Nathan: I’d like to begin with the obvious question: what first brought you to photography?
Pavel: Creation of images, the possibility of preserving my thoughts, ideas, creation of allegories– such things have always fascinated me. Since I was a kid, I really liked to draw and I drew a lot. However, drawing itself needs great patience, and I am not a very patient person. I like to achieve quickly this moment of creaton when the general form is ready so that I can focus on the details. This part of working always give me the greatest joy. From such moments, my imagination starts to work in full swing. Everything before it is the work of a journeyman.
Soon I noticed that photography accelerates the process of working– and not depriving one the satisfaction with the final result, which is often surprising and more perfect than one’s imagination because it is created with the participation of an unpredictable nature. The risk and thin line between coincidence and conscious creations attracted me very much. Thus, my creative impatience brought me many years ago to the gates of photography. Now, after many years spent together, I know that it still teaches me to be patient
The development of digital technology is also not without influence on my choice. The digital darkroom is a paradise for my needs, for it has allowed me to experiment and explore endlessly.
Technical aspects of photography also magnetize me. I love old cameras – the precision and artistry of their execution. I grin at the sight of the beautiful old camera and I sigh that there never will be another alike. Nowadays, more often and more eagerly, I return to traditional photography.
Nathan: When you first began working with photography, what subjects did you focus on?
Pavel: My father led me to the mysteries of photography. His camera was his companion during our holidays and each of our trips. Through these means, naturally, the subject of my first photos became landscape and architecture. At the time, I was chasing nice pictures for keepsake-making rather than conscious photography. These were my beginnings; I was learning. Over time, the abundance of details in my photos started to disturb me. I was searching for simple topics, items contrasting with surroundings; I wanted very organized frames. The trouble was that, always, something wasn’t right; there was always too much of something. Further, that still fleeing, unstable light … I think that it was my insatiable desire for minimalism and the subconscious need for full control of the photographed scene that drove me from plein air to studio. However, nowadays, after many years, I am coming back to outdoor photography very eagerly.
Nathan: Even the briefest of studies of your work reveals an awareness of your attention to the landscape of the body. Do you see any particular connections between your earlier explorations of “nature’s” landscape and your years of exploring the curves, lines, shapes, textures, and contrasts of the human body?
Pavel: Yes, of course. Photographing the landscape is probably the best exercise for beginners in photography. That’s because it is full of possibilities and is unpredictable. Generally, regardless of the photographed subject, we always deal with virtually identical subject matter – plan, shape, advantage, line and light. Regardless of the subject, we always try to organise and describe nature in our own way in one form or another.
Photographing the landscape has taught me that beauty is harmony and contrast. I took this foundation, this knowledge, with me to the studio. In the vicinity of the town of Jastrz-bia-Góra [in Poland], where I used to spend my holidays, the beach was covered with stones ripped away by the waves from the high cliff. These glacial boulders– austere, round forms from sand and water– were the subject of my photos. I had everything there– simple form, beautiful, varied textures with the surrounding contrast. I always had an inclination to minimalism. Less means better for me, I like order. So my simplistic, ascetic studio forms come in a straight line from the beaches of the Baltic Sea.
The human body is a part of nature and like the landscape it’s changeable. It changes with the seasons, the time of the day, the weather. However, I will not risk the statement that these obvious relations have a clear unique influence on the direction and development of my fascination. Photographing the landscape let me control my skills and taught me to see. Studying the human body allows much more; it allows my own interpretation of nature in this form of Creation.
Nathan: I’d love to hear about some of the photographers, painters, or filmmakers (or any artists) who initially inspired you and/or inspire you today.
Pavel: At the time when my sensitivity was forming it was much easier in Poland to see old paintings rather than works of modern, worldwide photography. I only became familiar with well known works of great masters of photography back in the ‘90s.
Today, after many years, when I look at my pictures, I would say without a doubt that it was Ruth Bernard who inspired me. Her photos and the way of perceiving reality– simple, almost geometrical forms, in which beautiful patterns of lines create a picture of calm and unusual harmony– are very close to me. The nudity shown by Ruth is calm and modest; it impresses but is also bold and uncompromising. Her pictures surpass limits of the body and soul and create phenomenal – The Eternal Body. My favourite works of Ruth’s authorship is the series of photos, “In the Circle”.
It might be surprising for you, but I also admire pictorial photographers – stately works of Rudolf Eickemeyer and magical, picturesque world of Robert Demachy’s photos. Nowadays because of the reality that surrounds us this kind of narration seem to be unreachable.
