It’s A Second In Life, But It’s Immortal:
An Interview with photographer René Karwowski
By Jacquelyn Cynkar
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with René Karwowski, the B&W: A Look into Black and White Photography Best-of-Show winner for her photomontage entitled USA. We met up to talk about the show and her thoughts on photography. This vibrant, easy-going visionary reminded me of why many of us remain in awe of the photographic medium. As she observes, “It’s a second in life, but it’s immortal”.
How did you get into photography?
It’s a very sad story, actually. Well, it isn’t and it is. When I was younger, my father was a photographer, so I used to sit on the cellar steps and watch my dad develop film, and there was this whole awe about it. I was maybe 5 and I was literally dumbfounded about it all, watching him do all of this – a total crazy mad-man alchemist, dipping and moving and hanging. There was a romanticism about the film, and the whole entire process. I kind of fell in love with it then.
So, my father was always into it and I became fascinated with it and I got into drawing & painting because I was young and didn’t have a camera. I knew I was very artistic. I come from a very artsy family – my dad was a musician and he was into photography, my mother would draw and she is also a ridiculously good interior designer, and my brother is a very talented jazz musician. I always wanted to work with film, but had no money and no access and I kept finding excuses.
But then, and here comes the sad part, almost 7 years ago I had a friend that was murdered by her boyfriend. And I sat one day, going through a ridiculous amount of photos, just to find one of her and I. I found one, one tiny one. She was like a little sister to me, and all of a sudden I said ‘okay, I’m in’. I didn’t care how much it cost; I decided to finance a camera. I felt like I needed to find something beautiful left in the world, because it had been taken.
And, I haven’t regretted it. I’m so sure that this is my medium. I am SO in love with photography.
Let’s talk about the Black & White show. Congratulations on your Best-of-Show win! What did you think of the exhibit? Actually, it was my first show. I had a friend convince me that my stuff was good and that I needed to put it out there. So I entered, and honestly, I was totally amazed that they took all three of my photos. The Best-in-Show win was even more amazing. I’ve always just been shooting on my own and learning on my own, and having my dad give me tips here and there and saying, “Just shoot. Go shoot”. I’m literally just surprised about it all.
Tell me about your piece USA.
I had a photo in my head – this thing of smearing black ink, with an asymmetrical design, with hands, and we were watching the Olympics and a friend suggested the flag. And I thought ah, that’s genius, that’s brilliant.
So I sat down and balled up an envelope and used ink and drew the star. I took two photos, one of the hand and another with the blur of me pulling the lines, so that I could cut and paste the stripes in Photoshop. It was literally three or four photos that I had layered on top of each other, so that I could keep the blur because everything is so vast in the United States, where we barely say hello and we’re running around like crazy people. And I added the calm of just the one star. Then, I had taken a photograph from the 44th floor of the USX building, down on traffic to get the cars and the symbolism of the United States. It just all came together. I like to play with images for hours and get them to a place where it’s right. I’m pretty happy with it!
What equipment did you use? I have a D300 that I love and I shoot on a tri-pod with a self-timer. I was using one of my favorite lenses, the 105mm. I’m using Photoshop CS4, because I’m too poor to afford a new one. So, if anyone wants to donate, that would be great! (As we laugh), it’s the same thing with Lightroom. I insist on Lightroom, Lightroom is your darkroom. Photoshop is a playroom.
You clearly enjoy working in the black and white realm. What advantages do you think black and white images can have over color photography?
Oh, I do like black and white photography. Color photography is a great medium to express things, but I feel that in today’s society, with all of the technology that we are dealing with and the vast open space that we have to explore, I don’t think people look at a color photograph and give it the respect level that should be there. Plus, it has been abused with HDR and over-saturation, and I don’t think the general public even knows what a normal color image is anymore. When people see black and white photography, you either have the skill level or you don’t. You can’t really hide in black and white, and that brings out who you are as an artist.
Who’s work has influenced you over time; where do you like to draw inspiration from? One of my favorite photographers is Lasse Hoile, he is a Danish photographer. This guy is super cool and doesn’t even use a SLR, he is old school pulling out Diana’s and Holga’s and Polaroid’s. I really have a lot of respect for him. He can be macabre and morbid, and I have a side to me that loves that stuff and I fall right into it.
When it comes to pure inspiration, everything inspires me. I love to shoot anything and everything. Life is so mundane, but there are so many mundane beautiful things, if you take the time to look at them. That’s really what life is about.
What do you still have left to learn; where do you want to grow as an artist?
From figuring out how to frame and mat, to figuring out what my actual personal style is, I’m open to expanding in a different direction. I try not to put goals on myself in photography because I don’t want to limit myself. There is enough to learn in photography that you could become a jack-of-all-trades and a master at everything you do, depending upon how much time you put into it. In the end, what you stick with is what you truly become passionate about. I’m only 6 years in and that’s way to early to claim, ‘that’s who I need to be’, because then I am closing myself off to something else that I could end up being truly passionate about.
This is where technology comes in, too. I’m so old school, I don’t have a Facebook account. I respect it for what it is, but at the same time I fear that it is going to take the simple beauty out of the skill. And, if that goes, I will be devastated. You need to know how to photograph first.
Speaking of technology, is there anything that fascinates you about the current trends in photography?
It’s interesting, and I’m fascinated by what’s there. But if you’re not manipulating ISO and aperture and shutter speed then you’re not doing photography. You are doing image creation, which is art and I’m clearly fascinated by that, but it isn’t quite photography. I love it, love what you can do with it, love the apps that you can play with, but at the same time, there is a feel to holding the camera, to manipulating everything in your hands, to using your mind to manipulate what you see, and you can’t really quite get that with the technology that we’re using with other stuff. I am torn about it.
If you are not out photographing, what can we find you doing; what are your hobbies?
I go to a job every day and I shoot. I get sad if I didn’t get to play with my camera. I’m always thinking about when I can get time with my camera.
Photographers love a great place to nosh, what are your favorite Pittsburgh restaurants?
I’m such a starving artist that I can’t even afford a car! That is why I live in Shadyside, because I can get anywhere. Sometimes I grab something to eat at Harris’ Grill. There’s Soba, and Noodlehead is now over on Highland. There are so many great restaurants around here. I actually don’t eat out too much though, because I am always trying to put more money aside to frame more photographs! But, this is a really cool neighborhood. There are very open-minded people here; it’s very diverse and everyone matters.
Let’s leave with a bit of René wisdom; what is one thing that you wished you knew before starting down the path of photography?
I would have told myself to finance a camera at (age) two. When I think about how long it took me, I lost a good fifteen to twenty years that I could have been doing what I clearly, truly love to do. If you want it, get it and do it! Photography is powerful. It’s a second in life, but it’s immortal.