The photo blog of Monika Sosnowski, a New York City based photographer.
Welcome to my blog!
My name is Monika Sosnowski and I'm a photographer of places, things and people. My work is about moments that reveal a fragmented narrative. I looks for traces – presence in absence and absence in presence; the in-between.
This blog is an extension of my artistic practice.
I wanted to add a poem here, but couldn’t find one even though I reached to some of my favorite poets. Before that, I contemplated writing about how today’s weather reminded me of that first summer after we moved into our new life. I know it’s only the very beginning of Spring and it still feels like Winter. Perhaps it’s because I woke up early to the sound of rain and serene grayness.
It rained a lot that first summer. Briarwood, Queens was like a suburb – curved streets lined with houses and some apartment buildings, but also with many trees also and parked cars. I think we were all hopeful. Excited even. Truth be told there was a lushness everywhere, especially on the weekends. Sunday mornings turning the pages of the New York Times my mother and I would pick up late Saturday night at the stationary store on Queens Boulevard. Those first few months were full of expectancy and everything was new.
Today it’s Monday morning, 39 degrees, foggy and raining. I’m working on my recent project. Started last year it’s just beginning to emerge into its own form. Looking forward to printing today and holding the photographs in my hands. Inspired by the Hudson River School artists and their work.
I wanted to write a post about sequencing images – particularly when displayed online. This morning I remembered that I’ve also been meaning to write about language, write more about being bilingual. I was reminded of that when I called out to my dog Ruby. In English I said to her: “let’s go have some breakfast.” As the words rolled off my tongue, my mind was captioning them in Polish. Instinctual translating. If language gives us the means to express our reality – as it shapes it to a great degree – what is this experience I keep having where I’m simultaneously in two realms of existence? My primal conundrum, which I began being aware of sometime after starting college. But back then I didn’t realize it was a question of linguistics, rather I attributed the strange sensation to my everyday angst. What happens is a kind of parallel being whereby I’m literally outside of myself observing me in the space and given situation I actually am in. What I say at a given moment comes out as if an invisible and inaudible translator is transmitting not just the words but its meaning.. to myself! Perhaps it’s just my superego in overdrive.
In my early twenties I visited Poland with my mother after being away for more than ten years. It was a short visit, as all of them have been, but rich in gifts of unforgettable experiences. One day I was introduced to a philosopher-writer, a son of a well known Polish artist. My memory of the actual meeting is that we walked over to one another through a snow covered field in a park somewhere in Warsaw. It was the middle of winter, early February and very cold. He and his young wife drove me somewhere out of courtesy. I was asked many questions about my years of growing up into adulthood in New York and how it felt to be back home. It was during this ride that I first found out about Eva Hoffman and her book, “Lost in Translation – A Life in a New Language.” The philosopher-write said that I must read it because it’s a book about me. Shortly before flying back to New York I received a copy of the book in English. I started reading it on the flight over the Atlantic. Since that time I have often thought how what was almost a chance meeting – I never saw or spoke to that man again – became somewhat a turning point in my life. Eva Hoffman’s book became my anchor, a safe haven, both my return and starting point.
The images below are from the most recent trip to Poland and part of an ongoing body of work exploring the relationship of identity with memory, culture and language. Eva Hoffman describes the feeling of having left the self – her real self – back in Cracow when she emigrated with her family to Canada in 1959. I too often feel the same. Each time I go back I expect to find everything as it was, but it keeps changing and evolving like all else in life. The photographs are my response to these new encounters, partly documentation, partly a story which emerges regardless of the circumstances.
Here’s an excerpt from Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, where she recalls receiving a diary as a gift from her friend and wondering which language she should write in:
“Because I have to choose something, I finally choose English. If I’m to write about the present, I have to write in the language of the present, even if it’s not the language of the self. As a result, the diary becomes surely one of the more impersonal exercises of the sort produced by an adolescent girl.” (page 121, 1995 edition published by Minerva in Great Britain)
Please watch the short excerpt from an interview with Eva Hoffman where she talks about her experience of emigrating from Poland. Hoffman posits the relationship of language to one’s identity and recalls her determination not to live between two languages. I love the way she so eloquently explains the desire for the English language to inhabit her the way Polish language did. I too had that very same desire – I would call it a need, which became a perpetual struggle leaving me to believe that I lacked mastery over either language. About a year after we moved to New York I stopped speaking, reading and writing in Polish on regular basis for almost ten years.
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A brief visit early in the summer couple of years ago. My dear friend, the talented painter Maggie Mailer, lives in a house luminous during the day and starry at night. It’s on a hill overlooking the seasons’ ebb and flow all year long. Inside, a fourth dimension abundant with colors, toys, books, pictures, spices, a child’s laughter, husband’s wonder.
Through a short corridor, an adjacent studio suspended in air floats with dreams, narratives and abstract shapes. More colors. Endless colors. Endless possibilities.
