The photography of Jan Cieslikiewicz is in some measure an attempt to find a redeeming metaphor in the world; but for Jan a place is always more than a metaphor; for him and the other photographers that will be featured here, it begins in the real world. It would seem that Jan wants to both confirm and deny our expectations of the locations he photographs. "Yes, it's like you imagined; it's also much more". As a guide across frontiers of land and mind; you can feel in his work an adventurous spirit in it's desire to break through boundaries. Jan was born in Poland, but it couldn't hold him; his restless intellect took him first to England and then on to America to graduate from Harvard University. For several years, he worked in the pressure-cooker of Wall Street, but he wanted more, and traveled the world. At first, his photographs were a way of recording his journeys; gradually he found them becoming the journey itself.

In his Far East series, China unfolds like something hidden; the photographer providing us with access to a secretive society glimpsed through doors and gates; construction booms loom beyond walls and over buildings; a car sits like jewelry under glass - a prize of the new consumer society. In Beijing, a toy soldier with a Chinese flag crawls along Tiananmen Square, while nearby a real soldier stands rigidly at attention. A mermaid at an aquarium arches gracefully over a bored attendant sweeping-up. Deep red drapes signal not a Communist meeting in Beijing, but a gambling casino in Macau. Hong Kong is revealed, again, against expectations, to be largely undeveloped land, and lushly green.
Consider Jan's photographs of Wyoming: Here within America itself he's found a far country as he crosses the frontiers of the imagination; a dead deer is woven into the fabric of a field, in a location without a name, a log is inscribed only,"welcome to the"; an out-of-control fire blooms with black smoke. As in many photographic road-trips, this series of images is threaded along the American super-highway - a world of road houses, truck-stops, and coffee shops. He's good at finding the hard-edge places, the strange places; for Jan is not a poet of the everyday. When he picks up a camera, a frontier is crossed.

Q.Why do you photograph?

I'm a natural wanderer and observer. Each time I go out shooting I feel I'm on a new adventure. Wandering around is something I did before I started photographing, but picking up the camera has added an amazing layer of awareness to these adventures. I love the physical side of photography - from climbing fences in order to get the right framing to freezing your body and controlled breathing when shooting with longer exposure times. I like playing with all the gear too.
 The language of photography with its ability to convey meaning, beauty, emotions, and arbitrariness can be intensely powerful. Then there is the whole visual media world where all the images eventually function and interact. All in all, I appreciate the power photographs have to shape people's lives and impact our perceptions, and I'm fascinated by photography as a system of visual communication that we've developed as a species. 

Q. What have been your cultural influences?

I think the biggest influence on the way I think is that as a young person I lived in three countries. I grew up in Poland, went to high school in England and then came to the US for college. Getting to know three cultures early makes you appreciate the differences and similarities between people. It also teaches you to read nuances of new environments quickly.

Literature has had big influence on me in the context of photography. My current engagement is a result of a novel I read my senior year in college. It was a book titled "Insatiability" written by a Polish artist, writer and photographer Stanislaw "Witkacy" Witkiewicz. It's a bizarre novel about aristocratic and artistic society of inter-war Poland. I was inspired by some of the characters, and it aroused my interest in art that eventually led me to photography.

Although I've always had some exposure to photography (had my first camera when I was 8), I didn't get hooked 'til I got a digital camera about 5 years ago. I think of my first experience as a photographer as the first time I went out shooting by myself on the streets of New York with just the purpose of taking pictures, nothing else. That was two-and-a-half years ago, and I'd never felt as passionately about anything else I'd done before.

The first set of photographs that I remember making an impression on me were some of Thomas Struth's pictures that I saw at the MET in New York. I really liked Struth's photographs taken inside a museum where the paintings on the wall, the museum floors and the visitors blend together and create quite a surreal and vivid image. Thomas Struth's work was my introduction to the Dusseldorf school. I was impressed by how the German precision was articulated in their art. I also like Joel Meyerowitz, particularly his street photography from New York in the 70's. What I like most about that work, besides the subtle humor, is how multiple and unrelated motifs are contained in a single image.

Q. You studied and received a degree at Harvard, and after went into finance.

Yes, that was the reason why I came to this country originally. The US was the best place to get a good education while swimming competitively at a high level. Growing up, swimming was the only thing I cared about. I was a national champion both in Poland and England.  My dad is a university professor and theoretical physicist so education was always important too. I applied to Harvard, got in, and my first day ever in 

this country was the first day of freshman year. It was interesting to learn about America through Harvard. I graduated with a degree in Applied Math, but also enjoyed classes in Economics, Computer Science and some humanities.