Generally, I think deep inspiration by some authors is dangerous, and sometimes even harmful for artistic development. The thin line between inspiration and imitation of the contemporary possibilities can be easily crossed, even unconsciously. Subconsciously, the pursuit to some ideal model can hamper one from finding his or her own way or affect the creator too much. I understand inspiration as an internal admiration, as a stimulating massage for sensitivity, as a way to develop personality, imagination and to strengthen the need for creating.
Nathan: I’d like to shift the conversation and start talking about your work. While much nude photography downplays the erotic and focuses, instead, on emotion, expression and form, your work seems to eschew the erotic entirely. In fact, it seems far more reminiscent of classic statuary than the genre of nude photography. Mapplethorpe’s famous male nudes also had ties to classic statues, but there was also something quite erotic about them as well. Your work, however, seems far more focused on emotion, even on silence. You also often choose to compose the image so that the face cannot be seen, yet an emotional quality still breaks through in the shapes and lines. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you are looking to express in your work.
Pavel: A long time ago, when I photographed nudity for the first time, my purpose and understanding of beauty of the human body was radically different. I focused on showing beauty, sensuality, and a striking and attractive presentation of naked woman. The main point of that purpose was compliance with the existing canon and my own preferences, an aesthetic satisfaction measured by the male point of view.
Soon I came up with the conclusion that even the most original narrative of nudity can not change its content and move away from the stereotypes associated with it. So, I asked myself whether and how I could deprive nudity of its potential for eroticism–and whether and how I could distract the viewer from natural atavistic emotions which are aroused by nude human body? These emotions we experience viewing nude photos often influence our acceptance of them– and such emotional arousal is often mistaken with artistic affection when it is just a human-nature based reaction written in our genetic code.
One day, while looking around the Internet, I found this anecdote in which a photographer, frustrated by the mediocre results of a portrait session, says to the model: “You’re the only one who can save this session – take your clothes off!” Nowadays, however, nudity is everywhere and because of that it seems to be nothing special, original, shocking or brave. Nudity is no longer a surprise, and, on the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily enchant either … In this “naked stream” you can still find beauty and arts but in most cases we must confront ugliness, perversion, and daub.
Nudity itself is not an art. It can arouse; it can enchant, but it can also be disgusting and simply dull…
Once I heard an old priest say, “there is nothing worse than the dull sin”. This extremely interesting observation prompted me to try a different approach to the subject of nudity. In my photography, I’m not interested in nudity itself. Nakedness is just a pretext. When photographing the body, I try to avoid sexuality, eroticism and universal ideas of beauty and present only interesting shapes and details which, in the specific light and shadow, become an abstract and independent form. I show the body deprived of emotions. The form is to be the subject of cognition.
I do not create the act, rather it is a study of the human body, an endless series of the possibilities of perception. I search. The nudity is supposed to provoke the imagination to a more intense perception. The human body becomes a clay from which I first imagine and create and then later the viewer of the photo can create at will as well. It’s a unique clay because it’s alive and because before the act of creation it’s marked by an extremely strong emotional load and stereotype.
My models don’t look at the observer. Because facial expression, eyes, the act of looking, shift the viewer into a world of emotions and desires that get away from abstraction and direct the mind to reality and nature. Sad eyes or a defiant look, a shy smile, open lips, a tilted head: these are elements which take away the mind’s potential to be free to perceive and, instead, direct it down a known narrow street.
It is only the shape which should evoke emotions. To make it happen great silence is needed, a suspension of form in space from which nothing at all is not clear. Silence and peace in the picture is another necessary condition to be able to see more. I usually photograph these forms at the podium. In my opinion, the geometric shape of the box greatly contrasts with the shape and advantage of the body and it provides a discreet encouragement to find a geometric perception with the whole picture. Such a basis also gives the forms a classical and monumental expression.
From a technical point of view, to illuminate the stage, I usually use one source of light, a narrow softbox with a double diffuser which I put as close as possible. This way of lighting gives a very quiet, non-aggresive light and wide shadows, that calm and help to focus and extract the shape in a perfect way.
Among the many opinions I’ve heard about my photographs, one I have remembered in a special way. It meant that I create an interesting mood, interesting light, but I perpetuate my models in ugly poses. This opinion became important to me in two ways. Firstly, it confirmed the rightness of my choice and my desire to show the human body in different way. Secondly, it confirmed my opinion about strong stereotypes of beauty and nudity.
The human body is a bottomless trove of treasures. It is fascinating for me to discover how many mysterious shapes and images are hidden in the human body. The naked body is a great, unique tool to provoke, to make fun of, to fool, but also to disturb, shout and force to reflection. Unfortunately stereotypes of nudity are still very very strong. In many societies it is still taboo and / or seen only as a perversion. Nudity is so often identified with beauty or eroticism and every other interpretation / possibility is unfortunately misunderstood.
