NIE CZATUJĘ Z APARATEM – rozmowa z Czesławem Czaplińskim

Portraying someone involves entering someone’s privacy, personal sphere. And a given person must give their consent. I made friends with some of those whom I had taken the pictures of. And you still need to remember that celebrities usually have an already fixed image for the public purposes.And it is not always easy to get to them in such a way so as to show otherwise – says Czeslaw Czapiński, one of the world’s most famous Polish photographers. He specializes in portraits.Among others: Jane Fonda, Tina Turner, Jerzy Kosinski, Michael Jackson, Beata Tyszkiewicz, Catherine Deneuve, Umberto Eco, Katarzyna Figura, Ryszard Kapuscinski, Czeslaw Milosz, Luciano Pavarotti, Roman Polanski, Sophia Loren and Jimmy Carter posed for him.


Interviewed by IZABELLA JARSKA

It is said that you are a photographer of the stars. Do you agree with this statement?

– In 1989 I had a press conference at the National Art Gallery Zachęta in connection with my solo exhibition „Face to Face” and one of the young journalists asked me whether I am known only because I photograph celebrities. And that I shine with the light reflected from the popularity of these people. I told him then that maybe in the first years of the residence in the United States I really meant it a little. In this sense, it was a kind of challenge for me. I thought then that if I could take a picture of, for example, Tina Turner and Jane Fonda, who hardly anyone has a chance to reach to portray, I would achieve success. Because I would find myself in a narrow and elite circle. However, in practice, this task proved to be much more difficult than I could even think, definitely harder than in Poland because in the USA such personalities are surrounded by a cordon of people who have to be gone through to get to them. The second difficulty was that as it turned out it is not enough to reach the stars and to portray them. Then one still needs to compete with the best pictures of the most prominent photographers who had photographed them before. When I realized this, initially I wanted to withdraw, but later I came to the conclusion that I would give it a try. And now, as once Roman Opałka (a famous Polish painter and graphic designer – editorial note) told me about his „art of counting”, „I drifted so far away that I cannot turn back because I will drown”. But the statement that I portray only stars and celebrities is very far from the truth. Some of the people I photograph are unknown to the public. You can see them, for example, in my series „People of Łazienki Królewskie”, where I photographed the staff of this institution, including those working there as gardeners, mechanics and maintenance staff. So it is not that I am only interested in stars. What is more, I do not work like a paparazzi. I do not lie in ambush for anyone with a camera. I do not „take snaps” in bulk of people known to the public even if I get a chance, because I am invited to parties in the VIP area, which are teeming with famous faces. I take photos of celebrities, for example, at their home and at work, and at the appointed time. And getting the permission for a private session is very difficult.

And once you get such a consent …

– I need to be well prepared. That is, before going to a photo shoot I need to find out about a given person as much as possible. I prepare myself very carefully when I have to portray someone with a lens I admit, even though It was only a few times, I did commit a crime of negligence in this respect. Such was, for example, the case with Francoise Gilot, a well-known painter who was a life partner and muse of Pablo Picasso and a mother of their daughter Paloma. I made an appointment with her because I wanted to know and portray people around the famous painter. And as for Francoise Gilot, I only knew that she was connected with him. While taking pictures I continued asking her about Picasso and I noticed that she was getting more and more irritated. And after half an hour she told me that it was the end of our session and the discussion about Picasso. At first I did not understand what was going on. It was only later that I realized what I’d done wrong. I found out that the period of living together with Picasso was dark and toxic in Francoise Gilot’s life and she was reluctant to recall it. And because of my ignorance of this subject I kept asking her about it. However, despite all that, the story had a happy ending. Well, a few days after that meeting I received a letter from Ms. Gilot in which she thanked me for the pictures, because they were the first in her life, in which she did not look like a ditsy. And that she would use them as her official photographs for various publications.

What helped you most in developing a career in the United States?

