The sensorial experiment of memory: Marcela Paniak’s sound and photomontages

Entering Marcela Paniak’s visual universe is something of an extraordinary journey. This young Polish photographer skillfully uses “intermediality” and plays with photography as an artifact or a materialized souvenir. Memory and its process are at the center of her work, suitable for introspection. What is drawn out of it is a moving innocence, an overwhelming and almost unreal feeling of nostalgia.

Who are you Marcela? When and why did you start photography? What are your current projects?
At the moment I am mainly a photography student at the Film School in my hometown Lodz. The photography began with a simple curiosity of the world around when I was just a few years old and it has stayed with me for many years. First I used photography just because of the need coming straight from the heart. It was a way of expressing emotions as the surrounding reality had a significant influence on me; technical correctness wasn’t the most important for me but the emotional message – that was the issue. Nowadays I try to focus on the photographic medium itself and I use it more consciously. It is really interesting how the visual image cooperates with the human ability to remember things; that’s my reason for reaching out for old photos belonging to nobody.

How would you describe your work?
It is a photographic work varied with different means of expression; something very emotional intended for sensory perception.

You mix a lot of different techniques such as, montage, video, drawing… You associate photography and music. I feel that you cannot be labeled only as a photographer. What do you think about that? What kind of photographer do you consider yourself to be?
It is about photography on the border of different media. Life inspires me to reach for various types of media, that’s why I am working with montage, video, drawing… but everything is still based on the photographic image. Music also has a significant meaning for me. I think there was a moment in my life when I was thinking which direction to take: photography or music? But maybe now is the time when I can combine these two things together. It is really a complicated matter to call me a photographer but nowadays this phenomenon is common in contemporary art – “intermediality.”

Photography is a form of expression along with painting, sculpture, literature, music, dance… Sometimes just the way of behaving in the whole life is an artistic form of expression. I don’t know how it happened that I reached for the camera. It seems to me that sometimes you have to believe in some kind of a divine force because I can’t find answers to many questions.

The representation of the body in your works is often prostrate, naked, in pieces. Why? What are these bodies saying? Are they suffering?
Through the art I look into my mind, however, there is still my body, which I also have to be able to collaborate with. I observe the body, I examine the changes – sometimes I would like to accept it or reject it. These feelings are precisely related with all these formal actions. Very often the internal state of mind imposes some changes in the appearance. A naked body is the most real. But sometimes it is the symbol of carnality in general.

The general feeling coming out of the works is a sad, mysterious and strange atmosphere. Is there some joy in your work? What feeling is your main inspiration?
Life inspires me. My own experiences were the main theme of my work for most of the time. But I think that photography is generally really sad; it kills life, time and movement, recalls the memories which will never happen again, makes us aware of the places and people going by. However I do not focus on the real world, the most important for me is the world created by the human mind. Sometimes our hallucinations, dreams and imagined things are more real than the reality. Maybe that’s why some photos seem to be so mysterious and even strange.

Your photos are like artifacts coming out of a past different time, found in a tiny souvenir box. Whose memories are these?
I really like recalling the memories; not only mine but also those belonging to the people I know and I don’t know. Most of the series are strictly connected with that issue.

The series “Fairy Tales, pp. 13-55” is a project about my childhood memories. The story shows black and white, old and miniature photos which reminds us of some book pictures we can remember from our childhood; shrouded in mystery, placed somewhere between a reality and a dream. This is about individual and collective memories; the things and places that I can remember from my childhood and also the themes that we can link with some popular fairy tales. These photos show a weird and unreal world which is subjective as our memories are – things are not as they are but as we see and remember them. These miniature photos create a kind of private, intimate, author’s space and capture the imagination of everybody who remembers illustrations from fairy tales books or from a slide projector.

There is also a story of my parents entitled “Draft Book”; there are a few people who I would like to remember forever. My parents have immortalized their story themselves through the production of photographs, drawings and writings of the entire period of their life. They left a few traces that testify about their presence. My job is to stop the time; this project is an attempt to capture memories and to not let them be forgotten. I sketch situations that I recall from my memory. I find and collect materials such as photographs, letters and drafts from school notebooks to arrange a consistent story from different pieces of the past. I would like this draft book to be a way of immortalizing memory.

