Words and photos: Michalina Kuczyńska
Michalina Kuczyńska: You said that you knew from the beginning that you are not going to study photography in Poland. Why?
Natalia Poniatowska: I was 13 when I started attending a film photography course in the Młodzieżowy Dom Kultury in Bytom. I stayed there till I was 18, learning all the basics, optics, how the cameras work and how to work in the darkroom as well. I fell in love with photography. As a teenager, it was kind of an escape from all the problems, all that’s going on in your head at that time, a great amount of emotions while growing up. I was very active in the art scene in my hometown – when I was 16 I managed to organise my first solo exhibition, next year I won WENA – the prize for visual arts.
At the end of high school, I did my research about art schools in Poland, and I figured out that I wouldn’t be accepted to ASP, Polish Academy of Fine Arts unless I can learn to draw and paint as a main part of curriculum over there and all other courses were connected to press photography. Maybe now there are some options, but usually, the private courses cost a lot as well. Straight after high school, I left Bytom with my boyfriend and decided to work as a full-time waitress in Birmingham. I earned enough for a new DSLR and started working as a test shoot photographer and building up my commercial portfolio. We spent a year working and thinking about what is to come. He read about The Glasgow School of Art online as being one of the leading UK art schools, we did some research, especially about finances – EU students don’t pay tuition fees in Scotland, and decided to apply. Firstly, even before being accepted I did a black and white photography evening course to keep practising and preparing my portfolio and kept working as a commercial and event photographer. We were extremely lucky to secure our spot in GSA the next year. With no student loan – I worked as an event, family, wedding and fashion photographer all 4 years of my study at the Glasgow School of Art, balancing my art career with commercial jobs.
Let’s talk about the exhibitions- in Poland and abroad.
I always feel like – in terms of art – my base is more in Glasgow because people are more familiar with my work, seen my degree show, they are interested in what I’m doing and keep an eye for my new projects. I left Glasgow a year ago, after having spent 7 wonderful years there. It’s different for me in Warsaw, as everything is new. I’m really amazed by the art scene here, but I have a feeling it’s kind of tricky If you’re not represented by Polish gallery. I experienced that as a freelance artist, without the knowledge and insight into a certain community, there’s some kind of a barrier. I have a plan to bring my current show HUMANATURE from Glasgow to Warsaw, which would become my first solo show here.
So the basic difference is…
…is that in Poland you have to work harder, because there is a very high standard but at the same time, quite often the expectations do not really meet the reality in a sense that there is not a lot of places where you can still get good platform to present your work but in a more approachable sense. We have a lot of great artists and shows here. Also, it is an issue of scale I guess. Glasgow is way smaller, so It’s easier to know the places. In Warsaw, especially when you just enter the art scene, you need to do more and offer more. What could I give to the city, what could my work bring here? I’s not easy to start in the new place.
And how about support the exhibitions? Could you compare both countries?
I think they are similar because in both countries there are institutions where you can apply for the funding. I never applied for funding and I didn’t have a solo show in Warsaw, so I might not be the right person to answer the question.
Okay, so how do you make a living from art?
I haven’t met a person yet that makes a living purely based on artistic activity. Unfortunately, that is usually not the case regarding the young generation of artists.
But you are! (laughs)
I make money for living only from commercial photography – fashion, portraits, products, events, weddings. True, I do sell my artworks, but the money always goes back into making new works, test printing, printing, framing, buying films, developing, scanning, Photoshop, equipment, insurance, shipping, not talking about funding projects like traveling to places I would like to make a work, and of course a cost of studio hire. These are really big expenses.
Could you tell me something about public cultural institutions in Poland and Scotland?
Not really as I was never really that much interested in working with those. Or maybe that time has not come yet where I need to activate that route as well. I am not great in terms of filling out the forms etc., and usually, such institutions require quite a lot of such work, rather than focusing on the work itself and its value.
So you’re more like self-made?
Yeah, definitely. When I know what I need for a project, I just try to work towards it and do it somehow. It has always worked out so far, but we will see how it goes when there are bigger tasks coming in the future.
I think overall, it’s just very difficult to be a photography artist because you have to be so tough and strong and leave your fragility behind… As an artist or commercial freelancer, you are on your own. That’s why a lot of people give up. They feel comfortable when they are students – with tutors, friends, access to facilities. But when you leave the art school, that’s when it starts to become difficult because none of the schools neither in Scotland or Poland tells you what to do after. They don’t teach you about marketing, agreements, taxes, contacts with galleries, clients, all the business side of being self-employed.
Maybe it’s also about the society’s conscious – that being an artist is also a work and you have to make a living.
Right, most of society doesn’t really pay attention to that. Especially photographers –because the truth is you don’t pay for the pictures as a physical object… you’re paying for certain individual’s vision of the world that was captured on its work of art, for the creativity, artist’s education, skills, knowledge, research, inspirations… I believe artists are respected, but not fully understood how does it work to be an artist. I didn’t know this years ago either. I think we’re not as respected as we should be in the commercial world, but I do understand why – there are so many photographers who just buy a good camera and shoot weddings or portraits, with no vision, with no passion, no feelings, let alone with no skillset as well.
To sum up: maybe we should do something about the awareness connected with art?
I think the problem starts in primary school with art as a subject. I had such a big disrespect for art in school because „art” teacher was an old lady sitting behind her desk and asking us to draw a flower that looks exactly like the one she drew. 45 minutes once a week for 6 years? No visits to museums, no conversations about understanding the works or feelings. While studying in Glasgow with international students I found a huge gap in art knowledge and art history. The biggest shock for me in art school was also non-formal relations, teachers are more like friends and we talk a lot about emotions, feelings and we really get to know each other, I was understood as a person, so it was easier to present and talk about my art ideas. Someone cares about your thoughts and feelings and it was far away from what I received in high school.
I think here we came to the point!
‘It is enough that I come from a country that lies east of the west and west of the east’
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 the 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 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 afterward. 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.
Natalia Poniatowska graduated from Fine Art Photography at The Glasgow School of Art. Natalia displayed her works in various locations: Royal Scottish Academy – New Contemporaries 2019 in Edinburgh, The National Museum in Cracow, 12 Star Gallery in London, ARCHIP in Prague, House For An Art Lovers in Glasgow, Orms in Cape Town, 5&33 Gallery in Amsterdam, Pingyao International Photography Festival in China, The Waterhouse Gallery in Maastricht, Lillie Art Gallery in Milngavie, citizenM in Glasgow, and more.
She received the Adam Bruce Thomson Award 2019, the British Journal of Photography Breakthrough Award 2017, Debuts 2018, Grand Press Photo 2018, Wena 2012, and she was selected as one of 15 best graduates in creative fields by It’s Nice That in 2018.
Natalia grew up in the industrial realm of the Silesian region in the Southern part of Poland (Bytom) and after 7 years in Scotland, she recently moved to Warsaw, Poland.
Michalina Kuczyńska – Observer of the world and the people. Sensitive human mostly interested in catching moments and seeing things as they are. Student of the inter-area studies in Katowice and also a lover of a widely understood modern art.