We first learned about the photographer and curator duo Zosia Krasnowolska & Dafydd Williams from our filmmaker friend Massimo Salvato, who met them while they moved to Naples in 2014 for one of their many photography projects, and a few months later, when the first snow began to fall on a cold and dark December afternoon, we made the acquaintance of Zosia and Dafydd upon visiting the 72m² gallery in Pontypool to see “longitude”, a group exhibition created around the themes of longing and distance. Striking a friendly and spirited conversation, we expressed our enthusiastic surprise when finding out about this wonderful initiative in the area, and shortly after Christmas we revisited the gallery on two different occasions to see the works on show, to hear about Dafydd’s large format photographic process and to enjoy some more thought-provoking dialogues.
On a sunny Sunday morning, as the spring started to creep towards us, we met at the gallery in Pontypool and then went for a wander around the post-industrial landscape in the area. This photo-essay and interview is the result of our many hours of lengthy and tonic conversations with this duo of self-taught analogue photographers, who joined forces nearly five years ago and started the kickplate project, a curatorial initiative born out of their desire to share with others the work of under-the-radar fine art photographers from all over the world. Their curatorial efforts didn’t go unnoticed, and now the project is funded with support from the Arts Council of Wales, Torfaen Arts Development and Pontypool Community Council, continuing to bring international fine art photography to small town communities in the South Wales Valleys.
For people who don’t know you, who are Zosia and Dafydd? Tell us a bit about your backgrounds.
We are analogue photographers and curators. Zosia is also a translator and Dafydd is a camera builder, but there isn’t a huge amount to tell really, other than the usual biographical stuff, which we don’t want to bore everyone with the completely-mundane-run-of-the-mill-ity of.
What are your most vivid childhood memories?
D. I don’t really have any vivid memories, and I have to admit that I also have terrible memory recall, so anytime I try to remember something my mind just becomes a big empty space. It’s like someone literally scoops out all my thoughts... and then I usually just start daydreaming. My memories just tend to be outlines of, vague feelings of, or impressions of.
Z. My long-term memory is too good, so I have lots of memories. I guess one of the most vivid ones is sticking my head inside a massive washing machine and yelling, asking my parents to come back home from work (no idea why I thought they could hear me). I remember the smell of it, the texture of the insulation and the echo of my voice. I hated preschool and was lucky that my grandma retired just as my parents gave up on sending me there. I always preferred hanging out with adults, so I was not the most popular child as you can imagine.
How did you two meet?
We met in Naples, Italy. Zosia was there on an Erasmus exchange programme and I was visiting my brother who was living in Italy at the time. I’d travelled to Naples to visit Pompeii and Zosia just happened to be working in the hostel I was staying in.
How did you get into photography? What were your journeys like?
D. Long I guess. It started when I was in my mid-teens, after hitting a dead end and giving up on painting I decided to try to concentrate on photography and using an old Praktica we had in the attic at home I taught myself how to use the cameras and some of the basic “rules” of photography. I then left school at 18 and started working, so mostly gave up on any sort of art for a long time. When I’d finally earned enough money to travel a little, I bought a (digital) camera to take with me and it just sort of snowballed from there. After I’d met Zosia (and went back to using analogue cameras) and moved to Warsaw, I suddenly had way too much time on my hands and started experimenting with different techniques, cameras, films and then finally started building my own cameras.
Z. I started taking photos as a child, my dad used to be a photographer and we always had cameras kicking about the house. I think I used my first film camera when I was 8 or 9. By then my dad couldn’t work in the darkroom anymore because of his glaucoma. Considering how long ago I started, I should be a much better photographer by now! Most people I knew thought I was a pain, having to wait for me to photograph stuff, so I usually took photos when I was on my own, which I still enjoy doing. That would explain the lack of people in my photos. Dafydd was the first person I met who didn’t mind me stopping for ages to photograph something. It was after we met that I switched back to film photography that I’d briefly abandoned because of my digital camera.
Tell us a bit about your collaborative relationship. How do you influence each other and what are the most striking similarities between your visions?
We both enjoy fine art photography and pictorialism, so the shared taste makes it easier. When it comes to selecting images and arranging the exhibitions though, Zosia certainly has a better eye for arrangement and seeing patterns in images/colour/shapes/geometry whereas I (Dafydd) have a bit more of a chaotic vision, usually forgetting that it all has to have some sort of consistency, this usually means that Zosia is left to make visual sense of what images we agree on.
