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The Warsaw Voice » Culture » November 29, 2012
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Photographing the Famous
November 29, 2012   
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Artistic photographer Czesław Czapliński has made a career of photographing celebrities and eminent people both in the United States and Poland. Since 1979 he has been dividing his time between New York and Warsaw. The winner of many awards, Czapliński has photographed Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Krzysztof Kie¶lowski, Catherine Deneuve, Paloma Picasso, Pope John Paul II, Umberto Eco, Ryszard Kapu¶ciński, Roman Polanski, Susan Sontag, Czesław Miłosz, Andy Warhol... the list is endless. He talks to Jolanta Wolska about his work.

How was it that you become a photographer?
It started rather trivially. I was studying biology at the University of ŁódĽ. One day I noticed an advertisement about photographic courses run by lecturers from the ŁódĽ Film School. So I enrolled and I was hooked.

When I left Poland in 1979 to give a paper on dragonflies at a symposium in New York I decided to stay, drop biology and take up photography full time.

I had brought with me photographs I had taken of John Pope Paul II during his visit to Poland that same year. I thought that I would dazzle everyone with them. Instead, one editor asked me why I hadn’t come to him two months earlier as he would have reserved space for them and he gave me advice that I took to heart. He said I do good photographs, but instead of running after that which is happening in the world, I ought to do such photographs that others will run after me to have them. So I decided to do that which is most difficult, that is portraits of famous people.

Why is that most difficult?
Because unlike in Poland, in the West it is very hard to get close to celebrities or to get to know them well. It is a real feat to make appointments with them or to privately photograph them. My first friendship in New York with the writer Jerzy Kosiński helped me gain a lot of prominent contacts, as in the 1980s he was at the height of his writing career and earlier he had been president of the American PEN Club. So he introduced me to many eminent personalities.

After working 10 years in New York you had your first huge exhibition in Poland...
It was called Face to Face at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw in 1989. It included a big catalogue to which Ryszard Kapu¶ciński and Jerzy Kosiński wrote introductions. The exhibition was part of the celebrations of 150 years of photography. I think it was the last such enormous exhibition where crowds were lined up to the Victoria Hotel (today the Sofitel) to see these world-renowned personalities and celebrities hanging on the gallery walls. I have had more than 100 exhibitions in public and private galleries both in Poland and the U.S. The latest one in September was on the Royal Łazienki park fence in Warsaw.

How did you become so closely associated with the Royal Łazienki Park?
Since moving to New York in 1979 I spend several months during each year in Poland and have been coming to Łazienki very often with my camera. I live seven minutes’ walk away from Łazienki and have been friends with Prof. Marek Kwiatkowski for years. He had been director of Łazienki for about 50 years. I was always very welcome and I had the privilege of promoting my albums in the Palace on the Isle. For example, in 2005 more than 100 people came to the promotion of my album Polish Art Collections in America. If television reporters want to interview me then it has to be in Łazienki. I have also photographed many famous people here. The current director, Tadeusz Zielniewicz, publicly says that I am Łazienki’s photographer.

My album Royal Łazienki in Warsaw – The Four Seasons, published in September, was born out of my love for this magical and majestic place. The album had not been commissioned, and it was not made in one day. It is a several-year history of photographing this national icon. I think I found a formula for showing beautiful monumental Łazienki and its rich life. Everybody has some association or sentiment towards Łazienki. Even Oscar winner Allan Starski learned that he was nominated for the Academy Awards while he was in Łazienki.

It is said that a photograph says more than a thousand words. Do you agree?
A good photo is more than a thousand words; it is everything! But at the same time it is important to know the context in which the photograph was created—the story behind it. That knowledge gives a photograph extra meaning, depth, sometimes drama. And with time the photograph becomes more valuable. Of course, a photograph can also be purely decorative. Zwierciadło Publishing has just published my Portraits with a History album where I present more than 20 eminent people and stories accompanying the making of their portraits.
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