Natalia was 13 when she first picked up a camera. A friend from primary school had talked her into trying a regular photography class at a local youth centre (in Bytom, Poland) – the friend stayed two weeks, Natalia for five years. The course focused on film photography, so she dug out an old Zenith 12xp from her grandparent’s basement and taught herself how to use it. “The smell of a darkroom, the first artistic community I belonged to, capturing moments – I don’t know exactly what it was that I fell in love with, and even though it all started 12 years ago, I’m still just as passionate about photography,” Natalia tells us.
“I am an observer”, offers Natalia, “I believe in the power of images to convey the emotions, truths and challenges of modern reality. My approach to picture making is to present ordinary, non-idealised, never staged reality.” The resulting work, grounded in an authentic interest in “things as they are” and using only one lens, succeeds by elevating the seemingly banal to the sublime. Largely shot in black and white, her photographs occupy the space between fine art and documentary, and are nostalgic and sentimental, without ever seeming cliché or saccharine.
Despite drawing inspiration from almost everything, from “my observations and feelings towards probably everything I’ve ever seen, every exhibition I’ve attended, every book I’ve read, the conversations I’ve had”, she kept coming back to her feelings of homesickness for Poland, or so she thought. Returning to Glasgow from trips visiting family, she assumed the melancholic tug she felt to be a longing to go home, but as she processed the rolls of film she’d shot, she also processed her own emotions. “Photography definitely helped me to understand and capture my feelings” Natalia explains, “Now, I understand I’m not homesick for being in Poland or with my family, but I’m longing for my childhood, for careless days, living by moments, someone taking care of me, the safe bubble I felt when I was being a child and teenager in Poland.”
It’s Nice That: Why did you decide to study Photography at Glasgow School of Art?
Natalia Poniatowska: I couldn’t study photography in Poland as I wouldn’t be accepted to ASP, Polish Academy of Fine Arts (I can’t paint or draw and it’s a big part of the exams over there) and all other courses were connected to press photography. Maybe now there are some options, but usually, the courses cost a lot.
Straight after high school, I left Bytom with my boyfriend and worked as a full-time waitress in Birmingham. We spent a year working and thinking about what to do next. He found The Glasgow School of Art online, we did some research, especially about finances – EU students don’t pay tuition fees in Scotland, and I applied. I first did a black and white photography evening course to keep practising and preparing my portfolio, Przemek (my boyfriend) did the portfolio preparation course. We were extremely lucky to get into GSA the next year. I think it’s thanks to him I’m even answering this question now. He has been a great support and also a great helper when it came to installing and arranging my exhibitions (he graduated from interior design). And we’re getting married next year!
INT: Can you describe a project you’re most proud of and why?
NP: To support my studies (I never managed to get a student loan), I was working as a commercial photographer – shooting events, weddings, birthday parties, cake smashes (if you have never heard of it please google, it’s a very strange idea, and it never works as well as it looks on google pictures so imagine the mess).
I heard some people saying that an artist shouldn’t work as a commercial photographer because it’s going to influence the artwork. I disagree as I was super happy to work within my medium. Celebration is a project that came to life naturally or even surprisingly during my third-year of study at the Glasgow School of Art, when I was at my busiest with events. I had no time to make a project for a group exhibition. Instead, I thought I would search through my hard drive of commercial shots and try to find at least one good picture I could print for the show. When searching for that one photograph, I noticed something quite interesting. I was capturing moments that were not really about celebrating the events themselves. The function room corners, where no one was dancing became almost like empty theatre sets and the feeling that if I just slightly moved my camera I would capture a big group of people dancing or eating, was something that fascinated me about photography.
The ability to present the situation within one frame, with no sound, with no description of what’s happening next to it. Just one frame, for the viewer’s imagination, to make a story of the moment. I noticed it particularly while taking pictures of kids during these big events, like the photographs of a girl lying down next to the buffet – taken on her parent’s wedding renewal. These photographs were not showing kids having fun or dancing, but escaping into their own fantasy, being carefree, doing whatever they wanted to do.
INT: What was the best bit about your time at university? And the worst?
NP: The first Mackintosh building fire happened in May 2014, when I was doing the black and white photography course in GSA while preparing my folio to get into the school. The second fire happened this June, a few hours after our graduation ceremony when we were all out, celebrating. We came closer to watch in silence, with shaky legs caused by the sounds of the fire and collapsing structures. It was heart-breaking. It’s quite strange for a year group, being almost framed by the fires like this, but I loved the four years of having access to the studio, facilities, amazing technicians and helpful tutors.
I graduated with a first-class degree, but what’s more important, is the group of very close friends from all around the world I met while living in Glasgow. I wish there would be more about professional practice in the GSA to prepare us for the life after graduation, but as the course is very individual, I guess what we do now, depends only on us. I’m sure I want to stay in photography and keep showing my work as that’s what makes me really happy.
INT: Is there a particular person who has shaped your university experience or creative outlook?
NP: Thomas Joshua Cooper. He wasn’t my tutor but I always jumped on him while walking to my studio on those days when I had doubts about my project, or photography in general. He gave me a high-five and with a smile said “you should trust your work”, and this one sentence gave me more than hours of tutorials.
At first, I was quite sceptical, of course – “thanks for the advice, easy for you to say!” – but then I knew it was the case. A few times it was exactly what I needed, a bit more confidence and trust in my photographs that they can speak for themselves. I guess being surrounded by other students who have done amazing sculptures, installations or designed something useful or beautiful, sometimes I thought “I’m just taking pictures” and felt a bit down. Thomas helped me just with a few words. My first-year tutor Michael Mersinis also helped me a lot, but with many, many words and long conversations introducing me to the contemporary photography world. Both Thomas and Michael are amazing artists and very positive people with lots of passion to share.
INT: If you could create your dream project, what would it be?
NP: My dream project would be to travel with my grandma to Ukraine, where she was born but due to the war was forced to leave in just a few minutes with her family. They got the first train and ended up in Bytom, my hometown. As I have been working on the topics of belonging and homesickness, I’m really interested in how my grandma would recall her childhood memories or nostalgia for a place she barely remembers but comes from.
I would also love to do a road trip through Polish seaside towns, stopping in mall resorts developed during communist times. Holidays there are magical in a way, I don’t know what it is that I like so much about these places, so I believe photographing them would help me to find out. Looks like I’m still focused on the subjects of home, nostalgia and Poland… But also, my dream project is to never lose my passion for photography – to always carry my camera, and to always be able to observe moments.
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