Kovi Konowiecki / Delivering Flowers to Grandpa Jack
June 2017 Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi
Kovi Konowiecki won Third Prize in last year’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, with compelling portraits from his series ‘Bei Mir Bistu Shein’ documenting members of a large Orthodox Jewish family. Originally from California and having recently completed his MA Photography at University of the Arts, London, Kovi has now turned his focus on his childhood home, where he is currently completing his new series Delivering Flowers to Grandpa Jack. Below, Christiane Monarchi has been corresponding with Kovi as this project has been growing in the past few months.
CM: Delivering Flowers to Grandpa Jack, your new ongoing series, already delivers an emotional draw just from the title. We are instantly immersed in the golden hour in California, in your hometown, Long Beach. Yet who are the people we are seeing? Where did this series start, with a place or with portraiture?
KK: Delivering Flowers to Grandpa Jack begins with a place; a place that I feel very close to. My father grew up in Long Beach, California. His father owned a Burger joint across the street and his mother worked at a local bank. Unfortunately I never met my grandpa Jack, but my dad used to always tell me stories of how special he was. Luckily, my dad kept old family pictures in a box under his bed that I would look at from time to time, which allowed me to see the Long Beach that my father grew up in and always talked about. There is one picture in particular of my grandpa Jack that has always been special to me; a picture that reminds me of home and the romantic idea I’ve always had of my hometown.
Just like my father, I was born in Long Beach. My parents still live in the same house where I grew up. With Delivering Flowers to Grandpa Jack,I wanted to create a series about my hometown. I wanted to create a series less about Long Beach itself, but rather about the romantic and timeless connections that I feel to it, connections that align with the photograph of my grandpa Jack.
So, the series begin with a place and a photograph; a place that to me remains intimate and ageless, and an old photograph of my grandpa Jack.
The people in the series are people of my hometown—family, friends, and random strangers that I feel represent the familiarity and romanticism I associate with my hometown. Many of the portraits were taken during random encounters on the streets of Long Beach, but nonetheless fit within the intimate framework of my perception of home.
Delivering Flowers to Grandpa Jack also endeavors to illustrate how the familiar sentiments attributed to one’s hometown are oftentimes undefined by the contours of time. In this sense, the photographs maintain an aura of timelessness through their ethereal coloring and sepia tone (much to the credit of golden hour), which keep the viewer from placing the subjects in any particular era. This sense of timelessness is further accentuated through the use of vintage photographs of my family living in Long Beach in the 1960’s, which are interspersed throughout the series and enable the viewer to move fluidly through time without recognition. Undefined by a specific era, the people depicted in the series exist in a setting created by my perception of home—a place that remains intimate and ageless—an embodiment of the feeling that no matter how many years pass, and no matter how many things change, there are certain things that never change.
CM: There are many things that look better in a golden hour, what happens to your feelings about this place in the harsh sunlight or in fading dusk?
KK: Home is always home, regardless of the time of day. Having said that, he golden hour definitely accentuates a sense of intimacy that seems to make everything come to life. For example, during the day, my neighbor’s house on Vermont Avenue blends in with the other houses in the neighborhood. Once the golden hour comes around however, the light and shadows hit its surface in a special way. But even in the harsh sunlight and the fading dusk, it’s still my neighbor’s house; every time I pass it I get a feeling of familiarity and the feeling of home.
CM: You’ve lived away from Long Beach for some time, do your new experiences impact on how things and people look when you come home?
KK: My time away from Long Beach definitely made this project more special for me. I started this project after living in London for almost a year and experiencing long periods with very little sunlight. I had a real hunger and excitement to go home and create this body of work. Being away also changed the way I saw things in Long Beach.
I think its just like anything in life—when you’re away from someone close to you for an extended period of time you notice the things that have changed about them and develop a greater appreciation for the things that have remained beautiful. I can say the same thing about my hometown and the people and places that comprise it.
CM: You mention random encounters, but do you create some compositions as well?
KK: Yes, some of the images were premeditated a bit more than others. My friend Nick for example always watches the Lakers game at one of the local bars, so I asked him if I could make a picture of him after one of the games. I often enjoy the tension between intervention and portraying things as they naturally are.
Part of the beauty of this project for me was to make images out of seemingly mundane moments of the everyday. Even the images that were more composed seemed to happen naturally and spontaneously. The image of my mother for example happened as I was washing my car during the day. I noticed a nice beam of light on the garage door so I asked her to come outside and put on her gold shirt. Or when I was having lunch with Tania at the local diner and I asked her to hold still for a second. These little instances have turned into special moments for me, as I have something physical to remember them.
CM: Are you using filters or is this really the straight light?
KK: The photos with the golden hue were taken during the golden hour, so the light you’re seeing is really the straight light. Having said that, after development I used certain techniques to accentuate the golden hue. There isn’t a pre-established filter I use, each photo is handled differently based on how I want it to look. The images in the series that don’t seem as golden were taken at times when the light wasn’t as profound, like the image with the old trailer and the horizon in the background. The way I edited the photos are meant to accentuate the qualities of light that lend to the way the image was originally made.
