Marzena Pogorzaly: Behind the Lens

Sophie Lévy Burton journeys behind the lens with the wondrously enigmatic photographer MARZENA POGORZALY


SOPHIE: There is a note on your website that reads ‘Marzena Pogorzaly is a photographer of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures.’ I love that and respect it, and yet I am longing to peel something back, to put the negative into the chemical process and expose the image to just the right amount of light… At MONK we chase the idea that every artist has a spiritual biography of a kind, a story to tell, patterns that emerge, a narrative around their art, synchronicities, etc. So, can we start at the very beginning, your childhood in Communist Poland. Were you creative as a child? Was creativity encouraged?

I’m a daughter of a forester. I grew up in the countryside surrounded by trees, meadows, fields and animals, domestic and wild. A river ran through it all

MARZENA: That description of myself as a photographer of whom nothing is known came more from the reluctance … nah, feeling of impossibility … to summarise my life and work in a few lines of bio listing ‘achievements and accomplishments’ than any need to appear enigmatic or mysterious. I have managed to get through life without having to write a CV, and I feel absurdly proud of the fact. But joking aside, I also believe that one’s work should speak directly to the viewer, and for that reason I have always disliked ‘artists’ statements’ aiming to explain the visual in words and ideas, especially using postmodern jargon. A conversation is a different matter, and I welcome the opportunity to talk to you.

Marzena Pogorzaly On Zodiac in the Arctic (Svalbard)
Marzena Pogorzaly On Zodiac in the Arctic (Svalbard)

SOPHIE: Thank you!

MARZENA: So, starting from the beginning, when I look back on my childhood I don’t see any particular predisposition towards artistic endeavours, apart from the natural, universal affinity children have with paint and brushes and colours. I’m a daughter of a forester. I grew up in the countryside surrounded by trees, meadows, fields and animals, domestic and wild. A river ran through it all. My brother and I had freedom to roam outside in all seasons, and my early interests were those of a young naturalist – I collected shells, pebbles, cones and dried leaves and flowers I kept in a herbarium; later, I learned Latin names of all the trees and flowers. I loved math as well and the fact that there was one correct answer to a mathematical problem – I found being able to solve it very satisfying. I guess I was a nerd of sorts. I was also an avid reader from a very young age – I taught myself to read before I went to school. What I wanted to be when I grew up was either a doctor or a zoologist studying the behaviour of wild animals in Africa. All of this was encouraged, but I was not pushed in any particular direction. A long spell in hospital with rheumatic fever as a child and later periods in sanatoriums instilled in me an independent streak, which I believe contributed to my later desire for escape and adventure. I was certainly not interested in having a conventional life, whatever I imagined such life would entail.

For me to wander the streets of Palermo or Seville in search of images, with Catholic saints watching over me on every street corner, is as thrilling as stalking the streets of Havana, except that the saints and icons are secular Marxists and the religion is Revolution

SOPHIE: Sticking with your early years still, you were raised as a Catholic in Communist Poland. Churches are highly visual places and often our first experience of art. Looking back now, what role if any has the visual iconography of Catholicism played in your imagination?

MARZENA: Interesting question. Life can only be understood backwards, as Kierkegaard said, but we must live it forwards. Only recently I mentioned to a friend that my favourite places to photograph are either Catholic or communist countries. And you’re right – it is to do with the power of images imprinted on our memory and imagination in early childhood. For me to wander the streets of Palermo or Seville in search of images, with Catholic saints watching over me on every street corner, is as thrilling as stalking the streets of Havana, except that the saints and icons are secular Marxists and the religion is Revolution. The Poland of my youth encompassed both – the piously progressive and the theatrically religious. They were ostensibly in political opposition, but both answered the need to believe in salvation or redemption, either in a traditional Catholic sense or as a socialist justice on earth.

SOPHIE: I’ve read in a previous interview that you had chosen marine biology and oceanography as a way to escape Poland and the Iron Curtain in the 1980s. Was this your entry point into photography? It sounds like a super romantic way to get into anything – and the element of water allowing you to escape Poland – a kind of adventure and reinvention, both literally and metaphorically a journey. Was there actually a moment when you became a photographer?

