Photographer Mateusz Sarello shows pictures with a sea motif.

Features The young and the old in Polish photography

The Kraków Photomonth Festival was held for the first time in 2002, and internationally renowned photographers from many countries have been represented from the very start. Exhibitors in 2012 included Sally Mann (US), Viviane Sassen (Netherlands), Jason Evans (UK), and Sergey Bratkov (Ukraine).

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 3-4 2012, p 22-23
Published on on januari 7, 2013

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The Kraków Photomonth Festival was held for the first time in 2002, and internationally renowned photographers from many countries have been represented from the very start. Exhibitors in 2012 included Sally Mann (US), Viviane Sassen (Netherlands), Jason Evans (UK), and Sergey Bratkov (Ukraine). The main program has a new theme for each year. In some years, the theme has been photographs from various countries, such as the United Kingdom or Hungary, and one year the entire festival was devoted to Polish photography. The biggest attraction in 2012 is without a doubt the first major retrospective of the work of 88-year-old Jerzy Lewczyński.

Lewczyński, who was scheduled to personally introduce the show at the National Museum in Kraków, is in failing health. The organizers were unsure for a long time whether or not he would be able to attend. As late as the day before the show, I was informed there was only a 60 percent chance he would be there. But when the exhibition opened, there he was, escorted by an assistant and supporting himself with a cane. He sat down in front of the video cameras, photo flashes, and the festival audience. A book of Lewczyński’s images (Memory of the Image) was published in conjunction with Kraków Photomonth and a queue of people wanting their books signed quickly formed in front of him. When he later gave a short speech to the audience, the speaker was alert and humorous. He said:

“I still take pictures. If I see something interesting, I take out my camera and shoot. And I want to give you all a little advice. Try to see the real meaning in what you are thinking about photographing. Don’t photograph the surface — always look twice and always look carefully.”

In 1959, he joined   Zdzisław Beksiński and Bronisław Schlabs in organizing what came to be known as the “Anti-Photography Show”. The exhibition did not receive much attention then, but over the years it has taken on great significance in the history of Polish photography. The three photographers all were opposed to the official aesthetic of the Communist Party, but each had his unique mode of expression. Lewczyński showed “anti-photographic” pictures of handwritten notes, broken objects, and posters as well as his surrealism-inspired series “Wawel Heads” (Głowy wawelskie) — images of lifeless bodies and people with no faces. One of the most famous pictures in that series — included in the retrospective exhibition here in Kraków — depicts a worker covering his face with a shovel. The picture stands for an alternative truth opposed to the idea of the worker hero the state wanted to propagate. The photograph lays bare the human condition under communist rule and may be interpreted to mean that there are no individual heroes, only a faceless mass of people who work to survive.

When I later   spoke to the president of the Photomonth, Tomasz Gutkowski, he called Lewczyński the most important thinker among Polish photographers since Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. Witkiewicz made pioneering contributions as a photographer before the outbreak of World War II, but is best known as a writer and philosopher. “People in Poland have realized that Jerzy Lewczyński is a genius, but unfortunately he is not as well known in the rest of the world”, Gutkowski said.

Lewczyński’s photography and his thinking about photography have steadily evolved over his artistic career of more than sixty years. Following the anti-photography period, Lewczyński delved into what he calls the archeology of photography. In the book published in conjunction with the festival, Memory of the Image, Lewczyński writes: “Archeology of photography is what I call activities whose aim is the discovery, examination, and interpretation of events, facts, situations that have taken place earlier in the so-called photographic past.” One of his central ideas is that without photographs, we lose our history, without pictures we have no history. Remembering and preserving the past through pictures is something deeply human, something he has found in ancient cultures like that of Egypt in the Age of the Pharaohs.

The photographs   hanging on the walls in the National Museum are from the period when he took pictures of large collections of things like spoons, shoes, or grenades; dating from his surrealist period, the images are pure and distilled portraits or reproductions of photographs taken by others that came his way by chance. The retrospective is a collection of many seemingly contradictory techniques and aesthetic approaches: documentary, artistically creative, conceptual. In an interview printed in the exhibition catalog, Lewczyński explains: “I use all the means I feel are appropriate to convey what I wish to express. I don’t reflect on classification of pictures into different types in the moment when I am taking them.”