What about the differences?
Z. We sometimes disagree when it comes to individual images, but discussing that is an interesting part of composing an exhibition. It varies from exhibition to exhibition, sometimes we agree as to 90% of the photos, and sometimes we have quite a few different images that we’d like to include. Sometimes we agree to disagree, as long as there’s aesthetic coherence, and then see our perception of the images change throughout the show.
What are your major sources of inspiration? What about your most poignant common influences?
Z. I guess it might sound a bit trite, but the people we work with are probably our biggest inspiration, certainly in terms of the project. It’s usually by following threads through photography websites and discovering new/interesting people that pushes the project forward. The project was born, if you really strip away everything, out of our desire to want to share what we find with other people.
D. I can only speak for myself when I say I’m a bit of an iconoclast, so I don’t like to think in terms of influences, certainly not in the traditional sense of people, and it’s being pushed by the new ideas/techniques of others that drives me, or informs my direction as much as any one “influence”.
What subject appears most often in your conversations?
Other than dinner plans, or the moribund state of the world... We talk a lot about cinema, travels or just photography in general.
What kind of messages or emotions do you want the curated images to evoke?
Z. We would like people to enjoy what they see, and to feel curious, surprised, inspired or confused by either the subjects or the techniques our photographers use. But we don’t like to impose anything, we enjoy hearing different interpretations from our visitors, discussing photographs with them and seeing our visitors’ reactions. Some people can be quite emotional, some see things that we’d never have thought of before, some will point out exactly what they don’t like, and others will come back repeatedly to see their favourite photograph again, and all that makes it feel worth doing what we do. Overall, our main message would be: fine art for small towns!
What about your personal work? Are there any recurring themes that run through your body of work?
D. I don’t think so. I’ve never really thought of any of it as a body of work. I’ve always thought more of my images as one-offs. I’m always just trying to create one image that’s interesting or beautiful, which is hard enough I think.
Z. Like Dafydd, I don’t think of my work in these terms. Looking at it from a distance, there are a lot of empty spaces in my photography, but that’s because I’m not that good at capturing people and like having a lot of time to decide what to capture.
How did the the kickplate project come about and what made it worth pursuing?
We moved back to Wales in winter 2012 and spent a miserable spring trying to figure out what to do with ourselves. Then the 1st Diffusion Festival came about, which we volunteered for and very much enjoyed, and when it was over we felt that we missed being in a gallery space day to day and were frustrated by the complete lack of access to fine art in our area.
Dafydd also considered applying for ACW funding, but it’s hard if you haven’t already been exhibited; we then realised how few options there really are to be exhibited (especially for an unknown photographer from a small town) if you don’t have the money to self-fund, or have been “discovered”.
Some time passed and an empty barber shop (hence the kickplate project, from the metal plates on the shops’ walls and door) popped up in Abertillery’s high street. We decided to give it a go, spent our savings and rented it per week from the surprised and super friendly owner. We invited a bunch of other artists whom we mostly met online to participate and organised our first show, “visitors”.
The response in our town was so enthusiastic we decided to try and go on, one show at a time. It was the reaction of our visitors and the pleasure of working with our photographers, who trust us with their work from different places around the world, and also the feeling that we have the freedom and opportunity to help other artists in a similar position to us, and on top of that to be able to do something we believe in and enjoy, that made us want to continue.
Tell us about 76m², your latest curatorial venture. What was the driving force behind this project and how is it received by the public and your circle of friends?
Philosophically, it’s the same as the others at its core really; we just want to share some of the beautiful or visually/conceptually interesting photography by people that might not have the opportunity to show their work otherwise ‒ because of finance, not having been “blessed” by someone else, because they’re from an unfashionable country, or whatever. It’s also important to us that we continue to bring fine art photography and high quality exhibitions to people who are otherwise excluded from, or wouldn’t be able to cover the expense of travelling to a place normally considered the place to host these types of things. It is not fair for people living in small towns to have to pay extra to access art, not something that city dwellers have to consider to the same extent.
But in a “why Pontypool” sense, Dafydd was working on a series of exhibitions with the support of Verity Hiscocks (Art Development Manager for Torfaen Council), they got to talking about the gallery we were running in Bargoed at the time, and after a couple of meetings she invited us to open a similar project in Pontypool. Pontypool seemed like exactly the type of place for us to continue the project in, and so we jumped at the chance.
