Kacper Kowalski takes to the skies above his native Poland to capture breathtaking images of natural and urban environments. This paragliding photographer’s work offers a new perspective on the landscape.
Born in 1977, Kowalski is a graduate of the Technical University of Gdańsk, where he studied architecture. This training has proven influential in his artistic projects. Kowalski told Olga Prenda of fotoblogia.pl, “By profession I am an architect, so I look at the world through my education – arranging everything in maps and drawings.” This impetus to organize and find patterns is evident in Kowalski’s photography, where striking aerial perspectives reveal unexpected forms and textures in the landscape.
While he credits his education in architecture with shaping his conception of the world, it is Kowalski’s interest in paragliding that has allowed him to capture his spectacular aerial photographs. He explains,
The paragliding pilot is in absolute control over the speed and precise angle of the shot. You can get a lot closer to the ground, so the quality of the pictures, and the framing, is often better than if you are relying on an airplane pilot to manoeuver you. (designswan.com)
Kowalski’s involvement in paragliding is not purely artistic; he is also a licensed paragliding instructor and participates in competitions. He placed second in the World Classification of the XC-Open in 2009, and was the XCC Polish Champion in 2005 and 2008. He was the first Pole to fly more than 200 km without propulsion and has repeatedly set the Polish record in free-flying.
Though a successful pilot, it is when armed with a camera that Kowalski truly soars. He describes himself as “like a bee” who “likes to wander and shoot”, adding that he often 'does not know where he will fly, (trojmiasto.pl). Flying his paraglider, Kowalski captures the Polish countryside on film. His photos are not merely records of the landscape, but rather a unique document of the striking colors, rich textures, and surprising patterns that emerge with a bird’s eye view. Gliding above his subject, Kowalski might be thought of as the epitome of a detached artist whose relationship with the world is purely aesthetic. He insists, however, that this is not the case. Speaking about his relationship with his subjects and viewers, Kowalski comments:
The photograph is an important key to the emotions of the viewer. When I fly, I cannot enter into a relationship with the people below me as directly as a reporter might. I am instead able to evoke emotions in viewers with symbolic scenes, shared in a highly aestheticized way. Beauty might upset some, but for others, it will help them understand their world. (fotoblogia.pl)
Whether capturing the countryside blanketed in snow, the devastation wrought by floods, or open mines forking across the landscape, Kowalski looks to give his viewers a new perspective on the world around them. Presenting the world differently – in abstract and beautiful patterns – Kowalski’s photographs allow for fresh appreciation of our environment.
In 2008, Kowalski’s series A Day on the Beach was awarded the second prize in the World Press Photo contest in the Arts and Entertainment category. These photographs were captured over the course of a day at Władysławowo, a small resort on the Baltic coast. The first aerial shots show the beach still marked with traces of the previous day’s visitors – muted, but not totally erased by the changing tides. As the day progresses, beach-goers slowly move in. The first few arrivals are seen as brightly coloured anomalies on the sandy beach. Later in the day, the seaside becomes a colourful mosaic – towels, umbrellas, screens, and sun hats dominate the scene. As the waves of tourists recede, the setting sun starts to cast long shadows. By the end of the day, the remaining stragglers appear merely as points from which long, shadowy tails emanate.
While the subject matter here is clear – this is a day at the beach – Kowalski’s photos are not the typical documentation of seaside revelries. With his unique aerial perspective, Kowalski transforms the scene – forms are abstracted and otherwise unseen patterns emerge. Human incursions into nature are underscored and made beautiful. The value of this perspective, however, is not purely aesthetic. Kowalski notes that a sociologist looking at his work could read the behaviour of groups of people – the order in which they choose spots, where they go in search of a better place, the time at which families with children begin to arrive versus when singles come.” He adds, “a view from above can sometimes yield surprising observations,” (fotoblogia.pl).
Where A Day on the Beach captures a pleasant day by the water, Kowalski’s 2011 series Flood from Heaven documents its destructive potential. Taken during the devastating 2010 flood in Sandomierz, the photographs in Flood from Heaven were initially featured in the Polish media and exhibited in the market square of the recovering town. For this collection, Kowalski was award 1st Prize in the Grand Press Photo competition in the category of Photojournalism – Nature.
