Photographer Magda Biernat quietly captures images of our built world, both humble and soaring. Whether she is shooting the designs of the most acclaimed architects or creating a series of images that speak to human connections and our relationship with nature, Magda’s love of composition and geometry is pure visual poetry. Born and raised in Poland, she began her career shooting street scenes exclusively in black and white. Now a resident of New York and an avid world-traveler, Magda collects images ripe with color and full of grace.
Himba Hut, Oshakati, Namibia, Continental Bounce series by Magda Biernat
Other than for a particular assignment, when you’re taking a photograph, are you drawn more to the visual composition of the scene or is there usually an emotional statement you wish to convey?
My photography is very intuitional. I am drawn to particular scenes or subjects when I feel a sudden pull towards it aesthetically. It’s hard to explain what it is — you look at a scene and something just clicks, and I find I want to sort of collect the image. I think it starts with visual composition, but by framing it in a particular way, my personal and emotional statement comes through.
I’ve always been a collector. As a teenager I collected books, as an adult and a traveler I collect memories and foreign currency. As a photographer, I collect moments of beauty or visual poetry that I want to keep forever. Photography for me is a way of capturing the beauty of everyday life for myself.
Carriage House, New York City, photograph by Magda Biernat
J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, photograph by Magda Biernat
Interior of Sydney Opera House, photograph by Magda Biernat
I understand you originally studied marketing, then got your BFA in photography, and only focused on shooting architecture after working for Magnum Photos and as a picture editor at Metropolis magazine. What types of photographs were you doing prior to this, and can you tell me about what influenced your artistic path growing up in Poland?
I started with black and white street photography and portraiture. I had my own darkroom at home and loved spending hours in it, watching the results of my work slowly appearing on photographic paper. My photography school in Poland was also very much focused on traditional black and white photography. At the time I couldn’t imagine photographing in color.
Ania, Poznan, Poland (1999), photograph by Magda Biernat
That changed when I came to America and bought my first medium format camera. During a road trip around the U.S. in 2002, I was struck by how rich and vivid the landscape was. I started seeing everything in color afterwards, and I’ve photographed this way ever since.
Coming back to my time in Poland, I was very much influenced by Magnum photographers, such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiano Salgado, etc. I think Magnum has a huge impact on photographers in Europe. However, when I started working at Magnum Photos in New York, I began to look at documentary photography differently and realized that it is not a type of photography I could see myself doing. Something was missing. Since I started photographing in color, I realized I am particularly drawn to geometric shapes in my compositions. This realization led me to take a workshop in architectural photography, which changed the path of my career. I started assisting Norman McGrath, who was my teacher at the workshop. A little later I was hired as a Picture Editor at Metropolis Magazine and got drawn even more into the world of architecture.
Snaidero New York showroom, photograph by Magda Biernat
IAC Building, New York City, photograph by Magda Biernat
Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, photograph by Magda Biernat
For your high-end architectural photography, I’m curious what direction you’re given for these assignments. For example, do they indicate a mood they’d like you to capture, and does the intended audience influence your techniques and composition choices?
Most of my assignment photography is work for architects and interior designers. My first task is to simply document their projects, but secondly I am trying to show the spaces and buildings as close to what they envisioned as possible. I think that architectural photography is different than other types of commercial photography. It’s about the building and the architect or designer and not that much about the photographer. It’s not good if you see too much of the photographer in the picture — they aren’t the star. The viewer should admire the design of the building without thinking about who took the shot.
Ballard Library in Seattle, photograph by Magda Biernat
BOKA Kitchen + Bar in Seattle, photograph by Magda Biernat
The Great Court, British Museum in London, photograph by Magda Biernat
Kong in Paris, photograph by Magda Biernat
Looking at the range of your architectural photography, both for assignments and your fine art work, do you marvel at these efforts large and small on the part of their designers to say something about human culture and aspiration? Is this what has drawn you to this part of your portfolio?
I actually consider these to be separate subjects, even though they are all technically photographs of buildings. The Millenium Bridge or L’Institut du Monde Arabe were photographed for my commercial portfolio. They are very much about the design, and I wanted to capture them as marvels of architecture, again, trying to let the architect’s voice speak much louder than mine.
Millenium Bridge, London, photograph by Magda Biernat
L’Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, photograph by Magda Biernat
The work in Continental Bounce is part of my personal portfolio, which is focusing more on the aesthetics of everyday life. It is all about my impressions of the places we visited. I am trying to point my camera at places that might normally escape our attention, yet are extraordinary in their own way, usually unintentionally. It’s hard to say what the designer of the pink A-frames in Namibia was thinking; the style is so totally foreign to the environment. I think in this case it was the oddity of seeing these in the Namibian desert that attracted me.
Tipi Resort, Swakopmund, Namibia, Continental Bounce series by Magda Biernat
In your Quietly Forgotten series, it’s clear some of these structures were built at a time of great optimism and energy. What have you reflected on or learned from documenting these reversals?