We just started our second year in Pontypool, which is a new experience for us, but the first year went really well and as always the response has been positive. It’s tough and intense, as any project that runs this long is going to be, but people are really engaging with the artwork even when some of it is at its most abstract or challenging. And we’re finding that even if someone doesn’t like an individual image, or that specific exhibition, they are still happy to come along, share their opinions and see the value in the gallery being there, plus they are not shy ‒ like at all ‒ about being honest, which definitely keeps us on our toes.
How has the art scene in South Wales changed since you started the kickplate project in 2013?
We would hope it has changed slightly, but it would be self-aggrandising to think we have made a big impact. We work on the micro-scale of the towns we exhibit in, and of course we hope that in these small towns it changes things for the better, giving people free art to enjoy close to home, making the high street less boring and empty, bringing the work of photographers from around the world to small communities, giving kids film cameras to play about with. We’ve met artists living in our area who are excited about not having to commute far to interact with other artists. Although most people that we exhibit don’t have the time or the finances to visit us in Wales, we’ve been able to show some of them around on skype, or arrange for our visitors to speak to them online.
There are also some artists who came to us from bigger cities in Wales who can now see that the response to fine art is very positive here, and who can see the value of working in small towns beyond the post-industrial/heritage stuff. Class divisions in the UK are breathtaking and this manifests itself in the art scene as well. We’re not very fond of artistic authority or famous figures to look up to, so we hope that we can show other artists from small towns that it’s possible not to care about that either. That’s not to say it’s easy, but it’s worth trying.
In the wider context of Wales, the biggest change seems to be that funding is becoming harder to get and therefore more competitive. We’ve obviously been lucky enough to get ACW, County Council and Community Council support over the years, but other groups haven’t been so lucky. And as funding has become scarcer, the process is getting more competitive, which could lead to a fragmented community where collaboration becomes harder ‒ not only because money has to be earmarked before you begin and collaborations therefore can’t form naturally or spontaneously. That being said, hopefully, and I’m not sure this is unique to Wales, but there is a strong sense of community to the arts in Wales, where people currently share ideas and work with each other for the fun/joy/creativity of it, and that “careerists” seem to be the exception, so I hope that is something intrinsic here ‒ rather than because opportunities have been relatively good for the last couple decades.
And so I’d just like to add to that, that I realise public funding isn’t the saviour of the arts in Wales, but to hope that private/commercial funding is the solution is betting too much on a system that works to benefit itself rather than those who depend on it. Wales is too small, and large parts of it are too poor to have a healthy arts scene across the country based solely on commercial activity (which we believe shouldn’t be the principle in art anyway), and if we don’t invest in it collectively, then we risk leaving too many talented people behind for reasons completely out of their control.
Throughout the years you seem to have developed close ties with the artistic community in South Wales. Can you tell us more about the challenges faced by the local art scene? What is it like to be an artist in Wales from a photographer's perspective?
We’re not sure we have that close ties to the community in Wales if we’re being honest, and we probably could do better to try to be part of it.
We probably have closer ties to artists around the world than in Wales, which is just a quirk of the fact that we started the project through the online friendships that we made with other photographers and, as neither of us studied photography or studied/worked in art in Wales, we didn’t have that peer group here when we started.
But the people we do know generally struggle to get paid work and recognition, especially kids from working-class backgrounds. Also, there’s so much bias against Wales and specifically against people in small towns here, people from well-off backgrounds see you as a bit of a curiosity, and with all the pressure on developing careers it’s seen as a natural course of action to leave your town and move to Cardiff, so you can then move to London. That’s unfair and unrealistic, and it drains the Valleys off talented people, which of course doesn’t only apply to art.
With some lucky exceptions, it’s almost impossible to make a living as an artist here, unless you’re willing to trade your taste and interests for what people expect to buy.
That being said, as difficult as the situation here is, it’s by many measures easier to be a photographer in Wales than most of the countries we’ve featured photographers from, especially those from outside “Western” countries. The fact that we even have an Arts Council that not only has money to support some artists, but that isn’t a political body/tool too is almost unheard of, and it’s easy to take it for granted for sure.
What is a must have in your gear bag?
D. That’s tough; I flitter back and forth between cameras and equipment so much I don’t know if I have any real must haves. On a basic level though, I guess I’d have to just say any camera, as long as I have one, I’ll just try to create or capture what I want with what I have.
