An interview with Photograd Open 2018 exhibiting photographer Natalia Poniatowska

Photography students at London Metropolitan University supported in the curation of our very first open exhibition and also selected a number of exhibiting photographers to interview about their work.

Here we have an interview with Natalia Poniatowska.


 From the series  Moments I Never Showed You

From the series Moments I Never Showed You

How would you describe your project and the relationship to the title Moments I Never Showed You? For many years of being a natural picture maker and taking photographs of whatever caught my attention, I’ve noticed that people became a part of the landscape I create. Observing, sitting, relaxing. The images place the figure in surroundings that complement simultaneously two conditions – being and looking. This project focuses on my observations but also raises wider questions about photography as a medium and the act of observation itself. It is an attempt to look at my practice and question my selection of images in which unexpected connections and conversations can occur between images.

The body of work includes an animated scan of 35mm black and white negative. As some images remind me of either smell, sound or movement, I wanted to bring this photograph back to life by moving selected still elements. This project has been shot in several countries, mostly outdoors and shows places I don’t belong to and people I have never got to meet, and as such, it is a departure from previous work that had nostalgia, homesickness and concept of belonging at its heart. This project accepts personal and visual encounters that speak of a connection that is grounded in photographic composition and as such are a pause in the flow of time: fleeting. These images propose questions and allow me to evoke the conditions that occurred during the moment of taking the picture again.

Selecting a title for a project and the book was a real challenge as the project hasn’t started with the idea or research but with a selection of already taken photographs. The research came after. With a title, I could easily add any narrative, but I decided to call it directly of what it really is – Moments I Never Showed You, as it’s a selection of photographs never shown before that didn’t belong to any project or didn’t work as strong as a single image. I like that the title made the book/project more personal and direct to the viewer. My tutors were not really happy with it, but for me, it works because of its simplicity. I was happy when I could throw away an A4 page full of title ideas that were overthinking the subject and I used words of whom I had to google the meaning of. This title is more “me” than what I was trying to achieve with other titles for the project.

What was the inspiration for the project? I don’t know if that’s an inspiration but maybe more like a regret about all single photographs that I’ve taken in the past 6 years that were never included in other projects. I started my selection for the book and exhibition with more than 2000 digital and film photographs. When working on the selection, book layout and exhibition I read a lot about photography and observation. I came back to books like About Looking and Ways of Seeing by John Berger and On Photography by Susan Sontag. I think the main inspiration was my interest in photography itself. In capturing the moment. In December 2017, I attended Joel Meyerowitz’s talk in C/O in Berlin for the opening of his exhibition “Why Colour”. I asked him for the advice for young photographers and he replied with something like: “If you are passionate about it, you’ll be fine.”

While making the project I had a few moments of doubting in photography. I’ve seen many exhibitions where I didn’t feel anything, that didn’t provoke any thoughts or didn’t give me any aesthetic inspirations. That made me wonder – are my works giving some emotions to others? I meet Thomas Joshua Cooper, founder of the photography department at the Glasgow School of Art, when he was leaving his studio and told him about my feelings towards the subject. He replied with a smile: “You need to trust your work”. And for a while, I didn’t understand what trusting the art means, but now I know this feeling and I know it really helps.

I also believe that all those chats, books I read, exhibitions I visited, movies I watched, music I listen to and everything I’ve seen was the inspiration for Moments I Never Showed You.

How has the course at The Glasgow School of Art shaped your practice? It’s been a great 4 years that closed my long journey in photography education – I first started attending photography classes when I was 13 in the youth centre in my hometown – Bytom, Poland. Studying in Glasgow was a great fun and also hard work. I made friends for life and I fell in love with the city. Fine Art Photography course was very individual. If you wanted to take all the best out of it, you could but you could also just spend those 4 years taking photos at the parties and printing on any paper and putting up on the wall with pins. You could do everything without really questioning it but then when degree show comes you can easily fail with all the stress. I was thinking about every step I made and I know I used these 4 years in the best way, not worrying about the degree show.

Having access to such a great facility and my own studio is definitely something I miss since June. I also miss tutorials and crits, ability to talk about the project and also to speak about other’s work. This summer for the first time ever I sent my films to the lab and when I got them, I knew it’s the process I miss the most. If the process of developing and scanning myself is taken away, I could just stick to the digital. I like to have the control and the feeling that I made it since the moment when I put the film in the camera until I printed it.

