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Portraits by Sebastian Cvitanic – An Unsolved Mystery, An Unrevealed Secret

I first started taking photos of my family and friends with an Agfa 110 camera back when I was a kid in the 80’s, in Chile. It was the family camera. Chile was under an authoritarian military government at the time, which made it virtually impossible to develop a unique voice or vision, so growing up I came to view photography as “the impossible dream”- it seemed unrealistic because it was an expensive hobby and because we didn’t have freedom of opinion. Becoming an artist was a rebellious act, very against the norm. So that period made me become very sensitive to the economics of taking photos. Every frame was precious. I learned to think carefully about every time I chose to press the shutter. A photograph, to me, was something extremely real and tangible. I couldn’t compare it to any other medium I knew of back then because all my school textbooks were mainly painted colors and drawings, and the newspaper was printed in black and white. Postcards were painted images instead of photographs too. Even the TV that we had at the time was black and white with only 3 channels available. So to see a color photo was something beyond beautiful and real to me and something I had to pursue. After turning 18 I decided to do an extensive amount of traveling, mainly in South America and Europe. After all those years I ended up in Seattle, which is where I now live and work.

Hannah, 2016.

Hannah is one of my favorite models in Seattle, we did a quick shoot at my studio. It was our second shoot. She’s also an activist, and originally from Eritrea.

When I am making a portrait, the two states of introspection and confrontation are incredibly important to me. People are usually in an introspective state already as we begin our work together but if they aren’t, I might prompt it in an indirect way and capture it as it forms– people are very beautiful as they already are when they’re looking inward. After that introspection there’s always a crucial moment of intensity that I can count on when the visual communication occurs between us like a burst and it usually happens very quickly– in a matter of less than seconds– so I have to be ready to catch it. That is the very direct gaze you can see in many of my portraits. It’s almost like a ritual, a very profound moment of energy and emotion that crosses barriers. I am a firm believer that beauty is emotional and creating a space and time where emotion is not only accepted but encouraged and desired is the surest way to create something beautiful and meaningful. I like to sustain those spaces, whether it means waiting for it to occur naturally or through conversations with my subjects about art or cinema or other things. The natural energy of my portrait subject also has to do with the variation between which of these gazes appear in any given photograph.

Katlyn and Sariviya, 2015.

Lily, 2017.

Shruthi, 2015.

I photographed Shruthi only a few months after she arrived in North America. I invited her to my studio and she asked me if she could wear her traditional Indian outfit. And I said absolutely.

When I am casting for my portrait work, I usually reach out to people in my community via social media. I am looking for individuals who inspire me artistically or intellectually through their own work in the world, and for people who understand the sensibility I feel toward art and the importance of creating a visual document. In my case, this happens with my documentation and portraiture. Sometimes I am aware of a writer or artist or actor for a very long time before we decide to make portraits together, and other times I meet them and feel immediately inspired, and we get together for photographs right away. There is not a particular “look” in a person that I am searching for. It is more about being on the same wavelength, artist to artist, and being excited to collaborate together to make something greater than either of us could have done without the other person. The best, most pure portraits that I make are with the people who already understand this sensibility and don’t need it to be explained to them. We can spend that energy making art instead of trying to reach a mutual understanding as a starting place.

Having explored almost every type of photography that I could, I was drawn mainly to portraiture because of the human connection. It is incredibly important for me to document that connection between two people or between myself and my subject. I couldn’t get that feeling when I was doing landscape or street photography, photojournalism, conceptual work, yearbook photography, or weddings. In portraiture, the people that I photograph teach me so much. No other form of photography has provided me with such a wealth of wisdom about humanity. I always loved the portraits that were done by the master painters like Renoir, Monet, Degas and Cezanne in France, and Vermeer and Rembrandt in the Netherlands and drew technical inspiration from them. My choices of colors, shadows, composition, geometry, can all be traced back to these artists. And I’ve always admired the Cinema Verite movement of cinema that deals with reality as opposed to artificiality, in an almost documentary way. I wanted to create my own sort of “truthful cinema” through my portrait photographs, provocative and yet still observational. I also know quality portraiture is one of the most difficult forms of photography there is, and I love a good challenge.

Delfina, 2016.

I met Delfina in a small town 40 kilometers north of Buenos Aires. She is an extremely talented painter.

I am always working on several projects at the same time. Artistic, commercial, and photojournalistic projects are all happening simultaneously. But the core of my work, consistent in all of these projects, is about keeping things as real as I possibly can. That’s one of the main reasons that I still prefer the analogue process of photography without any alterations– it feels more real to me. Growing up in Chile in the 80s, I had the minimum amount of things necessary in order to simply live. Because of this, I appreciate the simplicity of things a hundred times more. Keeping a sense of equality was imperative in those times, and that mindset shows a lot in my work in keeping, for example, a balanced color palette to create a sense of cohesion and unity between all the images of different subjects regardless of where the photograph was taken. Superficial photography, like the excessive application of Photoshop tools and tricks, really unsettles me in a number of ways, and I usually end up rejecting those types of projects so that I might stay more aligned with my core values. The fashion industry specifically can be very superficial at times and so it is common for me to turn away this kind of work.

A good portrait for me is a portrait that communicates feeling and has a greater effect on the viewer. Instead of just being simply a photograph, a good portrait is an unsolved mystery, an unrevealed secret. It gives you a reason to keep looking.

Bethany, 2017.

Marielle, 2016.

Andrea, 2014.

I am very inspired by the timelessness of things and places, the feeling of nostalgia, the importance of history, the depth. A lot of that brings me back to my childhood too. It’s a sense of familiarity that I can relate to. It’s easier to manage things that I already understand well. There needs to be meaning in the images that I make, even if this meaning is not immediately obvious to the viewer. Nostalgia is a very psychological thing. Secondly, I am inspired by the technical aspects of photography such as light, geometry, texture, color. I feel I have a very deep knowledge of the role that visuals play in history. Whatever era I was drawn more to is where I got my inspiration in order to get my vision across. A lot of the impressionist movement, French 60’s cinema, and even the end of the film era in the 80’s were influential in how I think about photography. Those three movements are extremely different from each other but all deal with the search for reality. When I combine all those factors with the people that I photograph, their identities, their hopes, their fears, their visions, is where the art happens.


Sebastian Cvitanic is a self-taught photographer based in Seattle.

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