The boy draws good dragons. Are there any other?
Time stops. For a while and then it catches up to the present.
And then again and again and once again.
The idea well. Arcadia. Volcano watchers…
Beauty glimpsed in rear view mirror on the way to… I must remember this, return here, interpret it on paper.
That day in Warsaw I met with my namesake, a woman of great intellect and sensibility, the philosopher Monika M. We had coffee and shared a pastry, briefly discussed my visit to her class at the Art Academy, her work, my work. I showed her a book I received as a gift maybe the day before, a book based on another book and about the turbulent life of a woman who lived a long time ago and more than anything wanted to be a writer.
And then I had to run. Or perhaps she did. This was back in October of 2015, a time of much expectations and excitement. Everything still seamed so very possible. Attainable. Within reach. Upon my return back to New York I fell back into the grueling schedule with a renewed sense of determination. Oh but those proverbial winds of change rustled already somewhere in the distance.
Photographs are a map to both the past and the future. Looking at them is the present.
This is a prelude. I’m putting together a longer piece referencing and inspired by Gaston Bachelard’s “The Poetics of Space.”
I’ve been rethinking the use of blogging. Naturally this – my blog – in particular. I’m working on expanding its format and reach in an effort to make it a platform for presenting and sharing content about and related to photography. Photography mainly but also art in general. Blogging for artists is part of the practice. I think of it as an extension of the physical studio space, which at times also functions as a virtual substitute. The importance of a personal blog shouldn’t be underestimated even in a sea of blogs and social media venues. I’ve grown weary of Facebook and am seriously considering opting out once and for all. Instagram is actually pretty great in the way it is mainly about the image. But we are living in a time of endless image streaming. Posting, looking, looking, looking… Are we actually seeing?
It’s easy to post. It’s easy to created beautiful pictures with iPhones, it’s soooo easy to give them away into the world. We’ve been very generous with our visions. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that and I myself enjoy participating in the act of this amazing picture sharing phenomena. But something is missing. Maybe it’s too late and certainly we can’t go back. Still, for myself I need a place of reflection. Thus the blog. It too can become a self-referencing entity, which is fine because in addition to being an extension of the studio, it also become a kind of a notebook, sketchbook, test print.
It feels only right to include here, as a kind of bookend, an image which has haunted me for over twenty years. It’s Duane Michal’s photograph titled, “This is My Proof.” It’s one of those images forever etched into my being, almost to the point where it’s as if I was both there – the subject of the photograph – and the one who made it. I think this happens with really great books. I once read about a writer mentioning just that, how people get absorbed by the story, riveted by its language and form, that upon meeting with the book’s author instead of saying: “I just read your book” they say: “I just wrote your book.” In any case I’m including Michael’s photograph here because I love it and because many times just looking it at made me feel at home.
I’ve linked both the image and the highlighted text above to an interesting interview with Duane Michals from 2014. Please check it out for a wonderful slide show of his work as well as his thoughts on photographs vs words. Writing of course has been a significant part of his work. He states: “My writing grew out of my frustration with photography. I never believed a photograph is worth a thousand words. If I took a picture of you, it would tell me nothing about your English accent; it would tell me nothing about you as a person. With somebody you know really well, it can be frustrating. Sixty per cent of my work is photography and the rest is writing. “
Hmm… Here I was musing about concepts of home, the spaces we inhabit, how my work is born out of that realm and somehow all that led to this. As a disclosure I don’t agree with his sentiment. In fact I believe a picture can tell me something about your English accent; it can tell me so much about you as a person – not everything, nothing can – but still enough.
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One must start somewhere. Few days ago the question emerged again: “How to live?” And before that, couple of months ago, it happened in Polish: “Jak żyć?”
Being bilingual has its advantages, but living in translation day in and day out sometimes makes for a total lack of words. Language. Spoken language. Mother tongue.
It always goes back to the mother, doesn’t it?
My Mother was bilingual too when I was born. She could have been a writer. Everybody said so, including her – years later without remorse, but as a shield through which no question could touch what she chose to forget.
The Lenoir Mansion. What happened here? There was another mansion that once built must have taken away this one’s view of the Hudson River. It burnt to the ground a long time ago, but its remains still persist. What remains? Why?
Abandoned. Of course I can’t resist. And so I start looking and wondering.
PART I – Notes on history of Lenoir Preserve
After some preliminary on-line research I don’t have a solid grip on the origins of this mysterious place. Originally part of the Tilden/ Wightman Estate, the mansion can be found at the entrance to the beautiful Lenoir Preserve. The impressive granite stone house was built sometime in the later 18oos for Samuel J. Tilden – the 25th Governor of New York. Tilden was the Democratic candidate in the disputed presidential election of 1876 winning the popular vote but ultimately losing the electorate college vote to the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes.
