i-D Hair Week is an exploration of how our hairstyles start conversations about identity, culture and the times we live in.
Polish-born photographer Magdalena Kmiecik gets it. In 2011, she began work on her photo series "When the Hair Grows" as part of her Master's thesis at The Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium, the same school that begat the legendary Antwerp Six crew of designers. What started as an academic exploration in texture and color, in which she focused on hair as an object within a still life or a sculpture, has morphed into a full-fledged obsession. She's become captivated by hair and the people beneath.
Nearly seven years after its conception and following numerous international exhibitions, Kmiecik revisits the project for i-D, turning her lens firstly towards the colorful hairstyles dotting New York's streets. "Color is what attracts me. Even when I plan to do something in black and white, I always think in color. This is actually how I start to plan my shoots, even in fashion: I pick some colors."
Since spontaneously moving to New York four years ago — she came for a vacation and just decided to stay — Kmiecik feels the city has breathed new life into her work, due to its openness to daring fashion and the diversity of its residents. "I think I opened myself in general, for different projects. When I lived in Belgium, everything [was] clean and simple. Black, black, black. And the first project was more simple and clean. Now, in New York, the fashion is a little bit different; the city is a little bit — well, not a little bit — it's a totally different city."
Kmiecik feels more connected to this project now than when she began, and she hopes to imbue that emotion into the images she creates. As she expands the series, she plans to draw relationships cross-culturally and -generationally by incorporating an ever-widening range of bodies and ages, even animals, into her work. Because despite our differences, we've all got hair.
While there is no shortage of well-known artists working with hair—think hair sculptures by Bob Recine and Nagi Noda—Kmiecik asserts her inspiration is not owed to any artistic legacy. Rather, it's person-specific: "Most of the people I photograph for this project, I met them on the street or I saw them somewhere on the Internet. Sometimes I see someone on the street, and I go and say, 'I love your hair. I'd love to photograph you.'"
One such street cast model was Ikuko, a young woman with exceptionally long hair, whose cultural beliefs regarding her locks affected Kmiecik's understanding of her own. "I took this portrait of Ikuko less than two years ago. I saw her on the street and couldn't stop myself to ask. She told me about the Japanese beliefs about long hair. It is associated with life energy, and when you cut it, you lose a part of [that energy]. Yes, maybe it affected me somehow. I used to have very short hair but I let it grow since then."
Although she has experience working in fashion with hair stylists, for this project she opts for a more personal route, asking that her subjects self-style. "I try to capture their natural beauty. It's just the person who I photograph, and me."
Magdalena's photographs are as much portraits people as they are of a specific moment and place. But, above all, hair is a form of self-expression that she plans to document endlessly. "With color and with hair, I can work forever. It tells about you! It tells about how you want to keep your hair. For example, you see people with pink hair — some people wouldn't do that. That person has to have personality. That person has to have some craziness!"
Text Coco Romack
Photography Magdalena Kmiecik