Z. Colour 35mm film. I used to go through it so fast I ended up with a backlog of about 5 years worth of photos to scan. Now I’m trying to switch to medium format to be more considerate with film. When it comes to technical equipment, I’m a Luddite. I’ll just use anything that exposes my film to light.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Z. My mum has always said “do things properly or not at all”. It used to annoy me as a child, but it is a very good piece of advice. Also, “If we have no beans, we are fucked”, as my manager in Dublin used to say.
D. “do not let the weight [one] pulls towards [oneself] exceed your own personal weight”, Lyle.
What does Wales offer you as photographers and curators?
As a project, I’d say being based in Wales has probably helped with regards to funding. Not that it’s easy, but the support from ACW goes far beyond anything we could have hoped for in, say, Poland for instance. People are also generally pretty open-minded, which has given us the opportunity to really experiment with the exhibitions we’ve shown and I’m not sure we’d have that same freedom in a similarly small town elsewhere, or possibly in a bigger city/country. The support and help we’ve had from local institutions ‒ the art departments & councils in Caerphilly/Bargoed and Torfaen/Pontypool, and the cooperation with the Market Hall Cinema in Brynmawr has probably meant as much to the project as our own input. It’s also heartening to see that in the times of austerity people still see the point in sharing art and access to culture, and the fact that ‒ generally ‒ people in Wales can have a sense of humour even in difficult situations really helps.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
D. That stuff will happen, some of it bad, but that you can and probably will get used to it.
Z. That you can endure more than you’d imagine.
What do you do or where do you go to unwind and get inspired?
D. Making cameras started as a bit of a necessity because I couldn’t afford a view/field camera, but I’m finding more and more that the physical nature of building something is a good way to switch off my brain. Listening to music also helps and has always been a great emotional inspiration for me.
Z. Having grown up in a city, and because my part of Poland, Mazovia, is very flat, I’m still amazed by the landscape in our part of Wales. If the weather is dry enough and we don’t have too much work (which is rare), I go cycling by the river or walking up the mountains near our house. I also enjoy exploring the back streets of towns, looking at the colours and textures of the walls, doors and rubbish.
You’ve led quite a nomadic life so far. If you could live and work anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
Z. I don’t think we could settle in one place. Naples is where we’ve lived and worked more than once, but life there is so intense and frustrating at times it’s very hard to focus on work, the extremely hot summers and the lack of central heating in winter makes life tough there. And when you’re not struggling, you’re too busy admiring the city and can’t focus on much else. If we could do this, I think we would travel between different cities and countries and stay there for a few months at a time. Somewhere with a beautiful architecture and natural setting, and a healthy dose of scruffiness.
D. There are so many places, it would be impossible to just pick I think, and it would be too long a list for anyone to really want to get to the end of, so I’ll just say the reason why is that it’s amazing stimulation for creativity, it pushes you mentally and emotionally. For instance, being dropped in a place where you don’t speak the language gives you all sorts of opportunities (especially if your time there is open-ended rather than if you know you’ll be leaving in a few days anyway), and sure it can be lonely and difficult financially, but you get to observe people, or a place without the usual distractions. Being exposed to new ideas/cultures is also a good way to avoid getting stuck in a certain way of thinking, or burned out. Plus, the world is just so, like, totally interesting!
What are you working on at the moment?
Other than 76m², we regularly work with the Market Hall Cinema in Brynmawr and recently opened another exhibition there. We’re also working with a group in Fochriw as part of the project run there by Cwm a Mynydd, part of EU’s Rural Development Plan. We recently spent an afternoon with the group and handed out some simple point and shoot cameras to them. Since then, they’ve been taking pictures around the town and they’ll soon bring the cameras back to us and we’ll show them how film is developed. And then working with them we hope to curate an exhibition out of those images that will be displayed in the town. We’re also hoping to host a couple of satellite exhibitions around Torfaen, but don’t want to give too much away about that just yet.
Where would you like to take the kickplate project next?
That depends on what form the project takes in future. Our current way of working is pretty intense, so it would be nice to maybe slow down a bit. If we were to continue the gallery side of it, we’d like to work on something in a valley a bit further west. We’d also always imagined the project as an international project, so it would be nice to work on some exhibitions abroad similar to the one we worked on in Naples. But unfortunately, like so much else, it comes down to funding.
And finally, can you recommend us a song?
It's impossible to decide on one, but Dafydd's current choice is "Lord Knows Best" by Dirty Beaches and mine is "Home" by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.