When I look back at the series of images I took in Poland in the late 1980s, during my visits back to the old country, I have an acute sense of loss and longing…

MARZENA: When I left Poland in 1983, I was as much running away from the drab reality and what I imagined would be a grim future under the system we all viewed as politically immutable, as I was driven by positive longing for freedom and adventure of life on the other side of the Curtain. But I didn’t have a clue what life ‘in the West’ was going to look like, and I didn’t have a plan. I certainly didn’t have a plan that would include photography in any way. I managed to secure an invitation to visit the Plymouth Marine Station and on the strength of that was granted a visa and a Polish passport. I know it’s hard to imagine not being allowed to keep your passport at home and not having the right to leave the country and travel at any time, but that’s how it was (and maybe now, with the pandemic laws, it’s no longer so strange to imagine that). Rather amazingly, I was offered a training in electron microscopy by the Station, which to my future bafflement and considerable regret, I turned down. I was young; I wanted to be in London and have fun, and not to be tied down to a proper grown-up job, however attractive that job and a prospect of a career in scientific imaging might appear in retrospect. But nobody told me it was an opportunity not to be missed, and I took the road filled with question marks and uncertainty. So it wasn’t oceanography that led to photography. That happened by way of a cliche – a few years later a photographer boyfriend gave me a camera, a Nikon, and encouraged me to find my own eye. I was hooked and soon started developing and printing my own photographs. I found a Vocation. Soon I enrolled in a photography course teaching commercial applications of photography: for example, how to control lighting when photographing a wine glass against a black or white background using a 5×4 plate camera. All very useful knowledge for someone who was going to have a career in food or fashion photography. It wasn’t for me and I never became a commercial photographer. Those who inspired me were photojournalists and war photographers. Some years later I got in touch with old university friends in Poland who by then ran the Polish Polar Station in Svalbard, and was invited to join an expedition to the Arctic. I was bitten by a polar bug. Four subsequent expeditions to the Antarctic followed. In that sense, indirectly, oceanography led to an opportunity for polar photography. Life has a way of presenting us with connections and opportunities which in retrospect might appear meaningful, but which at the time seemed to be pure luck.

SOPHIE: So, I love your portraits of icebergs that swan across the polar regions like Dior models on the catwalk. Of course they are more than models on a catwalk, but I just immediately got this idea from your images that they actually held personality, life, intelligence – entirely independent from the planet – and I call them portraits rather than landscapes because for me, at least, it’s as if the ice has its own spirit, or spiritual centre, even an inner-spiritual drama. There is personality.

Marzena Pogorzaly
Icebergs, Antarctica

MARZENA: I love the image of icebergs as Dior models. They certainly command attention, even awe… Awe is a response to being in the presence of the numen, the spirit that presides over place. Of course, nowadays we use the word ‘awesome’ to describe almost anything that we like – a TV show or a pizza. Once, onboard the ship, I woke up early and looked out the window to an otherworldly icescape bathed in salmon-pink light, the air still and no sounds except for the ship’s engine humming and the ice crackling, and it felt like being at the scene of Creation. I’m using the word in a purely poetic sense. Many writers, poets and early explorers have tried to convey the essence, the spirit of polar regions, and the adjective most used seems to be ‘pure’. But to go back to my icebergs, you say that you see them as portraits rather than landscapes, and I agree. A long time ago, in connection with an exhibition of mine at the Royal Geographical Society, Neal Ascherson wrote that ‘her portrait studies were usually of old faces, showing a fascination with the crevasses and protuberances worn by time into human features. What grief and love do to faces, temperature change, wind-weathering and current-drift do to ice.’ I loved that analogy. One of my favourite photos in these series is a Viking-ship-like-berg which looks like a man-made sculpture or a preternatural apparition. And yet it is entirely natural. I remember someone on the ship suggested that I should keep a record of the geographical position of each picture, but I really couldn’t see the point at the time, and I never did it. This iceberg no longer exists, and even if it hasn’t yet melted completely, it is nowhere near the location I took it. But perhaps that was the point of my friend’s idea – that once, on a given day, at a specific hour, this iceberg has been seen and photographed at this precise location, and that nothing is going to change that.

