Fine Art Photography

Katrina Kepule Makes Magic from the Mundane in Latvia

March 28, 2017

By Dzana Tsomondo

Perched on its hind legs, a great, old white dog peers out of a window into a queer light. A child forges into a vast landscape of ice, a tiny red jacket framed against a forbidding horizon. A shimmering blaze flares in a dark clearing as three people watch, one craning his neck to look back at us. A faceless figure stands in a backyard, wreathed in smoke, holding a blanket like a matador’s cape.

Latvian photographer Katrina Kepule’s new series, “Sit Silently,” which was exhibited at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon, in February, is a singular work. Shot in and around the capital city of Riga, these mesmerizing images of her country allude to Latvia’s past and present, seeking the soul of a quietly stoic people.

“The series contains various features of Latvia today, as well as an interpretation of my personal memories [at an] intuitive or partly subconscious level,” she explains via email. “In several scenes I can recognize a sentiment about the time when borders of my own imagination…were much more loose.”

© Katrina Kepule

An image from “Sit Silently,” photographer Katrina Kepule’s project about life in Latvia. © Katrina Kepule

Kepule’s ability to find the intersection of the mundanely domestic and the profoundly unsettling invites comparisons to David Lynch—one of her influences—but the soul of this work is both peculiar to Latvia and to the photographer’s childhood. She grew up in the small town of Iecava in Central Latvia before moving to Riga as a sixth grader. She was an only child, as happy in her own imagination as she was playing with friends. “I remember my strong faith in magic, I remember my mother singing me sad lyrical songs before sleep,” she recalls. “I remember with joy the ‘gang’ of my neighbor children.”

Such things faded away with the family’s move to the capital and the onset of adolescence, but even now these memories animate her art. “I have to place this magic in an otherwise un-magic scene myself and maybe that is the intention of my photography,” Kepule muses. To this day, Iecava is where she recovers from the grind of urban living and tries to draw again from that well of childhood creativity.

Kepule had a close relationship with her grandfather, who is also an important touchstone in her photography. Older men appear throughout her work, at times alone in contemplation, at others interacting with children. These patriarchal figures speak to those years growing up with her mother and grandparents in Iecava. In a previous interview, she spoke wistfully of riding on the back of her grandfather’s bicycle as they ran errands, the safety she felt when they were together, the mystical aura of his Soviet medals placed atop a high shelf.

She recalls “moments spent with my grandfather, at his work at [a communal farm] warehouse, in the shed, admiring his slang while talking with his fellows, his intentions to build something for me to play with like a wooden sword and shield, or a fishing rod,” she says. She also remembers the silence and aloofness that would come over him, walling off difficult emotions.

© Katrina Kepule

Her images show strange and surprising moments in the city, seen through the lens of her childhood. © Katrina Kepule

That commingling of wonder and sadness is a quiet thread woven tightly throughout “Sit Silently.” Almost everyone is alone, and even when they are together, as in a reflected image of passengers on a train, they seem apart. Elderly couples dance stiffly in a room festooned for a special occasion; two old men wearing mini party hats sit in a drab room, one squinting into a camera as the other looks on balefully. Yet, there is magic as well: A naked child suspended mid-leap into a swimming hole. By the edge of a lake, a girl sleeps in a burrow of reeds in an image that might have been clipped from a fairytale book. Throughout the work, there is a particular melancholy, which Kepule insists is an innate part of this place and its people.

“Latvians are still good at holding things inside, withdrawing into themselves when solving problems and sometimes expressing their opinion on a particular issue with a significant sigh. To remain silent, representing a detached monument of inner resentment, still seems to be quite common,” she explains.

“Sit Silently” began to find its form in 2013 when Kepule was a student at the International Summer School of Photography, an informal photography program in Latvia. The series came about as the result of her everyday photography, rather than a strict concept. Kepule carries her camera everywhere she goes. As a self-described introvert, the camera is often her key to entering social spaces and engaging with her subjects. Kepule never stages photographs. To hear her describe it, “Sit Silently” coalesced as the intuitive sum of her days, much as a family photo album might.

“I feel somehow engaged by human efforts to foil or decorate moments of life, making them special, in some way. Probably I tend to do the same while trying to capture a mystic element in seemingly prosaic scenes,” Kepule says.

The loneliness of this work is reflected in the photographer’s own descriptions of the desire to “stare in the window and play ‘Spot the Differences.’” Her camera places everything at a certain remove. The images are often fraught with an emotional power but they are not intimate. This work is about peripheries, about looking in not only that proverbial window, but looking inwardly for a past, real and imagined. It looks for the seams in a culture that is at once proud of its self-reliance and stoicism, but also is emotionally stunted, given to withdrawal rather than engagement. “We portray silence in its aspect of contemplation, as an unpretentious celebration of life,” Kepule says. “On the other hand, the silence emerges as a manifestation of dealing with inner dramas via resignation.”

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