Agnieszka Sosnowska: Stories of the Land

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We are pleased to release October's print, "Nude, Self-portrait, Landsendi, Iceland, 2012" from Agnieszka Sosnowska. Read more about Sosnowska’s work below.

Purchase this print from our print sale page.

Agnieszka Sosnowska
Nude, Self-portrait, Landsendi, Iceland, 2012
Selenium toned silver gelatin print
7 x 9, signed and numbered edition of 10

It’s Saturday afternoon and Agnieszka Sosnowska (Ag-niesh-ka Sos-now-ska) is in the barn on her farm in east Iceland, washing a new photograph. As with many of her images, this one tells a story of a wild, rural place, where survival depends on hard work, resourcefulness, and synchronicity with the rhythms of nature. This latest photograph tells of a mink that snuck into the coop and killed Sosnowska’s chickens.

For several decades, this photographer’s evocative self-portraits have garnered international attention. Born in Poland and raised in the United States, Sosnowska moved a decade ago to Kleppjárnsstaðir, the farm she shares with her husband and the place where many of her stories originate. Across the road from her house, a river spills into a waterfall. Hundreds of geese migrate and live on the nearby lakes. Night turns to pitch black and becomes rather lonely. One small earthly light shines on the horizon, coming from a church nine miles away. It reminds Sosnowska and her husband, they are not alone.

“Fishing, hunting, planting, and gathering are considered pastimes for many people in the developed world,” Sosnowska wrote about her series that won LensCulture’s Visual Storytelling Awards in 2015. “Farming to me, can be seen as a physical manifestation of a human’s determination. A farmer’s efforts are uncertain; such a life choice seems noble.”

Maturity has helped Sosnowska realize and appreciate this. Back when she was an undergraduate at Massachusetts College Art and Design, and later a graduate student at Boston University, she avoided harsh weather. Now living on the farm, she can’t. “It’s tough just getting out in snow. The wind can be very strong,” Sosnowska says. “It changes a person living this way. If you can get through it, it’s only for the better. It’s only made me stronger.”

Balancing Act, Norwell, Massachusetts, 1993

Balancing Act, Norwell, Massachusetts, 1993

When Sosnowska was 18 years old, she began photographing herself in various natural settings using her Graflex 4 x 5 camera—the same camera she uses today. There’s a fairy tale quality to these early images: beautiful innocence dancing on the edge of darkness. In a 1993 self-portrait, made in Norwell, Massachusetts, Sosnowska stood on the limb of a big tree with her feet turned out, her skirt playfully lifting at the hem. The viewer sees only her lower torso—no head. Thus, at quick glance, the figure appears to be hanging.

As a young photographer, Sosnowska was camera shy, and avoided showing her face in her self-portraits. That’s changed. Now 45, Sosnowska turns her fresh, freckled face into the camera—at times sharing with it her nude or partially clothed body. She credits this boldness, at least in part, to meeting strong Icelandic women. “I’m always taken aback about how women support each other here,” she says.

Her new confidence can be seen in “My Belt, Héraðsandur, Iceland.” Sosnowska poses in a thin cotton dress with a rifle slung across her shoulders. Four geese hang from a rope tied around her waist. Her delicate frame contrasts with the sag of the heavy dead geese. Stretching behind her is a remote and rugged black sand beach that almost resembles a moonscape. The photograph is part homage to her husband, Rúnar Ingi Hjartarson, who hunts geese.

My Belt, Héraðsandur, Iceland, 2011

My Belt, Héraðsandur, Iceland, 2011

“The Haircut, Kleppjárnsstaðir, Iceland,” is a more lyrical, symbolistic photograph inspired by sheep shearing. “Farmers will shear hundreds of sheep a day,” Sosnowska says. “It’s hard physical work. The end product of this are huge bags of wool that are overflowing.”

Props play a significant role in Sosnowska’s staging and re-enactment. For instance, she and her husband tried to trap the mink that killed the chickens, but couldn’t. So when Hjartarson accidentally hit a mink on the road, Sosnowska took the animal’s carcass and used it in the photograph that’s now drying in the barn.

For “Haircut,” Sosnowka tried various poses, both nude and partially clothed. Then she concentrated more on the story. “I had this old knife that I’d bought at the Salvation Army,” she says. “It’s very literal, but I wondered what it would be like if I started shaving myself, the hair from my own body?” Thus, she sat in a bag of wool and posed with the knife. It was her last shot. “I was lucky.”

The Swan, Kleppjárnsstaðir, Iceland, 2015

The Swan, Kleppjárnsstaðir, Iceland, 2015

Though Sosnowska is rather candid in discussing her work, she hesitates when asked about a 2013 photograph in which she’s posed on a rock over a rushing river, raising the body of a dead swan over her head. “It was grief,” she says. “A lot of grief.”

Her friend Kalli, who lived up the road on a simple turf farm, had just moved into town for the winter. He was murdered in his apartment. While still in shock, the next day Sosnowska saw a swan fly into a power line. Two deaths in 24 hours—so unusual in this quiet place. It left the photographer stricken and searching for meaning. To cope, she used the swan’s body as a prop in a series of personal portraits.

One was made across the road from the farm, at the falls, where Sosnowska used a very slow shutter speed to turn the rushing water into a heavenly cloud. She holds the swan overhead so the pattern of the bird’s feathers resembles the pattern in the falls. While life may be full of unfathomable mysteries, Sosnowska looks to her farm, to nature, to this special place where it all begins to make some sense.

Debbie Hagan is the book reviews editor for Brevity literary magazine and is former editor-in-chief of Art New England. She is author of the creative nonfiction book Against the Tide, and her essays and prose have appeared in Hyperallergic, Brain, Child, Boston Globe Magazine, and various anthologies. She teaches at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.

This article first appeared in Issue 7.