The award-winning duo at Gibson Kochanek talk to Shelley Carter about their love affair with Birmingham, their dark, atmospheric style and a staggering commitment to research
If you’ve never heard of Barbara Gibson and Marta Kochanek where have you been? Over the last 12 months the talented photographers have graced the airwaves, accepted awards, won high profile commissions, exhibited at Birmingham Museum and built an enviable social media strategy. Above all they are so excited about this great city that it’s almost tangible. I took a trip to their bijou studio in the Jewellery Quarter to see what all the fuss was about. Marta has lived in the UK for 10 years and spent time temping in offices to support her photography while Barbara left Poland just over a year ago having worked as an accountant for 20 years photographing in her spare time. The decision to build a life in Birmingham and plough their savings into Gibson Kochanek was a big one and it’s been a hell of a year. “There was a debate about settling in Birmingham or London, but it was always going to be here. It’s such a friendly and supportive city and the Jewellery Quarter is like a creative corner,” enthused Marta. “We can work anywhere and sometimes travel to London for projects, but it’s nice to call Birmingham home,” added Barbara.
Much like the end product, the JQ studio is edgy and atmospheric. The walls are painted a charcoal grey with floor to ceiling mirrors along one wall encouraging the sitter to pose and see what they look like. It helps break the ice and sometimes makes them laugh. A velvet sofa and a handful of props fill the space. It’s urban and cool, but not intimidating which is key to making the sitter feel at ease. “This was like a blank canvass really which we’ve been able to adapt to suit the way we work,” said Barbara. The bread and butter commercial work is mixed with more art-driven pieces although the two cross over sometimes. Marta explained: “If I’m doing a shoot for business but I get the sense that the sitter would be open to doing a couple of different shots for the portfolio then that’s great.” Barbara specialises in gritty urban shots from around Brum like her black and white Streets of My City series and a collection of dynamic graphic pieces (pictured) which are proving very saleable. An exhibition at Birmingham Museum sold in two weeks. She’s also a social media wizard and where many businesses fail she manages to craft multiple daily posts that are engaging and insightful.
She says: “You have to be careful not to annoy people with too much.” No danger of that. Marta’s portraits are rich and dark almost like paintings. A commission from Birmingham Royal Ballet produced the award-winning shot of principal dancer Cesar Morales which gained an honourable mention in the International Color Awards portrait category. Out of 7,500 entries just five were given a special mention. “This is the first time I’ve fallen in love with a photograph,” said Marta. “We have a huge copy above the fireplace at home.” The body of work now highlights the BRB’s 25-year anniversary as well as featuring in the company’s Coppelia campaign. The level of research the pair did before the shoot was extraordinary. I took a peek inside a wooden drawer marked BRB which was packed with literally hundreds of well-organised pages of sketches, ideas, clippings and photos. “Research is so important for us,” explained Marta. “You have to be prepared. With the BRB we wanted to ensure we got the right set of poses.”
With the first anniversary of the business under their belt what does year two hold in store? Marta said: “It would be great to work with more artists and organisations maybe like the CBSO [City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra] but also individuals who might be looking for something unique. It would be good to have a bigger space at some point too.” I left Barbara and Marta feeling full of optimism and even more pride for Birmingham than usual. The city’s thriving creative scene is richer for having them in it and while their talent is obvious they are also thoroughly charming people to be around.
A new project is on the cards in collaboration with the Library of Birmingham Photography Archive which houses renowned 19th Century photographer Mrs G A Barton’s work – much of it unseen. There are comparisons between Kochanek and Barton as self-taught portrait photographers with a list of sitters that includes local performing artists and notable figures. Barbara and Marta will research the project and the final work will be exhibited alongside Barton’s archived prints. If you’re interested in getting involved or finding out more visit www.gibsonkochanek.com and follow on Twitter @GibsonKochanek