to observe crowds flooding the trails—the pandemic forced people outside, into the open, green spaces. To see the juxtaposition of the fear that has gripped the world with these beautiful faces absorbing nature, smiling—this is this yin and yang in my work, it is about seeing the light in the darkness, perhaps. Or recognizing that the darkness is part of the light.
HBFA: Will you describe your background and the cultural landscape where you grew up?
NK: Yes, I have a Croatian mom and a Bulgarian dad and was bought up in present day Serbia in the shadow of Tito’s legacy, as well as during the time Yugoslavia broke apart. Without going into too much detail, my childhood was marked with a level of trauma, alienation, and displacement. Based on this experience, I am keenly aware that economic anxiety can lead to fracturing of social bonds, even war, so I worry about what is happening here and around the globe in terms of income inequality, rise of authoritarianism, distrust in institutions, breakdown of communication, loss of empathy, etc. As a teenager, I decided to relocate to the United States in a search for a fresh start because I did not feel truly at home in the region of my birth. I was looking for a more neutral place where the particulars of my nationality did not matter. In addition, I grew up with stories about my brave and industrious aunt, my mother’s much older sister, who was 17 years old when she fled home at the tail end of WWII and eventually settled in Los Angeles. Perhaps her heroic story contributed to my decision to leave home so young, and the reason why I always felt a certain pull toward the United States, California in particular.
HBFA: What have been the key milestones in your life that have influenced your work as an artist and how has your work shifted over the course of your career?
NK: While I don’t have the counterfactual, I believe that work that I am currently creating and feel continuously interested to explore would not have happened if I had not moved to the Bay Area. Everything that I created up to that point was incredibly useful in gaining proficiency in the medium and exploring different possibilities with process artefacts, developing as an artist, while satisfying personal creative urges. I had a lot of ground to cover in a short time. The ‘Elemental Forms: Landscapes’ series felt like a leap in maturation. From the moment the work started flowing, it felt like I found my voice as an artist and that the work had something to contribute to the field of photography. Another key milestone is gallery representation by HackelBury Fine Art. They encouraged me to explore more complex work and believed in me, unreservedly. That spring/summer of 2018 after they took me on was incredibly exciting time that catapulted my creativity and growth to new levels.
HBFA: Who and what have been the key influences in your life and what inspires you as an artist?
NK: Motherhood was a key event in my life. I never knew I what unconditional love meant until I had my son. What inspires me, not in any order: Courage, authenticity, kindness, humour, wisdom, beauty, music, art, film, poetry, fiction, prose, family, friends, great conversations, humility, unpretentiousness, integrity, my son’s eyes when he is excited about something, moss on bay laurel trees after the rain, migrating warblers, banana slugs we feel compelled to rescue from being trampled on the trails, ocean waves, holding our pet chicken… Artists who explore the materiality of the photographic medium and continue to push its boundaries, usually by ditching the lens altogether, intrigue and inspire me: Alison Rossiter, Pierre Cordier, Gary Fabian Miller, Susan Derges, Adam Fuss, Ellen Carey, Chuck Kelton, etc. I appreciate the curiosity with which these artists approach the photographic medium, their willingness to experiment, break rules, and create their own processes.
HBFA: Will you talk a little more about the influence of painters on your work?
NK: When I was a teen, I had the opportunity to visit the National Gallery in London. I first encountered paintings of Paul Cezanne there and I believe I experienced the closest thing to ecstasy one can experience when looking at a painting. I was floored by the effects of his use of colour, distinctive brush stroke, and compositions. After I discovered Matisse, I had a similar epiphany and ecstatic reaction to his work. Rothko is another example. It is the deceptive simplicity that strikes at the core and the emotional impact of colour that I saw in their work (and many other artists since) which I seek to emulate in my work. Elemental Forms, Landscape no. 124
I’m drawn to the sensual, organic landscapes in Georgia O’Keefe’s Lake George paintings; Helen Frankenthaler’s and Morris Louis’s affecting and expansive colour fields; Barnett Newman’s minimalist ‘Zips’; Mark Rothko’s expressive use of colour and shape to communicate human emotions and states of mind; Henry Matisse’s apparently simple yet genius paper cut-outs; Ellsworth Kelley’s chance studies and the evident joy in re-seeing everyday objects; Agnes Martin’s understated mediations that reject the dominion of the thinking mind, instead turning the eye inward; etc. I also draw inspiration in anonymous, spiritual art (Tantrikas from Rajasthan, for example), aboriginal art from Oceania, African Kuba cloth, etc. — art that speaks to the human need for beauty and meaning, art that emanates simplicity, directness, immediacy, elegance, unpretentiousness. Regarding some of the more recent exhibits that felt impactful, I should add the paintings of Hilma af Klint at the Guggenheim and Vija Celmins retrospective at SFMOMA.
HBFA: Are there are any childhood influences that have had a significant impact on your work?
NK: As a kid, I remember being deeply fascinated by silhouette animation films, for example by Lotte Reiniger. There is something quite primordial and alluring in silhouettes and shadows. Perhaps it’s our fascination with mystery.
HBFA: Do you have a daily routine or ritual that helps you find a structure in your work as an artist?
NK: I am not a particularly structured person if I am not required by an external force or internal sense of duty (such as raising a child) and don’t feel the need for structure in my creative work. When my son is visiting his father, who lives in another state, I relax about routines and chores, cooking, eating, all those pesky daily tasks, and pour myself into work. I’ve been known to spend ungodly times in the darkroom when I’m working out a challenging idea. When my son is with us, we have more of a routine. Our daily hikes also provide structure. When I am not actively creating or sketching work, I am accumulating experiences and consuming knowledge that will filter into the next productive wave.
HBFA: Is there a particular photographer who has had a major influence on your work?
NK: There are many, but if I were to single out two, they would be: Sally Mann’s ‘Deep South’ series and Alison Rossiter’s experiments with expired photo paper, which inspired me to combine the photogram method using paper cut-outs with the fluidity of the wet collodion process in the ‘Elemental Forms’ work.
HBFA: Thanks so much for all your time and effort and above all for your very thoughtful responses to all the questions.
NK: My pleasure. Thank you for your thoughtful questions!
Marcus Bury, co-owner of HackelBury Fine Art
“Nadezda’s work is sculptural — it is all about the object. Nadezda’s diptychs achieve perfect balance despite the plates being different sizes. In Elemental Forms: Landscape Rearticulated, the moment of balance achieved in the pieces takes it beyond photography. Her work is reminiscent of Calder and his kinetic sculptures.
An artist should make what they do look effortless and Nadezda achieves this. There is a backstory and level of complexity behind the creation of Nadezda’s work yet the viewer does not feel this weight. There is an integrity to Nadezda’s work — she is pushing the boundaries and liberating a process first used in 1851. Nadezda is taking abstraction to another dimension and creating sculptural forms.”