I think there is an incredible beauty in abandoned structures and their decay. Faced with it, you try to imagine how the place looked like in its ‘brighter’ days and what has happened to it since. I think each time I encounter one of these places, they make me think about the constant struggle between nature and the man-made world. How quickly nature can reclaim its territory. I think I’m attracted to buildings that once offered much promise but have now been humbled somewhat by outside forces.
San-Zhr Pod Village, Taiwan, photograph from Quietly Forgotten series by Magda Biernat
Waiting Room, Alishan, Taiwan, photograph from Quietly Forgotten series by Magda Biernat
Bus stop, Ulaanbator, Mongolia, photograph from Quietly Forgotten series by Magda Biernat
In your photographs of people, particularly in your Continental Bounce series, it seems the postures or attitude of the people sort of mimic their inanimate environment. Is this happening by chance, or are you reflecting on this consciously as you work?
I rarely take pictures of people. I like the stillness of buildings and quietness of landscape. I like the fact that they don’t move and I can capture them the way I see them, so most of my photographs are unpopulated. When I do try to include people, I think I also see them almost structurally, as if they’re parts of the landscape and integral to the place that I am trying to capture.
For most of my projects, I still use a medium or large format film camera – either handheld or on a tripod. I think it slows down the process and helps me consider the composition. I feel like the world is my big open studio, which is why the few portraits I take tend to look more formal. I always ask my subjects if I can take a photo of them, but I never tell them what to do or how to pose. Especially in developing countries where portraits are seen as an event and even as an honor, I find that people’s natural poses tend to be rather stiff. This in itself tells me a lot about their culture. I find it humbling that unlike in the west, where we are all photographed all the time, the subjects of my photographs take the event very seriously.
Himba Village, Opuwo, Namibia, photograph by Magda Biernat
Playground, Khayalitsha Township, South Africa, photograph by Magda Biernat
What’s the story behind the Betel Nut Beauties you shot during your travels?
Taiwan was one of the 17 countries my husband Ian and I visited during our year around the world trip. I have always been attracted to little hut-like structures, which is expressed in my On Watch project where I photographed guard houses and watch towers. In Taiwan, similar structures exist, but instead of guards they have alluringly dressed young women seated behind the counters. The huts and storefronts are brightly lit with neon signs. The shops sell a product popular throughout Asia and around the Indian Ocean called betel nut (paan in most South Asian countries). It is a mixture of various ingredients including the betel leaf combined with the areca nut which forms a mild stimulant, about as powerful as coffee. It is popular with truck drivers in Taiwan since it helps keep them awake during long trips.
There is a lot of competition to sell betel nut, so one way the little stalls compete is to display the pretty saleswomen in big windows. The sales ladies flirt with their customers, creating some loyalty, and providing some added stimulation. Over the past few years, as the ladies started wearing less and less, the Taiwanese government finally started objecting, and now the Betel Nut shops are more tightly regulated.
Betel Nut Beauty #1, Taipei, Taiwan, photograph by Magda Biernat
Betel Nut Beauty #2, Taipei, Taiwan, photograph by Magda Biernat
I have to ask this question of you since you’re such a visual person and you’ve traveled so extensively: Are there certain places on Earth that make you happiest visually?
It’s a hard question. There are so many places I think fondly of, like Mongolia or the African countries we visited. I think I am most inspired when I find myself in a place that I’ve never been to before. I think the excitement of discovering a totally new place makes me happiest visually. I find myself attracted to very simple structures in the same way I appreciate simple design, and I love some of the hand-made buildings in the developing world — many times they are more honest about the culture they are in than our big fancy buildings.
Maasai land, Ngong Hills, Kenya, photograph by Magda Biernat
Fishermen, Chau Doc, Vietnam, photograph by Magda Biernat
Where do you see your work going from here, and what are you most proud of?
As far as my personal work is concerned, I think I would like to start working on more series. I am happy to create beautiful individual photos and get recognition for single images, but I think I would like to develop a deeper and more meaningful body of work. Having this in mind, I am currently starting to work on a project that will explore the themes of globalization and contemporary nomadism, a subject that is close to me personally as a person living away from my home country and someone who loves to live on the road.
What are some of your favorite things, whether they directly impact your work or just make you happy?
I love traveling and meeting people from other cultures. Learning about their customs and ways of living. I love spotting new places that make me want to stop and explore further. I love challenges. I hate routine. I think routine harms creativity.
During our trip, I was inspired greatly by people who lived very simply and yet were willing to host us for an indefinite amount of time, sharing with us all they could even though they didn’t have much to share. Their pure goodness and hospitality made me happy, as does being in a position where I can give something back to them.
Magda Biernat and husband Ian Webster in New Zealand
Magda Biernat, photo © Jennifer MacFarlane
Watch for Magda’s upcoming solo show at the Clic Gallery in SoHo in New York City in February 2010.
Share the love, post a comment!