Karolina Jonderko, Self-Portrait with My Mother

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2018 (here). Softcover, 58 pages, with 30 color photographs. Includes texts by the artist. In an edition of 150 copies. Design by Natalia Szczech. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Polish photographer Karolina Jonderko grew up in southern Poland, in the family of a coal miner. Her long term projects focus on the subject of loss, and how we deal with it. This subject has very personal meaning for the artist, as her mother died of cancer while Jonderko was in her early twenties. Fours years after her mother’s death, she started working on a project that helped her to deal with her grief and find some closure through the creative process. The result was her first self-published photobook titled Self-Portrait with My Mother, a beautiful and thoughtful tribute to a loved one. On February 28, 2019, eleven years after her mother’s passing, she launched the English edition of the book.

The connecting element that draws the narrative together is the left-over clothes Jonderko’s mother used to wear, very intimate and essential objects in the relationships between a mother and a daughter. During the Soviet era, when very little was available in the stores, Jonderko’s family used to receive packages from their relatives who lived in West Germany. The ceremonial opening of these packages was an exciting event, for which the whole family would gather.

Among Haribo jellies, Nutella, and margarine were a selection of second-hand clothes, and the entire wardrobe of Jonderko’s mother came from this source. “She always looked modest and didn’t like black. Some say that what one wears is a part of creating one’s identity. My mother, all her life, wore clothes she hadn’t chosen.” Perhaps for Jonderko, her mother’s outfits and attitude towards clothes became an essential reflection of her modest and giving character. We learn that her mother never felt the need to buy new clothes, as she tended to save money for what she thought were more important expenses.

Four years after Jonderko’s mother passed away, the artist brought the box with her mother’s clothes to the house where she and her sister grew up, and started recreating her mother’s outfits from her memories, just the way she remembered her wearing them. She took self-portraits in these outfits in her family house. The process of actually stepping into the dresses and skirts, in a sense inhabiting them, and reconstructing and reliving the associated memories turned into a long term project, and ultimately, self-therapy and a sense of some emotional closure

Self-Portrait with My Mother is an elegant publication. The cover of the book has no text or design elements – a textured floral pattern reminiscent of fabric offers us the only clue to what’s inside. The book has a clear structure: it consists of ten sections, each capturing one specific outfit through featured fabrics, associated memories, and a straightforward self-portrait of Jonderko in the outfit.

The book opens with the first few spreads depicting fabric, with full spread images showing the details and designs: a pattern of tiny white flowers against black background, a white knitted piece with patterns, and a pattern made from an abstract drawing. These patterns related to “Home clothes” which opens the book and brings back Jonderko’s memory of her mother: “I remember her sitting at the piano, focused, her hand tapping the rhythm, patiently listening, to the rattle of her students, and I can still hear her gentle voice: let’s repeat this part.” The next page is an artist’s self-portrait in her mother’s clothes: she stands barefoot against plain background wearing a skirt, a sweater, and a scarf around her neck, as she looks straight back into the camera.

Jonderko recreated the outfits her mother wore based on her memories of those moments. Each portrait has the same formal approach, pose, and structure, and is focused on showcasing one of the looks. The selection of ensembles include various holiday clothes, weekend clothes, and winter clothes. We learn that on sunny summer days, her mother would wear her long dress with flowers (long white petals and a yellow center), and she would always be smiling and relaxed. That was her weekend outfit.

Jonderko isn’t the first photographer to use clothing to reach back into the lives of parent. Self-Portrait with My Mother clearly brings to mind the photobook Un montón de ropa (reviewed here) by the Argentinian photographer Lujan Agusti, who also used her mother’s clothes to consider and describe their relationship and memories. Another Argentinian photographer Mariela Sancari used the photobook format to create a complexly layered narrative about her father who committed suicide when she was fourteen, and Lebohang Kganye has digitally reinserted herself into old family snapshots, doubling and echoing the poses and styles of her mother. Clearly, this is a universal and timeless conversation about family and relationships, and the cathartic power of photography in dealing with unsettled memories and delicate family stories.

Jonderko’s contribution to the genre stands out in the clarity of its conception and the poignancy of its subtle emotional connections. Her photobook is both an understated and touching tribute to her mother, as well as visual evidence of her own therapeutic process. She has brought us along as she worked to come to terms with the early death of her mother, and that shared intimacy gives the photobook its lasting power. 

Collector’s POV: Karolina Jonderko does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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One comment

  1. Charles Johnstone /

    Love the book and review Olga!! Also love the way you find these small gems and give artists a voice who may be off the grid a bit , at least off the grid to me. Hopefully Dashwood will carry this. I will speak to David. ️

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