The icebergs that calve from glaciers… live, drift, melt, erode and die – they have a ‘life-cycle’, as it were, and it was ever thus

Svalbard glacier
Svalbard glacier

SOPHIE: So in fact there was a psycho-spiritual element in photographing the icescapes. Would it be wrong to call them explorations in the numinous – for they do strike me as deeply spiritual subjects? I can’t imagine living around them and not questioning your own existence and ultimate reality.

MARZENA: Well, being there was one of the most intense, ‘peak experiences’ of my life. I don’t know if the words ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’ are able to convey the emotion accurately, given how many things are described hyperbolically as awesome nowadays. Such big words often sound false and exaggerated. But where else would they belong if not in descriptions of our responses to the elemental grandeur and beauty of Antarctica? You feel small, humbled by the spectacle. You also feel totally present and connected to life and the natural world, completely focused yet totally open and receptive. As a photographer, you have to react, there is no time for thinking, reflecting or taking time with composition or choosing the right lens, etc. You have to work incredibly fast; it happens on a level of spinal-cord reflex (an automatic, involuntary reaction), rather than a processing and analysing brain. Reflection comes later. I felt very privileged, very lucky indeed to be able to shoot with the helicopter’s door wide open (with a harness securely fastening me to my seat), changing the spool of film every twelve frames in freezing cold. Every frame was hard-won and precious. It’s hard to imagine those limitations now with digital technology allowing you to shoot almost endlessly (and endlessly deleting bad frames afterwards). But I realise that I’m telling you about the technicalities rather than the spiritual aspect of the experience, which is difficult to convey in words.

SOPHIE: Was it easy living in that landscape on huge ships? This was before the internet. How did you cope, what nourished you? Did you read books? Write letters?

MARZENA: Yeah, it was an exciting time. The ships were not necessarily huge. HMS Endurance is a working Royal Navy ship doing hydrographic work in the region and, among other tasks, supporting scientists working for British Antarctic Survey. They have about 100 people onboard and two Lynx helicopters. Not big at all in comparison with huge tour ships carrying more than 500 passengers. I have also spent time on the Argentine Navy icebreaker Almirante Irizar and stayed at the Polish Polar Station Arctowski on King George Island on the Antarctic peninsula. Each time was different – life can be very sociable but it also offers an opportunity to be a monk in one’s cabin, and I cherished the opportunity to be alone and engage in solitary pursuits – writing a journal, reading books, listening to music, or just staring at the landscape. It’s very meditative. But there is also a constant sense of urgency, of not wanting to miss out on anything, especially as the days are incredibly long during austral summer at the latitudes I visited (darkness from about 10 p.m. till 3 a.m.), and there are 24 hours of daylight in Svalbard in the summer. You don’t want to be asleep if the most extraordinary iceberg might float by just to the starboard!

SOPHIE: And of course, these ice caps are now melting…

Walking on Ice
Walking on Ice

MARZENA: Yes, indeed. Despite the almost mystical stillness and otherworldly quality of light and air, this is an ever-changing environment, even if climate change were not part of that change. The icebergs that calve from glaciers (or break up from ice shelves, creating tabular bergs, often the size of small countries) live, drift, melt, erode and die – they have a ‘life-cycle’, as it were, and it was ever thus. Climate change is accelerating these processes, but much as I respect science and admire the climate scientists gathering evidence of the anthropogenic nature of that change, I’m not an expert on the subject, and have always maintained that I photograph icebergs for their solid yet ephemeral beauty alone. Someone once described Antarctica as centuries of heaped-up solitude, and that image resonates with me. A part of me abhors the idea of mass tourism to Antarctica onboard huge ships, and another part says: go and see it now before it’s too late.

