To Emma Hartvig, photography is all about the art of seduction. Greatly inspired by cinema, she carefully stages her images, which not so much tell a story as hint at the bigger picture. They are like the opening paragraph of a book or film stills that make you want to watch the whole movie. Based in Berlin, the young Swedish photographer has won numerous international awards and her work has been widely published. 

Emma, where are you from in Sweden? Could you tell us a bit more about home?

I’m from the very south of Sweden, from by the sea. So, instead of dark forests, pine trees and mountains, which is the main nature in the country, I had the beach in walking distance from my house. And, looking back, the ocean, sand, salt water, seaweed and the sound of waves is what I think of when my hometown comes to mind. No surprise, I guess, since most of my work is captured in swimming pools and water.


You studied at the London School of Communication. What are the most important things it taught you?

To handle criticism. Take it as a positive energy. Transform it and push your work further. And that’s a hard thing to do. Apart from that, university didn’t really teach me anything. It was a place where I could explore my work and figure out what I loved doing most. I spent a lot of time in the library going through thousands of amazing photo books. In the end, when I graduated, I felt that I could finally be me and do my own thing.


Today you live and work in Paris and Berlin in many ways. Which one you prefer? 

London was my home for many years. I arrived there as a clueless teenager and somehow found myself there. London is great for that, because it shakes you and it is incredibly challenging. Paris is beautiful, and I love going there to work and get inspired. The whole city is a big museum. Berlin on the other hand, where I live most of the time, is a perfect place in comparison to the other two cities, as it is very down to earth. Very calm, very cheap, very green. I have a small child, so in the end, I need to have my everyday life as peaceful as possible considering traveling and working is a big adventure that happens often.


Your work is ‘picture perfect,’ yet always bears a hint of mystery. It does not so much tell a story but hints at a story. What is your drive in creating these images?

I suppose I’d like to say storytelling. Any sort of storytelling - whether it’s still life, portraiture or landscape. I want people to think. I don’t want to give away the whole story because I like the idea of seduction. It’s like film stills that make you want to see the whole movie. You want to know more.


In what sense is your work influenced by the world of advertisement?

Similar to what I mentioned earlier. Seduction and desire. In advertising it concerns consumerism. It’s all about telling a story, but not saying too much. Seduce the audience. Intrigue. 


Aesthetica Magazine said your photos “mimic a discordant sequence of film stills.” Does that mean there’s always some kind of movie in the head of Emma Hartvig? Are your photos but a prelude to a movie to come?

I’m often inspired by certain picture-perfect movie scenes that later becomes a starting point for a new photographic story. So I would say that I build my story based on one specific scene. For example, ‘Le ski’ was inspired by the ski chase scene in the 1969 James Bond movie ‘On Her Majesty's Secret Service’. 

Any sort of storytelling - whether it’s still life, portraiture or landscape. I want people to think. I don’t want to give away the whole story because I like the idea of seduction. It’s like film stills that make you want to see the whole movie. You want to know more.

What are some of your favorite movies as a child and as a grown-up?

I really can’t mention a favorite movie as I have too many. As a child, I loved Tati movies. They were often shown at home. Ingmar Bergman and Roy Anderson, of course, are a huge part of Swedish cinema and they are both geniuses. Later on I started to dig into film history, and discovered all the greats:  Hitchcock, Lynch, Godard, Rohmer, Wenders, Kieslowski, Allen. The list goes on. And is very long!  


You once said you never ‘take’ or ‘register’ an image. You make, create, build an image. Could you tell you bit more about that? Does that start with pen and paper? A dream perhaps? Something you saw or read?

Usually it starts with some notes on paper or in my phone. It can be anything:  something I’ve seen, heard, read, listened to, felt. I then always do a huge amount of research to get deeper into my story. It’s a wonderful process, getting inspired. I could do that for months. Really connect with the ideas and stories. I then sketch, make story boards and finally figure out the logistics of the shoot. 


Is an image made on set or later in your studio?

Both. I do my own set design and art direction. I am geeky when it comes to studio light. I like building and setting up things. Later, I retouch a lot. And I do the edit of a series. I guess the final story comes to life in the very end when I decide on which images work well together. 


What other artists do you consider a major influence?

I’d say William Eggleston, Cindy Sherman, Guy Bourdin and Helmut Newton for their beautiful, cinematic and intriguing work. I never get bored looking at these photographs as it feels like I’m watching my favorite movie. I always find something new. I also count Annie Leibovitz and Deborah Turbeville as huge role models. I had the chance to meet both and talk to them in person. Deborah gave me many of the most important guidelines of my career - the main advice being to never lose track of what you love to do, to not do what the world wants you to do or what you think you should do to in order to become more desired.


Where can we see your work this year?

I just signed with my French agent, Florence Moll, so together we will create a few new beautiful pieces that will show up at some point later this year.


Quite a few images in your body of work feature snow, skis and mountains. Are they a hint of home?

Well, my husband is from the Austrian alps. So, yes, of course, as that is my second home.


And, finally, what is home really?

As cliché as it may sound, wherever my husband and son are - and we are constantly traveling around this beautiful globe.

PhotographyEli Rezkallah