Marysia is a photographer using the medium to frame the memories of her past and to explore her family’s history. The inspiration for her photographic imagery comes about from seeing people through the places they inhabit or those places which have had a profound impact on their lives. She is interested in exploring individual and shared histories through the emotional atmosphere of a location.
Her project 66: The Story of a House tells the story of a family through the house they lived in. It started when Marysia’s mother was ill and Marysia wanted to document the house in which her family had lived for almost 60 years. When her mother died and the family had to sell the property, and Marysia wanted more than ever to capture the fact that is was more than a “house in need of modernisation”. It was a reflection of her family and told more about them and the times in which they lived than any photo album.
LIP: How did you come to photography and how long have you been using the medium as a form of expression?
Marysia: I was given a Kodak Retinette by friends for my 21st. I didn’t understand f-stops and apertures so joined an evening class, then set up a darkroom in a disused kitchen at the top of my parent’s house. Later I did a degree, one of the first, and about 10 years ago I studied for an MA in Multimedia Design which brought me into the digital age. Now I use both film and digital cameras and have a darkroom, although it’s currently in a local school where I teach one day a week. So we’re talking 30 years but it’s really only in the last few years that I’ve started to think about it professionally and develop my own practice.
LIP: This is a very personal project. How does it feel sharing your memories of your past family life and of your mother with the viewer?
Marysia: I was rather nervous about it at first. I was worried it might be too self indulgent but the initial responses I had were very positive; and more importantly most of them were about the viewer’s experiences or memories rather than mine. I’ve shown the work at different stages at LIP meetings, the Photographers Gallery portfolio evenings and at Rhubarb-Rhubarb’s Cultivate portfolio reviews. When people see the work, there’s always an image or two which resonates with them. They identify with it and tell me their stories. In my other life, I’ve worked a lot with life stories and on reminiscence projects so I understand what triggers are needed to enable people to feel comfortable to share their own stories. I didn’t set out for this work to do that, but I want it to tell a universal as well as a personal story and I think it does that.
My mother didn’t really understand why I photographed the house all the time. She couldn’t imagine why people would want to see the photos. But, that’s a bit like people who tell you they have done nothing with their lives and yet when they talk about their past it’s fascinating. Everyone has a story to tell and a way of telling it – mine is through photography.
LIP: Do you think this project has been a cathartic process for you?
Marysia: Definitely. When my father died about 10 years before my mother, I never had this impulse because my mother and the house were still there as the rocks in my life. I also still had my darkroom in the house and I sometimes slept over in my old bedroom which was frozen in the late 70s and still full of the books, toys and clothes from my childhood. So, as we cleared the house, I was re-viewing my life as well as dealing with the loss of my mother, father and home. The interesting thing was that my mother had cleared all my dad’s clothes but certain things, like the wires in the cellar, were very much about him and his presence in the house.
As the project progressed, I think I adopted a more detached documentary style and that allowed me to view the objects and fabric of the building more dispassionatly and less emotionally. Basically I accepted the loss we all experience at some point and was ready to move on. Obviously the photos have very personal memories for me. For example, the phone on the wall was in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs by the front door. It reminds me of long conversations with friends sitting on the stairs, wrapped in a coat because it was freezing – the house never had any central heating. It was placed there for privacy so my mother could gossip with her family in Scotland without disturbing my dad who never wanted the phone in the first place! But to those who look at this image it evokes a period of time and a certain kind of house that would have had that wallpaper. Someone recently bought a copy purely because their husband’s mother used to have that wallpaper!
LIP: Has the project been shaped in any way by critical thinkers in photography, and if so could you discuss what writings have bearing on your work?
Marysia: I’m not a great critical reader although obviously I did a lot of reading for college. I think perhaps the work I’ve done in reminiscence and my interest in oral history has a greater influence in this particular project. I’m thinking more of the work of Annette Kuhn, Geoffrey Batchen and others on cultural memory. This project prompted me to question how photographs help us remember. It’s easy to see a life in the snapshots in an album but those albums omit more than they show. It’s changing now, but in the past albums were handpicked special moments where everyone got on and everyone looked happy, rarely do you find photos of people at work or doing routine maybe boring things. The details of everyday life are lost. As we get older those selected images become a representation of our life, the key moments as if all the rest is of no consequence. I don’t agree with that. All those details are more or equally interesting. Of course, today in the digital age, we capture everything because we have the technology, so today we are faced with the question of how should we be editing what we shoot and how will this editing process influence the way viewers interpret the material in the future.
