Kurt Iswarienko: A Portrait of the World 


“In each verse, a decision awaits us, and we can't choose to close our eyes and let instinct work on its own. Poetic instinct consists of an alert tension.” -- Octavio Paz

Poets, painters, and photographers have explored liminal and literal resonances between the human figure and the phenomenological landscape for, well, pretty much this entire time. From limbs that extend from both bodies and trees, to the faces that appear in clouds, the emotional tension of the sea and weather, the psyche of the passing seasons, the ambitions of our cities, and the dreams of our homes, there is a lot to explore in those connections. As a formal matter, the play of color, light, shadow, and space is an ambient dynamism that encompasses the entirety. For photographer Kurt Iswarienko, it is all of the above.

Over a decades-long career as a sought-after editorial and celebrity portrait photographer, Iswarienko has worked across idioms and interpretations, characters and narratives, continents and campaigns. Along the continuum of his commercial practice, his style has emerged as one of nuance and subtlety, layering, and the elevation of telling detail. While a client expects perfection and he delivers it to them, for Iswarienko, there has always been, all along, a parallel practice that has been entirely his own -- one more about expression, eccentricity, and a special strangeness that lives, not in the portrait studio, but in the unpopulated landscape.

Iswarienko loves a mood. The mottled slate grey of set or salty ocean, the arabesque of clouds, the way light finds a path through shapes, reflects and refracts until it makes itself felt, and the intimate gradient choreography of blue and blood orange through which nature loves to dance. Sometimes city facades are more like fantasy abstractions than architecture; just as sometimes people seem to arrive as characters from a deeper dimension. It’s not that his work is surreal, it’s that as an artist his eye is for the lovely wonderful flourishes of what is, insistently, simply, miraculously, already real.

When it comes to the landscapes, there is a certain performative quality to the making; it’s easy to imagine the travels and adventures that yield his vistas. In fact much of what he does for his editorial projects does involve both extensive travel and constant location scouting, collecting ideas for the projects. “My process is centered in a deep dive,” he says, “and you capture things along the way.” In this fashion, the art seeps into the shoots, the occasions seep into the art, the weather is a protagonist in the theater, and it all comes straight from life. “There’s some kind of magic out there,” he says. “You just need to pay attention.”

And to be clear, while global destinations certainly give off sparks of creativity, Los Angeles is what he calls “a breeding ground of happenstance,” the kind of place where anything is always possible around every corner. From the glistening coast to the classic starkness of the desert, the craggy majesty of a mountain range, the cheeky wave of a palm frond, and the boxy elegance of ubiquitous modernism, there’s plenty to see here. Someone once told the artist as a young man, “You should see people the way you see landscapes,” and he listened. Now in a process of innovation and rediscovery, Iswarienko surveys those landscapes with a fresh eye, and a new context in which to traverse them.