Photographer and digital artist Pol Kurucz fuses his theatrical high camp aesthetic and thought-provoking scene-making to create surreal photographs celebrating the beauty, power, and tragedies of the eccentric feminine.
In early 2020, Pol was a rising star in the world of editorial and art photography, but when COVID shutdowns swept his stacked calendar clean, everything changed. Having always found that reality constrained his deeply personal and specific vision, Pol hunkered down in his Sao Paolo apartment to teach himself the digital tools that would grant him the creative freedom to realize the full potential of his ideas.
Now, nearly three years later, Pol is fully immersed in digital artmaking — with a vow to transition his personal artistic practice to Unreal Engine MetaHumans rather than flesh and blood models by 2023.
We sat down with Pol to learn about his process, his journey from fashion and editorial photography to NFTs, and how watching models daydream provides invaluable insight to power a photo shoot. Before we really got started, Pol described a bit about why his photos look the way they do which I found insightful, so I’m including it here as a soupçon of interview.
“I am conscious of the media numbness we all suffer from. Most of my images have some message that I want to get through to the viewer, so I have to provoke that attention with colors and shapes. I am only on to something if I know the image would stop me in my tracks — stop clicking or stop walking through the gallery and stop to stare. That’s the main criteria. I want to be impacted, and I want others to be impacted, and I’d like my work to carry a message. But if I don’t have your attention, I can’t pass along a message.”
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MP: Paint us a picture of your life pre-NFT. What kind of art were you creating? Were there any formative experiences that really shaped your artistic vision?
My mom put me in a drama class when I was nine because I was super hyperactive. Throughout my life, that’s influenced my style, what I did, and why I do it.
I worked as a stage director for a little while. After a while, though, I started to feel like theater wasn’t for me. I had successes, but something was off.
A friend of mine once came into a rehearsal, and he told me, “You’re staging as if you were a movie director. This is why some stuff turns out fantastic, but other times it’s a catastrophe, and your connection with your actors is odd.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he meant, but I was always halfway out the door.
I stopped stage directing and got into art events and cultural events — everything from TED-like events, thematic parties, and the culture bar I had that screened lesser-known movies. I was in Budapest at the time. Then I came to Rio in Brazil, and I recreated the same concept. We had a deal with the owner of a dilapidated house, and we had all kinds of art projects.
That was around the time that Instagram was the center of the universe, like 2015, 2016. Everything was about pictures. If you wanted to promote your shit, if you wanted to exist, you had to be seen, and you had to take pictures.
So I asked professional photographers to come in. They were taking pictures of people smiling and drinking their booze. It was just annoying. I didn’t have a camera at the time, so I bought one and started doing the job myself. But my theater instincts started to kick in, and it was only then that I understood my friend’s observation years earlier. I wanted to see an end result, so I used people as pawns to create the whole picture.
So I started to put my art projects aside to take pictures. There was absolutely no motivation to “become a photographer.” I was just obsessed with taking pictures and retouching them.
And then something happened. I was waiting to meet up with my mom in Paris. It was raining, and she was late, so I ducked into a nearby bookstore, which was a Taschen bookstore. I found a book of work by David Lachapelle, and I looked at it for an hour. I realized that I could use photos to tell stories in exactly the way I wanted.
What he did was exactly the way I see the world, which was a bit of a problem because I was so inspired by him and Miles Aldridge, some other photographers, and directors like Wes Anderson and Tim Burton. I didn’t want to copy, but my vision of the world overlaps with these artists.
Back in Rio, I closed all of the art projects. Everyone on my team, which was an art collective, wanted to do these artistic, staged photoshoots. We were all really inspired — it was more interesting than what we’d been doing, and it was more affordable.
So I started to shoot, and soon we found out that we didn’t have what we needed to do elaborate photography. What we did at first was go to the market and pick out whatever we could find to make colorful, interesting images. But then I wanted to construct stuff as it appeared in my head instead of things that were just opportunistic or happy accidents.
That’s why we decided to move the whole team to Sao Paulo. Sao Paulo is kind of the New York City of South America versus Rio, which is like Miami: smaller and more geared toward tourism and having fun.
