Since her appearance in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia has inspired songs, poetry and paintings. For Indonesian photographer Mukti Echwantono, Ophelia plays the role of a muse yet again in his moving series of underwater captures.
Ophelia has been interpreted through many artistic mediums, but for this photographer, it is her mortality, as well as her duality and the polarizing viewpoints she faced, that are expressed through his portraits of women submerged in water. Through Echwantono’s lens, Ophelia represents both innocent femininity and a serene submission to death. Her demise has been romanticized through fine art depictions by John Everett Millais, Eugene Delacroix and Cabanel, yet despite the tragedy of her unfortunate end, she reflects an everlasting beauty.
“Sadness and darkness are inherently related. There is a certain romance in darkness and melancholy, and a mysterious quality about that which is hidden and unknown,” Echwantono explains of the atmosphere he created for Ophelia, “Perhaps the darkness in my images seeks to romanticize sadness and depression.”
The Ophelia series by Echwantono presents an interesting relationship between the viewer, photographer and model. The gaze of the subject never acknowledges the viewer, as if the lens were a portal into her private, introspective sphere, a privacy not shared between the photographer and model, but kept within herself. Witnessing a moment of intentional solitude, we spy a girl alone with her thoughts–a quiet pause from life that all viewers can relate to emotionally and appreciate.
Wavering gently in the water, the subject drifts with the femininity of long, delicate gowns. Floating quietly underwater, she moves with the current of the waves, captured at times in exquisite symmetry, as if facing her reflection in the underside of the surface–a position rife with metaphor; the scene recalls Hamlet’s accusation to Ophelia, “God has given you one face, and you make yourself another.”
Echwantono’s Ophelia explores themes of the ego and self-perception in contrast with others’ perception of us. We see a woman facing her obscured, distorted reflection, a fragmented version of the truth; for Shakespeare’s Ophelia, this fragmentation represented the combined version of her identity that had been constructed by her father, brother and Hamlet. When pondering in self-reflection, do we see ourselves as the person we are, or as the identity designed by others? Through his Ophelia series, Echwantono probes the viewer’s psyche with his artistic stimulation, bringing more than just Ophelia’s plight into question.
Although Echwantono’s images have the appearance of spontaneity, the images are carefully coordinated and plotted. His first step is to plan the concept of the image, followed by the location and wardrobe, choosing locations and models carefully to convey the desired symbolism for the scene. Much of Echwantono’s work makes resourceful uses of available light; he feels that he is able to actualize his concepts more effectively this way. The pools are public spaces, and the light, natural.
When seeking inspiration for new creative projects, Echwantono turns to film and literature. He also loves the work of American black and white photographer Francesca Woodman, whose work often has blurred images of nude women. To Echwantono, Woodman’s photography motivates the enigmatic tone of his art, as well as the element of emotion.
“I am drawn to mysticism and, as a result, my work is strongly influenced by this. There is more to photography than making images with technical perfection,” he divulges, “I have learned to have a sense of mysticism, a special touch so that I can create a photograph which is present, not only for beauty to the eyes, but that also makes an impression on the heart.”
For many creatives, the path to establishing themselves in the arts is not linear. Many end up far from their starting point and, for Echwantono, it was no different. Though he studied management in university, he settled into the arts. Devoting the last ten years to learning photography techniques from reading, while studying the great masters, Echwantono is completely self-taught. Echwantono’s creative toolkit includes Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Camera Raw. Most of his images require approximately four to six hours for the creative process and one to two hours for post-production.
Ever-evolving as an artist, Echwantono plans to expand on his photography by learning how to paint hyperrealism. In addition, Echwantono’s next project, The Vision of Disorder, is quickly developing. Using obscured images to portray grim memories, he will express relatable sentiment once more, tapping into our emotions and swaying our experience and our sense of self.
Published in INSPADES Magazine, Issue Cinque, June 2017
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See more of Echwantono’s images on Instagram at: @muktiechwantono