The Lyrical Subject
Kuba Dąbrowski talks to Joanna Kinowska
All Images are presented are part of “Film obyczajowy produkcji polskiej” Exhibition / Zachęta Warsaw Gallery / Images © 2013 Kuba Dabrowski / Courtesy of the artist
Joanna Kinowska: The basic question — are you a photographer?
Kuba Dąbrowski: I work as a professional photographer. I pay taxes as a photographer, have a degree in photography, and use professional equipment. So from this point of view, I am a photographer. And as far as my artistic practice is concerned, I prefer to think of myself as ‘someone who takes pictures’ rather than a photographer. On the one hand, I earn my living from photography, but on the other hand, I do my own thing and the two don’t necessarily overlap. I’m a different person for different people: an advertising agency executive perceives me differently than a magazine photo editor, and the photo editor differently than a photography curator or historian. Each of them needs me for different purposes, and the different people or communities are often actually unaware of the other spheres of my work. As for ‘my own work’, I usually put it like this: you can play the guitar, you can write poems, and you can take pictures — the basic point is to manifest your sensitivity and share a story, not to create attractive images. I like to think that the pictures I take are not made for photography buffs but for people who share my kind of sensitivity.
There is usually a division — significant for our times — between what one does for money and what one does for oneself. Looking at your work, I have a sense that the spheres overlap. It may be a commercial job but it’s still your own thing...
I’m not sure this is really so. When I do my own thing, I leave myself a space for failure. In a way, this is an experiment, which involves risk. It’s possible that something will simply go wrong. With commercial jobs, there’s no room for failure — I capitalise on what I’ve practiced before. But from the aesthetic point of view, it’s true that most things I do hold together. At least I hope so.
I like photographers where the line between their professional and private photos is blurry and it’s clear in hindsight that they did ‘their own thing’ throughout the time. The most obvious example is Richard Avedon, who created an aesthetic idiom which he applied to everything he did. He was a fashion photographer, a portraitist, a documentary photographer and so on. He took the same approach whether portraying the Beatles, President Kennedy or anonymous workers in the American West, as a result of which, years later, the pictures form a cohesive narrative about a specific era, far more exhaustive than the narratives created by most classic documentary photographers. A Polish example is Tadeusz Rolke, who with his Rolleiflex captured Moda Polska models and his nude girlfriend, his chums on a scooter as well as major political events. From the perspective of time, these themes connect, become imbued with nostalgia, and alternate, interlace, beautifully.
The current Zachęta exhibition features commercial photographs too. Work is great because — apart from earning my living — it gives me access to situations and people I wouldn’t otherwise meet: Papcio Chmiel [cartoonist, born 1923], Komety [rock band], Sokół [rap artist]. It sometimes happens so that the photo that is more ‘mine’ is not fit for publication but I still don’t disown it. I feel a documentalist first and foremost. I believe that my fashion photographs, portraits of stars, photo-essays from Afghanistan, the pictures of Monika and our son Józek, and the simple everyday street pics will with time arrange themselves into a single whole. A document about the here and now. And that half a century from now someone of a similar mental construction will take pleasure in that.
Your photographs, films, reproductions are all very ‘Polish’, even if they don’t depict Poland itself. This is not patriotism but something else still.
Other geographical latitudes have different light, architecture, different faces, different street life. In Britain, United States, Italy and Japan, photographing is different. Before you go there, you know these countries from photographs, movies, magazines, etc. You go to London and at every corner you have a Martin Parr picture or an image as if from iD magazine. If you put someone against a white wall by an English window — which is shaped a bit differently from the Polish one, and the walls also have a different finish, a different kind of white hue — you get a nice, stylish photo. In Poland, this is simply a picture of someone standing by a window. The same applies to America and American windows. Different parts of the world are photogenic in their own and from this stems a different photographic aesthetics. I’ve always envied photographers from those ‘stylish’ countries: their reality can be described by photography so that even the simplest, everyday things become visually appealing. This works even in the Czech Republic, which is a country not so much different from Poland after all. The photographs of Martin Kollar, Evžen Sobek or, earlier, Jindřich Streit all share something. An affinity that chimes in with Ota Pavel’s novels, Miloš Forman’s movies and the eating of smažený sýr at country inns. This quality is easily found in the Czech street, you only need to aim the camera. It was something I greatly envied the Czechs when studying photography in Opava.
