London College of Fashion student Kovi Konowiecki came third at this year’s prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize. He is also the first photographer to have two images shortlisted for the prize and shown at the National Portrait Gallery.
The MA Fashion Photography student took portraits of Orthodox Jews from around the world for his series Bei Mir Bistu Shein. His images of Tilly and Itty Beitar Illit, and Shimi Beitar Illit, were both selected for the world-recognised photography award, and are on display by the exhibitions entrance until 26 February 2017.
The internationally acclaimed competition celebrates the very best in contemporary portrait photography from around the world. Fifty-seven pieces of work are featured in the exhibition, and this year’s winner, Claudio Rasano, was awarded £15,000.
Kovi started the series back in his hometown of Long Beach, California, before connecting with other Jewish families from across the world in London and Jerusalem. He wanted to strengthen his family identity while also shedding light on the traditions of Orthodox Jewish people that seem disconnected to modern society. We sat down with Kovi for 30 minutes after the prize announcement to hear how he went from a professional footballer to portrait prize winner.
Kovi grew up on football and received a scholarship to play professionally at Wake Field, a university known for athletics and sports. Although he studied Film Concentration at college, his undergraduate was heavily focused on sports. He moved to Israel to play professionally for a team in the second division, which have since moved to the top tier. He was already playing oversees before starting university.
He decided to hang up his professional boots three years ago for a series of reasons, the changing political climate in Israel, plus physical and mental decisions. Photography was becoming a big passion of his by this time, it was something he really wanted to pursue, so returned back to Long Beach. He was thinking about taking photographs more than he was going to football practise, this was the turning point for him.
This is @sabinajaskotgill, curator of this year's Taylor Wessing #PhotoPrize, taking over the National Portrait Gallery's Instagram channel for the next week. I'll be giving an exclusive glimpse behind-the-scenes as we prepare for the opening of the exhibition next week. Here we are installing @kovi.konowiecki's portrait Shimi, Beitar Illit, shortlisted for the £15,000 First Prize. Find out who wins next Tuesday… #PhotoPrizeTakeover
Although Kovi went to a few filmmaking and photography classes during Film Concentration at college, he never formally studied the subject, it was more of a self-taught passion. So what made him move to London and apply for MA Fashion Photography?
He told us, “As you probably noticed, with a lot of my work, it’s more documentary and fine art but turning in between lines. I’m into finding substance behind my photographs, telling stories, and at the same time being very informative. It’s quite interesting that I chose a fashion course, especially as fashion photography is stereotypically about aesthetics and beauty.” But he mentions how he’s always been attracted to things where he’s an outsider, making him stand out as something different.
Kovi wanted to study the fashion perspective of photography, helping him to add a ‘different lens and look on’ his photographs. “I think it’s nice having an eye which looks both ways. I do think it makes me more wary of other things. For example, my last project, I would argue that my work could be seen as fashion photography because the garments of the Orthodox Jews play such a large role in the photographs. They essentially dictate the way one looks at photographs. I guess it (fashion photography) makes me aware of different subjects, the story I’m trying to tell, it makes me operate in different ways. The images can be seen as fashion photography, photojournalism or even fine art. They’ve given me an idea of how photographs can operate in different ways.”
On discussing Bei Mir Bistu Shein and focusing in on Jewish families. “It was something I wanted to do for a while, I grew up in a Jewish home, some of these sentiments came about from me going to a Jewish day school, me being familiar with Jewish identity and people, it wasn’t something foreign, but Orthodox Jews were something I felt a little disconnected with,” says Kovi. He finds them so different to contemporary society. They are so different visually and very compelling people.
He’s really astounded by how Orthodox Jews live ancient lives but are brushed up in modernity, travelling on the tube and using mobile phones. “I wanted to understand who they are as people. This project was a way for me to dig deeper to try and understand who they really are, and give the world an intimate lens into a community who are rather closed-off. These photographs operate as a lens into that life, the way these people are, that was my inspiration behind the project,” he says.
The majority of the photos are from the same family, who are spread across three different continents. The series started in Long Beach, where Kovi reached out to his local Rabbi. He explained his intentions to Rabbi Shimi Beitar Illit, and was then invited into his house. He didn’t know the scope of the project at the time, he only found out about the family in London after the shoot, that’s when he realised this could turn into something much bigger. He wanted the series to represent the Jewish explorer, this sense of Judaism spread all over the world.
The background behind each image plays a huge role in the series. Kovi wanted the backdrop to portray the notion of a pre-WWII shtetl. These were Jewish villages or homes in eastern Europe, where many Jews grew up. “I spoke to my grandparents, who were Holocaust survivors, they told me what it was like growing up at that time in Poland and Europe. That was my idea of the shtetl home, these mystical floral vintage backgrounds, this was the sort of setting I had in mind. I knew I wanted to use a floral background for these photos, it was just a matter of finding one that fitted with these photos,” explains Kovi.
Luckily in the Rabbi’s home in Long Beach, there was this a huge yellow floral backdrop, “it was almost too good to be true,” adds Kovi. “Once I had that initial backdrop, I wanted to maintain a continuity with these backdrops. I ended up altering the backdrop for each location, but still keeping with the floral backdrop.”
