Born in Slovakia and now based in London, photographer Tereza Červeňová studied at Middlesex University (BA, 2014) and the Royal College of Art, London (MA, 2018). Červeňová won the John Kobal New Work Award at the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize in 2015. She was selected for the Bloomberg New Contemporaries in 2017 and for the Jerwood Arts’ exhibition Survey II (2020).
While her work often meditates on human connection and personal relationships through portraiture, Červeňová also regularly contributes photographs to The FT Weekend and Telegraph Magazine.
I stumbled upon photography by chance. I was very studious at school, so becoming an artist never occurred to me, despite being very creative, and both my parents having artistic backgrounds. My relationship with lens-based media started when I was scouted as a model, at the age of 14. My father gave me his camera to be my travel companion, but this beautiful new world came with its shadows. My mental and physical health suffered greatly and, after a lengthy period of struggle and denial, I decided to stop. Insecure, disappointed, and hurt, I enrolled in 2011 in the Fine Art course at Middlesex University. I wasn’t ready for the ‘freedom’ that this course embodied, so I decided to transfer to Photography, as I heard it came with structure, briefs, and higher academic demands. As soon as I transferred courses, something clicked and I decided to give photography a chance. After graduating, I worked as a photographer’s assistant and occasionally photographed for magazines. I was determined to make photography my destiny.
Identity (2013) was created during my BA and made me realise that portraiture can be a transformative exchange. Whether photographing a politician with opposing views, a beloved artist who shares a cup of tea over a long conversation, a misogynist who makes it clear who he thinks is in charge, or a family member who tenderly teases me while I photograph … There is an emotional bond that takes place, no matter how intense, intimate, uncomfortable, or short-lived. As a photographer, it matters how open I am to seeing and hearing the person opposite me. This is what attracts me most about portraiture – the presence of empathy, a deep longing for intense connection with others and the hopeful, relentless search for it. The camera sits in the middle. I feel through my camera, and as emotions are never the same between any two people, so is each portrait. Portraits are also forever changing, never the same as the day they were taken, as the people co-creating them grow with new experiences, associations, and ideas about the world.
When I am conceptualising a portrait, my first (and often only) question is what the access to natural light and light’s behaviour in the space is. I like the challenge of working in unfamiliar environments. I am aware that the portrait presents someone through my eyes, but I am also interested to understand how individuals see themselves, and finding that intersection. When it comes to personal portraiture of my loved ones, it is extremely rare that I think of an image before I see it. It is more about the ever-evolving context than the concept.
I used to describe my photos as vessels, and also as portals for connecting with our inner worlds of memories and emotions. I like to think of my photographs as shared histories, which we dearly cherish or wish to forget. It is a privilege and a responsibility to be the keeper of these stories on my negatives, but they can also be a point of friction, pain, and insecurity. A proof that the relationship with our chosen medium can be as visceral as life itself.
I prefer ‘chapters’ to projects, because I feel that all my photographs are somehow entangled and interconnected with each other. I can see and feel them growing with me. Just as I become more aware and experienced, so I want my work to embrace larger and more complex themes and concerns. I feel that there is never an ending to my ‘projects’. Everything feels like a life in progress.
One chapter was June (2016-18), which focused on the development of UK politics in relation to Europe and the impact of Brexit on the human psyche and relationships. After that, there was a lot of change in my personal life and the most recent chapter speaks about that. With and For (2019-22) is a journey of love, conflict and self-exploration. It explores what inner spirituality might mean; asking how images can translate a feeling, bear witness to vulnerability and open up a space for self-discovery. In it, I reflect on the individual’s role, position, and responsibility in the world. The making of these photographs coincided with Jerwood Arts’ commission for the touring exhibition Survey II. I cannot describe With and For as a commissioned work, as it captures the most raw and intimate moments of my life to date. The work would have lived anyhow, but the commission provided an entry point into the world.
While I love the infinity of a moment present in the still image, I found that with moving film I was able to flow at the speed of life, with and for my loved ones. With & For led to my first film work (With & For, 2021) and it allowed me to feel in the movement, while the photographs to feel in the moment.
There are many layers to analogue photography that I find attractive. I like its craft and various techniques, its physicality and unpredictability. I like the ritual of loading film into the camera and putting it safely away after it’s been developed. I like the weight of curved paper in my hands and the familiar motions in the darkroom, but what I like the most is its poetic symbolism. Analogue material is very fragile, yet it is rich in tones and densities. It needs care and gentleness. The alchemy stored within the print turns a moment in time into ephemeral eternity; the light that gives photography its life also makes it slowly perish. When I photograph on film, the camera transports me to a place where I feel I belong more than anywhere else.
Winning the John Kobal New Work Award in 2015 was unexpected! I almost didn’t enter the portrait, as I thought it was too subtle, but I chose to believe in its stillness. The Award was a blessing, a source of wisdom, support, and an incredible boost for the self-confidence of a then 24 year-old girl from Eastern Europe who had picked up a camera barely 4 years earlier.
The actor Jack O’Connell was the sitter chosen for the John Kobal New Work Award commission. I photographed Jack at his mother’s home in Derby. I hadn’t spoken to him directly before the sitting, so it felt like a chance meeting of two strangers in the garden. We spent a couple of hours talking, drinking coffee, and sharing stories, while I photographed candidly. The final portrait was taken towards the end of the session. I noticed the reflections in the window and asked Jack to step out. There I saw the interior and exterior worlds merge, with Jack being a part of both.
I photographed the artist Julie Verhoeven for The Telegraph Magazine’s ‘Women in Art’ article. Julie welcomed me into her studio in Elephant and Castle, filled with props, paints and textiles. We shared tea and biscuits, before I even attempted to take any photographs. It was a glorious sunny day, but her studio, squeezed between buildings, was very dark. Her floor, however, was this shiny mustard-coloured lino and when we opened the front door, it reflected golden light. I positioned Julie near the entrance, so the reflection reached her. I didn’t notice this at the time, but once I collected the negatives, Julie’s artworks in the background formed two wings. There she was, as graceful as an angel.
The portrait of Chi Onwurah, Labour Member of Parliament for Newcastle-on-Tyne Central, was created for 209 Women, an all-female photography initiative marking the centenary of women gaining the vote. When I went searching for the location for Chi’s portrait, I found a small transit place, just off the grand St Stephen’s Hall in Westminster Palace. There was a beautiful old window veiled with light curtains and the stained glass windows lining the entrance from the hall said: “What a woman may be, yet not have the vote.” I knew I found the right place.
Next, I am travelling to Mexico with a group of artists whom I met during an online residency at the University of the Underground last summer. We are going to work on a documentary and artworks, which we hope to show there during a public festival in October 2022. Alongside that I am starting my research as Artist in Residence at the Warburg Institute, where I will be looking at links between my practice and Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas (begun in 1924).
All photographs by Tereza Červeňová
For more about Tereza Červeňová, you can visit her website.
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