SOPHIE: In fact, I was thinking about melting ice whilst looking at your ice portraits and, realising the irony of how these big beautiful ice blocks will one day melt and disappear forever, I got to wondering about temporality. Do you think you are personally attracted to temporality? After all, ice must melt. Similarly, the culture of old Havana and Cuba, which you have also photographed in detail, will disappear. In some way both of the books you have recently published are about capturing temporality. Do you feel that there is something in that? Put it another way (and this was what I was thinking): maybe growing up in Communist Poland – which itself disappeared so quickly – has unconsciously produced an instinct in you to visually preserve vanishing cultures and vanishing landscapes?

The transience of all things is an enduring preoccupation…

MARZENA: I have always been acutely aware of the transience of life and you have put your finger on it. Temporality, entropy, decay, evanescence, however you frame it – geologically (melting glaciers), historically (Communist Poland or Cuba changing socially and visually), cosmically (eventually nothing will remain not only of our personal, collective or global endeavours but of the entire solar system), but also biographically or biologically (time allotted an organism in which to be alive). One of my photographic interests in recent years has been fading and dying flowers – I find them much more interesting in that state. More imperfect, more melancholy, but more fascinating and, yes, often more beautiful because of that. The transience of all things is an enduring preoccupation, and I have been interested in ideas about impermanence and imperfection inherent in all that is. These ideas include ancient philosophers such as Heraclitus, the Stoics, Japanese aesthetics of wabi-sabi, and 20th-century existentialism.

SOPHIE: Talking generally about photography – the experience of taking a photograph is often a profound one and difficult to verbalise. What would you personally say is the power of photography and why are so many drawn to it as a profound form of expression?

MARZENA: Everyone takes photos today. With our smartphones, photography has become the most democratic of all modes of expression. But for most people that expression stays purely digital, it never gets translated into print, and we’re in danger of losing all these millions of images captured every day. I say to friends with children that they must put pictures into physical albums, or they’ll have nothing to pass on to them. It’s the same with electronic communications replacing letters and postcards – what will our grandchildren have as a personal record of our lives? The most magical aspect of taking photographs for me has to do with that temporality we’ve talked about. We photographers make time stop mid-moment, freeze the ongoing scene and fix it forever (for historical forever, however long that might be). I’m a great believer in the ‘decisive moment’ and have little interest in ‘art photography’, by which I mean the contrived, carefully arranged compositions that some prefer. The only exceptions are my flower studies, and I enjoy subverting the still-life genre. It’s all about being playful, but I would never extend that controlling approach to street scenes or even portraits.

I feel the soul is not something separate from the physical, rather it is part of it, it’s the way the person is made visible and tangible. I’m a believer in souls in an Aristotelian rather than a Christian sense…

SOPHIE: I was taken by your images of old Poland, which strike me as a love letter to a lost lover – there is something utterly moving and, yes, uniquely profound about them. They feel very personal, as if you are organising memories?

MARZENA: When I look back at the series of images I took in Poland in the late 1980s, during my visits back to the old country, I have an acute sense of loss and longing and, yes, melancholy – not necessarily for the country itself as it was (I certainly don’t miss communism) or for my youth, although that’s part of it, to be sure. I think the nostalgia is for my response to the place, seeing it as if for the first time through my newly acquired camera lens, and the feeling of exuberance of looking, noticing and capturing what I saw. Robert Adams, the American photographer and writer (not to be confused with Ansel Adams), puts it perfectly when he writes about photographers in general: ‘If I like many photographers, and I do, I account for this by noting a quality they share – animation. They may or may not make a living by photography, but they are alive by it.’ He is one of my favourite writers on photography. I have read most of the 20th-century classic texts on photography and seeing – by Susan Sontag, John Berger, Roland Barthes, etc. – but I love the book of interviews with Henri Cartier-Bresson and books by Robert Adams most of all. They are practitioners, not theorists, and I find that more interesting. Beauty in Photography and Why People Photograph by Robert Adams are two greatly insightful books on the medium.

