Words Tessa Swantek
Interviewee Hanna Sofia
Art Portrait Tessa Swantek
Photography Hanna Sofia
HANNA SOFIA, self-portrait photographer, tells us “I like to meld theatrics and performance into everything I do. I pull a lot of inspiration from old Hollywood movies and musicals. As someone on the spectrum, every time I leave my house it warrants a performance, so to speak. So I try to make it fun, embodying whoever or whatever I’m feeling at the moment.” Hanna’s audience, like hummingbirds to heady lilac bushes, come and go among cardinal-red velour seats under golden frescoed circular ceilings. Hanna resides on stage in front of the billowing velvet curtain, as she is the playwright, actor, director, choreographer, costume designer, and set designer. In her self-portraits, she is able to mold her own mask and imagines herself gliding through decades and centuries on pink satin covered toes. A lilac-scent streams behind her, evocative of a love for the past. Hanna costumes herself in vintage pieces from blush corseted gowns with satin ribbon, freshwater pearls, and organza scarves to satin gloves, velvet and straw hats, and bouncy wigs.
During the Victorian Age, the giving of a lilac was meant to be a reminder of an old love. In fact, widows were often seen wearing lilacs during this period.
All of the ballets at the court of Louis XIV were performed with masks. There were masks according to the kinds of dance: serious or noble ones, galant ones, comic ones, etc.
Exposed under stage light, Hanna’s masks reveal her - who she is, what she loves, who she wants to be, who she can be. She says, “In taking my own photos, I’m in control of my image. If anything, I hope my portraits reveal my confidence to be myself.” Theatrics, drama, control, and classic glamor color in much of her PORTRAY-T(portrait) in shades of lilac and sage against a deep black. In our interview with Hanna, she tells us about her debut photography book, Themes and Variations, her interest in floriography, self-portraiture, and who she is when the stage lights go dark. Read below for a full written PORTRAY-T of Hanna Sofia.
Hi! I wanted to start by mentioning your debut photography book, Themes and Variations, congratulations it looks so gorgeous! Can you tell us a little bit about the process for making the book? What makes you most proud about it?
Hello! Firstly, thank you so much! It’s been a really great experience. The book was a new experience and that of course comes with its challenges, but all in all, really, really great. When I first started speaking with the publisher, I initially wanted to create a whole new body of work to publish. After I hit a few roadblocks, I started to consider my existing work and how I can work that into something. There were a lot of nights staring at pictures strewn about my floor, trying to make some sense of them. I think I printed at least 600 photos and used the process of elimination. Some didn’t translate well into CYMK printing so those were easy cuts, others just didn’t *fit* or ended up looking disjointed when I was planning what would go on each page. I also ran into image quality issues. I would have loved to publish some of my older work but I was shooting exclusively on an IPhone 6 until I got my Nikon last summer, so that really limited what I could work with. Pictures aside, I think choosing the book title was the most difficult task of all! The title, Themes and Variations, is a music reference. I like to equate my creative process when photographing to the composition of music, so it felt fitting to my work. At the end of the day, I ended up with a two year retrospective that I’m really proud of. I think I’m most proud of my growth as an artist, and as someone who has been creating more or less solely digital work, having a tangible object at the end of the day is an amazing feeling.
I know you have a vintage aesthetic, and you have said to me that you are a visual person, rather than a words person. If you were to describe your aesthetic then as if it were a mood board, how would you describe it?
Oh, that’s a tough one. I’d have to describe my aesthetic as theatrical, if anything. I like to
meld theatrics and performance into everything I do. I pull a lot of inspiration from old
Hollywood movies and musicals. As someone on the spectrum, every time I leave my house
it warrants a performance, so to speak. So I try to make it fun, embodying whoever or
whatever I’m feeling at the moment. But so many things influence my aesthetic. Vintage is
obviously a huge interest of mine, not limited to any era or style. I prefer picking and
choosing individual garments that stand out to me and combining them into a look,
regardless of if they traditionally “go” together or if they are era appropriate. My aesthetic is largely influenced by art in general. Abstraction, Impressionism, romanticism, fauvism. Lots of art. It all works its way into my aesthetic in one way or another. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever made a mood board (unless a curated tumblr feed counts?) so I may have to actually sit down and do that one of these days.
