‘Under the Devoted Gaze’

A photographer living in Poznan, a riverfront city in western Poland, tells Brandon Hoops the story behind one of his favorite pictures.

By / February 2012

Words don’t do the doors justice. I could tell you the size: massive. I could tell you their age: old. I could even tell you my feeling when I saw them: amazed. But, I don’t broker in words. I am not a poet. I am a photographer, and on a brutally cold day, two days before Christmas, I stood silent on the steps outside of a church in Warsaw staring at two doors, wondering how I could express what I saw with one click of the shutter.

My first couple attempts seemed to take the life right out of the doors. I tried a long shot of a guy coming out of the church. It seemed dull. I tried zooming in. It missed context. I wanted to make it my shot. I wanted to get everything in, and, sometimes when you try to say too much, you get a little effusive, a little cliché.

I guess you could say that my voice evaded me until a lady decked out in her absolutely best clothes brushed by me, cracked the 12 to 14 foot doors and slipped in. I didn’t have time to set it up. I just turned and snapped a picture, and I didn’t see her again.

That picture of the little lady, under the devoted gaze of the angels on each of those doors, was a special moment. At the time, I dismissed it, only because somehow it intimidated me. It felt personal, almost like, “Did I need to take that picture?”

Erik Witsoe, 43, worked in fine arts before transitioning to photography in 2010.

The woman’s presence shows the humanity of that place. It becomes more personal. You can identify with it. It gives more depth to the story. You’ve got a protagonist all of a sudden. Without a person, that scene, those doors, feel static.

There is also sense of mystery, intrigue. What’s going on? You get to complete the story. I don’t know what’s behind those doors. She does. I really like shots that tell part of a story and not the whole thing and allow you to finish it.

That’s kind of me in a nutshell: walking around all the time in awe of smallest details like that. It’s partly a reflection of my education at the Art Institute of Seattle. Being trained in the fine arts, I have spent many years developing an eye for detail.

The challenge was, when I turned to photography in 2010, my eye was trained to draw and paint not take pictures. I assumed that because of my background, and the fact that I have always had a camera nearby, I would be able to pick up photography with no problems. I thought taking a picture was as simple as looking through the viewfinder and pressing until you hear a click.

So that’s what I did, and for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why my pictures were not as good as the ones that I saw in magazines or online. Lucky for me, my fiancée, Agnieszka, an avid photographer, staged an intervention of sorts and gave the basics on how to use a SLR camera and what the components were to making a shot decent. She also told me I had to practice — everyday. So I did.

I took thousands of pictures of the most mundane things: grass, clouds, a mailbox, a guitar — anything that caught my eye. I can remember one day when I went to Georgetown, an industrial neighborhood in Seattle, and took 500 photos of rust from just about every angle.

I was a kid again. The smallest thing, like shooting rust for two hours, made me the happiest person in the world.

My motivation has always been to do something with art. For me, photography is a continuation of painting or drawing. The world is my canvas and the camera is my paint. Five years ago, I hit a brick wall as an artist. I wasn’t very inspired. I quit drawing. The camera is what put me back on track. It has given me the ability to see myself again and to see the world I live in.

I had been losing my ability to focus. The camera brought that focus back, and standing in the bluish haze of an early winter morning looking at those doors — it made the ordinary feel compellingly extraordinary.


— as told to Brandon Hoops