Once I was there, I started to realize that this was becoming a professional endeavor, so what do professionals do? They do exhibitions, they do editorials, all those things. So I started to reach out to everyone, and I found closed doors everywhere. I made the mistake of going door to door to fifty galleries, galleries I know would’ve really loved my photos, but they wouldn’t even look at my photos. I didn’t understand how this world worked.
So I said fuck this, fuck everybody, I’m just going to do what I want to do. It wasn’t long after that that things started to pick up, with outlets like The Guardian and Adobe. Then more and more. As soon as I forgot about having a professional strategy, then celebrities, Vogue, L’Amour, GQ, and an agency in L.A. reached out to me. That’s when I started to professionalize.
Then COVID happened. The real journey starts here. The 6th of March, 2020. I finished up a commercial gig. I’d just made a lot of money. Everybody was super happy, and it wasn’t even a shitty commercial — it was actually interesting. But that was also when stuff started to close. I was just about to move to L.A. I started to shoot celebrities. I was about to step up in all levels. But at the same time, I felt that reality is constraining me all the time. I was always trying to get sets to look as extraordinary as possible without spending too much — but there’s always a cap.
Then the commercial was pulled. It was a bra campaign, and the bras were stuck in China. The campaign was going to be on huge billboards, but then out-of-home advertising stopped. The commercial was never released.
All of the opportunities that were on the horizon disappeared. There was no way to take photos. So I was trapped. And it was cheaper to be in Sao Paolo, so I came back. Only then did I realize that I’ve always preferred digital art to photography. I’d already been thinking about starting to work in 3D, and once I did, it changed my life.
Since 2020, I’ve removed more and more of the real-life part of photo-making. I’m about to start using something called MetaHumans for the models — I’m designing photorealistic humans. Now, I’m convinced that photography the way I was doing it — creative photography — will soon be dead.
I would refer to what I do now as photorealistic images or hybrid photography. Philosophically and aesthetically, I have more in common with digital artists who are on MakersPlace or Foundation or NiftyGateway. We are all thinking about art in a new way, and there is a focus on possibilities rather than how things are supposed to be.
So when my career just collapsed, that’s when something new was born. And I’m still a baby, you know. I’m one or two years from achieving what I achieved in photography because the rules and the tools are different. I was so happy that MakersPlace reached out because this is where I feel a real connection.
MP: After your failed attempt to get galleries interested in you, you said you went off to do your own thing, galleries be damned. What were the projects you worked on that ended up getting you such great organic attention?
The same things. I’ve always been interested in eccentric female creators, though it could also be gay men or trans women. By female, I mean in an aesthetic or vibe sense. It’s something that touches me for some reason.
I was dedicated to constructing stories and characters who were free to do what they wanted when they wanted. I always present them in a solitary way because society doesn’t automatically accept these kinds of people. Even in L.A. or New York, which are refuges where these people go, it can be solitary. These people are eccentric but only insofar as others see them as eccentric. They see themselves as quite normal. This was one of the themes that I was developing.
I have a series called The Normals because I like people who are eccentric from the perspective of the viewer, but that is not their own view of themselves. So this is the kind of work I was doing. I was just creating from this urge to put out work about eccentric women and narratives.
MP: Once the urge comes, how fully formed is the idea? Do you start fairly open and whittle it down or are you the kind of artist who has a vivid idea of the end product at the start? Or is it a mix of the two?
I don’t know the order of things. There are plenty of things that inspire that I can pinpoint very precisely and easily. But there are so many other things that are floating around me, in the world, in my mind, that I cannot always pinpoint. When the time comes to sit down and decide on the next thing, it’s instinctive. I just know when it feels good and when it doesn’t. I look for the moment that I know that the idea aligns with the thing I want to say.
There’s another way, though. Let’s say there’s a celebrity who wants to work together. I try to analyze their vibes to find the connection between their world and my world. Then I’ll come up with ideas inspired by those commonalities. So if she likes gold and I like sunshiney stuff, and her next song is about travel, then let’s put her on a golden subway doing the things that I would like her to do in my world.
MP: You told Folio back in 2021 something I can’t really get out of my head: I’m always inspired by the way my models are daydreaming in the studio while we are setting up the set and lights. I try to read their mind and integrate that into the story, their pose, their expression. Can you expand on this?
Yes, and that’s not only real models. I just finished my first 3D project with just a metahuman, and she also had a soul.
