Kyle Sven’s first solo photography exhibition is a provocative celebration of human existence in an unknown world.
When Hen’s Teeth Studio approached photographer Kyle Sven about doing his first solo exhibition, he jumped at the opportunity. This was what he had been waiting for – a chance to finally show his work to the world. “I went through all my work and looked at things that really excited me,” he reflects. “The idea of distortion was something I found interesting, so I started thinking about how I could make that into an idea.”
“Originally I thought I’d distort every image, perhaps using a blurring effect. But soon I realised there was so much more to the idea of an altered state. You can alter the state of the subject using fashion, using makeup. I started going deep into all these various techniques I could use to alter the state of the subject to make you see a perspective that you haven’t seen before.”
The resulting collection of images is a striking examination of both human and natural forms. With a warm colour palette made up of reds, oranges, and pinks set alongside dark, moodier shades, the series spans from powerful nude portraits to macro shots that veer into abstraction. The photos have a bold, graphic quality to them, which feels fitting knowing Sven’s background as a designer and art director.
Kyle tells me that the series evokes a “kind of dystopian mindset. I’m inspired by the end of the world, everything perishing.” He laughs. “It’s something I feel a lot of creatives are inspired by at the moment.” He’s not wrong. The shots have an ethereal quality, one which feels mysterious and otherworldly. Shots of plant life feel strange and haunting, as if they were found growing on another planet, while human subjects seem more like beautiful, intriguing nymphs.
His creative process, he tells me, begins with words. “I came up with the title first: Altered States. Then I wrote the manifesto. I find it helps to outline the concept: it instantly brings images to your mind.” After he had the manifesto, he came up with the shot list of 16 different images, as well as an accompanying mood board defining the colours, textures, and composition of the photos.
It’s clear to me that Kyle is not the type of creative who thrives off chaos. His process requires organisation, a sharp eye, and a keen sense of perfectionism to ensure his photographs are the best they can possibly be. And he’s not afraid to cut out work that no longer serves him – the collection ended up being 15 photos instead of 16, as he was concerned the final shot was veering more into an editorial space rather than a fine art one.
With a passion for oil painting, Kyle was drawn to art from a young age. However, he soon tells me a tale that will be familiar to any creative trying to pursue a career in the field. “Everyone put me off a creative career and said I wouldn’t make money off it. I got into graphic design instead and stopped making art. I don’t know if I went into a ten-year depression or something, but I just stopped.”
In 2017, two things happened. Kyle picked up a gold medal at Cannes Young Lions, one of the most prestigious competitions for young creatives in advertising and design. He also got diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a rare type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system.
“I did chemotherapy for six months, and during the second half I started painting again, this time in watercolours. I was obsessed. I was mainly painting flowers and nudes, which is funny, because it’s what most of my work revolves around now.” Kyle grew tired of using other people’s images as references for his art, instead wanting to create his own. He dug out one of the prizes he received from his award at Cannes – a camera from Getty. He quickly began experimenting with taking photos of his own.
His love for photography is palpable as he recounts his story. His eyes light up and glisten as he reflects on his first few shoots: “The minute I took my first photo of a naked man, I was like: this is so cool, this is amazing. I love it.” I can see that, for him, creativity was the anchor that kept him going through a time of sickness and fear.
The following year, 2019, Kyle set himself a goal to do a shoot every month. “I started organising mini photoshoots from my home. I dedicated all my time to it and sacrificed a lot: my social life, my money, everything.” Nevertheless, his drive to improve his craft only grew. In 2020, he upped it to two shoots a month, and now he dedicates as much time to photography as he possibly can.
“It’s been a really fast progression, and every time I see myself getting better and better. For the first time in my life I feel like I have a true purpose. I have a contribution, I have a voice, I have something to say, I have a perspective. It makes me feel a little emotional, actually, because it feels like a gift. It’s the most important thing in the world to me and the only reason to live.”
What comes next? Kyle tells me that his plans for future projects are endless. He tells me that he’s most excited by projects that allow him to be as conceptual as possible – in his words, to create “mind-blowing shit.” He sees the worlds of fashion, music and art all ripe for the taking, with opportunities to create exciting work.
“Capturing the real world doesn’t excite me,” he says. “I actually find the real world really heartbreaking and sad. So through my work I try to challenge myself to create worlds and parallel universes where we can disappear into a fantasy. Some of it might be sad, some of it might be scary, some of it might be shocking, but it’s still beautiful. It’s always beautiful.”
Words by Kerry Mahony
Altered States launches August 11 at Hen’s Teeth Studio with limited edition prints available worldwide at hensteethstore.com.
You can follow Kyle’s work at @_kylesven on Instagram and kylesven.com