Extraordinary aerial photos show Poland as you’ve never seen it before
Predating the trend for bird’s-eye photography by several years, few photographers have captivated the planet in quite the same way as Kacper Kowalski.
Born and raised in Gdynia, accolades have followed this ‘King of the Skies’ with his honours including nominations, titles, placements and prizes from such esteemed competitions as the Sony World Photography Awards, World Press Photo, Grand Press Photo and Pictures of the Year International (POYi).
Exhibitions, too, have been widespread, and taken place across the world in cities as far afield as Moscow, New York, London and Paris.
Taking his first paraglider flight 27-years ago, it wasn’t until 2002 that he decided to merge his work in architecture with his passion for flying by taking pictures from the air for architectural studios, real estate firms and construction companies working on highway roads.
Describing Poland as still an “undiscovered” entity at the start of the millennium, commissions stacked up as the country lurched into full-development mode. Hired by rail companies and hotel resorts, his expanding portfolio allowed him room for experiment.
“I’d take professional photos on the way out to the destination, then coming back to land I’d take the chance to shoot pictures for fun – later, I began sharing the results with photo agencies.”
But Kowalski’s new profession began edging into something else.
“Through my work, I got to see the strangest places – places I’d never find on my own,” he says. “If I’d already shot everything I needed, but still had gas in the tank, I’d keep flying around taking pictures. I’d venture out all over Poland and found my drawers filling up with good landscape shots.”
Professionally, his ambitions were starting to crystallize, more so with the realization that flying competitively would never earn enough to support his passion.
“I came second in a cross-country flying competition but all I received as a material prize was a t-shirt,” he recalls.
It wasn’t just Kowalski that was changing, but the world as well. The advent of digital allowed his photography to leap another step forward.
“Automatic programmes made sure that the pictures were technically okay, and since there’s more light in the air than there is on the ground anyway, photography itself stopped being so difficult.”
There had already been awards previously, but 2009 saw the dam burst when he was awarded a second place finish at the World Press Photo competition.
Describing awards as a great way “to get your foot in the door”, offers of work came thick and fast, including a commission to cover the 2010 floods that hit the Sandomierz region.
Breaking his spine soon after in a paragliding accident, Kowalski made a quick recovery but was forbidden from using this mode of transport.
Undeterred, he discovered the joys of the gyrocopter, a machine every bit as manoeuvrable as a paraglider but with a far larger range and greater resilience in inclement weather.
Usually photographing at heights of 150-metres, Kowalski’s next big step came with his first book, Side Effects in 2014.
“I wanted to show the impact man had made on the environment,” he tells TFN, “I wanted to catch humanity red-handed.”
Stunning in both its style and message, the project had first been born in 2007, and its pictures shot entirely in Poland. Depicting the devastating effect people have had on nature, it proved provocative but never judgemental – a document created to foster dialogue.
Winning widespread acclaim, it nonetheless preceded one of Kowalski’s biggest challenges: “2015 saw the drone revolution begin in earnest,” he tells TFN. “It changed my world – I realized what I was doing would no longer be seen as unique.”
Purposefully rejecting drones (“I don’t enjoy them,” he says, “I need to take-off and see things with my own eyes, for me drones are more like a Pokemon game”), Kowalski instead threw himself into Over, a book project that sought to answer the question of “what am I doing here in the sky?”
An intensely personal journey, it was whilst answering this that he met his emotions face-first whilst seeking out untouched territories, pure landscapes and scenes of serene, surreal emptiness.
This has not been the end, however. Joining both Side Effects and Over together, Kowalski’s latest book, Arché, debuted late last year and aims to find the connection between man and nature whilst simultaneously mulling over crossovers in humanity’s past and present.
Never educated as a photographer, Kowalski says that it is his architectural past that has “formatted his view”, and as a result his pictures have a haunting and almost dystopian quality that perhaps is lacking in more traditional images taken from the air.
This spiritual complexity is often underlined and reflected by the strange imagery that features in Arché.
Writing in the book’s foreword, no-one surmises Kowalski’s current work better than the Icelandic writer and environmentalist Andri Snaer Magnasson: “At first his photos are strangely familiar. You look in your mind for comparison, almost like Japanese ink art, or modernistic forms of minimalism on paper, but still like ancient magic signs or cave paintings, when looking closer, understanding this is nature, we are suddenly connected with some place in our minds, connected to memories from times when understanding these footprints and forms in nature was vital for survival.”
Certainly, there is a deeper meaning to Kowalski’s work; striking and mysterious, they refuse to be categorized easily – ethereal, striking and mysterious, his photographs defy classification and hint to a man guided by the unseen.
“Birds take off and fly, that’s part of their genetic knowledge, and in some ways, I think I do the same when flying and photographing – I follow my intuition. But if there’s one big lesson I’ve learned while doing this, it’s to enjoy the privilege that is life.”
This article was first published in February 2022.