Lidia Ciolkosz

SOPHIE: You’ve intimately photographed a great variety of international artists, writers and thinkers, and your portraits are excellent – they seem to truly capture what you can call the creative soul or psyche, the creative spirit. What is the secret to this? Do you work with an almost psychic, intuitive sense of a person’s inner life when you photograph them? Having looked into people’s faces and eyes so directly, so intimately, what has that taught you about the human spirit? Do you see a soul or spirit, do you see beyond the body?

Jonathan Miller
Jonathan Miller

MARZENA: I have been privileged to meet and photograph some of the most fascinating minds alive, and some no longer with us. Of course what I photograph is people, their faces, not souls. But I feel the soul is not something separate from the physical, rather it is part of it, it’s the way the person is made visible and tangible. I’m a believer in souls in an Aristotelian rather than a Christian sense, i.e. the soul is not immortal and separate from the material body, rather it is the way the material is organised or acquires form.

All art is inevitably about facing mortality. I hope this doesn’t sound too morbid. I find a great, exuberant joy in capturing a moment that will never happen again in the same way

I try not to overthink the portraits I take and usually approach a person for a portrait because I already know and admire their work. When we meet, it’s very simple and natural. I might ask them to stand against a certain backdrop and look at the camera. It’s the only direction I give. What they do with their hands or how they hold themselves or what they wear is none of my business, I feel. These things are a reflection of their personality, character, spirit, and I wouldn’t like to control that expression or aim for something ‘arty’ and contrived. Not to disparage people like Annie Leibovitz, who is a favourite of so many, but her approach is completely alien to me and to my understanding of what a photographic portrait is about.

Fey Weldon
Fey Weldon

One of the portraits I’m most proud of is of Isaiah Berlin, whom I was lucky to photograph in 1992 or ’93. In those days I was still using tungsten light, which required time setting up and which would get hot and very bright, and the results were rather harsh, high-contrast images. I wouldn’t subject anybody to such treatment now, and only use natural, available light. Also, I try not to take more than fifteen minutes. So it is a testimony to Isaiah Berlin’s tolerant and generous nature that not only didn’t he object, but he made the experience thoroughly enjoyable by chatting about all manner of things. 

Anne Michaels
Anne Michaels

Another portrait I’m very fond of is of Anne Michaels, whom I asked to photograph shortly after her novel Fugitive Pieces was published. One of the characters in the book is obsessed with Antarctica and I immediately connected with Anne over this. Years later she kindly agreed to write text for my little book of Antarctic photographs.

SOPHIE: Sometimes I feel photographers are the ultimate visual philosophers. The moments they capture – and that single moment in which they decide to capture it – what Henri Cartier-Bresson called the decisive moment – often says more about existence and our experience of the world than intellectual books with all the limits of language. Does any of that resonate with you? I particularly found looking at your Havana images made me think you were as much a philosopher as a photographer. Do you feel there is an existential, even ontological aspect to being a photographer?

Helen Macdonald
Helen Macdonald

MARZENA: Definitely. I’m a huge fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography but also his writings on photography. It’s all about the decisive moment for me, and for that reason I have never been interested enough in making moving images, or posed still images for that matter. It is freezing the moment in which all elements of the image fall into place and the result is an epiphany of sorts. Or a visual poem. Poets work with words and feelings and distilled ideas, but also, and maybe predominantly, with images. So I would say a photographer at their best is more of a poet (or even an aphorist/epigrammatist) than a philosopher. Perhaps I would say that a photographer is a seeker of beauty and pattern and, dare I say it, joy in the visible world. Henri Cartier-Bresson speaks of the perfect alignment of head, heart and eye in capturing the decisive moment. But I think that the decision (when to press the shutter) is made bypassing the head, so it’s a reflex rather than a ‘decision’, something that happens without thinking or considering and which happens at the level of the spinal cord, not brain. But I repeat myself. How many times have I taken a photo which on closer inspection appears to contain the element of synchronicity – invisible at the time symmetries and patterns, humorous juxtapositions. It’s as if you, the photographer, are just a medium, someone who makes these images quite unconsciously (an equivalent of automatic writing, I suppose).

