“From everyday events to the most fundamental questions, both on a personal and cosmic scale, we are surrounded by contradictions, unknowns, and change…Religions, as timeless as they seem, have their beginning and will one day see an end. In science, basic concepts like time and space take on new meanings with each generation. Some things are just not to be resolved…”
LC: Reading your biography, it’s clear that you’re always challenging yourself. You were a national swimming champion in Poland; you have a degree in Applied Mathematics from Harvard University; you spent six years working as a trader on Wall Street and then…you switched gears and fully embraced photography.
What made you study Applied Mathematics? What were you searching for when you first started taking pictures? What did you find in photography, and what are you still looking for? What is your ultimate motivation?
JC: From early childhood, my father, a theoretical physicist, encouraged me to take mathematics more seriously than other subjects. According to him, it represents “Truth,” and he believed that it forms the strongest foundation for anything else later in life. My precise, abstract way of thinking—cultivated through the study of the subject—definitely influences my photography practice today and has helped me in other life endeavors.
Still, at some point there was a moment when I realized that there is something “off” about Existence. At first I couldn’t put a finger on it, and I wasn’t sure what to do about this new, groundbreaking discovery. Then one day I took a grainy, out-of-focus picture of some street lamps at night with a cheap digital camera (or maybe of some windows—I don’t remember). Regardless, I had this immediate response to the image—I realized that the picture expressed all my longing for something undefined. And that was it for me. I’ve been engaged in photography ever since. So it started a bit accidentally, but ultimately I’ve found it adds meaning and purpose to my life.
I love photography’s ability to convey ambiguity, contradictions, multiple emotions, and the fact that you can pack all that into a single “visual word”—a single image. You cannot do it as well with non-visual forms of expression, like text or music, because they are sequential.
LC: “Null Hypothesis,” “???” and “Untitled”—the three series that we showcase in this article—are distinct projects but also closely interrelated to each other. Could you explain their origin?
JC: “Untitled” and “???” (as they are called for now) are mostly older pictures, from the period when I had just quit working in finance. It was a very joyful time for me—a lot of soul-searching. I often show them together as two opposing mindsets that are ever in tension with each other. The first is the rational, structured side of me that is always trying to understand the world. The other is the side that tries to experience the world—to feel its beauty without thinking. Ultimately, both sides fail because the world can be quite absurd and frightening, even in its beauty.
“Null Hypothesis” is a more mature work, both formally and in regards to the concepts. There is less searching and less trying to understand. It’s more about the reality of the world as I see it right now.
Visually, all of this work is trying to be placeless. “Null Hypothesis” pushes this idea even further. I want it to look timeless and almost planet-less. I want the viewer to say “When, where, and what the hell is this?” These elements of strangeness are in the first two projects as well, but not to the same degree. I think of this whole body of work as documentary, in some undefined sense.
LC: In your statement introducing “Null Hypothesis,” you say, “Everything that seems to us as absolute will come to pass…Some things are just not to be resolved.” How should humanity behave in such a context? Could you imagine a world where we all completely accept randomness?
JC: The only thing a truly sane person can do in this context is howl and high-five other truly sane people. I don’t think humanity as a whole can accept and genuinely come to terms with fundamental randomness and uncertainty, the lack of absolutes. At least not this edition of humanity, maybe the next one: Humanity 2.0…
Accepting this view of reality means letting go of everything. That’s a pretty scary concept, not having anything to hold on to, given the vastness of our life experiences. But I think an imaginary world, where we accept this idea as a given, would be a better one. Fewer opinions would mean less conflict. Less attachment would mean less pain. Personally, I’ve accepted all these things rationally. Emotionally, with my heart: that’s a lot harder. But I’m working on it.
LC: Your images have a particular atmosphere that haunts the viewer, drawing us to ask more questions about the scene—like they are hiding a secret from us. At the same time, one has the feeling that the secret will never be revealed. How do you create this atmosphere? What are the mental and physical processes behind the creation of your photographs?
JC: I look for this atmosphere in the real world; places and situations that have something unexplainably strange and beautiful about them. Some sort of a hook, whether the light or an eye-catching structure. And then I improvise. I have a general sense of what type of environment I want my photographs to be set in, and I pick shooting and travel locations accordingly. It’s all quite intuitive and instinctive; I don’t have a formula for it.
I work largely with digital cameras though I don’t use much post-production. Every now and then I’ll “cheat” a tiny bit in Photoshop. I have also experimented with some simple staging, self-portraiture, and more advanced flash photography. It’s all been very light so far though. And I do like to mix things up.
LC: Can you talk about your editing/selection process a bit?
JC: Like many photographers, this process is the most difficult part for me. I start with a very general idea of what I want to express and make a big selection of pictures that fit the theme. Then usually I get others involved. There are a few people I met at ICP in New York, and ISSP in Latvia, both teachers and fellow students, that engaged with my work, and have helped me to refine my vision. I am very grateful for their input.
During editing, I look at the images these people respond to, which ones go together for them, and I incorporate their feedback into my concepts. The process is iterative and loose, with images and texts changing all the time. These series are kind of frozen for now, and I am starting to work on a very different type of project, but I still might want to add to them in the future, or I might want to present it all in a very different form. I’m always slowly exploring and returning to ideas in the back of my mind.
LC: Given your diverse, non-photographic life experiences, what are your other inspirations outside photography—creative, musical, literary, cinematic…?
JC: There is one book that probably changed my life—Insatiability by Witkacy, a Polish avant-garde artist and writer who committed suicide at the beginning of World War II. I read it during my last year at university. The book is a long, surreal, twisted, dark-humor novel, with many interesting characters: artists, mathematicians, philosophers, aristocrats, seductive intelligent women. They would meet at decadent art salons and talk metaphysics.
Back then, I was always on the lookout for a perfect party and I thought, “Wow, those are some cool parties those people are having, I should find some like that too!”…After moving to New York to work on Wall Street, instead of hanging out with my new colleagues at trendy clubs in Manhattan, I would venture deep into Brooklyn, crashing artist parties. Now you know how my artistic career really started!
—Jan Cieslikiewicz, interviewed by Winifred Chiocchia