"I’d have to describe my aesthetic as theatrical, if anything. I like to meld theatrics and performance into everything I do. I pull a lot of inspiration from old Hollywood movies and musicals. As someone on the spectrum, every time I leave my house it warrants a performance, so to speak. So I try to make it fun, embodying whoever or whatever I’m feeling at the moment."
If you could choose two vintage hats that you think describe your personality best, which would you choose and why do they represent you well?
I’m thinking of two specific hats in my collection that suit my personality. The first is a large black 1940s straw hat with black velvet that weaves around the crown and through to the underside of the brim. It has an unusual shape, not entirely round and kind of dips in at the back. It’s classic, but has a few unexpected twists, which I think suits me well. The second would have to be one of my vintage fur hats. They speak to my practical side, I can’t live through Canadian winters without them!
Your Instagram has a floral theme, and I was wondering what the significance was for you. At the risk of sounding like a Buzzfeed quiz, if you were a flower which would you be? Is the one you would be different from the one you would want to be?
Like the quote from Fosse’s All That Jazz, “Now, when I see a rose, that’s perfect. I mean, that’s perfect. I want to look up to God and say, 'How the hell did you do that? And why the hell can’t I do that?'” Flowers are endlessly fascinating to me, truly one of nature’s marvels.
I’ve been really interested in floriography, the language of flowers, for some time now as well so I’ve been working that into my photography. Honestly, I have no clue what flower I would be! I did the Buzzfeed quiz and it told me I was a peony. I think if I would want to be any flower, it would be lilacs. They are only in bloom for a short period of time in the spring but they are glorious when they are. My favourite flower, hands down.
“Now, when I see a rose, that’s perfect. I mean, that’s perfect. I want to look up to God and say, 'How the hell did you do that? And why the hell can’t I do that?”'
All That Jazz
Now shifting more to your work, I know you have a past in dance. In dance, there is a play on space, time, force, and shape as certain movements evoke specific feelings and atmospheres. How does movement inform your still-portraits? Is there a particular portrait that you think best shows this?
The act of posing is constant experimental movement. Like in dance, the slightest variation in movement can change the entire mood of the work, even if it’s something as small as a change of eye focus, the tilt of a head or the placement of a hand or foot. Thank goodness for continuous shooting to capture those split seconds! I think some of my favourite pictures that capture movement are my “inhale/exhale” series I did a few weeks ago. Not only were those capturing my movement but also the fabric that was moving with me. Even when I’m not shooting rapid editorial style and trying to get a specific statuesque pose, movement still informs those portraits. In classical ballet training, we learn that our bodies are always engaged. When holding a “still” pose, you are using your core, your muscles. You are still breathing. Everything is always working, engaging and moving all of the time.
Inhale/ Exhale by Hanna Sofia
Image Credit: @hannnasofiaa on Instagram
Something that I am always aware of as I draw portraits is the fact that with more experience comes a significant level of improvement which I can occasionally skew into this really negative mindset that all of my past work isn’t good when
improvement is so visible. Do you ever feel this way?
Oh wow, is that ever relatable! I think that self criticism is inevitable in the arts. It is impossible to drive any practice, creative or otherwise, forward without critique. It is, however, pretty easy to hyper fixate on the negative. I went through a period where I archived all my old work on Instagram because I couldn’t stand looking at it. It felt
amateurish or unprofessional. I eventually got to a point where I accepted it for what it was, I was learning. I didn’t have the tools or resources to create what I wanted even though the ideas were there. And honestly, it wasn’t all terrible! I guess that’s what it boils down to, we are all constantly learning and growing and that isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Like anything else in nature, growth is visible.