When I was in my senior year there I was recruited by one of the Wall Street banks and came to New York after graduation. I stayed at that bank for just over a year and then helped to start a hedge fund. I worked at the hedge fund for another five years in practice as a sort of "do it all" guy and then quit finance altogether. There are a lot of stereotypes out there about the hedge fund world, and like with any stereotype, some of them are true but many aren't. The reason I quit was mostly because I didn't like sitting in front of the computer for 13 hours a day, and that's what my job required. The type of stuff we did was intellectually very interesting, people I worked with were crazy smart, nobody was "evil" and the type of work we did was quite unrelated to the broader economy and the recession and all that stuff. That was a year-and-a-half ago and since then I've been traveling, snowboarding, kite-surfing, reading and involving myself in a couple creative business projects. Most importantly, I've been taking a lot of pictures.

Q. What is your philosophy regarding subject matter? What interests you?

I am drawn to the mysterious, absurd and the surreal. Usually I like when my photos contain some sort of a story. When shooting sometimes I can be quite aggressive and intrusive, but most of the time I try to blend in. It really depends on my mood and the type of location I'm in. My style has been evolving as both a response to my own work, and to the work of other people that I've seen.

As for places where I look for material, it's all fair game. When I first started my explorations in a more regular way, I was attracted by remote locations, whether it was within the context of a city or a continent. I spent the winter of 2010-2011 driving from New York to Alaska and then back, with a detour into the Canadian Arctic. I also had a phase when I would attend a lot of offbeat parties in New York in search of material. Recently, I've been giving more attention to the touristy and popular spots.


Q. You and I have both shot in the way-out boonies; places where many people say there is nothing.

I assume many photographers understand that "nothing" can be good. In general most people need something cool for them to be interested - old buildings, a mountain, a beach; if it's desert there better be some camels. Few people like nothingness. I do though; I wouldn't want to live in places like that, but I like seeing them even outside of photography work. I feel when you do find something in the middle of nowhere, it's going to be good. In a city, not only has it all been done, but also there's just so much visual noise that it takes a bit of a different mindset to filter stuff out.

When people hear about where I've been or where I am going, they are often surprised that I find those locations interesting. Without getting into philosophical or scientific discussions, there aren't places where there is completely nothing. If there actually were, they would be fascinating, precisely for their nothingness.

Q. In your recent series of images of Hong Kong, you went completely against type; i.e. the images that I would normally think of as 'Hong Kong'. Can you tell a bit of how you approached that place and your strategies of shooting there?

I wasn't trying to say anything with those pictures, or purposely go against the stereotype. The fact that they turned out to be so "against the type" is mostly because the stereotype is highly biased to one kind of Hong Kong, and there's just so much more to Hong Kong than that stereotype. Stereotypes are always biased by their very nature, and there is always the other side to them. What was amazing in Hong Kong, was that this "other" undeveloped Hong Kong that I found is right there next to the buzzing metropolis that everyone knows from television. One of the most secluded moments of my entire trip to Asia was in a park in Hong Kong close to the top tourist attraction in the entire city. Thousands of people walk by that park everyday, but very few actually go in.

Q. When I look at your pictures, I see three things right off. 1. a great sense of timing. 2. A splendid sense of composition. 3. A sense of cultural awareness and difference.

I think timing is a result of a high awareness of the surroundings. I try to be smooth and invisible when getting my shots, but if that doesn't work, I'll get out of the hiding and try to get the job done in whatever way I can. As for the composition, that's something I've learned by myself. The only art classes I took where in primary school but no one took them seriously, including the teacher. The cultural differences and the awareness you mention is something that, I'm pretty sure, living abroad at a relatively young age can be attributed to.

Q. How do you think travel and photography work together for you? In the sense of synergy?

Photography and travel are both big parts of my lifestyle right now. I travel to photograph, and I photograph so I can travel. I feel like I'm traveling when I'm back in New York when I go out and explore neighborhoods and streets that I haven't been to before. I rarely go twice to the same location on purpose and the sense of adventure and possibility to discover new places in your backyard is a big thrill for me. On my longer trips away from New York I usually like to add another component to my travels to keep the right balance. That's actually how I pick the destination. My trip to Baja California last year was also about kitesurfing, and spending the winter in Wyoming and Alaska allowed me to snowboard every day in some of the best conditions in the world.

Q. Many photographers and artists have talked about the 'Martian' effect. That is, they sometimes feel like they've dropped on earth from Mars and feel like strangers in a strange land. Do you ever feel that way?

