10 Must-See Black & White Photos From Poland Under The Communist Regime
small, ‘People Waiting for John Paul II’, 1987, photo: Krzysztof Pawela/Museum of Photography in Kraków, krzysztof_pawel_1.jpg
Under the communist regime in Poland, young photojournalists took it upon themselves to document the Polish realities of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Suffocating under a variety of labels such as ‘sociological photography’, ‘humanistic photography’ or ‘engaged photo essays’, they claim they were ‘just doing their thing’.
Poland of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s – ruled by the communist regime – was documented by young photojournalists gathered around the student’s magazine itd (editor’s translation: etc.). Some jokingly called them ‘the kids from itd', but in fact, the group itself could not clearly define its identity. Suffocating under a variety of labels pinned on them from the outside such as ‘sociological photography', ‘humanistic photography' or ‘engaged photo essays', they were ‘just doing their thing'.
An exhibition entitled Fotoreporterzy (Photojournalists) displayed at the Museum of Photography in Kraków was opened four decades after the itd kids' first projects. Among the numerous photographs by Krzysztof Barański, Andrzej Baturo, Sławek Biegański, Stanisław Ciok, Maciej Musiał, Anna Musiałówna, Maciej Osiecki, Krzysztof Pawela, Włodzimierz Pniewski, Andrzej Polec and Harry Weinberg, we chose ten exceptional photographs which present the essence of life in the Polish People’s Republic.
1. Black reportage by the Vistula
The term czarny reportaż (black reportage), describing the photojournalists of the 1970s and 1980s, was first used by Jerzy Lewczyński. The name was supposed to be a ‘counter to the embellished, propagandist way of representing society’, explained Marta Miskowiec in the introduction to the Fotoreporterzy catalogue.
A photo which perfectly conveys the meaning of this term was taken in 1980 by Maciej Osiecki. The photographer captured the moment of electing the mayor of the village of Annopol near Siemiatycz. In the picture, the unsatisfied competitor shows the infamous gest Kozakiewicza (the Polish version for a bras d’honneur).
2. Model godliness
’Black reportage’ photographers were interested in topics that had to do with poverty, underdevelopment, ugliness, the stupidity of officials, the godliness of Poles, strikes and demonstrations.
In the 1978 picture Służew nad Dolinką by Maciej Osiecki, we see two elementary school pupils kneeling at a freshly dug grave. On the right side of the frame, the composition is disturbed by two blue-collar workers in dirty clothes and heavy boots. The metaphorical picture is completed with blocks of flats which are visible behind the graves.
Rebuilding Warsaw from Ruins after WW2 – Image Gallery
Even though Stanisław Biegański’s 1958 photo is older than the other photographs from the Fotoreporterzy album, it depicts the youngest generation — children. They are leaning against a broken village fence in Annopol and staring straight at the camera. Each child has a different facial expression.
The curiosity of the tallest girl corresponds with the grimace of aggression on the face of a child standing in front of her. But the most intriguing is the boy who climbed the fence – his eyes are closed while he is chewing on something and ignoring both the photographer and his peers. This child is the axis of the composition and at the same time an allegory of indifference which was almost inscribed in the lives of many village dwellers’ after years of propaganda.
4. New delivery
The emotional load of Andrzej Baturo’s Picture Przywieźli Towar (They Delivered the Goods) is not easy to interpret without context. Food rationing contributed to the development of a black market. This photo by Chris Niedenthal taken in Grójec became its symbol.
It depicts pigs being transported in the boot of a car. Ten years before this photo was taken, Andrzej Baturo presented another prosaic scene of illegal meat trade captured on a light-sensitive material. In the picture, you can see half of a deboned swine lying in the street. The other half is being pulled towards the buildings in the background by two men. The meat ends up in the mud. It has to be moved as fast as possible – before someone denounces the men before the militia comes and starts checking their ration stamps. The two men cannot expect any support or solidarity from passers-by. On the left side, an onlooker is staring at them. He is standing still.
Chris Niedenthal. Selected Photographs 1973-1989 – Image Gallery
5. The queen of life
Village life has always been juxtaposed with life in the city. While village dwellers were ‘dealing with’ reality, their city counterparts in cities could control and shape their surroundings and reality. The construction of housing estates and the production of the famous ‘Syrenka’ cars was in full swing under the communist regime.
