For the past four years Aneta Bartos has spent her summers in the idyllic rural town of Tomaszów Mazowiecki, Poland, the hometown she left when she moved to Brooklyn at the age of 16. Each visit, she took more photographs of her father, Zbigniew Bartos—a retired schoolteacher and avid bodybuilder—proudly showing off his sculpted figure. As the series evolved, she began adding herself to the frame. The result is “Family Portrait,” a body of work that explores the complex dynamics between father and daughter.
A hazy patina imbues the photographs with a nostalgic air, which Bartos achieves by digitally processing Polaroid and 126 vintage film and adjusting scale. Many of the images capture playful memories we can all relate to—sunbathing on the beach, eating ice cream cones—while others incorporate period costumes and eccentric staged narratives that verge on the uncanny and absurd. Through subtle gestures, each frame throws a wrench into our ideas of typical father-daughter relationships. Though the two are always together, they appear to be worlds apart, each consumed by their own experiences and memories. This in-between space is charged with conflicting notions of childhood, womanhood, aging, and sexuality.
Like memory itself, the photographs refuse to be resolved neatly. They’re densely layered with contradicting allusions and latent with tensions that challenge notions of family and identity. This lack of resolution—and the discomfort some viewers might feel—is purposeful. “I enjoy creating artwork that has multiple layers of meaning and defies simplistic reading,” says Bartos. “I believe everyone brings their own experiences and consciousness to the artwork and there should be room left for their own interpretation and understanding.”
How did you get started with this series?
The idea of photographing my dad for a series arose when he asked me to take a few shots of his body before he turned 70. He has been involved in competitive bodybuilding since I was a little girl and he wanted to be immortalized by his daughter in a beautiful and artistic way before the process of aging took its toll. Even though the plan seemed like a logistical challenge, since we only see each other once a year when I am visiting Poland, the project kept my interest and continued to evolve.
In “Family Portrait” you’ve introduced yourself into the photos of your dad for the first time. How do you view the practice of self-portraiture, and what you are trying to achieve through this series?
I see most of my projects as a form of self-portraiture. I am creating by projecting my memories and fantasies, whether I am in front of the camera or behind. I would say the work is about the human condition in general rather than a more literal approach toward self-portraiture. By introducing myself into the project with my dad, I am simply diving deeper into the father-daughter relationship, making it a fertile ground for exploring the huge range of what it means to be human.
Has working together on these photographs for the past several years impacted your relationship with your father?
At 74, my father is confronted with growing uneasiness about aging. This has become a sensitive and morbid subject to him. He is not ready to let go of being the strong man, which is causing some tension between us and adding additional layers to the new work.
How do you feel when you go back to your hometown in Poland? Is a sense of place important for you to capture?
The project developed out of my memories of growing up in Poland, so a dreamlike sensation of place plays a large role. Recreating these memories and transforming them into a photograph serves as a portal where I can go in and out of time and play with notions of nostalgia.
You’ve said that if you don’t feel a little uncomfortable when taking a picture you know you’re not shooting the right thing.
I like to create work that challenges the traditional presentation of bodies, families, and sexuality. Growing up in Catholic Poland and even now living in New York City, I am often confronted by the very puritanical way of perceiving these topics, which is something I enjoy exploring and playing with.
“Family Portrait” was on view at Postmasters Gallery, 54 Franklin Street, New York City, 10013, until October 14, 2017.