I also recall the memories about the unknown people from old photos whose lives are forgotten. It is presented in “Elysium”. These works are carte-de-visite photographs decorated with dried flowers and they show the issue of human mortality, immortality of the images and time passing. There are plenty of different stories written in every old photograph but we can’t know them all. Such pictures can be purchased on the flea market and their value is difficult to define – despite their cheap price they are priceless for me. The photography is ideal for capturing the memories – to resurrect something that will never come back in real life.

Why do you mainly use black and white? When is the use of color relevant?
Black-and-white photographs makes the image more graphic in some way and then it shows only what is to be seen and what is not to be seen – like pointing the finger at the most important elements in the image. In addition, the black-and-white world is an abstract vision of reality. This procedure modifies the reality we are used to. The use of monochromatic technique reduces the image to the study of light, to the sketch of the objects and to the contour of people. The message becomes more symbolic. I sometimes use colour only to emphasize the atmosphere of something very sensual. It usually happens when I am charmed with an amazing place – in this situation the light draws the picture and I just can’t see it in black and white because the phenomenon of the particular space is also placed in colour.

The image associations make us feel like we are being told a story – what’s the story you’re trying to tell?
I mainly use photographic series; ones that show images very similar to each other and also the ones that narrate a story and differ from each other like individual film scenes. The stories are taken from my life but sometimes there are photographic situations I just imagine. This is exactly what I can do using creative photography – I can materialize my dreams.

The story is always about me; at the beginning of my studies I was trying to find myself somewhere among the emotions of loss and confusion. The photography helped me express the feelings; those which are impossible to describe in words. The following topics, also resulting from personal experiences, were centered around love, secret history of our feelings, a duration of the relationship in spite of all the other people. Only photography is able to support communication with the surrounding reality – in a way that does not reveal us at all. Time made me interested in the art itself and at the end of my studies I am discovering the medium once again, also as the theory of photography.

The use of sound creates very poetic and graceful moments – it is strikingly moving. Where does the music come from, and how do you choose it?
Sometimes the music is an inspiration for me. I experience the music from everywhere, from anywhere it can be experienced: from the radio, the movie, the concert, the street – it can be found, heard, known, or I just play it by myself. When I present the picture with a sound it creates the climate and impression of live images. I treat it as something between photography and film; the picture indicates the topic of the work and sounds capture the imagination – exactly like a movie.

First the music appears and then I create an image. I don’t try to illustrate the music using a camera – it is just a visual impression caused by sounds I listened to. Sometimes the music narrates – for example “Mozart’s manuscript” when the sound may be inside the frames and we can imagine a gramophone somewhere on the photos playing a piece of Mozart’s “Requiem”. This gives the additional meaning as yet another image in the whole series. So the music is as important as the image in this case. We can’t imagine contemporary cinema movie without an image or without music.

Are you the model in the pictures? Do you consider the images you are in as self-portraits? Is there some sort of a mise-en-scène of your personal life?
I don’t present anyone else other than me or my partner. I think it is the most real and I know how to present someone like us. Certainly these kinds of photos are self-portraits but not always in the literal sense of this word. It is more metaphorical – it is like portraying the state of mind using my own body. The idea of mise-en-scène is to arrange the artistic elements such as space and set design, lighting, composition, costume, acting, the choice of formal means like colour and to locate them on the stage. That’s exactly how I illustrate my life using the photography. Or maybe the whole life is a mise-en-scène.

You play a lot and disguise/hide the photographic device: we think more of gravure or drawing. What techniques do you use?
I used to spend a lot of time in the darkroom. I experiment with various media mixing different techniques. At school there was an opportunity to try many of the historical photographic techniques such as litho prints, chlorobromide prints, albumen prints, wet-plate collodion process, calotype, cyanotype… Sometimes my goal is to get the desired effect and all my attempts aim at this point, but occasionally I like it when something happens by accident. It also should be useful. With the development of digital photography the form of work is more often overlooked and forgotten; the image becomes the only picture enclosed in pixels and it is stored in a myriad of files on the computer. However the photograph which has its real dimensions, texture, grammage, colour, smell, scratches, gloss, imperfections, notes, traces of the touch and signs of wear… is a very valuable thing because it confirms the history that is happening.

Get the full experience by visiting Marcela Paniak’s website.

Interview by JV