CM: What happens when it’s overcast, does the inspiration fade?
KK: I wouldn’t say that the inspiration fades with different light. Different light does however inspire me in different ways, causing my inspiration to take different shapes and forms, both literally and figuratively. Different light causes certain things to stand out, and others to hide in their corners. I lived in Long Beach for much of my childhood and have memories that were made at all times of day and night. I tried to subtly implement as many of those memories as I could into this series.
The image of my mother in front of the garage was shot during the day when the sun was very harsh, while other images from the series were shot at night when there was no light at all. Despite not being shot during the golden hour, they both very much feel part of the series for me.
Looking back at the series, I was able to develop a sort of methodology with regards to the time of day. While the golden hour was often designated to make photos, other times of day were designated more for planning and reflection.
It’s funny you ask about when its overcast; I’m actually working on as series at the moment throughout greater Los Angeles and many of the images thus far were shot when it was overcast. I think it all depends on the story you’re trying to tell. The images I am working on now tend to be more grungy, and flatter light can definitely contribute to that. So, I guess to answer your question, with different light and weather comes different forms of inspiration. But it never fades.
CM: The golden hour touches many creative areas; have you been inspired by moods set from other artists, or writers?
KK: I have indeed been inspired by both other artists and writers for this series. Some artists that come to mind right away are Larry Sultan, Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and William Eggleston. Their ability to capture the seemingly mundane moments of everyday life is very inspiring to me. Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home is so gentle and straight forward, I never get tired of looking at it. The way he wrote about his desire to take photographs and his interactions between his parents has strongly resonated with me over time.
There are quite a few writers that have influenced me. A few poems that come to mind in relation to this body of work are “The Old Home” by Mary T. Lathrop and “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by W.B. Yeats. I studied both of these poems in college in an Irish Literature course, and while they paint a much different mood in a completely different time period than Delivering Flowers to Granda Jack, they explore notions of home and and change over time. For Yeats, Innisfree resembled a quiet place of beauty and simplicity that he longed for amidst the London city life. I guess Long Beach is sort of my Innisfree.
I also wrote a poem to accompany the photographs in Delivering Flowers to Grandpa Jack — you may have seen it on my website but I have included it below as well:
What Once Was Something
The lake of his childhood, now twilit,
mauve and lusterless in the August evening,
is the only thing worth sizing up
to the increases of his future.
Reflections of clouds and trees rescind,
become formless voices wrangling
deep in the water, taking on big words
like dependence and love,
ones that the open, stretched out world of unknowns
makes us incapable of.
Once, when decisions were shut tight,
no onlookers, he would have stripped down
to the small particulars of his body,
dipped into the dark, indefinite sheets,
swam swiftly to the middle.
He knows, now, what he would find:
Only the cold on his skin.
The internal daze of water and night.
Thoughts yearning for the shore.
CM: I’ve been trawling your images forwards and backwards thinking about these words, and am in love with this poem. For me, the punctum of this series is your inclusion of a photograph of photographs – the portraits of young boys set against a backdrop. Childhood frozen in time, reordered, unannotated – but very real to you? Here have you made a break with the past, to look at it from a distance?
KK: Thank you, I’m glad the poem resonates with you. The people that have seen the poem tend to overlook it, but I feel it has a strong relationship to the images and the meaning of the work.
In many ways, Delivering Flowers to Grandpa Jack is a series frozen in time. As you’ve noted, there is a pronounced connection to childhood and youth. The youthful innocence that exists in the series is very much a projection of myself. Making pictures in this series was almost like traveling back in time; the untouched, unannotated version of myself, where all that mattered was being in the moment. Yet I now look at my hometown with a new set of eyes and a new set of experiences. When you are thrown out into this big world you often retreat back to what is most familiar to you, and the backdrop that you speak of is my place of familiarity– a backdrop of a place that like my childhood self and the children that I photographed in the series, are untouched for a moment in time.
CM: Looking through this series of timeless compositions and soft sepia, I am intrigued by glimpses of an occasional shadow, that of the artist projected on his subjects. Could you tell me a bit more about this compositional decision in your image making?
KK: With regards to the occasional shadow, this is a subtle (or maybe not so subtle) way for me to project myself unto the images. In a sense these images are self portraits. Of course, my shadow literally exists on some of my subjects– a result of the light and my location in relation to the subject when I am taking the picture. This occasional shadow however is a way for me reinforce my connection to the people and place that I am photographing. It is a way for me to include myself in the story and to remind the viewer why these images were taken.
Kovi Konowiecki (b.1992) was born in Long Beach, California. He holds a BA in Media Communications from Wake Forest University and an MA in Photography from University of the Arts London. After playing professional soccer in Germany and Israel, he turned to photography as a way to document the things around him and shed light on different aspects of his identity. Kovi won Third Prize in the 2016 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, and was the first ever nominee to have two images included in this prestigious award. www.kovikonowiecki.com