For this reason, very often I wonder how much I can show in my photos? Where is the thin line of intimacy (after which I think there should be no place for art)? This is the line which absolutely I do not want to exceed. On the other hand, something tells me constantly that the only and decisive border is the way of presentation of the topic, not the topic itself.
Nathan: I would like to hear about how you work with your models (and how you choose them). It seems to me that you would need to find models who are sensitive to what you are trying to create, ones that you could communicate with clearly so that your ideas and the moods you create can be best realized. I recall that in at least one of your images, you included a sketch book. Do you sketch out the images ahead of time and work primarily from them or do you work with the model and explore and encounter and discover in the moment the shapes that you express (perhaps by experimenting with different possibilities)? Or is it, perhaps, a combination of these things? I ask, in part, because I photograph the landscape, something that exists as it is. I cannot ask the tide to recede for me or for the clouds to arrive, leave, or move faster or for the light to be less or more diffused. I must work with what is there as it is there. It strikes me that working with an individual and having control over the lighting offers so many creative possibilities that can be realized and changed in the moment … but, at the same time, these elements of control and possibility could just as easily complicate the process.
Pavel: In our conversation so far, I have already mentioned the stereotype of beauty. This stereotype has a huge influence on my choice of the person with whom I work. I do not demand from the model special physical characteristics, exceptional beauty, or proportions. I demand an interest in the act of creation and creativity and the awareness of taking part in a creative act– and not the process of immortalizing the model’s beauty. Reaching an agreement at this level guarantees good cooperation and mutual satisfaction with the effects of the session. I admit that the selection of the models is the biggest problem I have to deal with. In my conversations about photographing the act, I always mention Edward Weston and his model Charis Wilson and their ideal relationship of passion and heart.
Different expectations can never lead to the common goal. Professionalism can not replace an understanding coming out of one’s own desires and needs of their implementation. That’s why I prefer to work with people who are not professionally engaged in modeling and whose motivations for posing are deeper and more complex. My photos require the consciousness of the model giving the body to art. In spite of embarrassment, dedication of time, and hard work they won’t find anything personal in it. It’s not easy, and, therefore, requires extraordinary people.
Yes, I use the sketchbook. In different moments some forms are coming to my mind which unfixed could slip my memory irretrievably. So I write them in a sketchbook as a general outline, which in my spare time I develop. During working with a model, I often verify the idea because it happens that anatomy does not allow to realize my sketched paper imagination,s but even then that is a good start. A prepared sketch is also useful for a model. Seeing the drawing makes it easier for her to understand what I expect, to propose corrections or develop an idea. The moments when the model is setting a pose with the sketchbook, I always carefully follow along by looking at the focusing screen because it is an excellent moment to find similar, very interesting pictures. It also happens that, during the session, the sketch for further realisation is formed.
Full control of a scene and the multitude of possibilities to describe it (because I understand that you’re asking) is not difficult for me. On the contrary, it gives me a sense comfort and peace and does not require the rush– which I don’t like in photography. This allows me to be very focused on a goal which I realise in specific, uniform conditions.
Of course, during the session I also find time for experiments and explore new ones. but then even the unsuccessful struggle with light is expected and not frustrating.
Nathan: I’d like to shift the conversation to some more general questions. First, does music play a role in your processing? Personally, music is inextricably tied to my daily life, so it is an essential part of my photo processing; in fact, much of my work has unfolded while listening to music. As a result, I am always curious to hear about photographers’ relationships with their music and work. Do you listen to music while you process your work, and, if yes, what do you prefer to listen to?
Pavel: Yes and no. When I’m photographing outside I prefer to listen to the music of nature, the ambient sounds. The natural sounds accompanying the scene are its complement and narration. I need them – I also hear them later, when I view the scene recorded on the paper frame.
When I’m working in the studio, music accompanies me mostly because of the person with whom I work. The type of music and performer is her choice because the music allows the model to relax and feel comfortable. When it’s time to process the image then it’s time for my music. Then mostly I listen to old songs by Genesis and Marillion, sometimes classical music such as Bach.
What’s interesting is that when I photograph, I prefer silence. Silence allows me to focus; maybe because later it becomes one of the elements of the narration of my pictures. Although when painting or drawing, when a picture is formed over a very long period and every detail needs solicitude and attention, then music becomes a kind of conductor for me and partly also the composer of my work.
Nathan: I fear that this question might be a bit abstract, and, perhaps, even unnecessary, but where do you think photography fits in today’s art world? A lot of people talk about fine art photography … do you think such a classification has any meaning?
Pavel: Your concerns are unnecessary. It’s a great and very timely question.
