Exploring uncharted territories, ones that are usually forgotten and omitted from history. This is what drives Czech photographer Tereza Zelenkova. Her black and white photography looks into rich and profound subjects like dark folklore, the not-so-known spiritism, and even the inevitability of death, and shows them in a romantic, melancholic way. She’s walking the fine line between what’s considered beautiful and distasteful and leaves the rest to the viewer’s imagination. Now, and after reading this interview, you can judge it yourself.
I feel that your Czech origins have highly influenced your work, but how would you say it has done so?
I think there’s something about the local landscape and mythology, as well as perhaps slight inclination to melancholy by Czech people. In my work, I look for a type of beauty that comes from intense emotions that are not necessarily related to happiness.
Judging from your work, it is very clear to me that you are an artistic, extremely sensitive person. However, why do you choose to use the medium of photography to express yourself?
I like the contrast between cold and precise technology with something deeply personal and poetic.
What is your thought process like, and how does that translate into your work?
I get inspiration from literature or music quite a lot. When I read or hear something good, it often entices me to respond to it visually and then I look for ways to make it work as photographic series.
Tereza Zelenkova 02 Snake That Disappeared 01 Dog Cemetery.jpg
I’ve seen that you like to juxtapose images with poems and other writings, but they are normally penned by recognised authors and philosophers, such as Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille. Would you ever consider writing your own poetry?
I used to write poetry when I was younger, nothing good, but as I said, literature is a big influence. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to write little introductions for my works, which are basically prose poems packed with references to what has inspired the particular photographs. I would like to write more but I don’t know whether I have the disposition for that kind of form of expression. Maybe it’s something that is slowly growing on me and the time hasn’t come yet.
What are your photographic influences?
I like a lot of early 20th-century photography by artists like Alfred Stieglitz, Josef Sudek, Germaine Krull and Edward Weston. But I really love weird photographs like spiritist photography, or old science and vernacular images.
What was it like going to Čachtice Castle, where Countess Elizabeth Báthory, the most gruesome sadistic murderess in history, was imprisoned? Was the vibe of the place unsettling and unnerving, or completely normal? Do you have any stories of this experience?
I was eight months pregnant and it was like forty degrees outside. The town near the castle is fairly ugly and you have to climb a hill to get there so it was quite exhausting. It was everything but romantic. But when I got back to the town, I was having pizza in pretty much the only restaurant there, and suddenly the sky got dark and this strong wind started to blow and I knew that a thunderstorm was coming. I jumped into the car and drove to the castle, which is prohibited, and run to the opposite hill and watched quite amazing lightning and thunder above the castle. I took some photos of that. That was very special.
Tereza Zelenkova 01 the Absence of Myth 09 Georges Batailles Grave Vezelay.jpg
You have visited other dark, macabre sites like the Býčí Skála Cave, where in the 19th century, the skeletons of forty young women were found. What prompts you to go to these places?
I went to loads, not only in the Czech Republic. I photographed Capuchin catacombs in Palermo, where mummified bodies of local citizens are displayed. I visited many graveyards, haunted castles, and the usual Gothic locations. I’d really like to visit Externsteine castle in Germany, a sort of prehistoric temple where Kenneth Anger shot some parts of Lucifer Rising. I like locations that are mystical and entice people to confront the spiritual side of existence.
What is it that draws you to rock/stone sculptures? Is it the merging of art and nature?
I like them for various reasons, as they all have different stories. But generally, I think they are places where nature, art and people symbolically meet and become intertwined. I like one’s relationship with nature that enhances the beauty of a place through sensitive intervention.
I might be taking your work too literally, but I think you depict women in a mystic and witchy kind of way, which I find beautiful and sort of accurate, is that what you are trying to convey? Are you denouncing the fact that throughout history, many women who were in touch with this side were punished in horrific ways, and that we should be embracing this side instead of hiding it?
I guess that comes from mysticism and interpretation of female aspect as something associated with the irrational, more sensual approach to existence. Night and the Moon are also associated with the feminine side and there’s certain mystery and allusion to hidden power in women. I don’t want to re-enforce any gender stereotypes through this but I quite like to portray women in this way.
Tereza Zelenkova 02 Snake That Disappeared 12 Devils Table.jpg
You have a piece called Cometes, which features a woman with very long hair, and its title refers to the Greek term “comet”, which actually means long-haired. But this is not the only time you have used a model with extremely long hair, what is the fascination behind it?
I am fascinated by long hair, be it on women or men. I think it’s this excess of something that is at once symbol of beauty and sensuality but can also become object of repulsion. I like this fine line, as well as the veiling that brings on loss of identity and turns the sitter into someone or something that transcends the personal and becomes universal.
Why does the concept of death inspire you so much? Have you ever had a near-death experience?
I think death is fascinating because it is unknowable.
What are you currently working on?
I recently finished a small series that’s being shown at The Ravestijn Gallery in Amsterdam and I am also experimenting with some photographic collages.
Tereza Zelenkova 01 the Absence of Myth 02 Guillermo De Medici by Michelangelo V a Cast Court London.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 01 the Absence of Myth 01 Dinosaur Bone Gallery of Paleontology Paris.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 02 Snake That Disappeared 06 Jesus.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 02 Snake That Disappeared 07 Pheasant Baroque House.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 02 Snake That Disappeared 05 Landscape Aderspach.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 01 the Absence of Myth 04 Musee Nissim De Cammondo Paris.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 01 the Absence of Myth 08 Confessionary Paris.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 02 Snake That Disappeared 02 Stairs Cesky Raj.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 02 Snake That Disappeared 03 Bathorys Bedroom Cachtice Castle.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 02 Snake That Disappeared 11 Gustav Meyrinks Death Mask.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 03 the Essential Solitude 04 Chamber of Solitude.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 02 Snake That Disappeared 09 the Unseen.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 01 the Absence of Myth 05 Rimbaud by Fantinlatour.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 01 the Absence of Myth 06 Arabian Baths Sevilla.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 03 the Essential Solitude 01 I Am the Sun.jpg
Tereza Zelenkova 03 the Essential Solitude 03 the Double Room.jpg