So how did the project move from Long Beach to London? “Once I took the initial photos, it became easy from there. After the Long Beach shoot, the Rabbi put me in contact with his brother in Golders Green (London), who welcomed me into his family. We ended up having dinner together several times.” They followed the same format for the portrait, and after that they put Kovi in contact with family in Jerusalem. “It’s been a really great experience, everyone was very kind and cooperative. I don’t know if the family have seen the recent adverts, but the family came to my Blurred Borders exhibition in Shoreditch. He was ecstatic and shocked to see his face on the wall, it was pretty cool to share that with him.”
Two of the images from the series were shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Prize, and will be on show at the National Portrait Gallery until February 2017. We ask Kovi how it feels seeing your portraits on display?
“It’s been surreal. I remember walking through the exhibition when I came last year. I thought it was incredible, and thought I’d love to be part of these exhibition one day. I’m part of the exhibition one year on. That’s definitely an incredible feeling, seeing how much I’ve grown, sort of validating my work and ideas. It’s a really good feeling.”
What happen after the award? Kovi tells us, “I’m hoping to get some exposure from this obviously. I have two prints in the exhibition, I think it was the first time ever that someone has had two of the same project shown. Everything else has happened really naturally up until now, so I’m going to continue pursuing what I like doing. Hopefully something will come from this. A huge goal of mine is a gallery displaying some of my work one day. That would be awesome, knowing that people are interested in buying my work.”
Kovi only moved to London in September 2015, working on a variety of projects from football player portraits to his current Final Major Project for MA Fashion Photography. He photographed a series of footballers and ex-professionals for his first MA project. “I took the images in typical football pubs, it was a celebration of vintage football kits, as a fan, I’ve always been really into the kits. It was a mixture of people who live for football, it’s a huge part of their life, but at the same time they are sort of on the outskirts. They aren’t professionals and they will never be. It was a way of coping with my current identity – not being a professional footballer and now becoming a passionate fan who loves the game but is now looking at it from the other side. Not as a professional!”
He doesn’t consider himself as a professional photographer. He’s aware of what’s happening in fashion photography, but says his work falls between documentary and fine art at the moment. But who knows, “maybe in the future I’ll be photographing high fashion. But I like taking images and making them my own, I like the idea of taking documentary photographs that can operate in a fashion spectrum through styling,” Kovi explains.
He also loves London because of the buzz and energy in the city. “There’s so much inspiration everywhere, it’s very different from Long Beach, but it’s great to have best of both worlds. It’s nice going back to California and relaxing on the beach, then coming back to London and you feel that buzz straight away.”
London has been a big inspiration for Kovi, we ask what makes an image interesting to him, and does he have a muse?
“This might sound cliche, but I’m really inspired by people in general. There are definitely some photographs that have changed the way I view the medium, I think one of them is Alex Soth. He’s one of the prominent photographers of our generation. I really admire his work, his whole sort of vision and approach to photography and the stories he tells,” he says.
Kovi was actually fortunate enough to meet Alex Soth in a pub this year, which he said was ‘really surreal’. He said, “I was watching a European Championship football match over the summer, I turned around and was like, Holy shit that’s Alex Soth. We had a nice conversation in the end.” He also admires Rineke Dijkstra, who is also a top portraiture of our time, and William Eggleston.
Kovi is on the verge of completing his Final Major Project, which is titled Delivering flowers to Grandpa Jack. It’s about growing up and home, the sentiments about home, and what it feels like when you go back home. The nostalgia that’s evoked from certain things or places that people go too. He says, “It’s the car that’s been parked at your neighbours drive for three decades, or the school yard that hasn’t changed since you were a little kid, these nostalgic elements of home that make it home. The project is obviously about Long Beach, but also home in general, and what makes it so special. It’s the connection to that place that brings out certain emotions.”
He’s also used vintage photographs that were found round his grandparents. They were taken in the 1960s, mostly showing his family growing up and Long Beach over half a century ago. They’ve been mixed in with this project. He shoot digital instead of film, which he believes “is cool because it brings a different but new element to the project. The vintage images really inspired me throughout this project. It was a no-brainer for me to use them in the project, especially from an academic level.”
He shoot all of his projects on a Canon 5D Mark II. Most of them were shoot at the same time of the day, this sort of golden hour cue, which gives them a texture that looks like film photographs. We ask what makes a good photo for you? “A real sense of authorship within a photo, something that evokes a raw feeling of emotion and authenticity, that’s what stands out. It’s not about beautiful or something that is visually appealing. More me, it’s more about creating something that makes you think the photography had a real connection with the subject.”
We finish off by asking if he had the opportunity to take the portrait of anybody (dead or alive), who would it be? Kovi replies, “Because of recent times, I’d have to say something like Leonard Cohen, or Bob Dylan in the 1960s before he became the big star he is today. I feel like they’ve been so influential to so many people, they were dark at their peaks, you couldn’t begin to think what was going on in their minds. They were real, not too sound too cliche.”
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