Dazzlingly Obvious: The Photography of Public Spaces
What can be read from the landscapes that we pass through every day? Why is it worth photographing the view from a window, yet not worth getting used to the visual violence on the walls? What hidden message does the tree in a neighbour’s back garden send?
The city is a space which provides a large number of different aesthetic experiences: images, sounds, and smells. Photographing it in a natural, objective way allows one to concentrate on the chosen element of the landscape and analyse it. Thanks to this division of the space (photographing, or quoting, it), it’s no longer something obvious and accepted without reflection, but becomes vulnerable to criticism.
The authors presented below can be connected with the output of Berndt and Hill Becher from the Dusseldorf photographic school, who presented industrial architecture in a monumental way. In America, the exhibition New Topographics (1975), curated by William Jenkins, became a turning point for this mode of depiction. In Poland, it was mainly Wojciech Wilczek (the curator of the Photo-realism exhibition and author of few important photographic projects who also runs a blog on hyper-realism) who popularised realistic photography which avoids excessive stylisation. In the text Critical Topography accompanying the exhibition Warsaw Under Construction he notes that from the beginning of the 1990s photographers were more interested in subjects which provoke discussion by touching upon social, economic, or historic problems. Below is a selection of Polish projects of this kind.
Architecture of the Seventh Day
After the Second World War, 3,779 churches were built in Poland which have strongly influenced the landscape but still haven’t been widely commented on. In the times of the Polish People’s Republic, funding them was a form of social protest against the authorities. Most of them came to existence only thanks to the activities of the faithful. On www.architektura7dnia.pl, one can add their own story connected with building a certain church, read articles (for example, the fascinating story of the Lord’s Ark in Nowa Huta), and view thematic galleries. The curators of the project are Kuba Snopek and Iza Cichońska.
Thuja – a coniferous plant from the cypress family – is, in the opinion of Piotr Bekas, often used for the ‘protection’ of private properties from outside eyes. The photographer asks if thujas are extensions of the curtains in the windows, an attempt at protecting from the undefined, from hostility assumed in advance, at the same time strengthening the feeling that there is something to be afraid of. Ironically, the conifer, in addition to covering and isolating, can send a desperate communication: here I am (a phrase homophonous with the plant's name in Polish)! Piotrbekas.pl
The City Sleeps is a series presenting the streets of small cities after nightfall: empty pavements and the borders of villages lit by the muted light of sodium lamps. The photos were exhibited during the Kraków Photo Month in 2010. lukaszbiederman.com
Land carrying capacity is the number of square metres of living space in a building which it is possible to obtain with certain conditions of development. In his project Certowicz notices that the profitability of investments often outweighs aesthetic issues. www.jakubcertowicz.pl
A photo of the Średnicowy Bridge in Warsaw covered with a printed canvas a few months before Euro 2012 shows a hoax created for the needs of the performance – the rusting construction didn’t fit to the imagined concept. During the competition, the bridge was covered with adverts for the sponsors of the event. chrobak.ch
The photography series entitled This Is All America presents unfinished houses in Podhale which were built from money sent by Polish emigrants working in the USA. It’s completed by private photographs and fragments of interviews. dolgowska.com
Since 2007 Krzysztof Eberle has managed the blog mouthstrappedinstatic.blogspot.com, where he documents the changing Polish landscape. He is interested in degraded places, the borders of modernity, and the influence of capitalist thinking on its surroundings (above). Sacral elements and outdoor advertising often appear in his works. Eberle likes simple signs and confronting contrasting elements. His photographs taken from an elevated platform during celebrations and festivals are especially interesting.
