The mystery and magical tendencies of metamorphosis have inspired countless artists across all genres for centuries, from literature to sculpture and, of course, photography. In nature, metamorphosis is best symbolized by the life cycle of the butterfly. Though born a caterpillar, the animal undergoes a formidable process of transformation until it evolves into a captivating creature with the ability to fly, despite its initial sluggish and landlocked existence.
For photographer Yorgos Yatromanolakis, the concept of metamorphosis represents a personal evolution, paralleling his own life changes during a period of intense darkness. After the 2008 Greek riots, the photographer found himself in a state of existential confusion, and turned to photography to visualize those emotions, helping him emerge from his own emotional chrysalis. The resulting images make up his body of work The Splitting of the Chrysalis and the Slow Unfolding of the Wings, a direct reference to the life cycle of the butterfly.
In this interview, Yatromanolakis talks to LensCulture about the inspiration behind his work, his use of lighting and shadowy color schemes, the importance of art in healing, and the parallels between photography and poetry.
LensCulture: Was there something in particular that prompted you to start using photography as an artistic medium?
Yorgos Yatromanolakis: In December 2008, an unprecedented social upheaval broke out in my country, consuming all of Greek society and challenging every facet of the established social and political systems. While I was swept up and taking part in those events, I quickly understood their historical significance and began taking photographs. I had the feeling that through the debris of the old system, a new world was emerging, and I wanted to make works about these periods in time. So I started making books about different periods of my life. I feel like all the publications I am making are just chapters from the same book.
LC: How did you come up with the idea for The Splitting of the Chrysalis specifically?
YY: The idea for this project came to me gradually, At the time, I was not very optimistic about the way my life was evolving – I was passing through a dark phase. This period coincided with my obligatory service in the Greek army, which I felt was obliterating my personality and identity. Responding to my yearning for inner peace, I sought refuge by wandering in nature. By using photography during these walks, I was able to subconsciously – almost psychoanalytically – articulate my feelings through visual images. This entire process had a healing effect on me, so that I was able to connect with myself again.
LC: And how does the title for this work relate to that notion? It’s immediately compelling and very poetic.
YY: The title is inspired by the life cycle of the butterfly. In particular, it focuses on that crucial moment when an insect inhales air through the first crack in their cocoon, swelling its body and crushing the chrysalis that surrounds it. Then, it unfolds its damp wings, and slowly expands into a new being headed towards freedom. The life of the butterfly, from its moment at birth as a caterpillar to a complete transformation, is so mysterious and poetic. It’s no accident that it is associated with dozens of myths and stories that touch on the archetypal symbolism of regeneration and reincarnation, including my own.
LC: In addition to this symbolism in the title, you also integrate many other theories of metamorphosis into the work. What kind of research did you do to integrate these concepts?
YY: This photography project began instinctively, and I think the idea of metamorphosis was born through observation and my identification with nature. But there were many mysterious elements in my work which, to a certain extent, I felt the need to ponder. It wasn’t really about placing my work in a reasonable context; it was more about better understanding who I am, and how I am developing within the work. After some time, and after the body of the project started taking shape, I started researching various fields – biology, mythology, analytical psychology and anthropology – which further helped me throughout the editing process.
LC: The images in this project are immediately striking because of their dark color schemes. There is a heavy reference to night time with navy blues, deep purples and greys. Tell me about your decision to focus on these colors and what they represent for you.
YY: Most of the photographs were taken in liminal light, which shines between night and day. During these hours, the constant change in the intensity of light creates a unique atmosphere that is almost hallucinatory, where everything seems to be in a state of transformation. The darkness, together with the shades of dawn, made me think about the interior of a chrysalis – an enclosed space where everything is fluid, under development, progressing through the transformation process.
LC: These photographs are also interesting because they cover a range of subject matter, and some often look like illustrations until closer inspection. What goes into creating these atypical images, and why was this an important part of your process?
YY: While shooting, I experimented a lot with the use of artificial lighting and long exposure techniques. The use of flash was both unpredictable and revealing to me. Each time I took a photograph in the dark, I felt like I was opening a bright fissure to an alternative and mysterious world that is impossible to see with the naked eye. I like to experiment with different cameras, lenses, shooting and processing methods. The resulting heterogeneous photographic material is ideal for building the stimulating narrative I want to achieve. It’s just like a musician who uses different musical instruments to produce and deliver different sounds to be brought together in a larger musical composition.
LC: In the book of this work, text also plays an important role in its presentation in addition to the images. There’s this relationship between the poeticism in your photographs and the poeticism in the text. Can you tell me a bit about this relationship and why it’s important to you?
YY: A photograph is a very small piece of fragmented reality that has the capacity to conjure up a subjective truth, sense or state, while simultaneously giving rise to ambiguity and multiple readings, making space for alternative interpretations. This means that poetry, not prose, is the textual genre closest to photography. When my book was completed, I was concerned with whether or not to include detailed, descriptive text. I finally thought that the ideal solution would be to include a small poetic text at the end of the book as an extension of the work, composed of fragmentary thoughts in the form of notes that relate to the experience of my own internal transformation.
LC: That makes the experience of this work as a book quite different from experiencing it in an exhibition setting. Tell me about creating those two different experiences with this work, and why it’s important for you.
YY: An exhibition and a book are indeed two separate experiences, but both require time and dedication. I am equally interested in the presentation of this work as an exhibition, and am now searching for ideas and material to fulfil that goal. The reason I love to work in the book format is, from the perspective of both the creator and the reader, the relationship that develops with the book as an object is often more personal and intimate. What I consider to be special about books is that they have an unknown and unpredictable life cycle. I like to imagine them as capsules that have the ability to travel in space and time, waiting to be discovered, forgotten or re-evaluated with new meanings from their recipients.
LC: And within that relationship and experience, what do you hope viewers take away from this work?
YY: I believe that every artistic work, once communicated, ceases to solely emit the intentions and thoughts of its creator. The viewers of a project, through their diversity, their own sensibilities, and their own senses and memories that are evoked by the work, create their own impressions and interpretations. It fascinates me to think that when a viewer stands in front of my photographs, they assemble different thoughts, constructing an independent narrative in their mind.