Monday, August 26, 2013

Agnieszka Sosnowska


This month we are exhibiting the work of Agnieszka Sosnowska in conjunction with our current show, Alter Ego. We were first introduced to Sosnowska’s work when she showed in our exhibition, Both Sides of the Lens: Self-portraiture in 2012. We fell in love with her extradinary photographs and currated Realities, a solo exhibition. Writing from Iceland, her country of residence, Sosnowska shares some insight into her work and process.

Your self-portrait work spans decades and has a timeless quality to it. How has the series evolved over such a long period of time?

I began this series as a student in Laura Mcphee's class at Massachusetts College of Art in 1990. I've physically and emotionally matured in these self portraits. I started to do the self portraits when I was 19 years old, straight out of highschool. I was a kid. I am now 42 years old and am still taking them. You could say that they have grown from these very romantic vignettes to more mature stories of becoming a woman.
Years ago it was difficult for me to even include my face in an image. Now I don't have any problem removing all of my clothes for an image. I've become more accepting of my surroundings and comfortable as a woman in front of the camera. 

I have tried this series in color with some success but always return to keeping them  black and white. Since moving to Iceland, it's a lot faster to see the results if I  keep the images black and white. I do all of the processing and printing in my own darkroom. When I use color I have to send the film to the states to get processed and printed. That can take months!  I am too impatient and cannot wait to see if I got it! 

Self-portrait, Landsendi, Iceland, 2012

Describe your process for this work. How much pre-planning is involved, and what are the steps from the initial idea to the printing? 

As to the process, When I arrive at a picture I often have the “where” decided. It's the “if” that's not decided. What if I stood here, what if I looked this way, what if I held this... Am I believable in the moment? Because no matter how staged or surreal the image is I need the viewer to walk away believing this could actually happen. 

I would compare this process to that of a writer or an actor. I arrive to a place and the story is already written for me in the selection of the place. What  can I deliver to this place to finish the sentence? Often the clothing I wear and the objects  I choose to accompany me in the picture help complete these sentences. I find the most successful images are the ones in which I really listen to what the place that I've selected to photograph in is telling me. 

As to the printing, I have to order all of my film, paper, and most of my chemistry from the states and have it shipped to our farm in East Iceland. I live in an pretty rural part of Iceland. My husband built me both a darkroom and a studio where I print, store, matt and edit my work. I am a very lucky woman to call this man my friend.

Often the biggest obstacles I run into are from nature. Two years ago, the summer was unusually dry in Iceland. The water source on our land dried up. My husband had to find and construct a new water source on our land. No water meant no pictures for many months. That was tough! 

Also I have a small walk from our house to the barn where I have my darkroom . During winter months, when there's often allot of snow and wind and it's tough just to physically do the walk to and from. But seeing the northern lights on clear nights kind of makes you forget about all those obstacles pretty quickly.

Humpback Whale, Heradsandur, Iceland, 2012

Originally from Poland, you now reside in Iceland. How has this transition influenced your work? 

Well that varies allot depending on where I am taking the self portraits. I just got back from a visit to Poland this week and of course was taking self portraits there. I noticed that those images are often deeply influenced by the past. My family's personal history, stories of the war, family members childhood stories and so on. So in a sense Poland is place where I find myself recreating the past.

In Iceland I find myself reacting to the present. The environment in Iceland dictates whether or not I can take a picture any given day and I listen. Living in place where volcanic eruptions and earthquakes are pretty much commonplace puts a whole new perspective on planning. Limited amounts of daylight for a good 6 months of the year, extreme wind, hazardous winter driving conditions are common here and influence my planning as an artist. I don't think I have ever been in more awe or humbled by nature since living in Iceland.

Culturally, women in Iceland have attained a high degree of gender equality and are incredibly supportive of one another, especially in the workplace.  As a result I see that I've started to embody strong female characters in my images since calling Iceland my home.

Breaking Piles, Heradsskogar, Iceland, 2012

Using a large format camera for self-portraiture is challenging. What made you choose this format? 

As a student at Mass Art I had to take a required view camera class with Nick Nixon. I remember feeling embarrassed by the view camera when I went out in public to use it by how much attention it got. People stop, stare, and ask questions. But I was quickly won over by the amount of detail I could get with a view camera. Seeing the beauty that a contact print delivers delivers was mesmerizing.

Strangely enough I find using a view camera pretty easy. I have been doing it for so long that I don't know anything else. My camera often feels like a third arm. The camera I use is  a 4 X 5 Graflex bed camera. It's small, light and can take a beating. It's designed like a Russian tank. I can hike with it, drop it, set it up in a river and not worry too much if it falls over. I have been using it since 1990 and have not used anything else. I think if I went digital I would worry too much about breaking some very expensive equipment because I tend to be a bit rough when I take pictures.

The only thing I really despise about large format is the tripod. I find tripods cumbersome and getting in way of when I am trying to set up a picture. Sometimes I use a self timer that gives me 30 seconds to get in the frame. Sometimes I rely on my husband or friends to accompany me for shoots. I'll set up the framing, have someone stand where I will stand, so that it's easier to focus. If I have to spend more time getting in the picture I will tell someone when to trip the shutter for me.

Self-portrait, Boston, Massachusetts, 1997

You were awarded a Fulbright grant, which allowed you to create a documentary project on folk artisans in Poland. How has your documentary work influenced your self-portraits and visa versa.

When I moved to Iceland I needed to take a break from the self portraits because I just didn't have anything else to say. I was driving home from work one day looking at all of the waterfalls, moss, mountains and could not come up with any ideas as to where my place was in all of this. 

So I took the pressure away from myself and stepped away from the self portraits for some time. I felt I had nothing else to say. So I challenged myself by photographing what I see everyday, which are my students. For the past five years I have been documenting the students at Bruarassk√≥li, it's a small school comprised of about 40 students. It feels more like a large family rather than a school. Many of the students reside on farms, so I'm able to visit them at home to take pictures as well. 

I enjoy the collaborative process of working in documentary, especially with young people. The ways kids express themselves through gestures and facial expressions is so genuine. I find that their honesty and spontaneity has greatly influenced my return and growth with the self portraits in the past few years.  

Also working with kids has made me a faster photographer. When using a view camera with young people you have to work fast otherwise you can tire them out of kill the moment pretty quickly.


For Rodin, Kleppjarnsstadir, Iceland

Finally, we ask this of all of our artists, what does success in art mean to you?

Doing something that I truly love is a success. I cannot imagine my life without photography. I never get tired of looking for a story. It still feels like I'm opening a very important present when I turn on the lights in my darkroom and flip through the sheets of film in the tray of fixer. Often it's the images that I expect the least from that are the portfolio pieces. 

Realities in on view at The Kiernan Gallery through August 31.

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