From across Photoville’s dusty dirt lot, in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, I spotted a picture pinned to the outside of a shipping container. Damn, it was good. The composition was frenetic and meticulous; the colors played perfectly with each other; and, somehow, this aerial picture of a massively crowded beach managed to capture nothing less than the best and worst of…humanity.
Kacper Kowalski happened to be standing beside his brilliant picture and told me he’d been an architect who traded that in order to do two things he really loves—flying and photography.
In February, World Press Photo gave Kowalski’s “Side Effects” second place for best long-term project, and in March, the book was honored as a finalist by Picture of the Year International.
As the former editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine, I was very familiar with the work of Margaret Bourke-White and, looking at this picture, I immediately felt the kiss of her iconic pictures made from high above 1950s Coney Island. But this work was more intimate, more colorful, more alive, more, well, anthropological. Here, I talk with Kowalski about his new direction, the magic of the beach and the risks of creating conceptual art.
Bill Shapiro: You make pictures from a self-piloted glider or gyrocopter 500 feet above the ground. Tell me about your approach.
Kacper Kowalski: I’ve always loved to fly. I started when I was 19, and when I logged 3,000 hours in the air, I stopped counting. The body of work I call “Side Effects” reflects what I see when I’m in the air, flying over the land. These documentary pictures show how people transform the natural environment, its structure, its colors, the landscape. For me, it’s like the scientific work of biologists who travel to a distant land, maybe Papua New Guinea, in search of a particular species of snail. They watch this snail day and night, in the dry and wet season, through summer and winter. And then they describe its behavior.
This is what I do: I fly and I look at the people, what they do down there; I study the traces and trails they leave on the ground. “Side Effects,” which I’ve been working on for eight years, collects all these observations.
BS: What’s changed in your newer work?
KK: I’m bringing two projects to New York City: “Side Effects” and “Weaving.” I began work on the “Weaving” in 2012 when I realized that some of the behavior I was seeing couldn’t be described with documentary photography. One afternoon, while looking over the pictures from one of my flights, it struck me that although the photos were accurately depicting what I had seen on the ground, it had nothing to do with what I actually felt while flying over the place.
That is why, very shyly at first, I broke the sacred documentary rule and, with “Weaving,” began by experimenting with processing the pictures. I felt like an architect again, working on a long-term project. My process requires spending hundreds of hours in the air taking pictures, and thousands of hours weaving the “yarn.” There is just you and the raw material you use. You transform it. You shape it. Like an architect, it may take years from the initial idea to the moment you open the door of the newly built mansion.
BS: Was the transition from documentary to fine art difficult for you, or liberating?
KK: It was quite tricky. We live in a labeled world where photographers are put into well-defined drawers. You can be in a drawer labeled “photojournalist” or one labeled “artist.” I was nervous whether this sort of conceptual project would harm my credibility as a documentary photographer. My “Side Effects” photos are pure documentary. But ultimately, experimentation is worth the risk; it’s exciting to cross the borders of taboo.
BS: Why is the beach an area of focus for the “Weavings”?
KK: At the beach near my home, I see a village forming every day. This village has its own rhythm, its own sense of order. It has its own private plots of land, its streets, its agoras. Suddenly, we’ve got a volleyball court—and an hour later, it’s gone and has become something new. This village lives a vivid life: reborn at every sunrise and dying at every sunset, only to come back the next day.
BS: What equipment do you shoot with?
KK: My most important piece of equipment is my paraglider or gyrocopter. I always fly on my own. This is the only way to truly control the image, to set the time, the place, the height, the angle. To feel the temperature and the gusts of wind. But concerning the camera, I always hold it in my hand. I never use a drone or a remote control. The most challenging aspect is stabilizing the camera. That matters a lot, particularly while shooting at dusk and at dawn. Then the exposure must be longer, and the shakes I experience while flying are much stronger.
BS: How does your background in architecture inform your framing and cropping?
KK: I am a hostage to my architectural education: my thinking models, my way of analysis, even my vision is formatted by the architectural faculty I’ve studied with. And it worries me a little bit, as I know that I miss so many things because of that.
BS: Why do so many of your pictures have no distinct title or caption material other than the location coordinates?
KK: The specific places I photograph are most accurately described by the geographic coordinates. Other information I could provide would color the way the viewer experiences the picture. I like to leave my pictures open to interpretation. I want the viewer to share the experience I had when I was flying—and there was no caption on the ground telling me what I was looking at. But there is no secret as to where they were taken: You can Google the coordinates and see what I saw.
Kacper Kowalski’s exhibition “Above and Beyond” will be showing at The Curator Gallery in New York City from April 22 to May 30, 2015.