Agnieszka Sural: In mid-March, you took on the position of photography curator at the Centre Pompidou.
Karolina Ziębińska-Lewandowska: Over the past few years, the photography department of the Centre Pompidou hired a fantastic duo – Quentin Bajac and Clément Chéroux. When Bajac took over the photography department at MoMA one year ago, Chéroux became the lead, and the second post became vacant. The Centre Pompidou wants to have a more international team, and decided to look for candidates outside of France. I was one of the people whom the Centre addressed with a proposal of taking part in a closed competition.
When did you begin to be interested in photography?
The fascination began before I started studying art history at the university. I failed my first entry exams, and I found myself in Paris. I stayed with an extraordinary family there, the Cassards, who completed my education through showing me interesting phenomena of French culture. These were, among others, post-war photographic albums, or "photobooks" (as we would call them today) of the so-called humanist photographers. This is what made me take up photography, which I pursued in between looking after children, my linguistic studies, and, of course, my preparations for enrolling at the art history department. I never became a photographer, but I always searched for photographic motives in art history and it stayed that way.
What did the beginnings of your career look like?
During my studies, I was an intern at Zachęta, and I was rather engaged. And finally, Anda Rottenberg, who was the gallery’s director at the time, hired me as her assistant, and then, as a curator. I must say that she showed great courage, because back then I didn’t even have a diploma. When Agnieszka Morawińska took over Zachęta, together with Hanna Wróblewska she agreed for me to run a regular programme of photographic exhibitions. I was able to produce about two exhibitions a year. I was given pretty much a free hand at it, and that was fantastic. Working with all three of them was formative for me.
In 2008, you started up the Archeology of Photography Foundation, which was a pioneering Polish institution devoted to unearthing and cataloguing the archives of Poland’s top photographers. In what ways was the heritage of photographers protected and presented abroad? Did you have any model examples that you were following?
The Archeology of Photography Foundation was created out of a real need for doing something with the heritage left behind by photographers. The Zachęta collection is very contemporary, and during my queries, when I came across interesting archive material, there was no way of including it in the collection.
The problem became most obvious while working on an exhibit of two Polish women documentarians, which was largely based on private collections. I co-founded the Foundation together with Karolina Puchała-Rojek and Anna Duńczyk-Szulc, whom I collaborated with on this exhibition, and with my husband Rafał Lewandowski. While creating a more precise form and strategy of activities with Karolina, we soberly judged the situation and the possibilities. Of course, we knew about the existence of the International Centre of Photography, of the Aperture Foundation, and of the Nederlands Fotomuseum, and they were models for us, but to date, these models remain rather inaccessible. Our main goal was to create an alternative for both the museum and the stricly archival model. Not because they’re bad, but because they don’t always work.
Instead of large, abundantly funded and organised structures, the foundation quickly had something else to offer – a non-standard stance towards heritage, such as looking at it through the prism of contemporary authors’ works, or through a critical stance towards archiving, as well as a certain flexibility of relations with legacy owners.
Short story of a PHOTOGRAPH, or how a PHOTOGRAPH ARCHEAOLOGIST works from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
Your work was ground-breaking in Poland, but it also aroused interest abroad. What is the position of Polish photography in the world?
When the Archeology of Photography Foundation began, there were no parallel non-government organisations devoted to photography. Luckily, over the past few years, the situation has changed. The interest of foreign specialists in Polish photography is a result of not only our activities, but also of a good study visit programme. And this interest does not necessarily bring with it a straightforward rise of Polish historical photography in art galleries or important museums abroad.
I think that the position of Polish historical photography is better than what it used to be, say, 10 years ago. And this is thanks to a sum of very many people’s activities, and the engagement of numerous institutions. But it still isn’t a very recognised “product”. We still lack large-scale monographic exhibitions at important galleries and museums across the world.
What will your work at the Centre Pompidou look like?
It is supposed to be simply the work of a museum custodian, such as looking after the collection and its development, as well as exhibiting, selecting and promoting.
What kind of projects would you like to undertake in the future?
For the moment, I can only speak about a project which is underway, and which has nothing to do with the new post. It is a monograph on Wojciech Zamecznik, which I am preparing together with Karolina Puchała-Rojek at the Zachęta in Warsaw.
Are you going to introduce Polish photographers into the programme of the Centre Pompidou?
I would certainly like to, because they are lacking in the general history of art, but this is long process that does not depend on one person.
Is your parting with the Archeology of Photography Foundation definitive?
For the moment, we are in the moment of change. The diligent and – what I wish to emphasise – fantastic team of the foundation has expanded, with Marta Szymańska joining in as a vice-president, and Karolina Puchała-Rojek becoming the president. We stay in touch, not only in reference to professional affairs. I came to Paris for a definite period of time, after which I plan my return to Warsaw and to the foundation.
Click here for the full bio of Karolina Ziębińska-Lewandowska
Warsaw – Paris, 28.03.2014
Author: Agnieszka Sural
Translated by Paulina Schlosser, 31.03.2014