How Zofia Rydet's Photography Intimately Revealed Polish Homes
Images by the photographer taken over a period of 20 years across all of Poland reveal the interiors of Polish homes, the objects in fashion, and what people in the late 20th century considered valuable.
The exhibition titled Zofia Rydet: Record, 1978-1990, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art on 25th September, 2015, was the broadest display to date of a collection of more than 20,000 images. Its author travelled across all of Poland for a period of 20 years, visiting the interiors of Polish abodes, entering rural huts as well as apartment blocks. Her project spanned across 20 voivodships, with the greatest number of photos taken in the Podhale region near the Tatra mountains. It also included cities such as Warsaw and Kraków. Zofia Rydet had a particular method of shooting, always seating her models in the same way, and she photographed the interiors they lived in a similar fashion. This is how she described it:
My initial assumption was that the objects and the interior are more important, the man is just an element that describes this interior, he is supposed to be static, as if he was an object himself, and therefore he needs to be seated in front of the camera, looking straight into the lens. The photographs will always be taken with the same camera and using the same lens, with the same kind of lighting and from more or less the same perspective. Because, after all, it was supposed to be the most simple, objective, and authentic record of the encountered reality, made with a cool detachment.
Zofia Rydet was interested in the natural and the most authentic surroundings of man – his own home, arranged by himself, in which he surrounded himself with the objects which were most important to him, and which reflected the social and economic status of the portrayed. In her own words:
I don’t stage anything, I don’t arrange any of the objects, or people – it is the people themselves, who, sensing the presence of the camera and the lens, try to be at their most dignified and beautiful. They stage it themselves, as it were, and this is what the one common denominator of all these images is, some kind of humanist image of men’s equality.
The Sociological Record series contains details of house interiors, photographs of houses from the outside, portraits of housewives standing on the thresholds of their homes, and images of craftsmen in their workshops. Still, the most moving and poignant part of the series is the typological set of similar shots, with figures of people seated against the background of their own rooms.
Adam Mazur, a photography critic, says:
Rydet is obsessional in her recording, one can even sense violence. In spite of all the softening remarks of scholars who write about her humanistic approach, her fascination with people, and a mystification of encounters with other humans, Rydet’s method of work consisted of barging into the room and creating as sharp, detailed and non-beautified a record of social reality as possible.
But it is thanks to this orthodox approach and consistency in taking photographs that Rydet’s collection is so valuable. Recently, the joined efforts of the Zofia Rydet Foundation (which manages the artist’s archives), the Foundation for Visual Arts, the Museum in Gliwice, and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, started digitalising the series – often described as the most monumental endeavour in the history of Polish photography – making it available at www.zofiarydet.com.
As early as 1982, Zofia Rydet considered her series something that 'is no longer reportage, and becomes more of a scientific research project. While I think that there is also a huge dose of humanism in it, which personally moves me and fascinates me'. And this is how the series is regarded today – not so much an endeavour of the art world, but rather an unprecedented documentation which gathers knowledge in the fields of culture, anthropology, and sociology, as well as the design that was typical of the era. One can learn how the Poles of the era used to live, what kind of objects and items were trendy, and which ones were most valuable. It is also easy to see the incredible disparity between interiors of rural huts – in which time seems to have stopped centuries ago – and those of homes in apartment blocks.
The photographer wrote about her work:
I am very satisfied and simply happy that I managed to find so many crumbs of life that moved me, and in the rolls that now need to be developed, I captured human life, old dying houses and everything that passes and disperses so quickly – and now, it will be mine, and I will almost create a life for it anew. If only I had more strength, all day I carry around equipment which is, after all, heavy, and sometimes it hurts so much that I am becoming more and more hunchbacked.
Glancing through the monumental collection of photographs from the Sociological Record series, it is noticeable that certain motifs repeat themselves on many photos, and it is possible to pick out the most typical ones. In this way, we find out how Poles lived in the not-so-distant past:
A makatka is another object that would be difficult to find nowadays in either urban or rural interiors. In Rydet’s photographs, we see many different kinds of this decorative cloth, which was usually hung from a wall. A makatka can be woven, crocheted, sewn, or even painted, and the objects that functioned under this moniker took on various forms. They could be paintings woven like tapestries which usually depicted landscapes or religious scenes, or simple images embroidered on white linen by housewives, with the addition of various idiomatic and rhymed expressions of folk wisdom.