Philip Kerr

Photography, as with most art, comes from delight in the material world and the aliveness of seeing beauty and feeling emotion. Not just love and delight, but grief and pain too. It is born out of the acute awareness of transience of all things and ultimately of our lives. All art is inevitably about facing mortality. I hope this doesn’t sound too morbid. I find a great, exuberant joy in capturing a moment that will never happen again in the same way. But it has happened, and even though everything changes, nothing is going to change the fact that I’ve captured it. Even if all the digital files disappear and there is no record, no memory outlasting human life… Incidentally, I think that the reason why the young are ‘discovering’ film photography and wet darkroom and all that entails, apart from wanting ‘authentic experiences’, is the awareness of the perishable nature of digital records, so fragile and so evanescent, even with multiple copies stored in the ‘cloud’.

SOPHIE: What is the relationship between the eye of the camera lens and the ‘third eye’? Asked another way, what does the photographic process say about consciousness? In one way the camera is an invitation to really look at the world, metaphysically, metaphorically. Like dreams, the camera speaks to our imagination in symbols. It just seems to immediately work on another level. Does that resonate with you?

MARZENA: I don’t know about the third eye. I have a great respect for Eastern spirituality but have never explored these ideas in any depth, other than dabbling in transcendental meditation when I was much younger. But if a third eye is itself a metaphor for an unconscious way of seeing or knowing, then yes, a camera lens is indeed the Third Eye (or in case of twin lens reflex, a third and fourth eye). I have been interested in Jungian psychology of the unconscious ever since I started taking photos, and I’m continuously amazed at how some photos just take themselves without conscious cognitive effort. It’s as if these things have been noticed subliminally and only afterwards became rationalised and acknowledged and claimed. There is this line from Rilke’s letter to his Polish translator saying: ‘It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again “invisibly”, inside us.’ Rilke was of course a poet, but I think that strange alchemy does take place when we press the shutter in a moment when the visible connects to something invisible stored in our psyche. But I still think the real mystery is the visible, the sensual, the diverse, the observable… You could say that Aristotle is my man rather than Plato.

…for me the word ‘spiritual’ has to do with the aesthetic experience, that powerful sense of awe or wonder evoked by art or nature…

SOPHIE: I wanted to ask you about Lee Miller. She’s one of my favourite photographers and I find her extraordinary life utterly compelling – full of colour and tragedy, fierce intelligence, creativity. I wondered if you had a response to her work (as well as her life.) I suppose in my own imagination I see your experience of living on these huge navy ships like HMS Endurance and flying above the ice in Lynx helicopters in the Polar regions – as an independent female observing all this in presumably a male environment – well, it’s a very powerful image, the female gaze, the strong female will. Of course it’s different, but there is a determination there that struck me as similar?

MARZENA: Yes, I admire her and her work very much. She was ‘a muse’ to Man Ray in Paris at first, if I remember her story well, and his solarised nudes and portraits of her became iconic images of 20th-century photography. But she didn’t want to be a muse; she wanted to be on the other side of the camera lens. I identify with that very strongly, and with her will to go where few women went before. It’s so much easier for women nowadays to do things in a traditionally male environment – it’s encouraged and supported. If you’re interested in aviation, for example, there is an organisation Women in Aviation International whose sole purpose is to encourage schoolgirls in this direction and help them succeed in a career in aviation. My heroines and role models are all women who did what they wanted to do at the time when no official bodies were there to support and encourage specific outcomes in terms of female representation. They had to overcome huge obstacles erected by society. I revere the women who didn’t seem to care that something was ‘not for women’, they obviously didn’t get that memo, and they just went ahead and did those things anyway. They were tough, tenacious and resourceful. Amelia Earhart springs to mind (sticking with the aviation theme);Freya Stark making her intrepid journeys in the man’s world of the Middle East, and writing about them so beautifully; Georgia O’Keeffe, Gerda Taro and many, many others.

SOPHIE: Tell us more about your favourites!