The festival’s artistic director Karol Hordziej believes it is a huge problem that photographers like Lewczyński, and Hordziej’s personal favorite, Zofia Rydet, are unknown outside Poland. When the festival focused exclusively on Polish photography in 2008, Zofia Rydet’s social-anthropological documentation, mainly of the Polish rural population 1978 to 1990, was one of five major exhibitions of Polish photography. A German collector of photographic works was asked at the festival why he owned almost no Polish photographs. The answer was that Polish photography is an unknown world. Hordziej said:

“I can understand why he thought that, and that is something we are trying to change, by making our photographic history known not only abroad, but also here in Poland. That is why we published a book last year, Historie fotografii w Polsce 1839–2009 [The histories of photography in Poland, 1839–2009], in collaboration with the historian of photography Adam Mazur. It is the first book ever published on the history of Polish photography.”

Giving young Polish photographers a chance to show their works is very important to the festival arrangers. This year, out of 600 applicants, 10 photographers were selected to exhibit at galleries all over the city. The first show I went to see was Martyna Rudnycka’s at a photographic gallery in the Kazimierz district. She is showing only a few pictures, some of which depict people with their faces turned away from the camera. Other images look at details of interiors or express motifs taken from nature, such as two straight tree trunks, one light and one dark. “I leave it up to the viewer to decide how to interpret the pictures”, says Rudnycka. “Photographs should be seen only as impulses that can make people think.” Her biggest concern was how the pictures should be presented. She finally settled on what she calls the light box technique, where the negative is illuminated on a framed backlit panel.

A couple of hundred meters down the road, I visited the next show. Mateusz Sarello, 34, was educated in Warsaw, has exhibited previously, and has won awards including the Prix de la Photographie de Paris and the International Photo Award. He is showing pictures from a series first intended as a documentary project about the Baltic Sea. The images are displayed in the form of large, grainy paper photocopies, small unframed color photocopies, framed Polaroids, and black-and-white photocopies stapled to the wall. The presentation is playful, but the pictures of deserted beaches, seabirds, lonely fishermen with lined faces, bodies of water, and skies convey a sense of desolation. Sarello mused, “Well, no, this is not a documentary project about the Baltic Sea; it’s about my ex-girlfriend. It’s about loneliness, memories, and shattered love.”

The shows are hung   at about twenty museums and galleries, most of them spread around downtown, but a few are located a bit outside the city center. The show I visited two days later of the works of Laura Makabresku, a 25-year-old philosophy student at the University of Kraków, was in a gallery only a block away from Rynok Glawny, the main square in the oldest district of the city.

Unlike all the other young photographers who exhibited during the festival, Makabresku is self-taught. Her color photographs of people and taxidermically stuffed animals have strong undertones of eroticism and violence and have garnered attention. She was interviewed by the Oxford journal Trinity Arts Stack, for instance.

The images are striking. When I asked her where she found her inspiration, she told me that it all began with the stories her mother told her when she was a little girl. “I started writing poetry at a very young age, and the photographs are just another way to express the mood of the poems. I feel no hope; I can only express what I feel”, she said.

When I went to the Photomonth Festival in 2011, the pictures that seemed to abide in my body the longest were taken by a young man — Piotr Zbierski  — whose images are also disturbing. His artistic path differs from that of Makabresku: several years of photography school in Łódź, grants for photographic projects abroad, a stark, black and white aesthetic, and the use of a special but very simple plastic camera, the Holga, to get the effect he is after.

Two photographers with utterly different techniques and subjects. And yet, of all the young Polish photography I have taken in while attending two festivals in a row, it is the art of Makabresku and Zbierski that still resonates most deeply.

Karol Hordziej believes that a typical national photograph is a thing of the past:

“Contemporary Polish photographers rarely join together in groups, but Sputnik is one well-known example.” ≈