Agata Kalinowska, Yaga

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 spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The 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 as a lesbian in a country which remains the most homophobic in the European Union. “At school, lesbian kissing was considered a way to tease boys, – not a real thing.” “For a long time”, she continues, “there wasn’t even a language for gay people in Poland, not to mention sex ed.” 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 to LGBTQ community there and finding her own path. Kalinowska now uses photography to document that community.

Yaga is her first photobook, and it is a book “about the idea of emancipation of socially excluded women that the system finds inconvenient.” 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. 

As a photobook, at first sight Yaga appears rather unassuming: a small photograph depicting what looks like a taxidermy bird on a stand is tipped in on a simple green cover, the title and the name of the artist appearing on the spine, also rather modestly. Inside, the images slightly vary in sizes and their placement, but usually have a good amount of white space around them. Overall, Yaga is a simple book, without 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 shifted, and several pictures are deliberately placed across the gutter. 

Yaga is a visual diary, raw and unapologetic, shot over a decade. The book opens with a photograph of a woman coming out of the water in the darkness, her long hair is wet and she only has her underwear on, as she looks straight into the camera. Perhaps this is a symbolic act of healing and coming out of shadow, and an act of rebirth. A couple of spreads later, we see two young women on a bed – one of them is smiling as she reaches to pinch the nipple the another, with gentle sunlight adding even more positive vibes to the shot. The photograph has been turned to have vertical orientation, making the angles of the image even more disorienting. This is followed by a picture of a used tampon on top of a trash can, paired with a slightly smaller shot of a crackling bonfire. Other images represent fertility and motherhood, as they show a woman during an ultrasound, and later two women bathing a baby. Kalinowska puts forward various elements of women’s life, celebrating expressions of femininity.

This first part of the book shows women, and their world full of love, care, and laughter, and their occasional quiet moments and isolation. In almost all of the photographs, women look 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 stares straight into the camera, looking a bit annoyed or upset; a bunch of balloons and a bride are seen in the blurry background behind her. This is followed by a photo of a cat outside, its hair is standing up as if frightened by the flash. Another full spread 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 gentle moments, like in a spread which pairs a snapshot of house plants with a close-up of a mother holding her baby, as their hands and legs are intertwined. Another spread pairs a snapshot of house plants with a close-up shot of a mother holding her baby, but we only see intertwined hands and legs. As we move through the flow, there is another portrait of a woman in a kitchen gently embracing a dog on her lap, unembarrassed by its somewhat awkward size. It is another tender and delicate moment. 

As the visual narrative continues to unfold, men start to appear in the photographs, and their presence brings an unsettling mix of mess, violence, and chaos. Girls in mini skirts dance around poles, and again the photo is broken in two by the gutter – the arm of one woman extends unnaturally from one frame to another as she bends in her exaggerated dance move. From this trying hard to impress behavior, things seem to deteriorate further, with images of a bottle being smashed on someone’s head, an old man touching the back of a younger woman who sits next to him on a sofa, a man with a bleeding head sucks his finger (which is also covered in blood), and a young woman with a black eye. 

Then the visual flow moves back to photographs of women, providing some relief and reconciliation. A woman’s back with marks from the sun fills one frame, and is paired with a close up shot of the curve of another woman’s hair. A couple of spreads later, a photo placed across the gutter shows a close up of two young women passionately kissing, which is followed by a sequence of wild flowers, seeming to intentionally soften and recalibrate the ending. 

Kalinowska’s series immediately brings to mind Nan Goldin’s book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, but Yaga feels more raw and spontaneous. It also echoes another classic book Growing up Female: A Personal Photojournal (1974), where Abigail Heyman showed what it meant to be female in the United States, portraying women’s experiences and inciting discussion around female identity. 

“Yaga is for me a loving manifesto. It contains my ridiculousness. Ridiculousness is a language of friendship and intimacy”, writes Kalinowska in her essay at the end of the book. In these pictures, she boldly challenges socially imposed standards of beauty and female identity, and makes room for something more personal. Yaga fiercely claims the power of female representation and the female gaze, and memorably draws a clear distinction between worlds inhabited by men and women. It is an excellent photobook, whose casual snapshot style softens an otherwise incisive message. 

Collector’s POV: Agata Kalinowska does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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