LIP: Some of the pictures included here have the sense of someone living in the space, such as the kettle coming to the boil, whereas others seem to be a document of an uninhabited space, like electrical cords. Was it a cognitive choice to combine both aspects when bringing the work together? And what difficulties did you find in the process?
Marysia: I’m still playing with how they work together. My mother was suddenly taken seriously ill and lay in hospital for 4 months. She defied all expectations, particularly the doctors’, and made a full recovery. She returned home and died 18 months later, as she wanted to continue living independently till the very end – up to the age of 87. I started the work when she was first ill as a way of coping with the daily visits to the hospital and the realisation that eventually the house, like my mother, would pass on to another life. I continued photographing the house with her in it but never of her in it. The evidence of the changes are there – handrails up the stairs appear and her bedroom moves to the ground floor. But the majority were taken after she died. When I first showed the work, it was after my mother’s first illness. Most people thought she had died and were amazed at how powerfully charged with loss those first images were. Sometimes the anticipation of an event is as emotional as the actual event. After she died, the photos become more a record of the dismantling of the house. I still just documented them – I rarely constructed shots – but I think my impulse to photograph had changed over the two years and so they have a different feel to them. This is partly why I’m working on different themed books. The two aspects may not actually appear together in the same book. I’d be interested to know what people think of how they work together. My one regret is that we sold a lot of items at car boot sales and I really wish I’d photographed those and some of the objects in their new homes. That would have been a different project about junk vs treasures and the lives of objects and maybe I’ll still do it one day.
LIP: Has your approach to 66: The Story of a House been influenced by the works of other photographers? If so who and how have they influenced you?
Marysia: I like photographers who capture the more mundane aspects of life in a fascinating visual way; reflections of specific communities or places. Photographers who immediately come to mind are Martin Parr, Chris Killip, Tony Ray Jones, William Eggleston, and Stephen Shore. I also greatly admire the work of Ori Gersht, particularly his project Liquidation where he captures the harsh history of a place in stunningly beautiful images.
LIP: Is it now a completed project, and do you have any plans to exhibit the work?
Marysia: The photography is now finished. There was a natural cut-off point when the house was sold. I did go to the house as it was being renovated and I took a few photos. It was very good closure for me as I no longer think of the house as ours, but I don’t feel those photographs belong in the main project. Well, maybe one or two – like the hand writings on the plaster walls when the wallpaper was removed showing dates of decorations and the heights of me and my brother as we grew; but the rest represent a new phase in the house’s history in which I’m not involved. And yes, I’m planning to exhibit the work at the Viewfinder Photography Gallery as part of a group show on the theme of ‘Home’. The dates may change but it’s currently scheduled for November. I’m working on a number of handmade books on different themes and a short digital narrative of the house. I’ll also self-publish a book on Blurb unless any kindly publisher wants to pick it up!
LIP: What are you currently working on?
Marysia: My current project is inspired by my father’s history. From 1942, he fought with the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade based in Fife. In 1939 he was captured by the Russians and spent 18 months in a Siberian labour camp. When Russia joined the Allies, Poles were released and allowed to form their own army to help fight Germany. Poles were fighting for their homeland but along the way helped the Allies defeat Germany. Their ‘reward’ was a Poland under communist control to which many, including my father, could never return. Since 2004 we’ve seen again a great influx of Poles. This time they’re seeking work, very different reasons for coming to the UK than those in the 1940s. Many are now returning to Poland, and as they do it seems an opportune moment to reflect on that previous wave of Polish migration. They had to fight and they had to stay in the UK. They had no choice. I’m currently on a residency in Fife exploring the places the Polish army lived and trained when they were charged with defending the east coast from possible invasion by sea. I’m mainly photographing derelict buildings and landscapes. I want to capture something of the harshness of those times and the strength and fears of these young men and women. Their courage and sacrifices helped Britain and their contribution should never be forgotten.
LIP: How long have you been a member of LIP and do you feel your membership has helped you in anyway with your photography?
Marysia: I’ve been a member for about 4 years. I’ve only been to a couple of London events but I try to attend the Greenwich Satellite group as often as I can. It’s a very supportive network and the feedback on work is always constructive and useful. I love the range of work that we get to see both in terms of people’s stages as a photographer and the subject matter. Often we see work as an idea right through to the final outcome and that’s a fascinating process. I showed this project as I was doing it and the feedback encouraged me to continue with it. I think LIP gives photographers an opportunity to show and talk about their work which is often lacking when you’re not in a college environment. And that’s vital because we learn from each other and often we work on our own which can be isolating. We all need to share and get responses to our work otherwise why do we do it? I usually come home from those meetings inspired by what I’ve seen and that feeds into my work.
Showcase interview by Corin Ashleigh Brown