Antonina Gugała documented the showcases of over eighty photography workshops from Warsaw. In Warsaw Photographer, she pays attention to the visual language used by the craftsmen-photographers aiming to catch the attention of passers-by. Part of the project is a collection of photos taken by the author in all of the photographed places. antoninagugala.com
In Halfway, the photographer observes a medium-sized town in the centre of Poland. It shows monuments of the local authorities’ aspirations – town squares after modernisation, shutters from open-air events, a water park. He photographs objects which are ostensibly transparent, usually considered as symbols of the progress, which for many years have improved the quality of life of residents and their perception of the common space. patrykkarbowski.com
A new settlement of semi-detached houses and part of a field where chickens walk: ‘city-country in all its glory’ as the photographer summed up on his blog. Fenced housing developments being built on former village grounds is a common picture in Poland, and Lavender Hill is not an exception here. Developers love to encourage potential clients with the lower price per square metre than in the city centre and a ‘dynamically developing neighbourhood’ which is supposed to compensate for the current lack of infrastructure. enclosed-space.blogspot.com
Disco Polo is a collection of photographs presenting visual chaos in the common space. Neon colours replacing grey plattenbau from the Polish People’s Republic, false plants in granite flowerpots, a roadside palm tree in a winter landscape. www.paulinakorobkiewicz.com
Łuczak started to photograph the brutal Katowice railway station in 2010. He not only immortalised its excellent architecture but also the people for whom the place was very important as a local symbol. At the beginning of 2011, the last of the ferroconcrete chalices forming the building’s structure was removed, as the land was intended for building a shopping mall. Brutal’s history is more emotional than most of the mentioned projects, but it’s a perfect example of going in the direction of maximising profits in planning the city centre. michal-luczak.com
In Lives of the Unholy, Pijarski offers a visual archaeology of Warsaw. He investigates stories of the city and its monuments and heroes, looking for traces of their history. In his works, the artist asks questions about the logic ruling their appearance and disappearance. To achieve this, he uses photographs of the squares of contemporary Warsaw, confronting them with archival materials. The book Lives of the Unholy is available on the artist’s website.
One’s point of view can be a direct source of information about the outside world during work. Konrad Pustoła was interested in what things are visible from the offices of people with political, economic, or symbolic power. The book published by the Bęc Zmiana Foundation shows the view from the windows of politicians, entrepreneurs, people from the media, and pop stars. viewsofpower.com
After a few years of photographing urban landscapes, Krzysztof Sienkiewicz decided that Warsaw’s story is best told by buildings that look as if they were put in the wrong place. In his photos, soc-realism meets modern offices, and pre-war buildings meet post-war modernism. In one of the photos, an estate is dominated the Galaxy solarium, in another, pastel colours compete with offices for the viewer’s attention. krzysztofsienkiewicz.com
The photographer immortalised newly built yet often unfinished settlements in and around Warsaw. Empty spaces and corn fields contrast with new buildings with no public transport, shops, or schools. jedrzejsokolowski.pl
I always look for degraded objects on the streets, testifying to the strength of the new economic, social, and architectural trends. What is rejected, demanding immortality from the photographer. Decay is the last manifestation of its glory.
Juliusz Sokołowski, one of the most renowned Polish architecture photographers, for the exhibition Un-presented World prepared an installation composed of two symbols of the political transformation: part of a neighbourhood, and a lamp from a popular interior design shop. In a text published on his blog, the photographer describes how the desire for change influenced thinking about the common space, and why one of the symbols of those changes was a paving stone.
Loss by Paweł Starzec, a photographer, curator, and sociologist, tells the story of Wałbrzych, where the coal mines closed after 500 years. Shots of degraded post-industrial landscapes are complemented by portraits of the town’s citizens. pawelstarzec.com
Wojciech Wilczyk is a photographer and a poet. In An Innocent Eye Doesn’t Exist he documented former synagogues and prayer houses, observing the visual memory of the Holocaust. The Holy War is a collection of murals which blend into the landscape of the contemporary Poland, acclimatising society to visual violence, anaesthetising it. The Other City is a series of contemporary photographs of the grounds of the former Warsaw Ghetto, realised in co-operation with Elżbieta Janicka. One of the postulates of the authors considered the development of the area of the ghetto and might be the punchline of this article:
We are against the inflation of monuments. The most adequate form of remembering the Holocaust would be a culture and society free from violence and exclusion[...]. We can’t afford nothingness in the middle of the city. Land is expensive? It matters all the more.
Originally written in Polish, Nov 2016, translated by BR, Dec 2016