Self-portrait photography requires so much more than just photography- you need to be a makeup artist, a stylist, a set builder, and creative director amongst many other things. I know you have costumed productions and I believe worked as a makeup artist as well. What do you find comes most naturally to you, and what have you had the most difficulty with?
I think it all comes to me naturally to some degree. When it comes to everything I do, I’m pretty well entirely self taught. I’ve never taken a photography class, a makeup workshop or had a sewing lesson; I more or less just jump into whatever I’m doing and learn (or improvise) along the way. I think that styling and the creative direction are the easiest things for me because it’s something that is always in practice. I style myself every day when I leave the house, after all! The biggest learning curve for me was probably teaching myself to use a camera. I mentioned before that when I started shooting self portraits it was with an iPhone and a self timer. More or less point and shoot, and the quality of the shots depended on external factors like lighting and set. With a camera, I was now working with shutter speed, aperture etc. on top of lighting and everything else.
"Like anything else in nature, growth is visible."
A famous quote says, “Self portraits are a way of revealing something about oneself.” What do you think your self portraits reveal about you? Is there one in particular that has revealed the most?
I think each of my self portraits reveals something different about me. I have struggled a while with self identity, and I spent a good amount of my youth and teenage years trying desperately to conform or to blend in. I started breaking away from that mindset when I started taking self portraits. In taking these pictures, I visualize both who I am and who I want to be. It’s really empowering. I think a lot of people have this preconceived notion that self portraiture is inherently narcissistic. Self portraiture is an art. It’s a study of the self and identity while playing with elements present in every other art form: Movement, light, composition, colour and form. It is not a study of narcissism or vanity, but rather a personal deconstruction of those through a feminist perspective. In taking my own photos, I’m in control of my image. If anything, I hope my portraits reveal my confidence to be myself.
"In taking these pictures, I visualize both who I am and who I want to be. It’s really empowering. I think a lot of people have this preconceived notion that self portraiture is inherently narcissistic. Self portraiture is an art. It’s a study of the self and identity while playing with elements present in every other art form: Movement, light, composition, colour and form. It is not a study of narcissism or vanity, but rather a personal deconstruction of those through a feminist perspective. In taking my own photos, I’m in control of my image. If anything, I hope my portraits reveal my confidence to be myself."
Many artists pull from their surroundings. How would you describe your corner of the world, and what are some of your greatest desires in it?
My little corner of the world in a broad sense is the arts community, and on a smaller scale, the lovely community I’ve built of artists, vintage lovers, hat enthusiasts and everyone who can relate to or appreciate my work in some way. It’s still surreal to have my work reach so many people; it’s an honour. My day job is in a public art gallery in my hometown of Sault Ste. Marie Ontario, so not only do I get to foster a community online, but I also get to interact with the really wonderful art lovers and artists who come to the gallery every day. That’s my little corner, and I love it. There’s nothing better than being surrounded by inspiring people, and in turn, providing inspiration. I guess in that sense I’ve already achieved my greatest desire, to be surrounded by inspiring people and to be immersed in art. Life can be pretty amazing sometimes!
If you could bottle three scents, what would they be and what do they remind you of?
I already touched on this earlier but the smell of a warm spring day when the lilacs are blooming. Lilacs are a nostalgic thing for me, I used to go out for walks at 2 am with a pocket knife and cut them off of bushes in my neighborhood. Capturing that late night spring smell would be heaven.
The smell of the sauna. Warm cedar and eucalyptus. That will always remind me of the house I grew up in.
The smell of my grandparent’s house. That speaks for itself, I suppose. It’s the coziest place in the world and walking through the front door looks, feels and smells like a warm embrace.
Do you have a favorite piece of advice you’ve ever been told or favorite saying?
“Borta bra men hemma bäst."
Away is good, but home is best.
I love Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata as
words to live by. My mom was given a card with the poem on the front of it by her aunt when she was young, she in turn gave it to me when I was really struggling with my mental health and substance abuse as a teenager. That poem really got me through a lot, and keeps me grounded. The last few lines in particular;
“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be. And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.”