The Working Hand – Janina Mierzecka
Janina Mierzecka, a photographer active and recognized in the Lviv environment since the late 1920s, created one of the most remarkable photographic projects in the history of the medium in Poland. Luckily for us, Ręka pracująca (The Working Hand) was released in book form, and a quite particular one at that.
Janina was married to Dr. Henryk Mierzecki, who inspired her to undertake the task of creating a photographic documentation of representatives of various professions. It took her nearly ten years to complete this endeavour, which developed simultaneously as a dermatological research project and as a purely photographic, not to mention artistic, work. Mierzecka's photographs were presented at dermatology congresses as well as sent off to international art photography fairs. The pair of authors thus co-produced not only one of the most original, but also one of the most complex photographic projects of the first half of the 20th century in Poland.
The book Ręka pracująca comprises two parts: text (written by Henryk Mierzecki) and illustrations – with sixty leaves containing photographs by Janina Mierzecka. Each leaf contains two horizontal 10 x 15 cm images showing male hands – left and right – usually visibly damaged by various kinds of labour (predominantly physical), and most of the time shown against a plain, black background. And so, we find hands of representatives of the electrical, oil, painting, food, and hairdressing industries, as well as housekeeping staff, and even musicians. From today's perspective, the aesthetic dimension seems to be more interesting than the cognitive, descriptive and typological aspects of the Mierzecki and Mierzecka duo's work. The collection of photographs created by Mierzecka resembles an extraordinary atlas of human hands, which are sometimes very sore from the work performed. The project is no less engaging through its purely visual expression and surprising as an enigmatic sequence of surrealist gestures. To some extent, Mierzecka's project anticipates the activities of conceptual photographers from several decades later (such as Zbigniew Dłubak's Gestykulacje/Gesticulations). Hence, Mierzecka's intuition to distribute an initially scientific project also to art photography fairs was coincidentally spot-on.
The photographs were reproduced on photographic paper at the printing house of the Lviv-based publisher Książnica Atlas. Its photomechanical department was directed at the time by Witold Romer, who conceived a special method of replicating photographs by using secondary negatives, first applied in the production of the Książnica Atlas' famous series of tourist postcards (which, by the way, also included Mierzecka's photographs). The same method was used to reproduce Mierzecka's photos from the cycle Ręka pracująca, where the artist prepared her own secondary negatives.
The book was first released as a manuscript in the summer of 1939 in two hundred and fifty copies. In 1947, another seventy-five copies of the book were produced out of the preserved and printed but not bound sets. This specific 'reprint' includes the information that the first edition was lost during the war and only the review copies were saved. Meanwhile, Mierzecka writes in her memoir (Całe życie z fotografią/Whole Life with Photography, 1981): 'Two hundred and fifty copies sold out in no time and I don't know how it was possible that about seventy unbound sets 'survived' the war.' In the same text, Mierzecka quite rightly refers to the book published together with her husband as 'one of a kind.'