I wondered where it came from. Are certain photographers so influential that they impose their own vision and we subsequently view reality through their aesthetic ‘filter’? Or is it so that they succeed in nailing something true and specific for the given place and that’s why their style catches on? I don’t know. In any case, it doesn’t exist in Poland; what is available here is heavyweight, committed photography with a mission, or rustic-religious stories. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but to quote [rock vocalist] Muniek Staszczyk, ‘the songs that I get to hear today say nothing about my life’. Although songs actually do relate things quite well: T. Love, Partia, Komety, various rap tracks, Molesta’s Osiedlowe akcje. But in photography, which is my language, I don’t have anything to identify with. In the beginning, when I was only starting to develop my own style, I was interested in finding a way of depicting the surrounding reality so that pictures taken on the street in Warsaw’s Mokotów or in Białystok didn’t pretend to have been taken in New York or Berlin. The idea was to photograph the reality around me as it were, and so that it looked visually pleasing. To make my own the local landscape, architecture, light, physiognomy, etc. To bestow a style on those places, to name their appeal.
You’ve already mentioned Avedon, Rolke, Sobek. Can you tell us what your photographic influences are?
This is the difficult question, a bit like ‘What music do you listen to?’ Various photographers have been important to me for various reasons over the time; some I’ve left behind, others I haven’t arrived at.
When I got interested in photography and enrolled in a photography course at the MDK youth club in Białystok, my ‘father’ in the art, Grzegorz Dąbrowski (who I’m not related to), showed me the pictures of the Magnum photographers. So that was my first inspiration: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Karl de Keyzer, Martin Parr. The everyday-photography faction rather than the news-and-reportage one. I learned about a path that I consider to be right also today. The photographer’s role is to watch and observe, to interpret, but not to invent. Pictures originate in reality. So these are my roots. Parallel to the Magnum artists, I admired photographers from skateboarding and music magazines and authors of record cover, such as Atiba Jefferson, Glenn E. Friedmann and great many anonymous ones.
Then I got to know further figures. I underwent a period of serious interest in photography, spending days at the Academy of Fine Arts library at Smoleńsk Street in Cracow, browsing through everything they had. It was the pre-broadband internet era and one when bookstores had little on the subject. So I browsed, browsed and browsed, reading interviews with photographers, leafing through magazines, taking notes. At that time, photography was the only creative reality for me. I’d created for myself a photo-centric world, isolated from other forms of art. I was interested in how photographers defined themselves vis-à-vis other photographers, how phenomena stemmed from each other. Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus were important, Robert Frank was very important — but I guess that holds true for everyone. With Nan Goldin and a bit later with Wolfgang Tillmans it was so that I loved their simple, austere style. It was the photographic equivalent of punk, a language that I understand. The problem was that their stories had little to do with my life and I couldn’t identify with them — which is one of the reasons why I started taking the pictures that we are now showing and which are why we are having this conversation. Jacques Henri Lartigue was important because of his honesty, his first-person narration.
So who is the protagonist of the ‘film’?
I like to use the term ‘lyrical subject’. This is to be a figure of an ordinary guy from here, someone like me. But I don’t want this to be ‘confessional’ art. Just as Woody Allen’s movies are not just about Allen, though for most part they are. Photography originates in life but life also yields to photography. I don’t make a mess in my room to take a picture of it because it fits a story, but I do allow the mess to develop. The mess fits in with the ‘lyrical subject’. I like sometimes to get myself into situations that are just right for a picture. Right now, for example, at the moment of entering adult life, we have bought a car, which inevitably means visiting car repair garages. A classic male-boyish story that I haven’t experienced yet; it should be a rich area for exploration. I think I’ll be getting into those situations — interactions with the mechanics, the garages, the tyre repair shops — with greater intensity in order to photograph and document them. Creating portraits of the ‘grease monkeys’, still lifes of the garage interiors and so on. I’ll be trying to stay for tea or engage in small talk, which is probably something I wouldn’t be doing were it not for photography. It’s nice how photographs let you truly experience such situations and genuinely enjoy them.
