Horsing Around: Photo-Manipulated Images Of The January Uprising
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Photo-Manipulated Images of the January Uprising, powstanie-styczniowe-0.jpg, The January Uprising, post-1863, photo: courtesy of the National Library / Polona.pl, center
#photography & visual arts
The equestrian portrait is a classic way of depicting rulers and military commanders – it was popular in the 19th century too. But how could artists back then use it in photography, a technique that was more and more common, but still limited in possibilities? The solution turned out to be the first photomontages. Their surprising history in partitioned Poland is intertwined with politics.
The development of photography in Poland and its growing popularity coincided with important political events. The outbreak of the January Uprising (1863), and before that the pre-uprising atmosphere and manifestations growing since 1861, directly influenced the subjects addressed by the artists and was decisive in regards to what works were most often bought or distributed.
Poles started to create private patriotic albums which contained not only photos of family members wearing insurgent or funeral clothes (a way of manifesting opposition to the invaders) but also images of important public figures: commanders, political activists, heroes exiled to Siberia. These albums were kept in houses as national souvenirs, allowing patriotic awareness to be maintained under the partitions, and reminding emigrants and exiles about their homeland. By photographing, collecting photos, and often signing them, Poles created collections which still influence the common perception of the uprising and its participants.
However, portraits made in a photographic studio had some disadvantages. Room in the studio was limited, so only a dozen people at most could be in a photo. They had to stand close to each other to fit inside the frame. Due to technical complications, outdoor photographs, sessions with large groups of people and figures in motion were not an option, not to mention spectacularly restless steeds.
Photomontage avoided these problems. Artists were able to present the participants of the January Uprising the way the viewers wanted do see them – on their horses, wearing uniforms, even in military camps.
Members of the Civic Delegacy, 1861 – Karol Beyer
If the photographer was able to plan the entire process of creating a photomontage, he started his work traditionally, in the studio. He took photographs of the models, individually or in pairs (for a more natural effect). Photographing fewer people at a time increased the chance that no one would move and that the picture would be sharp. It was important due to long exposure time – the model had to remain motionless for at least a few seconds. The next step was to develop the photographs and precisely cut out selected characters. The figures were then glued onto a specially prepared, usually painted background, creating a proper composition. In the end, the whole work was photographed once more and developed.
Karol Beyer, the Warsaw photographer who took the collective portrait of the members of the City Delegation in 1861, is considered to be the creator of the first Polish photomontage. Similar works made by anonymous authors after 1863 that depicted insurgents on horses were not as convincing as his pieces. The painting part definitely prevails over the photographic one. The authors had no opportunity to create the photomontage from scratch, in accordance with their vision. They used already existing portraits, adding other elements to the composition.
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This is how the equestrian portrait of General Ludwik Mierosławski was made. The commander was depicted in a representative pose – sitting on a shiny steed, wearing a uniform girded with a sash, with a four-cornered hat called a konfederatka on his head and a sabre in his hand. Mierosławski's serious, focussed gaze is directed towards the viewer. His face, however, was cut out from a 'civilian' photo, which was probably taken after the uprising, and all the other elements were painted.
The image of Anna Henryka Pustowójtówna on a horse is another interesting example. The heroine actively participated in the January Uprising, wearing a men's outfit and using the nom-de-guerre Michał Smok. Although there were many more women fighting in 1863, Pustowójtówna gained the greatest fame, mostly thanks to her relatively high position in military ranks – she was the adjutant of Marian Langiewicz, the Dictator of the January Uprising. Like Mierosławski's portrait, her face was cut out from a photograph, and the figure in the uniform and the horse on which it sits were painted on.
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The composition, described as 'a scene from the camp of Langiewicz', is probably connected with the story of a photographer from Kraków, Walery Rzewuski, who visited the encampment. It is not clear, however, whether he actually got there and whether he managed to take photographs in the open air. Technical limitations would have made it impossible to capture a moment such as this without photomontage. On the foreground we can see four heroes of the January Uprising – Antoni Jeziorański, Dionizy Czachowski, Marian Langiewicz, and Anna Pustowójtówna – sitting on horses. Behind them is the edge of a forest and fields where soldiers ride their horses. This is another example of a photomontage in which only faces were cut out from original photographs. The positions of the models' bodies did not match the concept of the author, who intended to show them on horseback, therefore he painted not only the forest background, but also the figures and horses.
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The author of this dynamic photomontage, depicting a dozen or so insurgents trotting on horses, used a similar method. There are nine commanders among the riders, from the left: Kazimierz Mielęcki, Antoni Jeziorański, Marian Langiewicz, Józef Śmiechowski, Marcin Borelowski, Zygmunt Padlewski, Dionizy Czachowski, Roman Rogiński, and François de Rochebrune. In the centre of the composition is a banner with the inscription 'Freedom, equality, independence'.
The anonymous authors of these compositions must have used pre-existing portraits of the heroes. In fact, it is not difficult to verify this, because the images used in the photomontages were the most popular and widely available pictures of the commanders. Take a closer look at the faces of Langiewicz, Czachowski and Jeziorański – they look exactly the same on both photomontages,
Originally written in Polish by Karolina Dzimira-Zarzycka, Nov 2016, translated by Marcin Gozdanek, Aug 2018.