Ludwik Szaciński: Revolutionary Turned Photographer
portrait, Ludwik Szaciński, 1890, photo: Oslo Museum/Wikipedia, center, ludwik_szacinski_ca._1890_-_oslo_museum_-_ob.f18645b.jpg
Szaciński was a portrait photographer with artistic aspirations. When he pointed his camera, even the king stood to attention. He showed the Norwegians the secrets of professional photography. He died of love for Poland.
A wanderer from Suwałki
The Norwegians have a lot of appreciation for Polish people. Having spent centuries under the Danish occupation, they watch the Polish fight for independence. In the 1830s, Polish emigrants start publishing one of the first newspapers in Christiania (today’s Oslo). On one occasion, Prince Czartoryski himself comes to the National Theatre to listen to the poetry of Adam Mickiewicz. Sadly, the poems are translations from French or German.
The second wave of Polish emigrants comes in the 1860s. One of them is Ludwik Szaciński de Rawicz.
A 19-year-old graduate of the Warsaw Cadet School, Szaciński fights in the January Uprising. For his merits in the battlefield, he is promoted to the rank of a second cavalry lieutenant and detained in a Russian prison. He manages to escape, but a bullet in his leg will make him limp for the rest of his life. The Russians send an arrest warrant after him.
Szaciński wanders around Europe for a year, visiting Vienna, Paris and Switzerland. A year is not much time to master the art of photography, but Szaciński is determined. He arrives in Stockholm with a new vocation and with a plan for the future. Born and bred in Suwałki, he doesn’t mind the Scandinavian cold.
The scenario is simple: gather a small group of Polish friends, go to Norway through Malmö, offering photography services along the way. Everything is going according to plan, but the travellers arrive to Christiania only richer in experience. For a short while, they live together. Then, their paths part.
Death in pictures
It’s time for plan B: Szaciński decides to open his own photography atelier. Not worried about his modest finances and fierce competition, Szaciński opens a shop by the main street in Christiania. He’s not the first: about 20 photo salons are operating in the city already, but he’s undoubtedly the best. And soon, he becomes the richest, making three, even four times more than his competitors.
Everyone wants to be photographed in his atelier: the polar explorer Roald Amundsen, the Shah of Persia, Swedish aristocrats, artists, politicians, princes, and the queen. King Charles XV will even have a post-mortem picture taken.
In 1888, Szaciński becomes the official royal photographer. The monarch’s image must be present in every household in Norway, so the photographer from Poland has to print hundreds of thousands of copies, making a fortune in the process.
The Pole specialises in portrait photography. His perfect reputation is unshaken even when the police employ him to photograph arrested prostitutes. Szaciński also follows important events, photographing the return of the national hero Fridtjof Nansen from the first expedition to the Arctic Ocean. In his spare time, he photographs the poor, the ill and of disputable beauty. He also likes to take pictures of streets and objects.
Apart from his talent, Szaciński is known for his sociable nature. He is a member of many organisations, and he establishes several new ones himself. It was probably him who founded the Norwegian Photographic Association which he presides. Szaciński also becomes the president of the Photographers’ Trade Union. He believes art and professionalism should go hand in hand.
From 1873 onwards, he is showered with awards. At a photography exhibition in Drammen, he receives a medal. At the General National Exhibition in Vienna, he receives another medal. He is bestowed with more accolades from Paris, Philadelphia, Dresden, Paris again, Paris for the third time, and Christiania.
A caged bird
history of polish photography
The fame improves his social status. Szaciński joins the Norwegian Masonic Lodge. He reaches the eighth level of the nine-level scale.
We don’t know for sure whether he really did train the hunting hounds, but he is a fine hunter indeed. His favourite game is snipe, so his friends from the Hunting Club call him Mister Snipe.
Apart from hunting, he enjoys hiking and fishing. He marries Hulda Hansen, a fisherman’s daughter. After Szaciński’s death, it will be Hulda who will take over his atelier. The passion for photography seems to be hereditary: Ludwik’s siblings, Kazimierz and Józefa, also open their ateliers, as does his son Stanisław (Stanni).
Szaciński is interested in the occult, spiritism and hypnosis, as they were a frequent subject of discussion in his family home. He even writes letters to the press to polemicise with a certain authority in this area.
He thinks of his homeland often: due to his revolutionary past, however, he can never go back. He doesn’t feel at home in Norway, even though he acquires Norwegian citizenship in 1882. He orders a bag of Polish soil to be brought for his funeral in advance. At the age of 50, he commits suicide in his hunting hut on Ormøya island. Years later, Stanisław Przybyszewski will write that it was the longing for his country that killed the photographer.
Szaciński’s photographs can be found, among other places, in the Oslo Museum. The photographer’s name is written in accordance with Polish orthography.
Translated by Agata Zano