In this ‘film’ there are also many non-photographic cultural tropes. Books, movies, preferences. Certain elements are present in the film’s ‘soundtrack’ while others are featured in the exhibition’s accompanying programme. Can you tell us what your protagonist is like, what has shaped him?
This is a decisive moment, like when Tylko Rock magazine asks you about the 10 records you’d take with you to a desert island. You should give a witty answer, mix well-known things with some obscure stuff. I could say I like the movie Rocky, but what for? On the other hand, I can say I like Charles Reznikoff, who is virtually unknown to anyone but the fans of contemporary American poetry. Of course I like the Smiths and Bob Dylan and Hollywood movies for young people, but I also like Hollywood movies about old loners. Those are things that probably everyone likes. I like Raymond Chandler, Seinfeld, old Italian songs and rap music. For some intellectual background, I might read Mike Featherstone’s Postmodernism and the Aestheticization of Everyday Life or Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction.
In the blog Accidents Will Happen, photographs weren’t divided into sections. But your books — Western, Sweet Little Lies and 113,604 Stray Dogs — forced the viewer to arrest the stream of images, to categorise and segregate. Do they have anything in common?
When I started the blog, it was meant to be an open ‘sketchpad’ for an exhibition or book publication, for a classic photographic format. The idea was to motivate myself to do regular work. It was to be known only to those people who were in these photos, who were directly concerned, and I was supposed to scan the negatives every month, keep them in order and avoid lolling about. But at some point the whole thing got out of control and the blog started functioning simply as a blog. It was all very nice but there was too much material for a book. The book would have to be huge and therefore expensive and I don’t want to make expensive things. I wondered whether perhaps I should try to obtain a grant for publishing such a big book, but decided that instead of wasting my time waiting I’d rather publish smaller books, just as musicians issue EPs and mixtapes. I wanted to make books on such a scale that would allow me to control the process, in the hope that one day, standing on somebody’s bookshelf, they’d arrange themselves into a whole. They are made by the same person, that person changes and so do the books, but it’s like episodes in the same series.
Let’s return to your photographic modus operandi. It’s been customary in Poland since 2000 or so for photographers to work in series, to pursue long-term projects that are supposed to have a deeper meaning. When the project is finished, one moves on to start another. But you seem to be going against the grain. You don’t like project-based work or it simply doesn’t work for you?
There are such types of photography that require precision in building a series, need a beginning and an end, an aesthetic index, and it works. There are series that function like typologies, like statements on a specific subject, defined temporally and spatially. Sometimes it is easy to confine yourself within the bounds of a project. But with me it’s different — the pictures I take are scattered wide apart. My whole life is a project and within it exist various themes, various lower-level common denominators.
As a teenager I listened to a lot of independent bands, read punk fanzines and so on. I admired activists, people who don’t give up, artists who don’t pick up their awards. It’s natural for me to act like this: do your own thing and don’t look at others. Besides, I started earning money rather early: I began working for Przekrój during the summer break after my freshman year. In 2000, at the age of 20, I became a professional photographer working for a nationwide weekly magazine. I didn’t need to apply for the few thousand zlotys for a project. I did once, for a Młoda Polska grant, but didn’t get it. Then, for what I’d made working for Przekrój in Afghanistan, I published Western. I guess it worked out well because today I can boast I’ve never been on a grant.
What about the practice of accompanying photography with words? Do you need that?
It is the story that matters, not being a photographer. This isn’t a contest for how to fit your message on a light-sensitive substance. Not only do I have nothing against accompanying photography with words, I have nothing against words either. Nor against moving pictures, found objects or audio recordings. Photography is a basis but it’s not photography itself that matters.
Your photographs can be seen in many places, in various contexts. In exhibitions — though there have been relatively few — in books, posters, on your blog and Instagram, in newspapers. There are, therefore, several channels — which is your favourite and most comprehensive means of expression? Can any of them be separated from the others at all?
