Artist and photographer whose works were characterised by formal experiments with an avant-garde origin reaching back towards the interwar period.
Jerzy Lewczyński was born in 1924 in Tomaszów Lubelski. He began taking amateur pictures during the Second World War. He became seriously interested in photography in the beginning of the 1950s, in the times of socialist realism. He was influenced by Jan Bułhak’s aesthetics and created works in the style of socialist realism. Some of those early pieces had a constructivist genealogy. In the years 1957-60 he was a member of an informal group, which also consisted of Zdzisław Beksiński and Bronisław Schlabs. In those times Lewczyński radicalized his views, chiefly because of Beksiński. He was an advocate of formal experiments and of modern art with an avant-garde origin reaching back towards the interwar period. Alongside Beksiński and Schlabs he was a participant of the closed showing at the Gliwickie Photographic Society in 1959, which was labeled "anti-photographic" by the art critic Alfred Ligocki. The trio also presented its works at the photographic exhibition at the Krzywe Koło Gallery directed by Marian Bogusz. Their output constituted an attempt to join Otto Steinert’s "subjective photography" movement, even if their stance was more radical.
Lewczyński was inspired by surrealism (for instance Unknown from the series later called Wawel Heads) and Man Ray’s rayograms. He created negative photomontages, which referred to the civilizational changes occurring in Silesia, and was also the author of staged works. Lewczyński said of his work:.
Each photograph comes into being when I notice something, or come across something in my environment, which moves my imagination and my conscience (…). A camera in a photographer’s hand is a kind of eternal pen, writing down his inner tensions, among other things, for the future.
In the years 1945-51 he studied at the Silesian University of Technology in Gliwice. Since 1956 he has been a member of the Association of Polish Art Photographers and since 1951 he has been a member of the Gliwickie Photographic Association. In the 1980s and '90s he repeatedly sat on the Artistic Board of APAP. From 1988 to 1993 he was a lecturer at the Higher Photographic School of APAP in Warsaw.
In the 1990s he formed the final version of his conception of the "archeology of photography", on which he had worked since the 1960s. He wrote about it:
I use the term archeology of photography to describe actions that help to discover, research and comment on events, facts and situations, which happened earlier, in the so-called photographic past. Thanks to photography, the continuity of the visual contact with the past creates a possibility for the old culture-creating spheres to influence the current ones.
Kazimierz Nowosielski writes on the Galeria FF website that there is a "certain aura of mystery and magic" in Lewczyński's works and that the most distinctive thread of his oeuvre is this very "archaeology of photography", defined as a process of "restoring meaning to things that were rejected, disregarded, doomed to oblivion or being at the mercy of fortune". Nowoslielski remarks on Lewczyński's fondness for photography's afterlife, of photographs and negatives that have been abandoned and ruined, that are full of "existential meaning" and "documentary value", its hero not in the subject but in the effects of time, damp, mold and weathering.
In 1999 Lewczyński published the Anthology of Polish Photography 1839-1989 (Bielsko-Biała 1999), the first publication of its kind in Poland. Since the end of the 1960s he began perfecting his own style, which is filled with references to amateur photography (Exhibition of Subjective Photography in 1968, among others). The artist is also inspired by his family photographs, which date back to his childhood and to the experiences of the war. Lewczyński was also influenced by feature films (in the 1950s he was fascinated by Italian neorealism) and especially by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. He made use of found and worn-out negatives (Triptych Found in the Attic, 1971). He often presented them in sets composed from a few works. The order of the arranged pieces created a narration, which told a "film" story (Childhood, 1968; Door, 1971). At the same time in world photography Christian Boltanski, Michael Snow and others worked in a similar context, which referred to the broad concept of amateur photography. Lewczyński’s actions preceded artistic interests in photography being a "common memory" or "archive of history", which by the 1980s became a popular idea in world photography (Alexander Honory, for example).
I always emphasize that I am not a scholar. My reflections are those of an amateur, but I believe in them. I don’t throw away a single photograph and I have enormous quantities of this material (…). Old photo books, old materials, old stories, texts, memoirs of good people and bad, photographs of tears ... a whole mass of things that once were.
Though his works from the 1970s and the 1980s had an air of conceptualism, and despite Lewczyński’s participation in the important exhibitions of the times, he was capable of being ironical and sarcastic towards the reality of communist Poland and himself. In the 1980s, 1990s and in the beginning of the 21st century, he created works commenting on the specific Polish reality. In these sarcastic, very personal visions, nonsense is accompanied by sadness. The atmosphere of Lewczyński’s photographs brings to mind Miloš Forman’s early movies, which showed the absurdities of living in a socialist state and at the same time revealed the ridiculousness and tragic nature of life. Since the end of the 1980s Lewczyński has been considered an influence on many Polish photographers (Wojciech Prażmowski, for example).
The Museum in Gliwice published Memory of the Image in April 2012, a monographic collection of Lewczyński's works edited by Wojciech Nowicki. The collection features reprints of Lewczyński’s works, accompanied by Nowcki's insightful essays. The collection was nominated for American photo-eye magazine’s Best Books of 2012 award. As the editor wrote of his experience in getting to know Lewczyński and writing about his works,
I tried to fish a man out this sea of photography and kept on feeling like as I was unable to do so. This man, when asked to talk about himself, spoke only of photographs. He explained everything with more and more cameras, with artistic friendships and exhibitions. And yet, when I searched for the photographer in Lewczyński, it was Lewczyński the man who kept on popping up. A man, who had changed his own life into photography and became an embodiment of this medium: a half-man, half-photo machine.
Jerzy Lewczyński's works are featured in the collections of Museum of Art in Łódź, National Museum in Wrocław, Museum of the History of Photography in Kraków, Upper Silesian Museum in Bytom, Museum in Gliwice, Folkwang Museum in Essen, Musée de l'Elisée in Lausanne.
Jerzy Lewczyński died on July 2, 2014 in Gliwice, Poland.
Author: Marek Kępa, November 2012, based on the original text by Krzysztof Jurecki, Museum of Art in Łódź, April 2004.
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