It’s unclear if, and in what capacity, Tildan use of the mansion was. He also owned the Greystone estate, merely a stone-throw south from there and upon retiring from politics and law in early 1880s, Tildan lived out the remaining years of his life as a recluse. He died on August 4, 1886. What is know is that the Tilden estate was purchased at some point by Caleb C. Dula, president of the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company from 1911-1927, then Chairman until 1930. Dula gave the estate its current name – Lenoir – after Lenoir, North Carolina where he was born and raised. In 1907 two wings are added to the original structure and by 1939 Dula’s niece, Purl Parker inherits the estate where she lives with her husband, Dr. Orin Wightman. In 1976 the estate is sold to Westchester County for $1.
In between there’s other mansions, estates, men, women, children..Reversal of fortunes, changing times, decline, revival etc. There’s so much here to find out about!
Since my move to Yonkers almost a year ago, I’ve been fascinated by this place. Not just Lenoir, but the entire area. The history of Yonkers and surrounding Westchester terrain, the natural beauty and mystery, the Hudson River, the ebb and flow of life here – the people and places and things. My new project – unnamed yet – has been developing and I’m excited about the possibilities.
Above and below are a few images from my exploration of Lenoir Preserve.
In my research I came across an absolute gem of an old home movie on YouTube showing a family and friends gathering at the Lenoir estate in 1926!. The source for commercial usage of this movie clip is www.thetravelfilmarchive.com. I believe the people featured in it are the Duell family and friends. The Duells had the Ardenwold mansion built on property which seems to have been parceled from the original Lenoir acreage, but I can’t find full information about this. Ardenwold burned down in the 1970s. The remains of some of its foundation are found in one of the photographs above. The Hudson River Audubon Society has a link to a wonderful PDF with historical photos of the Duell family and the stately Ardenwold house as it looked once in its beautiful grandeur – please check it out! Meanwhile here’s a couple samples:
Perhaps because it snowed yesterday and people responded with a blizzard of pictures on social media – as evidence that the meteorological phenomenon of snow still exists, I recalled the image above. It was taken few years ago after a long night during which a gazillion of flakes blanketed everything in sight. It happened so quietly, silently really, like a secret celestial mission to cover the withered bareness in whiteness and dress up the evergreens. It was a weekend so we slept in and after a laid-back breakfast ventured outside with the sincere intention of shoveling snow, at least a pathway to the car. Maybe the pathway was my responsibility while Peter worked on digging out the car. All I know is that at some point I went back inside the house to get my camera. I took 23 pictures and this was the last one.
Here’s a poem by Mary Oliver from her collection titled “Evidence”:
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds
will never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
A place of beauty and mystery, Untermyer Gardens Conservatory, delights one’s soul and senses. A wonderland any time of the year with echoes of a bygone era. In winter the lushness has withered into slumber and what remains are the bare shrubs, yellowed-out grasses and flower heads looking dry and brittle to the touch. Still, they all stand upright or twisted, swaying in the the cold, cold breeze. Defiantly elegant in melancholy on a rainy afternoon.
Usually I photograph instead of writing. I wish I wrote more. More often. I wish I could have that kind of reference for the past, for all those times when writing it down would have been such a relief. Maybe I come from a lineage of things held back, unsaid, forgotten. Maybe it’s just plain avoidance and most likely it is.
But I do keep a record, even though I wouldn’t necessarily define it as a documentation by any means.
This is my language.
I’m reading intermediately, by which I mean not from cover to cover, Eva Hesse’s “Diaries” and Anselm Kiefer’s “Notebooks Volume 1: 1998-1999.”
On this day, February 5th, 1965 Eva Hesse wrote the following (excerpt):
“I did a drawing. I really like. now at moment.
will eagerly await tomorrow, with hope that it will still mean something to me then…
I will continue drawing. push the individuality of them even though they go against every “major trend.” Fuck that.
So did everyone I admire at the same time they started go against.
I must now build on something and the work is, can be a good point from which to build.” (page 417)
Meanwhile Ansel Kiefer wrote the following in 1999 (also an excerpt):
“9 P.M. Time to sleep. Outside the watchmen pass (the song of the night-watchmen in medieval times, when they’ve shut the gates at dusk –> curfew). They have whistles like the traffic police and blow them constantly: sometimes near, sometimes further off. Puzzling, who they’re whistling at the entire time. Like an unidentifiable jungle noise. Another suspension of the principle of sufficient reason. It’s preoccupying (and annoying) when something happens and you can’t discern the reason for it or its pointlessness seems crystal clear. But what do we know?” (page 264)
Soon it will be a year since everything changed. For months it felt like I was colliding with my own life, in slow motion for added impact.
I’m astonished that it’s been almost a year now. It feels still so fresh, three or four months at the most. I did write at times but mostly photographed. There were days when that was all I could do. There were days when that just had to be enough. In retrospect those were good days. The bad ones were when I wondered if I’ll ever photograph again.