Following his highly popular 2012 exhibition, 100 Faces of London, Czech-born photographer Milan Svanderlik returns to the Gallery in the Crypt, at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, with his latest venture Outsiders in London, Are you one too?
Outsiders in London presents portraits of forty Londoners, all of whom consider themselves outsiders for whatever reason. Some are very well-known, some are not. In all cases, their fascinating stories tell us why they see themselves as outsiders.
Milan Svanderlik – About the Artist
Born in 1948 in Northern Bohemia, almost on the border of what was then East Germany. Milan Svanderlik’s date of birth is a momentous one in the history of Czechoslovakia: It was the day when the post-war democratic government was overthrown and the Communists took power.
Ranked amongst the newly undesirable bourgeoisie, his father’s connection with President Tito and the Yugoslav Partisans who had fought the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia during World War II, definitely made him persona non grata in the new Stalinist world order behind the Iron Curtain.
Milan’s family avoided harm because of his father’s connections with Yugoslavia, although they did endure several years of house-arrest. Expelled to Austria when Milan was seven years old, the family eventually relocated to Yugoslavia.
Speaking fluent Serbo-Croat and educated in Yugoslavia, Milan graduated with a degree in Botany. He lived and worked in Zagreb and then Switzerland for a number of years before taking up a post in England. He has lived and worked in London for over 40 years.
After studying photography in London, Milan exhibited some of his early plant photographs at The Photographers’ Gallery. He worked for the British government for almost 25 years, initially as a photographer, and later became the head of a creative team managing photography, design and publishing, in one of the country’s leading scientific establishments. The role allowed him precious little time for his own creative work but since retirement, Milan has returned to creative photography with renewed vigour.
Mounting an Exhibition as an Independent Artist
As an independent artist, Milan has to do everything himself from negotiating exhibition space at a suitable gallery to interviewing and photographing his subjects. He has to arrange the mounting of the images and the production of interpretation/gallery labels. Specialist printers print information panels and images must be over-mounted onto support panels, and of course, he has to create press materials.
An Interview with Milan Svanderlik
Milan Svanderlik spoke exclusively to Decoded Arts:
Decoded Arts: You’ve been in England for many years so why do you still feel like an outsider?
Milan Svanderlik: I started my own life very much as an outsider and, after a somewhat unusual infancy, I arrived into the new country that was to be my second home most definitely as an outsider again.
In lots of ways, I think of myself as a real Londoner now, but I will always feel myself an outsider too, even if it’s only because people are endlessly asking me where I come from! But seriously, I almost feel that as an artist, one needs to be an outsider in some way in order to have the ability to ‘step outside’, to view the world more objectively and to have that unique perspective.
Decoded Arts: What inspires your work?
Milan Svanderlik: It has always been, and still is, the same thing: the extraordinary diversity and beauty of nature, people and life in general. As I matured, I also discovered that I was blessed with the courage and the affinity to get close to people, to listen to what they have to say, and to take time to photograph them at close quarters.
Decoded Arts: I believe you and your partner Gerald have been working on this project for a long time. Tell us about Outsiders in London, Are you one too?
Milan Svanderlik: As an artist, I developed the concept for Outsiders in London, Are you one, too? from my previous exhibition, 100 Faces of London. Outsiders in London is about 40 people who, one way or another, see themselves as outsiders. Perhaps it won’t be much of a surprise that the project relates very much both to who I am as a person, and to who I am as an artist/photographer.
The complete project took literally hundreds of hours. Without Gerald’s editorial input and his continuing support, I should probably have failed to bring the project to a conclusion. In some cases, we both found we were navigating pretty stormy seas.
Decoded Arts: How did you select your sitters?
Milan Svanderlik: For this project, I didn’t really select the sitters; having advertised the project in a variety of ways, they rather selected me. They came forward to be photographed and to tell the stories that in some cases they had never told to anyone else.
One could almost say that I just put in place a frame, offered an opportunity, and together the sitters created this extraordinary human mosaic. With every additional sitter, the picture changed a little and I was very happy to allow this to happen.
Of course, I started off with a provisional list of possible varieties of “outsiderhood” and I tried to avoid duplication but, of course, real life is not easily compartmentalised. Inevitably, there were some individuals, such as Peter Tatchell, whose experiences could have ticked a number of different boxes, and there were some important topics that I was simply not able to cover, as I couldn’t find individuals who were willing and courageous enough to come forward.
Decoded Arts: You only have a short time with each sitter. How do you capture their personalities so well?
Milan Svanderlik: No one walks into my studio before I have had the opportunity to talk to them first. Sometimes we meet and talk several times before the studio lights get switched on.
I feel it is essential to understand a sitter and in order to do this, one needs to get close; this requires trust. Though I do not feel I have a right to intrude, even if the only thing between us is a photographic lens. My studio-based technique allows ample time for each portrait, and usually succeeds in engendering the essential closeness between the sitter and me.
I always strive to find the beauty that there is in everybody and I would certainly echo the remark of the famous photographer, Irving Penn. He observed that when photographers work this way, they cannot but “fall in love a little” with each of their sitters as they observe them through the lens. I feel my portraits are as much the creations of the sitters as they are of the photographer.