– The first important person I photographed there was Jerzy Kosiński. I became friends with him and he knew everyone there. When I met him in the early 80s he was famous with his last few books becoming bestsellers and everyone in America knew him. I got his address and phone number. When I called him, his wife Kiki, who was also his assistant, answered the phone. In broken English, I told her that I was very keen on taking a photograph of Kosiński for my exhibition „Famous Poles in America.” She told me to call in three months, because they were going to Switzerland. My exhibition was scheduled for next month. And then was when a key moment in my life happened: I thought that if I wanted to do the above mentioned exhibition, it would not make sense without the pictures of him, because at that time he was the most famous Pole overseas. So, if I could not reach him, I would have nothing to search for there and it would be better to go back to Poland. I wrote a letter to Kosiński in Polish, I went to his address and I passed the letter through the porter. I barely managed to get home when the phone rang. It was Kosiński. He told me that indeed he was leaving, but he would be in New York the following day for his photo shoot with „Playboy”, so if I wanted I could drive up for a quarter to take some pictures of him. The following day I took my portfolio and I went to photograph him. The session prolonged till the night. And that is how it all started. Because Kosiński, as I said, knew in New York everybody. And if you have photos of such a person in your portfolio, it is not difficult later to talk others into a session.

How to portray famous people?

– As I said earlier, it is not easy to get straight to them. Once you get to them, you need to establish a kind of bond with them. Because portraying someone involves entering someone’s intimacy, the personal sphere. And the person must give their consent. I made friends with some of the people I had taken the pictures of. And you still need to remember that celebrities usually have an already fixed image for the public purposes. And it is not always easy to get to them in such a way so as to show them in a different way because there had been taken earlier thousands of their photos. And it is extremely difficult to show them as they had never been seen before.

What is the most interesting to you in the portrayed faces? Some specific element of their face, for example, the eyes? Special features? Or simply beauty as such?

– Beauty has no meaning here. I like the face to be interesting, to show something. For me, the most interesting are mature faces. Because the history of life is written on them. This is a serious matter. I always say that the face must be earned. One time I photographed a pianist Vladimir Horowitz and Edward Redliński, who was then in New York, told me – „look, this is not a face, but a battlefield, everything is written on it.” But such faces are the most interesting to photograph, although this is probably in some way more challenging. In general, making a good portrait is very difficult.

Do you share your knowledge on this subject with the novices of photography?

– I have published a few books, let us say, instructional, where I reveal the secrets of photography, especially portraits. Soon I am also planning to publish a unique book containing my forty years of experience: „How to photograph digitally? Czeslaw Czapliński reveals the secrets.” At present, we are living in the culture that communicates via images on a massive scale. Thanks to the Internet and new digital technologies every day in the world there are sent billions, maybe not photographs but just pictures. The problem is that the majority of them are rubbish in the full sense of the word. And they should never be circulated in public. And how to communicate by means of such rubbish? Therefore, I believe that it is worthwhile to pass knowledge on how such photographs should be taken. It should be done so as not to litter the world with the aforementioned trash. Perhaps it should even be part of the curriculum at school. At this time, when we learn to write we should also learn to create images.

More recently, in late June, you opened the exhibition dedicated to Michael Jackson…

– Yes, it has to do with the 5th anniversary of his death, which took place on June 25. The exhibition is accompanied by the album: Michael Jackson 1958–2009 „I love you, Poland”. There is also a chapter devoted to Jackson in the book „Portraits with History,” which was published by Zwierciadło Publishing. I photographed Jackson during his stay in Poland in 1997. I spent then 48 hours with him. I have to admit that at first I thought he was a freak, because that is the image that the media had created. It turned out that this picture is completely untrue. And Jackson was a brilliant, humble guy who in one of the interviews said: „Remember, no matter how many times you come to do a particular thing – just do it until it is well done. Believe in yourself, no matter how much negative energy brings you down. Reject it and remember – you will be only who you want to be. And the most important, a hundred times the most important, is modesty. Maybe you will owe the strength and power over people to your talent, but never let yourself be carried away by arrogance or pride. This is the destruction of humanity… „.

Czesław Czapliński 
the artist photographer, journalist and documentary film-maker, born in 1953 in Łódź. Since 1979 he has lived in New York and Warszawa. The author and co-author of more than 30 albums and books, among others: "The Styka Family Saga", "Face to Face", "Jerzy Kosinski’s Face and Masks", "American Careers", "Portraits", "My HISstory – How I Photographed the King ","Art Photography – Portrait Photography", "Łazienki Królewskie in Warsaw - Four Seasons" and "Portraits with History.” During 40 years of his career he photographed the most well-known personalities from the world of business, culture, politics and sports. He has had more than 100 photographic exhibitions all around the world.


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