Bolesław Augustis was an interwar-era photographer, graced with a great sense of form and humour. He was a chronicler whose life intertwined with great events in history.
In 2004 in a shed in Bema Street in Białystok, two boys found a collection of photographs and negatives, which was then secured by the members of the group Zero-85, who happened to be rehearsing nearby. The collection was subsequently passed to Grzegorz Dąbrowski, a photographer and photography enthusiast from Białystok, the editor-in-chief of the local edition of the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza in Białystok. After cleaning the materials, the photographs were scanned and a some of them published in the local edition of the magazine. With help of readers, it was established who Bolesław Augustis, the man whose name was written on the photographs, really was.
His life was intertwined with the great events of history. He was born on the territory of the Russian Empire to a family who was deported to Siberia after the January Uprising took place in Poland in 1863. Augustis spent the first years of his life in Novosibirsk, where he was an apprentice at a photo lab. In 1932, when he was 20 years old, he moved to Białystok together with his family. The Augustises were a family of patriotic traditions, committed to social issues. Bolesław’s father was a member of the Polish Airborne Defence League, his sisters volunteered at the Polish Red Cross and the International Red Cross.
In Białystok Augustis first worked at Józef Neuhüttlera’s photographic studio located at the Kościuszko market, then he opened his own studio, Polonia Film, on Kilńskiego Street. He took most of his street photographs in the centre of Białystok. He photographed people passing by his studio; a lot of pictures were shot in the surroundings of Planty Park and the Ritz hotel. Augustis’ photographs depicted residents of Białystok and their everyday habits. In the archives of the artist one can find images of family ceremonies – weddings and funerals, as well as public events – strikes and marches. He documented architecture, work places, advertisements and public spaces. In his photographs one can also notice xenophobic, anti-Semitic slogans (in 1936 Jews made up 43% of the population of Białystok1) and anti-war marches.
In 1939 Bolesław Augustis received an invitation for the New Years party from his close friend. It took place in the auditorium of a secondary school in Białystok. At the feast, he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, and subsequently deported to Siberia. He joined and fought in the ranks of the Polish Armed Forces in the East (commonly referred to as Anders’ Army), then he found a temporary shelter in England. He never came back to Poland and probably no longer worked as a professional photographer. He settled in New Zealand, married a Polish woman, also a sybirak (a person exiled to Siberia). He made his living running a construction company, and died in 1995.
Beside their documentary value, Augustis' works are aesthetically pleasant. After 80 years, they still surprise with the compositions and emotions captured by the artist. It is not certain whether Augustis was aware of the contemporary trends in art, but his works are characterised by remarkable naturalism and the rawness of form, rare features in Poland at that time. Back then, one tendency was pictorialism and photography emphasising national treats, and the other – avant-garde movements exploring possibilities of photomontages and abstract photograms. Photo-reportage and its variations were published in the press, and it were the photo-reportages that constitute for Augustis a way to partly earn his living.
Augustis’ approach was partly determined by the camera he used. The small 35-mm Leica, which was mass produced in 1925, revolutionised photo-reportage, even though it was a luxury product. Several years after the end of World War II, Augustis’ sister Eugenia and their mother have sent Bolesław ‘his favourite camera’, the Leica that had been hidden from the occupiers for a long time.
Thanks to the posthumous publication of Augustis’ photos, an unexpected reunion took place – old friends who’d been out of touch for 65 years found each other. In total, the readers of Gazeta Wyborcza managed to recognise 30 familiar faces in the archival pictures. The exhibition organised in 2005 in Galeria Arsenał in Białystok was visited by crowds of inhabitants. The photographs were subsequently shown in Beriln, Brześć, and Warsaw. In 2010 an album featuring a hundred of Augustis’ photographs was published. The Un-Posed photography collective considers the chronicle from Białystok an exemplar of street photography. In July 2017 the Widok association made the next two thousand of hitherto unpublished works of Augustis available. They can be seen on the website Albom.po, where the photographic archives of Podlasie (the north-eastern region of Poland) and the Polish-Belorussian border are also available.
Sources: Augustis, Published by Widok Association for Cultural Education, wyborcza.pl, poranny.pl, albom.pl, jhi.pl. Photos published thanks to the courtesy of Grzegorz Dąbrowski.