The first cameras appeared while Poland was occupied by foreign powers, and the initial ‘photographers’ were science enthusiasts who wanted to explore new technologies.
Photographers in Poland were therefore late-comers to the artistic world.
The first Polish photographers were not considered artists. At first, being a photographer was considered a craft, much like being a carpenter. But this perception began to shift at the end of the 19th century. Yet even before photography was considered an art, some photographers took the aesthetic aspect into consideration, like Konrad Brandel, who took pictures from a hot air balloon.
of the interwar and WWII years
One the first major milestones in the early history of Polish photography was the birth of the avant-garde movement. This movement would have been nothing without a certain enigmatic drug addict who experimented in every area of life and art: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, also known as Witkacy.
Shortly after the birth of Polish photography, a schism appeared between the pictorialists and representatives of the classical avant-garde. The two schools started to evolve in radically different directions. Like most European art, photography was influenced by constructivism and surrealism during the interwar period due to political changes, but Witkacy remained the uncontested star of the era in spite of these imported trends.
I shall be
The Shoemakers, 1934
Karol Hiller, though also avant-garde, was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Unlike Witkacy, Hiller’s works were full of poetry and melancholy. Hiller was a trained painter who developed his own technique called ‘heliographics’ in the 1920s. It was a form of cliché-verre, namely a combination of photography and painting.
in the 1930s and 1940s
Documentary photography quickly became the ideal medium to create surreal, absurd and disturbing images that reflected harsh wartime realities.
Documentary photographers made a significant contribution to the birth of photography in Poland. The will to immortalise a single moment on light-sensitive material and transmit it to future generations was present from the beginning.
Excerpt from the film Ja Kinuję,
courtesy of the Archeology of Photography Foundation
with a Camera
Zofia Chomętowska, one of the most significant Polish photographers of the 20th century, was born to the noble Drucki-Lubecki family on 8th December 1902 in Polesie. Despite her aristocratic background, Chomętowska had the ability to immerse herself into the most humble of environments, acting as an impartial observer of her subjects’ daily lives. She photographed hunters, fishermen, women doing laundry in lakes ‒ not trying to create stylised images but rather portraits close to life.
Documentary photography is a form of visual anthropology. Looking at others, we learn something about ourselves. Just like anthropologists, every photographer has their own approach.
The Communist Regime
WWII deeply scarred the Polish collective imagination. The country's photographers attempted to express this trauma in different ways, but they were hampered by the restrictive influence of the USSR.
Art was heavily controlled under the communist regime. Photography was a crucial element of socialist culture, but photographers could not experiment freely.
In the 1950s, a second avant-garde emerged. Zdzisław Beksiński (also an abstract painter) and Jerzy Lewczyński were its most notable members. Beksiński in particular created an untitled series of proto-conceptualist and expressionist portraits, anticipating artistic trends such as photo-performance and body art. Elsewhere, the Zero-61 Group featuring Józek Robakowski melded the contemporary art movements of the time into the photographic medium. They all experimented in various ways, alluding to the work of the interwar avant-garde.
Documentary photography developed alongside the avant-garde movement under the communist regime. From the 1950s onwards, the regime forced Polish photographers to make a choice: either put their art at the service of the propaganda machine, or work in the shadows.
Rydet’s works are deceptively simple. She had an intimate and direct approach to her subjects, inspired by pictorialism, abstraction and surrealism. Her portraits of children and rural families in the 1960s and 1970s are the most insightful and well-executed photographic series from post-war Poland.
The year 1989 was full of breakthroughs for Poland. Freedom came to politics and art, as well as social and cultural life. New opportunities opened up and photographers started to be increasingly appreciated in many different fields.
Outside the Box
Under martial law, some photographers, including Zofia Rydet and Paweł Kwiek, were desperate for neutral grounds where they could showcase their art. As a result, they began to organise exhibitions in churches throughout the country (mockingly referred to as ‘art in a vestibule’ at the time).
Comes Full Circle
After the economic transition, a previously forgotten art appeared in Poland: commercial photography. The art became a craft once again, much like during its very beginnings. The newly-available opportunities brought forth innovative fresh talents like Tomek Sikora and Ryszard Horowitz.
A Fresh Approach
Polish photographers in the 21st century whole-heartedly embraced the opportunities offered by artistic collectives. Sputnik Photos and Napo Images in particular defined the trend within the field of documentary photography.
As times goes by photography changes. Some photographers are looking for new perspective. They treat distortions and imperfections as a natural part of captured reality. The others are trying to achieve clarity of frame as old masters did. The new eye meets liquid modernity and attempts to adjust to its waves.
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