When I’m looking at the pictures mentioned before by Rudolf Eickemeyer, Robert Demachy or even Stieglitz, the answer is no. Photography died along with the time when it was invented. The people, the world, the stages and mood of those frames are gone irretrievably. These were other goals, other worlds not only in technique but also the mentality. Today’s photography is harnessed commercially – it has become a heartless tool of global fraud. Yes, thanks to technique we can imitate, stylize and pretend but even in the most perfect styling we’ll no longer find the truth. That possibility for truth is what I’m thinking and feeling when I look at the work of the old masters of photography.
But when I look at your photographs, Nathan, I say yes! Because in every frame we also preserve a bit of ourselves. We are telling something about ourselves and about our interior. In this sense, photography has not changed; it lasts and thanks to that it will fit into any world where there is at least a bit of demand for reflection, emotions and desires.
Reality which surrounds us nowadays does not posses so many emotions, because it is well known. I’m certain that the next generations will see our photographs of today in the same way we perceive those dating 100 or more years ago. Time will verify their value. It doesn’t matter what we will call or how we will classify photography today if its source is the sensitivity of beauty, a deep need to create and a desire to share a vision of reality– and it happens when we take the camera to hand.
Nathan: In today’s world, social media plays an increasing role in photography for many established photographers and even more so for many, many up and coming photographers. What are your thoughts about “sharing your work online”?
Pavel: This is the image of today’s world. Photography, unfortunately, has been and continues to be caught up in the stream of commerce and mass media. Thanks to that– it’s evolving as a technique but incredibly suffers as art. On the one hand, the commonness and ease of digital photography has allowed many people to discover their talent and find a way to express their creativity. On the other hand, a commonness has resulted and the elitist status of photography has ended– and now world is flooded by images which mostly are”bad scans of reality” with nothing in common with photography as art.
To paraphrase some words from the movie Ratatouille – everybody can photograph; we are standing on the road which will lead to general liberty and freedom of creation, but, simultaneously, unprecedented in the history of art, it leads to the “pauperization” of the whole field.
Sharing photos on the Internet has another huge disadvantage. It does nor require the viewer to be focused, which is necessary when we contact with art. Mass character always reduces the value. Even the most perfect network publication is far from the requirements of image presentation which results in a loss of much of its advantages. Amazing pictures between millions of ordinary ones are living in the viewer’s mind for just for second and then they are immediately reset by the next ones. Click, click, click…
Nathan: What are your thoughts on photography workshops, photography courses and degrees, how-to books, and the plethora of, equipment reviews, and other “how to” articles? Do you think someone who is seeking a specific artistic vision is better off teaching his or herself or, instead, pursuing some of these more formal avenues of learning / training? Many photographers talk about the benefits of learning without the indoctrination of the so-called rules of image making– and even more talk about the benefits of breaking those rules. Do you have any thoughts about any of this?
Pavel: Online guidelines and know-how press articles are the image of today’s reality concentrated on efficiency. Quality does not matter any longer; what does matter is rapid, spectacular effect and easiness of achieve. Knowledge costs us much; for example, experience should be collected by years of observations and sacrifices, all of which teaches respect for our as well as someone else’s work. What can we learn from online guidelines? The knowledge of “how,” which we can get from such online guides, is just the top of a huge mountain, the basis of which is the most important question: “why”. The lack of this knowledge is not only immediately visible in many pictures but also can quickly become the source of many failures, frustrations and perversions.
Contact with a living person, a teacher, is something completely different. This is a kind of knowledge and experience from which we can benefit directly, the possibility of accurate and quiet observation of the whole process of making photography, understanding of all circumstances, to indicate directions, possibilities and limits. That is a perfect beginning. Those who have met a good mentor, at the beginning of their photographic journey, are very lucky.
Do paid trainings, courses and collective photo-trips provide such a beginning? On some, minimal level, probably yes but I personally prefer deeper, individual cognition which must be the result of long-term process of associating with the mentor and his art. Does this form put us in danger of being meretricious? I think not, at least not more than in other cases. Creative personality is always about being independent, which, if it really exists, would never allow itself to be dominated or silenced.
Nathan: Do you have any advice to offer photographers who are struggling to find their own voice, their own personal artistic vision?
Pavel: Photography as every art is about searching your own way, which can not be taught in any training. You have to do your job, for yourself and in your own way. Only in this way can you create your own unique truth about your vision of reality. Photography is art and art is individuality, difference, uniqueness. Schemes and templates need to be shattered and exceeded because only in this way can we create new values.
Nathan: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Pavel: Yes. Thank you, Nathan, for the proposal of this conversation. I was very pleased to share with you and your readers my understanding of photography. I wish you and all admirers of this noble passion many great frames and always good light. Regards.
Several Images with Notes from Pavel
A Few More Images