These Portraits Balance Art History, Psychology, and Commercial Hues

Photographer Svetlana Jovanovic speaks with The Luupe on her many nuanced influences.

Serbian-born, NYC-based photographer Svetlana Jovanovic’s art-history rich photography toes a close line between fashion editorial and art photo portraiture. Her references range from pre-Raphaelite painting to Louise Bourgeois and Cindy Sherman, using subtle yet deeply psychological light to show her subjects as powerful and commanding yet vulnerably human.

Before immersing herself in photography full time, Jovanovic earned a MA in psychology and worked at the UN. She says this attunes her to work and communicate more deeply with her subjects. This comes out in her close attention to pointed gazes, the nuances in hand and body gestures, and in the psychological implications of patterns and color.

Jovanovic is also one of many artists participating in The Luupe’s inaugural Women’s History Month print sale. You can purchase her work HERE.

We speak with the photographer to learn more about her career and the power of her gaze.

© Svetlana Jovanovic

The Luupe: How and why did you first start making pictures?

Svetlana Jovanovic: My dad bought me a camera when I was something like ten-eleven years old, I remember it was a small Beirette. I recently found some prints of the photos I took then, of the snow and my school friends, and I clearly remember taking them. Photography and film were always a part of my and our family life thanks to my dad who documented it, I feel very lucky to have all that material now.

© Svetlana Jovanovic

The Luupe: When did you realize photography was something you wanted to spend your life doing?

Jovanovic: I realized it fairly early, by my early 20s – it felt like something I would want to do forever. However, at that time it was more of a hobby and not a common career choice for me. Partly because of the times and geo-socio-economic factors, being Generation X and growing up in the Balkans.

There were not so many professional photographers back then as today (and most were men) and I was also interested in many other things. Fast forward to the mid-2000s, I decided on it as a career when I got my hands on a digital camera and Photoshop. But It was only about six years ago when I really summoned up the courage to say to myself that this is what I wanted to do as a profession solely. I left my long-time UN job to move to NYC and focus only on photography.

© Svetlana Jovanovic

The Luupe: Who are some of your greatest influences photographically and otherwise?

Jovanovic: We are all influenced by everything we see, read, hear, and experience, although it might not always be so obvious in somebody’s work. I have been very much influenced by music, film, fashion, architecture/design, and literature, but that list would be too long.

I will just name some names of the visual artists whose work impacted me and keeps on doing: Louise Bourgeois, Edvard Munch, Francis Bacon, and painters from the Pre-Raphaelite and High Renaissance periods.

As for the contemporary photographers whose work I admire, among many, some are Julia Hetta, Paolo Roversi, Sølve Sundsbø, Cindy Sherman, Erwin Olaf. Also some “discoveries” in the last few years (mainly from Instagram): Pat Martin, Evelyn Bencicova, Casper Wackerhausen-Sejersen.

© Svetlana Jovanovic – print available for purchase HERE

The Luupe: That’s great. Let’s get into your work a bit… What’s the story behind your series “Heroines?”

Jovanovic: This series is a collection of staged female portraits of real women/models, but they are playing a role and each image is a fictional story, actually just a fragment of a story. I am interested in fantasy, not reality, in Netflix language, a story with a “strong female lead.”

Characters might be fictional, but our emotions are real when following the main character in a book or a movie. I am interested in that transference. It is also about longing to be that heroine of my own life or to live many such lives and episodes.

© Svetlana Jovanovic

The Luupe: One of the most compelling things about your work, and specifically your Heroines series is the hybrid of genres. These could be Vogue fashion spreads or live on gallery walls. Many of your images are rich with art history. Do you make a distinction between how you approach personal and commercial work?

Jovanovic: That is exactly where I want to dwell and where I feel my place is- in-between these two worlds. Thanks for the question about the distinction in the approach. It made me think about something I didn’t think about in-depth before, and I concluded my approach is the same.

Of course, with the commercial work, there is a client to please but I always try to give my best and create something I will be proud of. Most of the time that is easier when I am the one controlling all the factors (in my personal work). Somehow I always think I could have done better, but that’s my nature and has nothing to do with photography or the type of assignment.

© Svetlana Jovanovic

The Luupe: Can you talk a bit about your approach and process when working with models? The images convey a sense of trust in your subjects. How much time are you spending with them?

Jovanovic: I don’t spend that much time with my subjects. Most of the time I meet them only at the shoot, and of course, we have some email and text communication beforehand about the logistics of it, etc. I don’t really have any special approach. I just show them interest and respect which I normally do or strive to do in all my interactions.

Most of my subjects are professional models that are very experienced in front of the camera. For my personal work, I choose them carefully and put some time and effort into finding the person I think I can work the best with.

With all the social media nowadays, I feel you can learn a lot about someone quickly. Another thing that might contribute to that intimacy and trust feel is the lack of distraction and intimidation coming from the excessive gear and crew. Most of my shoots are really minimal. A lot of times it will be just me and a camera. So it is kind of an intimate setting to start with.

© Svetlana Jovanovic

The Luupe: The majority of the people in your photographs throughout all of your projects are women. Is this intentional or just happenstance?

Jovanovic: It is not intentional in the sense that I set out to photograph only women. But it’s a natural choice for me, being a woman and experiencing this world as a woman and in this female body. Even though the women in my photos are individual people, all of my work can be looked at as self-portraits. The Heroines, for example, I can identify with. With fashion also being an important element, I am more familiar and have more access to female fashion. I’ve made work with men too, though, and want to do more in the future.

© Svetlana Jovanovic

The Luupe: Outside of photography, you have a background and master’s degree in psychology. Do you think this influences your work?

Jovanovic: I have always been interested in the human psyche and want to understand it. I find that whole inner world fascinating. It’s like an enigma I can never get bored of. My degree in psychology and years of experience working in that capacity with people, mostly with victims and witnesses of war crimes, certainly influence my work as a photographer. Not that there is an obvious link there. But it does help me dig a bit deeper, and read my subjects’ emotional state easier so that the end result is a more impactful image.

The Luupe: Shifting gears slightly, what’s your dream editorial or commercial assignment?

Jovanovic: Shooting a Haute Couture (and/or Bridal ) collection campaign for a high-end fashion designer brand. Preferably in a castle in France or Italy (or some otherworldly nature spot.) That would be my absolute dream assignment!

© Svetlana Jovanovic

The Luupe: The ongoing question: has the pandemic impacted your work?

Jovanovic: Yes it did, and not in a good way. There has been less work and everything feels more complicated to organize and plan. One specific thing that I really find challenging is having to wear a mask on shoots. It hinders normal communication and influences the whole vibe on the set which is very important to me. I believe that I speak for everyone when I say that I can’t wait for this phase to be over.

The Luupe: On a more positive note, what are you most excited about as we move into the new year?

Jovanovic: I love what I do and I’m really excited for every opportunity to create new work. There are some exciting editorial prospects and collaborations in the works for this first half of the year.
I am also excited and hopeful about the prospect of getting more commercial work, and excited to see The Luupe grow, expand and thrive!