I suppose sometimes I feel that way, but I wouldn't say this defines me as a person or as a photographer. Usually I feel very much part of my surroundings, sometimes even to the extent that I can get so lost in a single detail that I seem absent. This can happen when I'm out taking pictures or also when I'm just hanging out with friends. On my recent trip to Asia I felt more like a Martian than ever before. I did not speak the language and every now and then I would find myself in neighborhoods where I'm sure few tourists and westerners ever go. It isn't a comfortable feeling when you know everyone around is watching your every move, but I keep exploring these places anyway.

Q. You recently made a road trip across the US. Was that a first time trip? What did you expect, and how did the reality look to you after you got there?

I had made a few road trips in the US before, and I'd flown to some of the areas I visited on this trip before too. Also, because of Hollywood films, anywhere you go in this country feels familiar, even on your first visit there. But what one doesn't get a sense for when flying or watching movies is the distances between places and the gradual changes of landscape. That's something I really appreciate about the Western US - the space and the variety of landscape - in a span of a few hours you can find yourself in snowy high mountains, red rock desert and then on a pristine green river bank. I've been to many other great places but so far none of them offered the kind of variety that the West does.

I've definitely had a lot of "interesting" random experiences on my road trips.  When I was driving in Montana, I saw a water park near the highway with a 'For sale' sign. The park was closed for the winter and it seemed there was no one there, so I stopped my car and climbed over the fence and began exploring. I managed a few shots before a middle aged lady came out and started questioning me about what I was doing there. I thought the best way to get out of the situation was to tell her that I was a potential buyer of the park. She got really excited that a European from New York was interested in the business that her parents built, and she gave me a special tour. I felt bad because as much as like Montana, I'm not ready to move there and run a kids water park.

Q. Do you have an affinity with nature? Almost all your images have a bit of nature in them..  Also, I see a lot of the color blue and green in your images.

Nature and our place in it is definitely a theme I am drawn to. Some of it is subconscious, and some of it is deliberate as part of a personal investigation and quest that began with years spent in very artificial environments of swimming pools and then office buildings in New York. The first thing I did after quitting my finance job was drive to Alaska. I just wanted to get as far away from all the computers, screens and buildings as possible. However, you quickly realize that it's impossible to cut yourself off completely, even in those remote locations. What traveling there helped me with, was to get me to think more about man as a species occupying this planet, and about the way we interact with what's commonly called nature. I don't actually like this division into nature and non-nature because ultimately we're part of nature in the same way a beaver and a beaver dam are. We just have a better ability to alter and control our surroundings than other animals. As a result we make a bigger impact on the environment.

As for the use of color in my photos, I wouldn't say green is my favorite color, or close to it. As it so happens, most plants are green and there's a lot of them around. As a result it pops up in my pictures a lot. I do like blue though. Blue is a calm color and settles well with my personality. I happen to be wearing a blue t-shirt right now.

Q. As a street photographer, I've had a fair share of confrontations with irate landowners, householders etc., out of my desire to get a picture. Do you ever have them? Do people behave differently when they see you with a camera?

Yes I've had those experiences too. I got pulled over by the police in Iowa after photographing a barn, and once in New York I was held up by security guards after taking pictures of a government building. So far I haven't been in any drastic situations where I was physically threatened. I know that it happens to quite a few photographers. What's interesting is that in my experience, the more densely populated the place, the more confrontational people are. I remember accidentally going onto someone's property in Alaska, miles away from the next household. The owner noticed me and came out to check what I was doing. When he saw that I was taking pictures, he said maybe two words and went back inside his house. A similar situation in or near a city would have probably resulted in a big drama and a lot of tension.

Q. What camera do you favor? Do you do any post-processing?

I am currently using the digital Leica M system. I like it because of its non-intrusive size and the old-school look. I also mostly photograph in available light, and Leica has a range of very fast and small lenses. Before I switched to this set up, I was a little afraid that I would feel lost without all the automation and bells and whistles of a typical modern camera, but as it turned out I actually really like the manual and complete control of the shooting process. I feel I've learned a lot as a photographer because I now have to think of all the variables and how they affect the image, before I press the shutter. I appreciate the quality of the images my camera produces. At some point I would like to experiment with large and square format, and lo-fi analog. For now, shooting in digital with a small camera is just a lot more practical with all the traveling I do. If I was limited to fewer shots or restricted by the size of camera, my style would have to change quite significantly.

As for the post-processing I'm not against it by any means, but I try to only do some minor adjustments to the image. Usually I adjust the tone-curve and sometimes do some small cropping, as long as it doesn't change the geometry of the picture. I mostly use wide angle lenses and I feel cropping wide angle images often makes them look unnatural.