From inanimacy to animacy, dolls are given life in the hands of Chicago based artist Katarzyna Derda. The photographer, who specialises in analogue media, imbues her images with profound melancholy and creates a world full of emotions, the setting for the telling of dreamy and captivating stories, all in monochrome.
A journey from Poland to Illinois. Where is home?
I was born and raised in a small town in Poland. I came to the United States in my early twenties like so many other young people at the time, looking for a better life. I have lived in Chicago and the area for about 15 years and this town has most definitely become my home. My mom lives in Poland but my two sisters live abroad like me. I do think about Poland and still have old friends there, but I also have many new friends and memories that were made here. My childhood memories are slowly fading away, and every year I am here, I feel closer to Chicago. This is my home, this is where I have my family and my friends. I use to miss living in Poland, but I stopped feeling homesick a long time ago.
How did it all start? What attracted you to the medium and how did you develop your style?
I was that person; the one with a camera who would take pictures of everything everywhere I went. I got my first camera from my uncle, it was a Canon DSLR, and the second I put my finger on the shutter release button, I couldn’t stop clicking. I immediately signed up for photography classes to learn the basics. My instructor happened to be a great photographer who worked for a local newspaper. He taught me the basics of photography but also gave me the opportunity to intern for the newspaper and expand my skills in photography. After about a year of interning, I decided to go back to school to further develop my skills. I wanted to pursue photojournalism and learn everything about digital photography . Never in a thousand years did I think I would end up in the darkroom shooting with an analog camera, but here we are. I was essentially tricked into printing in the darkroom. My instructor at school challenged me and my skills, while I was taking an alternative printing class which of course I thought was a waste of my time. He told me that while the rest of the class was going to print their photographs in the darkroom, I was to sit at the computer and digitally make my pictures look like the rest of the class. I began seeing the lith prints made by the other students and couldn’t figure out how to make my print look as good as theirs. The more prints I saw and the way they looked the more frustrated I began to get. Finally I decided to try for myself and see what I was missing. And that was it, really. I never looked back. I began to develop my style through school assignments , I discovered my style in surprising ways from the things I had to do for class. Through this process I developed what could be called my style. My last project ‘Neverdoll’ really reinforced my passions and drive to keep photographing dolls and they became “my thing”.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I find inspiration all over the place. It can be through music or art, and through people, places or even the littlest things. I love spending time at art galleries but also wandering around flea markets or vintage garage sales. I am inspired by fine art but also things that some may consider trash or garbage. I love vintage things and looking around for inspiration in different places. Sometimes I can find a small item, a miniature accessory or some other small object and be inspired to create a whole new project.
How spontaneous is the photographic process for you? Do you do spend time pre-planning, story-boarding etc or do you rather let creativity flow during the session?
In between projects, I am constantly racking my brain for ideas. I take notes of these ideas and different places or things I have seen. And then the my doll arrives, and everything goes out of the window. Some ideas are still toyed around with, but usually my inspiration comes from the moment she arrives. A lot of times the story I want to tell unfolds while shooting. Some pictures are planned ahead, and some are complete accidents. The most “planning” that I do is trying find places that will let me photograph my doll. It took months to find a bar with the right vibe that let me take my photographs. I also take in places with extreme attention to detail. I can remember a certain texture on a piece of furniture at a friends house that I find would work well for my project and there I am in their living room photographing my doll. I see a shadow on a wall that is interesting, so I am back the next day at the same time to take more photographs. I have even been stopped by police while shooting in restricted areas because something caught my eye. They usually think I’m crazy but then I don’t blame them because here I am saying, “ I am just photographing my doll !” ; it sounds worse than the crazy cat lady who yells at you to get off her lawn.
So besides really planning on “borrowing” friends rooftops, apartments, furniture, or anything else that may inspire me, most of the time my photographs are spontaneous. My project Neverdoll took over a year to complete. She was always in my car just in case I drove by some amazing place, or the lighting was just right . Every photograph from that project has its own story and it wasn’t until I felt that ‘wow’ moment that I would stop.
How did dolls enter your life and what do they represent? How many have you used so far and will you expand your collection?
I photographed my first doll for my school finals. I had no idea back then that photographing dolls will become the core of my projects. Up until that point I have photographed many different things like action figures and miniatures and people as well including self portraits, but felt like I never had enough emotion in my photographs. Something was always lacking until I photographed my first doll. The story I created was so emotional and sad and it was so easy to pour myself into that story. After that project, photographing anything else wasn’t satisfying so I started to search for another doll. It took over a year to find one that I had an emotional connection with. She was made by Fantoche, a fantastic artist from Romania. When I started photographing her it was like an adrenaline rush. The excitement was unreal. I could create a world that didn’t exist before and tell her and my story. I have photographed at least 5 dolls so far . The smallest was about 20 cm – 8 inches and the biggest about 90 cm – 35 inches. Dolls are not to easy to photograph. It takes a very long time to position them, especially since some are very flexible. The dolls don’t necessarily represent me but rather my emotions. They are their own characters and so different from each other. I have 4 dolls in my collection at this time, 2 of which are handmade by other artists. I am currently waiting for my 5th doll so I can say yes, at the moment I want to expand my collection.
Your project Neverdoll is overflowing with dreamy, albeit eerie overtones, creating a captivating and melancholic world. Would you like to speak about its conception?