So what happens is that I have a scene in mind. And, of course, I’m inspired by the photos of the model from her portfolio, and of course, I tried the cast the right model for the character, but when she sits down, she has vibrations, she has energies that are inside the set at that time.
So this energy starts to fill in the set and the story. And sometimes they fill it up in a way that I hadn’t imagined, which has happened not a few times but a lot, including with that metahuman. Because she’s photorealistic, she has her own particular look. It doesn’t mean that she thinks. But I can imagine what she feels.
And there are a few models whose way of daydreaming inspires me a lot. This probably isn’t objectively true, but when I look at them, I feel like I can feel what they feel and see what they see, and then I put a prop in their hand. I tell them to look at a certain thing, and in that way, the story will be complete.
A lot of times, I ask a model to just sit there or to jump or to walk, and it doesn’t work at all because she’s not that person. I hate the feeling of asking models to do things and seeing that we’re just not in sync. So I usually just there, sometimes for 5 or 10 minutes, and I just look at her. She’s just sitting. And I wait, and I wait, and I wait. Then I move to look at her from a different angle. I always imagine what happened before and what happened after this moment. And I just imagine what’s going on.
For example, there was one that arrived as a complete story. An albino friend of mine is sitting with an Obama photo next to him. It turned out that he was gay, but at the time, he wasn’t out, and we didn’t know. But what we did know is that he had a very strong feminine energy. He was sitting on the set in a way that felt like he didn’t belong there, but he was quite comfortable there. I imagined he’s in his grandma’s house.
So she died, and he’s trying to get into her body — to live her life — but he’s an eccentric, awkward person, so we will blend them. His grandmother put up a picture of Obama, but that’s not his picture of Obama — his Obama is albino, so we replaced the picture with an albino Obama.
If you look at the photo, it’s very natural, although this guy works in a bank, and he was discovering his sexuality at the time. He was more what we imagined him to be than, at that point, he thought he was.
And let me tell you a very interesting situation now. Now that we create photorealistic humans, there’s a system called FaceCap along with some rigging mechanisms that will enable me to get into their bodies. This is an amazing journey because I can see something, and then I can get into the body of that character. This is an amazing journey.
My background, as I said, is theater, and I read Stanislavski when I was quite young. I remember right at the beginning of the book, the boy puts on a costume, and it makes him feel like the character he’s going to play. This is 100 times more powerful because you can really become that person. I really hope that I will be able to get inspired while being inside the skin of others.
MP: Which of all of your pieces do you feel the strongest emotional connection to and why? Which piece feels the most personal?
It’s this photo of a trans girl. You wouldn’t say trans girl, just girl, but she’s sitting at home at night with a knife through her hand, and she’s holding it above a bowl of spaghetti where the sauce is her blood. I’m absolutely aware that this is not the kind of photo that anyone expects in response to that question. But for this shoot, I really tried to be open and inspired while not letting myself be too influenced in any negative way.
It was one of those times when I had this idea, and she was in perfect sync with what I imagined her to be. She was more feminine than any cis girl I ever shot but in a very, very quiet way. And she had some sadness to her because of her history in Brazil — I’m sure; I didn’t ask her, but it was palpable. It just happened that her vibe translates exactly to my language. I would want to sit down and talk with that girl. She’s exactly the kind of person I would like to meet.
MP: What was the process leading up to the completed “Venus Beach” series?
The idea really came to me when I was about 13 years old. I started daydreaming about being catapulted to another planet, where I’d land on a pier, a very, very long pier. I would walk this infinite beach. It was dotted with lots of small wooden houses. Every night, I’d go into a different house and meet another girl who lived on the beach. I’d watch her do her chores and talk with friends, and I always wanted the situation to be weird and different. Like if she lives on another planet, then she must have weird powers or customs. That was the inspiration.
I wanted that planet to aesthetically be in line with the characters. I wanted dark skin. Neon colors. The kind of planet that I would’ve envisioned when I was 13. The characters are free, eccentric characters who live their out-of-this-world normalcy.
MP: If you could turn our audience on to one under-appreciated artist (of whatever medium), who would it be?
Marcello Cantu and Jason Ebeyr are outstanding, but for an even shorter answer, check out H+ Agency. They have so many fantastic artists.