Images of Memory

Melissa Paugh
September 01, 2000

Growing up, Monika woke before dawn on Sunday mornings. On Saturdays her father would turn the bathroom of their small apartment in Krakow, Poland, into a darkroom. With seven-year-old Monika peering over the sink at his side, he would whisper, "Now we are going to see the magic," as he swished the shiny paper in the chemicals and the black and white images appeared. Photo after photo would be laid out to dry on the kitchen counters, and if Monika woke before her mother on Sundays she could marvel at the display that covered the kitchen in the quiet of the morning.

old polish passport photo

Now, years later, when Monika Lozinska-Lee talks about her own photography, stories like this one come pouring out of her. For undergraduate Lozinska-Lee, it is the memories of her family, her home country of Poland, and her childhood that inspire her breathtaking work. From photographing the small shops that are slowly being replaced by international, corporate shopping centers in Krakow, to creating digital photography collages from old letters or the passports of her grandparents, complete with Nazi stamps, the source of Lozinska-Lee's creativity is her memory. "I didn't really talk about how much I missed my family when I first came here," said Lozinska-Lee. Her speech is intimate, laced with a Polish accent. "At first I didn't even show that work to people," she continued, unwrapping a cardboard folder and gingerly removing a small stack of photos. She spread the exquisite photographs on the table. "I missed them so much. I wanted more; I wanted to just spill it out because I missed them so much." She stared down at the faces of her and her younger sister in a digital photo she created using old photographs and a letter written by her sister, who still lives in Poland. "Being Polish is very significant to me," she said. "It's the most important thing."

Lozinska-Lee didn't flee Poland like many who left after World War II and throughout the last 50 years. Even in tough conditions she was a success. After earning a degree in electrical engineering (and graduating as one of the top five students of her college) at a Polish university, where she was one of 12 women in the entire university, Lozinska-Lee took a position as an engineer. She was desperately unhappy. When given an opportunity to come to the United States, Lozinska-Lee decided this was the beginning of the change she needed to refocus her life. When she arrived in New York City, she knew no English. "When I came to America I remembered what I had seen in the movies: America, land of dreamsâ" she said, her eyebrow raised with a touch of cynicism. "I said, Let me see this land of dreams." Following her new dream, Lozinska-Lee began her second career as an undergraduate, this time in Fine Arts.

Her adviser agrees that Monika has found her calling. "She's fantastic. Her energy is boundless," says art professor Gerald Lang, director of the Penn State Digital Photography Studio. "She works from a reservoir of memories. Whatever she pulls out of her dresser drawer she uses to create amazing art."

"This is what I love," said Lozinska-Lee. Her eyes look as bright as they must have on those Sunday mornings of her childhood. "I want to, as my father would say, jump in the deep water; I want to work in New York." She smiled and tucked her precious photographs back into their folder. "I'm going to be a photographer. I'm not going to waitress. I believe in myself." She smiled even bigger. "I'm obsessed."

Monika Lozinska-Lee graduated in May 2000 with a B.F.A. from the College of Arts and Architecture. She was the student marshal for the School of Visual Arts and the recipient of the Green Hill Award in photography and the Creative Achievement Award for the School of Visual Arts. She was one of four students who collaborated on the digital photograph chosen for the cover of this issue. Gerald Lang is professor of art and director of the Digital Photography Studio, 210 Patterson Bldg., University Park, PA 16801; 814-865-0444; gxl7@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 01, 2000