Again, Kowalski’s aerial photography grants viewers access to otherwise inaccessible perspectives. Photographing the flood from the sky, he was able not only to offer a unique viewpoint but also to begin to capture the immense scope of the damage. He notes,
The scale of the event was massive. You could not see it in the photos taken from the ground. Flying, I could easily get to places that were not accessible from the mainland. I was able to express the scale of the phenomenon and help people get a sense of how great a disaster had occurred. (fotoblogia.pl)
The images in the collection are striking – and often quite beautiful. Muddy waters are dotted with the red roofs of otherwise submerged homes. A cemetery becomes a sea of floating crosses. Homeowners look up at the sky, dwarfed by the wreckage that surrounds them. When questioned by some about the ethical implications of documenting the tragedy in such aesthetically pleasing images, Kowalski responded:
I believe that the role of the photographer is to tell the story of phenomena that affect people’s lives in such a way as to move the viewer. Aesthetics can promote reflection, or even concern – the most important thing is that people begin to think about a topic. (fotoblogia.pl)
It is evident that Kowalski sees his work not as a detached from its subject, but rather as offering a fresh perspective that might inspire deeper contemplation in his viewers. Flood from Heaven not only exquisitely captures the devastation of the flood, but also – Kowalski hopes – makes one think about the real effects of the flooding on the people and landscape of Sandomierz.
All of Kowalski’s aerial photographs offer viewers a glimpse of the world inaccessible in everyday life, though perhaps none so much as those in his Toxic Beauty series. Discussing the impetus behind the work, Kowalski suggests, “it comes from when I was a little boy. I was always interested in views unattainable on a daily basis.” From that adolescent desire for a peek into guarded sites comes Toxic Beauty – a series in which Kowalski photographs restricted areas such as sulfur plants, nitrogen plants, mines, power plants, landfill sites and deposits of toxic waste.
The fences and guards that make these sites inaccessible to the average person are easily breached by Kowalski’s paraglider and camera. Again, Kowalski’s photographs make beautiful what is destructive in real life. Here “the stains of human civilization on the landscape” are captured as blocks of vivid green waste emerging from a salt production plant. What appear to be delicate tendrils decorating a white backdrop are actually streams of runoff from a chemical plant. It is often hard to pinpoint what is pictured. Trees? Water? Toxic waste? From the sky, these otherwise recognizable forms become abstracted, transformed into lovely graphic designs. These striking images of man’s incursion into the natural environment are simultaneously chilling and breathtaking. The Jury of World Press Photo Contest must have been thinking likewise as he was awarded with second place in the Nature stories category in the 2014 World Press Photo Contest.
Kowalski has also created collections that document Poland in various seasons. His photographs of autumn capture the variety and vibrancy of colours that appear in the autumn. Again, his aerial perspective reveals patterns and forms that would not be noticed from the ground. Speaking about the series, Kowalski comments that many Poles are unaware of the natural beauty and diversity that surrounds them. He says:
We do not appreciate our landscape and its features. The wealth of forms in Poland is huge; you only need to photograph it. We have different weather every week, every two weeks brings a change in nature, in the shade of leaves and the density of vegetation. (fotoblogia.pl)
In Harsh Winter, autumnal hues give way to bleak white expanses. The only signs of life come in the form of the occasional colourful speck – standing in for a bus or car – and the tracks left by vehicles in the snow. These pathways become the only patterns to adorn the otherwise monochromatic landscapes.
In the upcoming exhibition Materia Prima: landscape and design, curator Agnieszka Jacobson-Cielecka brings together Kowalski’s photography with objects created from unrefined organic materials. Jacobson-Cielecka describes the exhibition as “a story about the symbiosis between nature and art, about the fine lines between creation and re-creation, between invention and documentation.” She hopes to invite viewers on “a journey to the visual roots of design.” Kowalski’s work is the perfect complement to this endeavour, as his photographs routinely expose the patterns and graphic elements inherent in nature. Nature inspires his art and he, in turn, reveals the art inherent in nature.
He was awarded 3rd prize of Picture Of The Year 2014 in the Science & Natural History Picture Story category for his Depth of Winter series.
This paragliding photographer is certainly an artist to watch.
Source: Materia Prima press materials, fotoblogia.pl, kacperkowalski.pl, trojmiasto.pl
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