“Ciri loved exploring Norway with me, running free, and having baths in the fjords,” Alicja Zmysłowska tells me. Ciri, a Border Collie, accompanied the photographer on an epic journey through the Nordic landscape–home of the northern lights and the midnight sun. On one occasion, they spent the day walking, and when all was said and done, they’d covered 28 kilometers to reach the famous Trolltunga rock formation. They spent their nights in a tent, side-by-side, beneath the starry sky.
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Zmysłowska has always felt drawn to wild places, and her project Craving Miracles brought her to the sublime landscapes of Norway, Iceland, and Alaska–three locations known for their magical folklore and legendary creatures. Ciri was able to join her in Norway. And in Iceland and Alaska, the artist connected with locals and their dogs that soon became her muses.
Set against the backdrop of ancient glaciers and waterfalls, her canine models seem to travel backward in time to a world before human intervention. As it happens, dogs have a powerful place in Norse mythology; in Icelandic stories, they can be found accompanying the souls of men from the world of the living to the realm beyond. Artists and storytellers have found inspiration in our canine companions for centuries. In that sense, Zmysłowska inherits a rich history.
We asked her to tell us more about Craving Miracles.
The essential gear of Alicja Zmysłowska
Zmysłowska tells us,
“I used various Canon gear to create this series, including the Canon 5D Mark III, IV, and 5ds, as well as the Canon 1DX. Most often, I was photographing with two cameras to save what precious time I had in these amazing locations. The focal lengths I used for Craving Miracles started from 16mm (Canon 16-35mm 2.8L) and ended at 135mm (Canon 135mm 2.0L). I used natural light and a lot of lens wipes!”
Phoblographer: How did you get started as a photographer?
Alicja Zmysłowska: It all started with my passion for dogs. Since I was a little kid, I wanted my own dog, and when I finally got my dream puppy, Kiara the Golden Retriever, I started capturing our memories together. I always loved to draw, so photography was a way to combine my two passions: art and dogs.
Phoblographer: Please tell us about your relationship with dogs. What are some of your earliest memories?
Alicja Zmysłowska: Before I finally got my own dog, I volunteered at the local shelter, walking the dogs in my free time. I went with my dad, as I was too young at the time to go on my own. There was one dog I grew very close to, who always joined me on these walks. She was a German Shepherd mix named Bessi. She got adopted, luckily. I missed her a lot, but I was happy she found her forever home.
Phoblographer: Is there one dog in particular that has helped shape your voice as an artist?
Alicja Zmysłowska: My own dogs have shaped my voice as an artist, for sure. But there was also one very special dog who wasn’t mine who influenced my life and vision a lot. She was a Border Collie, and I met her and her owner in 2010 at a dog frisbee seminar I was photographing. Her name was Zoe, and she knew tons of awesome tricks, as her owner is also a dog trainer.
Zoe and her special abilities were also part of the reason I fell in love with Border Collies. I now have two myself. Sadly, she passed away last year, leaving many hearts broken, but she will never be forgotten. A true legend who changed many people’s lives, including mine.
Phoblographer: What brought you to Norway, Iceland, and Alaska for Craving Miracles? Were there any local stories or legends that inspired you?
Alicja Zmysłowska: I was inspired by the amazing landscape photography I saw coming out of those regions, and as I admired them, I imagined how dogs would look in them. Music from those countries inspired me a lot as well. For Iceland, it was Bjork’s music and lyrics that inspired me the most. The title even comes from one of her songs: Thunderbolt.
The photos of the Siberian Husky on Diamond Beach were also strongly inspired by her song Crystalline, especially the line, “Underneath our feet, crystals grow like plants.” Every time I would listen to it, I imagined a dog on this special black beach and the “diamonds”–pieces of the glacier washed out by the sea–under his feet.
Phoblographer: Can you tell us the story behind one of these locations, and what the location means to you?
Alicja Zmysłowska: Iceland is the most magical place for me. I have already visited five times, and it is so diverse that it never stops surprising me. During that first visit, I road-tripped around the entire island, absolutely stunned by the landscapes, which changed every few kilometers. Iceland can be full of tourists, which poses a challenge in some of the most well-known locations. But in the less popular and more remote locations, such as the Westfjords, it was a breathtaking experience to be all alone in silence, photographing dogs.
Phoblographer: What was it like bringing these dogs to visit these beautiful landscapes? Were they free to explore? How did you keep them safe?
Alicja Zmysłowska: The dogs enjoyed our adventures a lot, and they were always accompanied by their owners. In some of the locations, they could roam and explore freely, but in many cases, they were kept on a leash for their safety. I would later get rid of the leash in post-production. I always try to get as much of the shot as possible done in camera, but the safety of the animal always comes first!
Phoblographer: How much planning went into these sessions?
Alicja Zmysłowska: As Scandinavian weather can be quite unpredictable, I was often photographing in heavy rain and wind–which, in the end, fit well with the feel I wanted to achieve in my photographs. Also, as I discovered, photographing near waterfalls, especially those big ones, means that a spray of water covers your lens within seconds. That was challenging, and I had to clean the lens all the time!
The local dogs who were posing for me were luckily not surprised by those conditions, and it was just another great adventure for them. I also made sure the dogs I chose for these shoots had thick coats to keep them warm. Unfortunately, there were also some shoots I had to cancel because of the weather being too dangerous, but again, safety was my first priority.
Phoblographer: What is your favorite memory from your time exploring these landscapes with the dogs?
Alicja Zmysłowska: Every session from this series was special and one of a kind. Most of them represented my photographic dreams coming true. One moment I will definitely never forget was getting on a small private plane in Alaska, with two dogs, to get to our shoot location by a glacier lagoon. Flying above the glacier and seeing its beautiful textures was pure magic.
Phoblographer: It must have been hard to not be able to travel during the pandemic. Did your dogs help you cope with the isolation of this time?
Alicja Zmysłowska: Thanks to the pandemic, I had to go back to my roots and explore more locations close to where I live (in Poland), and my dogs definitely helped me to survive during this difficult period. During this hard time, I also made a big decision to get my second Border Collie. Zireael joined my family a few months ago.
Phoblographer: You’ve worked with shelter dogs in the past, both as a volunteer dog-walker and a photographer. Why is it important to you to advocate for dogs in need, as well as celebrating their beauty?
Alicja Zmysłowska: I am so grateful I can combine my passion and life’s work with helping dogs in need. Those shoots are always hard, as the dogs often don’t even react when you call their names, but it is always worth it. Nothing compares to that moment when I find out a dog has found a new home–and his or her life has been completely changed–because of my photography. I always make sure to photograph the dogs who have been in the shelter for many years. It’s important to give these overlooked dogs a chance to be recognized through my art–a chance that they often don’t have.