Who is your main photographic inspiration? I would like to reply saying life is the main inspiration – everything what’s happening around. Every single moment. But if it’s about names of artists, I would name a few that I’m currently spending lots of time looking at their works: Mark Power’s book The Sound of Two Songs, Wojtek Wieteska, Harry Culy, Tacita Dean and Theresa Moerman Ib.

What do you want to achieve and say with your photographs? I think my artist statement describes it the best:

“It is enough that I come from a country that lies east of the west and west of the east” - Sławomir Mrożek.

I am an observer. Through digital and analogue photography, still and moving images, I explore the potential ground that exists between fine art and documentary photography. Drawing inspiration from various conditions of the reality around me, from the great interest in the modern, dynamic art scene but also from my personal experiences, I believe in the power of images to convey the emotions, truths and challenges of modern reality. Having spent the majority of my life away from my motherland, I often return to the theme of homesickness and belonging in my artwork.

My approach to picture making is to present ordinary, non-idealised, never staged reality. Such practice is the formulation of an interest in things as they are. By using only one lens which is the most similar to a human field of view, I am capturing the moments and non-moments that drag my attention. I am a sentimental and nostalgic artist and the camera is the best tool to anchor oneself to memories and emotions that are constantly fleeting.

My work starts with a strong interest in the moment, light or a situation. The process of looking begins before taking a photograph and continues afterwards. Selecting pictures, printing, making connections, framing or setting up an exhibition space, all of it seems connected to the way of seeing. I immerse myself in the medium fully and utterly.

What camera and lens did you use? This is the most common question I get on Instagram and the most annoying one in commercial photography world. “Photos are amazing, you must have a great camera”. Sometimes I say what camera I used, sometimes I say it’s about my sight, not a camera. I’m completely not interested in the technical aspect of photography. I can’t help when friends asked me what camera they should buy as I simply have no idea what’s on the market or what lens would be the best for their needs. I use Nikon F3 and Nikon D800. The digital one for commercial, colour and moving image work, a film for black and white. I mix the film and digital photographs when it comes to exhibitions or books and I usually carry two cameras with me. There’s something in black and white digital photographs that I am not a big fan of and there’s something in a black and white film that I really love. I only use one lens - 50mm 1.8, as it’s the most similar to what we see with our eyes. And the reality is what I like in photography. Presenting reality but in such way that we don’t notice it every day.

What are your future career plans? I’m currently exhibiting work in the Scottish Portrait Awards. In March, I’m showing my work at the New Contemporaries exhibition in the Royal Scottish Academy, for which I’m super excited. This summer after graduation was busy – I started working on two projects – I travelled with my grandma to Ukraine where she was born and has not been back since childhood when her family had to leave due to the war. I know I need more time and conversations with my grandma to finish this project. I would like to go back there during winter. The second work was my residency to Iceland organised by WeTransfer and The Jaunt. I can’t wait to print this work and just put it up on the studio wall. I’m sharing some of it on my Instagram.

I’m supporting myself by working as a wedding and commercial photographer, but ideally, I would love to work for a photography gallery. Well, of course, I would love to be just an artist and pay rent from selling my works, but we all know how it is. There’s a huge gap between emerging artists and established artists who can hire hundreds of assistants. I just wish these two worlds, especially in contemporary photography, could somehow connect and there would be more paid opportunities for graduates. I’m sick of hearing about unpaid interns or even internships that artists have to pay for. Or paid entries for open calls (for example Fotofilmic $50 entry fee). And as I know from the experience there are young artists whose parents would pay for it all. They have a way easier career start. I’m sorry for speaking about money so much when the question is about my plans, but I get a feeling that this subject is neglected, especially in the art schools. We are not told how to make living. And then there’s also this look – how can you be an artist when you shoot birthday parties and use a camera in a commercial way? I disagree and I presented my disagreement with a project called Celebration where all photographs come from events I worked at.   So… coming back to my future plans – I know that photography is what I love and I’m super passionate about. If in the future I can survive as an artist, that’s amazing. But I also would like to do something for contemporary photography – either working in a gallery or teaching. And commercial photography? I also enjoy it. Client satisfaction and some good words about my photographs make me really happy. And weddings are fun!