12 : Maria Szemplinska
In this post I’m taking a break from the usual program to highlight the work of photographer Maria Szemplinska. I first met Maria on the gliding field when I was a competitor at the Canadian National Soaring Championships in 2010. In addition to crewing for her husband Jerzy, she has carved out a niche sui generis for capturing the sport of soaring through the perspective of pilot, crew, and spectator. Below you will find my Q&A with Maria as well as a selection of her work that I feel best represents her approach to soaring photography: the details and layers that she incorporates, the people, and the landscapes.
This Q&A has been edited for length and style from its original version.
How did you first become interested in photography? What inspired you to begin photographing the world of gliding?
We have to rewind my life a long time, back to the day I got excited and laid my hands on this antique folding camera in the attic of my family home. Not that I was really interested in photography. I was actually totally happy to pretend it’s a video camera and I am the director of a big production, inviting all my friends to be stars and we did scene after scene of the fictitious movie, running free all around our wild countryside until dark.
There is no mystery to my introduction to soaring photography. I was there, the camera was there, gliders, people were there; it was just natural that I started documenting this most beautiful and intelligent sport.
On your website you say that your "boredom of a classic soaring photograph" motivated you to challenge yourself to photograph soaring in a unique way. What details do you include in your photographic compositions to capture the core of the sport?
Years ago, when you looked through soaring magazines, calendars and books, you saw mostly the same: a white glider as a main subject, eventually with some variations. This was especially true in calendars. First impression: boring, but I totally respect those who are sticking to this traditional depiction of soaring life. After all, the glider was and is the key to everything in this field.
However, I saw this soaring environment as an unbelievably rich subject to be photographically dissected and so challenge myself to do it differently. I started showing people participating in the sport and the whole soaring environment; the glider was a part of it, but not all of it. A glider is a magnificent ship and it is always a pleasure to photograph it, but you really have to get out of your way to make it look different than it looked yesterday. Perhaps it has a soul, but in reality is just a piece of fibre, which in photographic terms might be called "still life". And I am definitely looking first of all for "life alive", and secondly I am in constant search of beauty around me, which means also in soaring. Those two elements are active nonstop, and the rest is just creative interpretation of elements.
It was an interesting experience to introduce my take on soaring. In the beginning I experienced some resistance from publications, even hard-core pilots, who just could not imagine having a cover shot showing some kids with pets or lovers on the grid instead of another white glider in front, because "it's a soaring magazine", so how could you put anything else there except a white glider? Once they saw what I was doing and they liked it, they were very generous and supportive of my way of showing them and the sport. And I am extremely appreciative for their cooperation.
Soaring for me is about the wonderful people I meet at the club and on contests, socializing, sharing with them thoughts, happiness, and sadness struggle together and compete, support, help each other. Being much dependent on each other binds us strongly and we become a world family. Soaring for me is to live with the elements, experience weather in all shapes in all kinds of places around the world. It is a sweet smell of fields, hours of waiting to no end in the middle of the landscape for the first cue or right temperature, stretching our bones under the wings, the hangar living. This is our soaring life and is rich and important, exciting and and one day I just decided to tell our whole story the way I see it.
Your photographs are intimate depictions of the people and equipment that are involved in soaring. How are you able to capture such spontaneous yet intimate images without interfering with the people? How do people react to you as a result of your interaction with them through the lens?
I believe this is possible because all those pilots and crews know me well and they are comfortable with me to the point of a total disregard of my presence with this big disturbing camera and even awfully loud clicking. But this took years of gaining their trust. It’s a special relationship of understanding and respect. I am very appreciative of their trust and friendship, allowing me to record their personal soaring lives with all those intimate details. Without their consent I would not have been able to show soaring the way I see it. Whenever I can, I return their kindness; everyone in my photos are given their personal photos back in full resolution whenever asked. And in addition to trust, the 200mm telephoto lens does the job of catching expressions without breaking a personal space barrier.
Although gliding competitions share many similarities, your photos capture the unique character and atmosphere of each gliding competition. How are you able to feel and capture the nature of each event?
It is very important to me to convey a sense of place for every contest. From the pilot’s point of view I usually like to show what kind of terrain we are in: flatlands, mountains, ridges or lake lands or desert. This gives the viewer an idea of the type of flying during a specific contest and what kind of difficulties pilots might have encountered there. For crews, I try to leave some pieces of memories from their point of view as well, like an occasional special animal species we saw, or romantic get together at the fireplace, or a visit to a gold mine on a day off. These few photos between the mainly soaring photos are important to mark the places we have been to.
From a purely photographic perspective I differentiate all those places by light. As they say Light is Photography/Photography is Light. Every airfield has a special light and I basically go by that. Depending on the coordinates and the landscape, light is something very characteristic to each place. By now, I already know what to expect and when during the day and time of year is the most beautiful light for photos, which make my photo work more efficient.
Pilot stories from their flights are a wide open book of unusual encounters with nature, but the best opportunity to engage with the landscape and environment in a non-typical way is to go on a landing out retrieve. For me as a photographer this is the golden opportunity to get the most interesting photos ever. If there is a retrieve, I am the first to go.
You've travelled to gliding fields around the world. What are some differences you've noticed in the gliding community worldwide?
I have been only to the World Gliding Championships in Berlin, Szeged, Uvalde, and Leszno and the world is much more than this, so my experiences are limited. There is one major difference between America and Europe: the age of a competing pilot. America has an aging pilot population and for them it is hard to compete with a young experienced European pilot. Europe has young and middle-aged generations and also much more flying experience than their rivals from America. This issue has been discussed many times and a lot of positive initiatives were undertaken lately in Canada and United States to improve the situation and I hope the effects will be visible in the near future.
Europe has a strong support from the government and other organizations in the development of soaring, which is totally lacking in America. Considering that our sport is highly environmentally friendly, maybe we should use the latest environmental summit to push our agenda towards getting some interests of our governments in the support of our beloved sport. We need more young people in our soaring clubs and they need our support to be able to compete with the rest of the world.
You can see more of Maria's soaring portfolio here. To see more of Maria’s broader work, you can go to her website. Although she is best known for her photos of gliding, Maria skillfully captures a range of portraits and events. She has also compiled many art exhibits, including her photo series “Yet Unforbidden”.
Cameras: Nikon D4, Nikon D700
Lenses: Nikkor 16mm (fisheye), Nikkor 17-35mm, Nikkor 70-200mm (telephoto), 2x teleconverter TC-20, Nikkor 105mm (macro)
Other gear: Flash SB-800, Manfrotto monopod, reflectors
Airfield gear: Nikon D4, Nikkor 17-35mm, Nikkor 70-200mm (telephoto)
"Use the right lens to support your imagination and inner creativity; everything starts there."
On Monday I share some family portraits and the world of My Little Pony with my new favourite four-year-old.
This interview was conducted by the Montreal-based photographer Selena Phillips-Boyle.