JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by BWA Wrocław Galleries of Contemporary Art (here). Hardcover (20×26.5 cm), 176 pages, with 110 color photographs. Includes texts by the artist. In an edition of 500 copies. Design by Agata Bartkowiak. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)
Comments/Background: Emerging Polish photographer Agata Kalinowska grew up in the early 1990s in a small town in southwestern Poland called Świdnica. In her work, she shares her experience as a woman and a lesbian in a country that remains the most homophobic in the European Union. “At school, lesbian kissing was seen as a way to tease boys, not a real thing.” “For a long time,” she continues, “there wasn’t even a language for homosexuals in Poland, let alone sex education.” She came out to her family when she was 22; it wasn’t easy, her father was devastated, but it was a relief. Eventually, she moved to Wrocław, connecting with the LGBTQ community and finding her own path. Kalinowska now uses photography to document this community.
Yaga is her first photobook, and it’s a book “about the idea of empowering socially excluded women that the system finds embarrassing”. She produced this series because she was tired of being silent. The title of the book refers to Baba Yaga, an archetype common to Slavic countries; she lives alone, deep in the forest, in a hut that stands on chicken legs. Baba Yaga embodies patriarchal fears and social rules, and symbolizes isolation and loneliness.
Like a photo book, at first sight Yaga appears rather modest: a small photograph depicting what looks like a stuffed bird on a stand is reversed on a plain green cover, with the title and artist’s name appearing on the back, also quite modestly. Inside, the images vary slightly in size and placement, but generally have a good amount of white space around them. Globally, Yaga is a simple book with no elaborate design or production elements, but its strength lies in its excellent sequencing and editing. Throughout the book, the orientation of the images is often intentionally staggered and several images are deliberately placed across the gutter.
Yaga is a raw, unapologetic visual diary shot over a decade. The book opens with a photograph of a woman stepping out of the water in the dark, her long hair wet and she has only her underwear on, as she stares straight into the camera. It is perhaps a symbolic act of healing and coming out of the shadows, and an act of rebirth. A few pages later, we see two young women on a bed – one of them smiled as she reached out to pinch the other’s nipple, the soft sunlight adding even more positive vibes to the photo. The photograph has been rotated to have a vertical orientation, which makes the angles of the image even more disorienting. This is followed by a photo of a used tampon on top of a trash can, paired with a slightly smaller photo of a crackling bonfire. Other images represent fertility and motherhood, as they show a woman during an ultrasound and then two women bathing a baby. Kalinowska highlights various elements of women’s lives, celebrating expressions of femininity.
This first part of the book shows the women and their world full of love, care and laughter, as well as their occasional moments of calm and isolation. In almost all of the photographs, the women stare straight into the camera, acknowledging the presence of the photographer. There is a portrait of a woman sitting at a table in a restaurant – she is staring straight into the camera, looking a little bored or upset; a bouquet of balloons and a bride are seen in the blurred background behind her. Next comes the photo of a cat outside, hair standing up as if frightened by the flash. Another large-scale photo shows a group of women sitting on the stairs smoking; the photo is cut by the gutter, creating two separate but connected parts.
Kalinowska often uses juxtapositions to create intimate and soft moments, such as in a series that combines a snapshot of indoor plants with a close-up of a mother holding her baby, as their hands and legs are intertwined. Another broadcast combines a snapshot of houseplants with a close-up of a mother holding her baby, but we only see intertwined hands and legs. As we move through the stream, there’s another portrait of a woman in a kitchen gently embracing a dog on her lap, unconcerned by its somewhat awkward size. This is another tender and delicate moment.
As the visual narrative continues to unfold, men begin to appear in the photographs, and their presence brings an unsettling mix of disorder, violence, and chaos. Girls in miniskirts dance around the poles, and again the photo is snapped in two by the gutter – a woman’s arm stretches unnaturally from frame to frame as she leans in her exaggerated dance move. From this hard-to-impress demeanor things seem to deteriorate further, with images of a bottle smashing into someone’s head, an older man touching the back of a younger woman sitting next to him on a sofa, a man with a bleeding head sucks on his finger (which is also covered in blood), and a young woman with a black eye.
Then the visual flow returns to the photographs of women, bringing relief and reconciliation. A woman’s back with sun markings fills a frame and is paired with a close-up of the curve of another woman’s hair. A few pages later, a photo placed through the gutter shows a close-up of two young women passionately kissing, followed by a sequence of wildflowers, seemingly intentionally softening and recalibrating the ending.
Kalinowska’s series is immediately reminiscent of Nan Goldin’s book The Ballad of Sex Addictionbut Yaga feels more raw and spontaneous. It also echoes another classic book Growing as a Woman: A Personal Photo Journal (1974), where Abigail Heyman showed what it means to be a woman in the United States, portraying women’s experiences and prompting discussion of female identity.
“Yaga is for me a manifesto of love. It contains my ridicule. Ridicule is a language of friendship and intimacy,” Kalinowska writes in her essay at the end of the book. In these images, she boldly challenges society’s standards of beauty and female identity, and makes way for something more personal. Yaga fiercely claims the power of female representation and the female gaze, and memorably draws a sharp distinction between the worlds inhabited by men and women. It’s a great photo book, whose laid-back snapshot style softens an otherwise incisive message.
Collector’s point of view: Agata Kalinowska doesn’t seem to have a consistent gallery representation at the moment. As a result, interested collectors should probably follow the artist directly via his Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).