In Krzysztof Pawela's picture, a woman sits in a new, white car with a block of flats in the background. There is no one else in the street except for the woman with brand new Syrenka. She owns the neighbourhood – she is a queen of life.
6. Happiness factor
It is worth taking a closer look at Stanisław Ciok’s 1989 photo Przed Skupem Mleka (In Front of a Milk Purchase Point) which stands in contrast with the previous pictures.
An elderly woman with a bike in one hand and a bag in another smiles toothlessly and boldly at the camera. She has just sold her milk cans — this additional injection of cash visibly makes her happy. Even though her bike has no seat, and the money will not last for long, she is content – at least for a moment.
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7. A way of life
Anna Musiałówna did not want to be a photojournalist. She was supposed to be a prima ballerina, living her life detached from the problems that became her major topic as a photojournalist. Because of a knee injury, doctors told her that she had to change the plans for her future. As she notes in the Fotoreporterzy:
I was a 23-year-old girl with a diploma in ballet for a souvenir, a bandaged knee and a piece of paper that proved I was now an invalid. As a consolation, my brother gave me a camera, told me how to use it and sent me out to photograph people in the street. The unfortunate accident turned out to be the best gift that fate could give me.
The injury turned her into a new person – a careful observer. Her frames were always precise and straightforward. She did not intend to shock the audience – instead, she wanted to document the world, even if it was not always the most interesting thing to portray. She would focus either on the seemingly unimportant moments or those which were intentionally erased from memory (or rather the ones no one wanted to remember).
Musiałówna also created an outstanding series about abortion entitled Minus Jeden (Minus One). It does not express any redundant emotions. There are just simple compositions containing a table, surgery tools and a fetus on white material.
The picture above is a proof that she was also able to grasp moments of happiness and excitement. It depicts a laughing married couple nudging each other in a second-class train compartment.
8. A boy with an apple
Musiałówna devoted a lot of her attention to children. Just as the famous Polish photographer Zofia Rydet, she was able to sneak into their world and depict them as if she was a child herself. This sensitivity is conveyed through the photo entitled Chłopec Z Jabłkiem (A Boy With An Apple). The picture is a part of the series Rodziny Wielodzietne (Large Families) which focuses on adolescent children growing up in families that considered family planning and contraception to be taboo topics.
This picture of a boy holding an apple speaks for itself, but it can be interpreted in many different ways. It expresses some sort of sadness and tiredness. His lack of joy raises concerns and questions about his life and his future.
Sociological Record 1978-1990 by Zofia Rydet – Image Gallery
9. The redhead is getting married
In the introduction to the album, Marta Miskowiec says:
The 1977 photo essay ‘Ruda Się Żeni’ (The Redhead Is Getting Married) by Krzysztof Barański and Sławek Biegański contains a series of photos, among others an iconic portrait of a bride standing in the doorway of a cabin. It depicts a village wedding with an industrial background.
The photograph was taken right after the young woman left the mentioned cabin to meet her guests. She is standing pertly next to her husband and looking intensely at the photographer. Full of contrasts, the picture illustrates the effect of economic migration. The wasted landscape, urban surroundings and the traditional, symbolic ceremony interplay in one picture.
10. Breakfast with Froggy
The story of Simona Kossak, known as ‘the witch from the foresters’ lodge’, was made available to the public thanks to Anna Kamińska’s book Simona: The Extraordinary Life of Simona Kossak. Simona used to live in Dziedzinka, part of the Białowieża Forest, with wild animals and her partner, Leszek Wilczek who is the author of wonderful photographs of her.
Since most often he was the one taking the photos, he does not appear on them, and so his story is often ignored. Fortunately, Maciej Musiał used to visit the two recluses with his camera. He captured Leszek Wilczek giving some bread to a big wild boar called Żabcia (Froggy) during breakfast. The photo is the perfect depiction of the unusual, dreamlike atmosphere of the place which was shaped by the two animal-lovers – away from the world, people and politics.
The Extraordinary Life of Simona Kossak
20th century photography
albums of photography
Looking at reality
Each of these photos conveys a different set of emotions and tells a different story, but what connects them is realism and criticism. Anna Musiałówna sums it up well:
We felt like chosen ones, holding a tool with the lens, which enabled us to take a closer look at life itself. We were united by curiosity, and a critical approach towards any ideology thought to be the only one that was right and accepted.
Originally written in Polish by Dagmara Staga, Nov 2017, translated by AS, May 2018