Zofia Rydet wrote:
These interiors are also a great rarity – there are so many little bits, things, 'little gems', which I am able to record. Each makatka is unique, they are really pretty things. I say 'pretty' not because I would like to surround myself with them, but because in their own place, as the surroundings of these concrete people, they really are pretty.
3. Decorations, trinkets
Decorating interiors with pretty little objects that have no function, such as figurines, coasters, or flowers, is a process that goes on in rural as well as urban interiors. There is an incredibly rich multitude of these little objects in Polish homes. While visiting rural abodes, Zofia Rydet noted a certain principle:
There are no more wooden walls, and inside, everywhere similar little things from the '1001 Thingies' stores, gilded glasses with little cherries painted on, various dwarfs and dolls, stiff fake flowers – even if those in garden there are so beautiful and fresh.
But the will to surround ourselves with useless objects has probably remained with us to this day.
4. The Pope
The TV set is the central element in a rural house, and it is on all day. Books are usually lacking. They put what they consider most precious on top of the TV, usually a portrait of John Paul II. I already have thousands of these photographs with the pope in various surroundings.
The image of Pope-the-Pole really did have a permanent place in the Polish homes of the late 20th century – be it in the city or in the countryside. Portraits of John Paul II, who was elected in 1978, grew in number after each of his pilgrimages to his home country. During the period when the Sociological Record was being made, there were six such pilgrimages, in the years 1979, 1983, 1987, 1991, 1995, and 1997. Sometimes, Pope-the-Pole lived on those Polish walls in a surprising neighbourhood, next to portraits of Stalin and Gomułka, or idols of the music scene. Some of the portraits were hung on the walls out of the inhabitants’ honest desire, while others were there for 'political' reasons, in case of an unexpected visit of some state official or communist police officer.
5. Holy pictures
There probably aren’t many nations in Europe who practice their religion by surrounding themselves with images of saints. In Polish homes, especially rural ones, pictures of Jesus, Mary, and the saints, as well as depictions of biblical scenes appear almost constantly, and in a variety of forms. Yet, Zofia Rydet observed that this way of experiencing faith also seems to be disappearing:
I took more than 30 thousand photographs in 22 voivodships, and first and foremost of the countryside, whose image is changing very rapidly each year. Old huts with straw thatch are disappearing, as well as little wooden homes which are typical of certain regions. Old hut interiors with the rows of holy pictures are also disappearing.
6. Folk art
Folk traditions, such as elements of clothing, traditional customs, and handicraft, began to disappear from Polish homes in the second half of the 20th century, partially due to the policy of state authorities. Zofia Rydet succeeded in capturing them on her photographs, in her portraits of rural housewives, or in the village of Zalipie, known for its thriving tradition of painting houses, furniture and small objects with floral motifs. Rydet was fascinated by this village. She wrote to her friend, Krystyna Łyczywek:
The entire village has everything painted over with colourful flowers, patterns, and animals. The huts, the barns, the wells, and even the kennels are painted. It is actually the first time ever that I did it in colour, but I don’t know what will come out of it.
A careful observer will note another thing in the photographs from the Sociological Record series: elements of handicrafts, wooden saint statues, folk paintings and crocheted napkins also appear in urban homes. If their presence seems natural in the countryside, where they are an integral part of life, in urban homes, this presence has the role of a decoration, and becomes a trinket.
Due to the fact that it was realised both in the countryside and in the city, Sociological Record shows differences in the approach towards animals (a difference which is manifest today, too). It is rare for an animal to appear in any of the portraits of people from rural areas. This is due to fact that animals were not kept inside the homes, but they fulfilled a utilitarian function and belonged to the business rather than the residential part of the home. In the cities, this is different – dogs and cats can often be spotted in the photographs, as their position in the home was much higher, they were treated almost like family members.
Now considered to be an icon of kitsch, meblościanka was the object of dreams for many in Poland. The mass-produced shelving unit which included a liquor-storing compartment, a place for the TV set and glass cabinet compartments were just as desired in cities as in villages. They were a symbol of modernity and progress, replacing the ancient chests which were associated with backwardness. The meblościanka (a term literally meaning furniture-wall) also had its kitchen version, and a construction made out of unified shelves was the dream of many housewives.
Written by AC, June 2015, translated by OK, Jan 2016