Without the combination of the subject matter, which is the doll in its surroundings and with its props, and the process of lith printing, the project wouldn’t feel like it does now. Why is this world that I created so melancholic? I think that in some way my projects bring out my inner demons and some emotions buried deep may surface through some photographs. The projects are not autobiographical and they have their own stories, but some of my feelings and emotions do come through. I have been told that my work is like ‘painting photographs’. It was one of the greatest things I’ve heard about my work to this day.
Why did you choose to photograph with a 6×6 camera?
I have a special love affair with my hasselblad. I have used many medium and large format cameras but nothing compared to the hasselblad; the way it looks, the way it sits in my hands as if it were made only for them, the way the shutter sounds, the way I see the frame in the view finder, and even its weight in my hands. I love the square format of the negatives and I most definitely… love my camera.
The workflow you follow, from photographing in analogue and lith printing would be considered not only outdated, but in our digital, instant gratification era, time consuming. Why do you prefer this process and how would you describe it to people with unfamiliar with it?
The lith printing process is quite different than the conventional black and white. The visual appearance of a lith print may hold different colors and tones which can be achieved as the developer gets older. Different papers combined with different ratios of lith developers at different temperatures create the various effects in the end result. Prints may be soft and subtle or gritty and graphic. Yes, the process can be frustrating at times, unpredictable and time consuming but also very addictive and exciting. It’s like listening to vinyl records. No digital copy of the same song sounds like it does on vinyl and its impossible to replicate that sound. The same goes for lith prints. No, they may not be as crisp and clear as their digital counterparts, but only they have that vibe and emotion just like you get listening to a classic on vinyl.
Given the love and effort you put into your pictures, the creation process of which is very time consuming, what are your feelings about Instagram and the over saturation of the social media by photographs?
Technology has advanced so far, that today even phones have amazing cameras. Take a good shot, throw on a filter and call yourself a photographer. It’s that easy. We are constantly bombarded with pictures of everything, so I learned how to filter the ‘useless’ stuff from the meaningful and only see what has value to me. At the same time social media has brought together the world. It is so important in promoting yourself and your work but you are also connecting and finding amazing people and their work from all over the world. I hope that some day my love and effort in my work will stand out against the sea of selfies and bad photo shots
Can you define beauty for me?
Honesty. Integrity. Real.
What is the essence of a good picture?
A good picture should make your heart beat just a little faster . It should make you want to stare at it for a long time and wonder. A good picture should make you want to come back for more and make a place for itself in your memory so that every time you close your eyes, you can bring it back to reality and stare at it some more…
Do you ever get disappointed with photography
Yes, of course. I think every photographer does, and many times it’s with their own work. I am a perfectionist and I am learning to love mistakes. I have been told at school that everything has been done in photography and that it is hard to find something new and different, magnetic. I want to be “wowed” when it comes to photography. I often look back at iconic photographers to study and admire their work, but I still believe that there are so many talents out there waiting to be discovered.
What do you do on your down time? Any particular interests?
First and foremost I am a mom to the most wonderful 5 year old. My daughter is my number one priority. If I am not in a darkroom or taking photographs, I spend all my time with her. You know, you think you know what love is, and then you have a child. Never did I think I can feel something so powerful. Being a mom is the most wonderful, challenging and rewarding thing that has happened to me. We are inseparable and I love sharing my interests with her every opportunity I have. She comes to gallery openings, meetings, and sometimes even helps with photo shoots. I am so grateful that I can show her passion for things in life and I can only hope that one day she will be as passionate about something as I am about photography.
What would you do if you were invisible for a day?
Ohhh what wouldn’t I do? I think I would definitely do things that would give me a little bit of an adrenaline rush, definitely things I would never do if someone were to see me.
Three favourite artists
This question is impossible to answer. Three is a very VERY small number, so I’ll name a few of my favorites. Robert Shana Parke Harrison tops the list at number one most definitely. But many of my other favorites include Sally Mann and her early works, Richard Avedon, Keith Carter, Doug Prince, and Raeleen Kao.
Three favourite books
“The Witcher ” Andrzej Sapkowski
Three favourite films
Three favourite music artists
Kings of Leon
I recently saw a documentary about Curt Cobain and I started to understand his lyrics differently and took a whole new perspective on his music.
Which talent would you like to have and why?
You know, I feel really lucky to have found something I am good at and love doing at the same time, so I don’t feel like I need any more extraordinary talents, but, if I were to choose I would love to be good at sculpting so that one day I could sculpt my own doll. Also dancing. It would be awesome to bust out some ridiculous moves on the dance floor one day…
In the end of the day what does fulfill you as a person?
Being a good mother. When my daughter kisses me goodnight and says “thank you for the best day ever!”, there is nothing more that I need. I love my photography and looking forward to the next thing in my projects, but at the end of the day my daughter is what matters the most.
What should we expect to see in the future?
I have a new doll that is in the making and coming all the way from Russia. I am so excited to finally get her in my hands! I think it will be quiet a challenge to come up with something new, different and fresh. I am always wondering if I can be able to create something better than the last project but I love the challenge. Hopefully I will start working on this new project soon because this new doll is absolutely stunning!
You can view more of Katarzyna’s work at www.katarzynaderda.com and follow her on Instagram
Interview by Demetrios Drystellas