Decoded Arts: Can you describe the creative process?
Milan Svanderlik: I start by selecting or inviting the people who will participate. Sometimes I have taken a considerable amount of time to photograph them; and then I have interviewed them. Mainly, I listen to sitters while the iPhone records our conversation but, of course, I do endeavour to channel the conversation and, should it meander too much, I strive to get it back on course.
But mainly I listen. And yes, sometimes I have laughed and cried along with the sitters – most of their stories were deeply personal, and some were tragic, but they were nearly all funny and inspiring. Most of them I found enlightening – they told me lots about humanity – and occasionally they filled me with sheer wonder at the lives led by others.
Once each session was complete, I transcribed the interview and added some commentary of my own and some relevant statistics, endeavouring to place the story in its socio-political context. At that stage, my partner, Gerald Stuart Burnett, would take over, working the text into a consistent and coherent draft which could then be agreed with the particular sitter – we didn’t invite wholesale rewrites but in view of the personal nature of some of the material, we were keen to make sure than no-one felt they had been misunderstood or misrepresented.
For the earlier show, 100 Faces of London, I met a hundred fascinating people; this time it was a bit short of fifty, but again it was a real privilege to meet such an extraordinary range of people in one’s own home.
Decoded Arts: What does Outsiders in London hope to achieve?
Milan Svanderlik: I was determined to demonstrate what it feels like being an outsider and the extent to which we all know about this from our own experience – it was designed both to be revelatory and to elicit empathy. I was also keen to show that it is the widest possible range of human conditions and experience that can make us into outsiders: some of us are born outsiders and have no choice in the matter, other than to be crushed or to just get on with it; then there are those who step out from the mainstream very deliberately, who stand out, who challenge our cultural, social and religious orthodoxies and such actions frequently make them outsiders too. Swimming against the tide makes some outsiders strong while others get swept away.
I wanted to show that the outsider almost always views the world in a different way and can give us unique perspectives and insights. The predicaments of some outsiders often lead to their contributing to society in an extraordinary way, and some of them become justly famous. While never forgetting those outsiders who are overwhelmed by the tide, the ones who do get crushed, I was anxious to mark the survival of many outsiders, and to celebrate their achievements.
Decoded Arts: How do you think the public will respond to Outsiders in London?
Milan Svanderlik: Until the gallery doors open, this is rather hard to predict. As an artist, one feels positive when visitors say they feel enriched, delighted with what they have seen; on the other hand, one is disappointed, sad, sometimes even angry if the purpose of the exhibition seems to have been misunderstood or if one is verbally abused, as indeed I was during my previous exhibition.
But any kind of strong reaction is one thing; what every artist truly fears is indifference. The thought that visitors will be completely unmoved by the images and associated life stories they have seen and read, keeps me awake at night.
Decoded Arts: As an independent artist, how difficult is it to mount an exhibition like this?
Milan Svanderlik: For someone relatively unknown to have the opportunity to stage a solo exhibition in central London is almost unheard of, unless there is some benevolent éminence grise who can smooth their path – actual talent or originality often has little to do with success in securing a London venue. The art world is notoriously covert and incestuous and I have always shied away from it; I detest the endless self-promotion that is virtually a must these days for anyone who wants to break through.
I was very fortunate in having my approaches welcomed by St Martin-in-the-Fields, an institution that always keeps its doors open to a whole range of peoples and faiths, and one that welcomes all sorts of well-meaning artists and makers who share their mission of seeking to make the world a better place. St Martin’s saw merit in my work and on the basis of the earlier show, 100 Faces of London, are now welcoming me back to The Gallery in the Crypt. My new project has a much sharper socio-political edge and it should stimulate some lively debate.
Decoded Arts: What are your plans for the future?
Milan Svanderlik: I have been working recently to develop the concept of 100 Faces of Edinburgh, largely inspired by the remarkable work of two famous Scottish photographic pioneers, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson.
In 1848, they created One Hundred Calotype Sketches, a work of great artistic and historical value now safely housed in the British Library. It would be both a challenge and a great pleasure to follow in their footsteps and, 167 years later, to photograph 100 noteworthy citizens of the Scottish capital, creating a work that would become part of the history of Edinburgh and of Scotland. I should like to see it as a present to the City of Edinburgh and to place a copy alongside the Victorian originals in the British Library.
This would certainly offer a wonderful opportunity for involving one of the premier Scottish art schools in helping with the typography and design of what I envisage as handsome, folio-sized volumes. However, I should still want to print all the images myself, using a suitable archival paper stock and the best modern high-quality printing inks.
The original ground-breaking celotypes produced by Hill and Adamson could be exhibited alongside “equivalent” modern portraits taken in the twenty-first century.
Outsiders in London, Are you one too? At The Gallery in the Crypt
Outsiders in London, Are you one too? may raise a few eyebrows, but more than that, it gives a valuable insight into the rich variety of interesting and unusual people who live in our capital city.
Outsiders in London is a free exhibition at The Gallery in the Crypt, St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The display is open from 23rd March to 9th May 2015.