Q&A: Birthe Piontek


Birthe Piontek understands what it is to feel like to be nourished by stories and even imagery; and she carries this into her own art form in her photography. Creating wonder, mystery and delight in a work can be difficult but the Canadian born photographer has found her niche in capturing artful human moments.
When you look deep into the work of Birthe Piontek, you feel as though you have fallen into a floating world, where you bare witness to a series of raw and intimate moments of self-discovery.

You can take a squizz at her work just below, or if you are ever in Vancouver, drop by Access Gallery to see her latest and greatest.

KD — Where do you reside and what do you love about it?

BP — Vancouver, BC, Canada. It’s the only place I know of, where you can ski in the morning, kayak in the afternoon and have a beer at the beach in the evening. If you get bored in the meantime, you can go for a walk in the rainforest.

When did you first pick up a camera?

I think around the age of 12 – a small pocket camera. I got my first old SLR from my grandfather when I was around 15 years.

What does your average day normally look like?

In the morning: Coffee, another coffee, while I catch up on emails and do some writing. After that, I usually work in the studio or on location, which very often involves hunting down the right accessories in thrift stores, fabric shops etc. Depending on the stage of the project I’m working on, I also spend a lot of time scanning and editing. In the evening: Getting groceries and making dinner. After dinner, I usually return to the studio for an hour or two.

How do you like to unwind?

Reading, Yoga, going on a walk or for a run, catching up with a friend over a coffee or a glass of wine, watching a movie.

What is your favorite camera to work with and why?

Hasselblad 500 CM. I’ve been working with this camera for so long now, it really feels like it has become a part of me. I like its simplicity, the size and weight of it, and slowness of shooting film. Although I’m often intrigued by the sharpness and richness of detail of a large format camera, I’m more a medium format kind of person, as I always like to shoot a lot of variations. I think I will eventually have to move on to digital but for now I’m still pretty attached to medium format film.

What part of your life do you need to take more slowly?

I find the constant input and flow of information and my dependency on my phone / social media quite overwhelming and very often distracting. I like the idea of solitude and remoteness and am definitely longing for a time out somewhere off the grid. Sitting quietly with yourself and having nowhere else to go, is an art and a challenge that many of us, including myself, have lost.

What was the first piece of art that had an impact upon you?

Monet’s Water Lily paintings. We had a whole book on them and when I was young, every time I looked at it, I was fascinated by the fact that there were so many different variations of seemingly the same painting. I think this was the first time I came in contact with the idea of an obsession and that pieces of art don’t just “happen”.

Your work often deals with incredibly complex concepts; what inspired your first photographic essay?

It’s actually quite difficult for me to define what my first photographic essay was, but from very early on I’ve been interested in taking portraits and trying to understand and express what is “inside” and “beneath” the visible surface. That’s why, over time, my approach shifted from a documentary to a more conceptual way of working as I felt that by “purely documenting” I wasn’t really able to express or access those deeper layers of our complex identities.

Who changed your way of thinking more than anyone else?

Rainer Maria Rilke. I’m not sure if he changed my way of thinking but many of his thoughts and much of writing really resonates with me and gave voice to my own thoughts and emotions. I highly recommend his book “Letters to a Young Poet” as it is kind of an owner’s manual on what it is and what is required to be an artist and a person.

What piece of advice would you pass onto your younger self?

Be patient and try not to compare yourself to others. It’s a game you can’t win.

What do you think makes a memorable photograph?

I’m mostly interested in the poetic qualities of an image. An image that grabs you hits a chord and sets something in motion. Something that is hard to put into words and difficult to grasp – like a poem. It gives voice to something that you didn’t even quite know was part of you but when you see it you think: “That’s exactly how I’ve felt”.

What will 2017 bring?

I will have a solo show with new work in Vancouver, BC in April. The project will be quite different from other projects and the way I’ve worked before, as it’s the first time I will be moving beyond the two-dimensional photographic image, by turning found vintage photographs into sculptures and creating object-based installations.

Where can we find more of your work?

The show will be at Access Gallery in Vancouver and the new work will eventually also be on my website: birthepiontek.com. I also post quite frequently on Instagram @birthepiontek.

— Interview by Kate Darmody.