MARZENA: Dorothea Lange is another old favourite. I’ve only discovered recently, when visiting her Barbican retrospective exhibition, that she suffered from polio and had to overcome her disability as well as prejudice against her gender, I presume. On the other hand, I was, you could say, perversely disappointed that she was supported by a husband in all her photographic endeavours – I wanted her to have achieved it all on her own, I suppose. If I had to list my favourite photographers, they would include Andre Kertesz, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold, Edward Weston, and of course Vivian Maier. The list is long and doesn’t stop here. Of my contemporaries, I think Steve McCurry is an extraordinary visual poet working in colour, and Joseph Koudelka is a master of monochrome.

SOPHIE: Of the two books you had recently published – the black and white ice studies and the colourful Havana street scenes – you described these as the yin and yang of your books. I wondered how easily you decide to photograph in colour or black and white. Yin and yang also implies balance; I wondered what balance you were achieving aesthetically with these publications.

Havana
Havana

MARZENA: They are polar opposites, to make a pun – one is monochrome, of stark and graphic icy places, devoid of life (in my photographs, that is), almost abstract in its austerity and detachment (mostly taken from the air), the other sun-drenched urban scenes teeming with humanity, heat and saturated colour. I came to colour late. My early photography was all in black and white; as for most photographers at that time it was a default choice. I loved it and developing rolls of film and making prints in my bathroom became an important part of life. Colour was a language of commerce and advertising and travel brochures and the spreads in National Geographic. I wanted nothing to do with it. Things changed with the advent of digital photography. I’m by nature a late adopter, and didn’t get my first digital camera until, I think, 2006. And then I got hooked on colour and loved its endless possibilities. It’s a different medium, and I chose to work with one or the other depending on the project. Havana could only be in colour for me, much as I admire Walker Evans black-and-white book of Havana in the 1930s. Colour was both my medium and one of the subjects/themes of that project. You see differently in monochrome and in colour. The first is abstract – a simplification and reduction of the physical world to tones, values on the grayscale, and the relationships and contrasts between them. My rule is that if the colour doesn’t add anything of value or interest to the image, shoot in black and white. It is still the default. But working in black and white is not going to make your photos automatically more interesting or serious or ‘artistic’ or deep, as many young photographers of the digital generation seem to believe. It’s a language with different rules – different grammar and syntax – and it’s not enough just to take away the colour to arrive at profundity.

Marzena Pogorzaly
Havana

SOPHIE: Talking specifically about the relationship between aesthetics, energy and spirituality would you regard your artistic life as ultimately being some form of a spiritual journey? Whilst developing a career as a photographer have you explored your consciousness at the same time?

MARZENA: Another interesting question. I tend not to talk about spirituality, as I think the word has acquired a rather New Age, self-help, shallow connotation, which I would prefer to distance myself from. But I don’t feel at home with organised religion either, so for me the word ‘spiritual’ has to do with the aesthetic experience, that powerful sense of awe or wonder evoked by art (music especially, but also architecture) or nature. One experience stayed with me from my latest visit to the Antarctic, which would fall into that category. The day was dull, damp and overcast. I was scheduled to go up in the helicopter and was seriously contemplating not going. The prospect of putting on a heavy survival suit, waiting on deck in the freezing cold, then not seeing anything photogenic through thick fog and falling snow seemed, frankly, less attractive than staying warm and cosy at the ship’s bar. But I snapped out of it, thinking one mustn’t waste an opportunity to fly even if there are no photos to bring back. Once up in the air, something happened that I can only describe as a moment of grace. The clouds parted, the sun came out from behind them and shone a beam of spotlight down onto the most extraordinary berg I have seen. Everything just fell into place in one moment – the light, the scene, the brief ‘window of opportunity’. I asked the pilot to slow down, got permission to slide open the door, and started shooting. Maybe thirty seconds later the clouds were back, the sun was gone, and with it the magic of the scene. But I had my picture and felt immense gratitude.

http://www.marzenapogorzaly.com@marzenaphoto


MARCH 2021 Sophie Lévy Burton MONK

1 thought on “Marzena Pogorzaly: Behind the Lens

  1. Beautiful explanations. Marzena writes so well. How lovely to hear your words. Thank you, Sophie. Great interview.

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