I don’t think so. The key here is the lyrical subject which holds it all together. I like to compare everything to music: sometimes you watch music videos on YouTube, sometimes on TV (if you own a TV set), you read an interview with a musician in a newspaper, go to a concert, listen to a record, and sometimes you have a song placed on some playlist. I think it’s a similar case with photography — you experience it differently in different places. What is nice about photography is that it can retain its ‘original’ quality everywhere. It is the author who decides what is the ‘original’ photograph — and it doesn’t have to be the large-format gallery print. In painting, the original picture hangs on the wall and you know that this is the original. In photography, the ‘original’, the primary point of reference, can be a book or a publication in a magazine or even on a blog. For example, whenever I see photographs by the Japanese photographers, especially Araki and Moriyama, hanging on the gallery wall, I’m always a bit disappointed. In their case, the original is the book. With the layout, the print, the smell of ink, the sequence of the images. And that the photos ‘see’ each other in the facing pages, that the book has a certain format. The exhibition, on the other hand, is just a presentation of pictures from the book and, as such, something secondary.
Generally, I’d say that photography works out rather poorly in exhibitions. To be honest, encountering a physical print seldom produces a new experience, at least as far as I’m concerned. For example, we were in Milan at the Museo del Novecento, a newly opened museum of 20th-century art. Two exhibitions were on show, one featuring Dada works from private Milan collections, the other presenting photographs from the Bank of America collection. First I saw the Dadaists and it was simply great. It suddenly turned out that things that I used to think were large were in fact small and in this scale their effect was completely different. When you view collages in reality, you see that the parts that have been pasted in have different textures, that they catch the light in different ways, you notice various imperfections. Put shortly, you experience an object. Two floors below, we are viewing a photography exhibition and there is everyone there: Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, Robert Frank, etc. And it turns out there is no fundamental difference between viewing these images in a museum show and in an art book. Why, in such old prints there is texture, the silver behaves in unpredictable ways — in a certain sense, these prints are objects. I should be kneeling down before them. There it occurred to me that, in planning a photography exhibition, you need to think about building a new experience. Especially today, at a time when information and images circulate at an unprecedented pace. You need to offer the viewer something they won’t get on the Web. Such as, for example, is the case with the photographs of Andreas Gursky: you need to see the originals so that their scale makes its impact on you. You need to see a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition because it’s simply a Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition.
Those are entire walls rather than single images. Tillmans builds a whole new world in his exhibition, programming a new experience. Let us now describe your show. What makes it different from switching between your blog and your Instagram or browsing through your photo book?
First of all, it’s spatial, three-dimensional, so there is room in it for things that are simply impossible, physically, on the Web or on paper. When you are in the gallery, you experience the narrative with a greater number of senses: there is scale, there are sounds, and so on. Plus, people come to the Zachęta to see the show so they naturally focus on it during their visit. This means you can make the story more nuanced than usual. Another thing is that a blog is a public, open form, accessible to anyone. For me this creates a mental barrier and I stop at a certain level, controlling the depth of my confession. This is something I don’t feel I need to do in a book or an exhibition. Returning to the musical metaphor, I think the exhibition is something like a concert. It is the most direct form of contact between the artist and the recipient. And before the exhibition comes the opening reception which can be like a concert proper.
Encores. Demolishing the equipment.
In the Zachęta exhibition, photographs are presented in various formats and using various media. Choosing the format of an image, converting it into a slide and projecting it using a slide project are all deliberate decisions. It’s not only about the organisation of space but also about...
The idea is to structure the exhibition as a cohesive statement rather than a presentation of individual works. To highlight certain moments, to build a mood. The pictures themselves are but a point of departure and, depending on the context, you can — and should — do something more with them. You treat them differently in a book, differently on a website and differently in a gallery. The latter seems to offer the largest number of possibilities.
Kuba Dąbrowski is a Polish Photographer, born in 1980 in Białystok. He often describes his method of work as like creating a ‘first person document’. After graduating from high school, he took up sociological studies in Cracow and then moved to the famous Institute of Creative Photography in Opawa. His work has been recently exhibited in the Zachęta Gallery Warsaw (curated by Joanna Kinowska).