Right from its beginnings the history of Polish photography has, to a large extent, been shaped by political conditions in the country. In the second half of the 20th century, the challenge to all artists came from the totalitarian political regime imposed by the Communists after the Second World War and lasting until 1989.
The lens in artists' hands
Right from its beginnings the history of Polish photography has, to a large extent, been shaped by political conditions in the country. In the second half of the 20th century, the challenge to all artists came from the totalitarian political regime imposed by the Communists after the Second World War and lasting until 1989. Among the countries in the Communist bloc, Poland's cultural policy was sufficiently liberal to allow independent art forms to exist and this in turn formed a solid foundation for artistic work. Artists resisted the State's demands for realism in art by drawing on the tradition of the avant-garde and developing what has been dubbed the neo-avant-garde; this was embraced by a significant proportion of photographers, too. The shortcomings of utilitarian photography and the censorship applied to publications made it inevitable that creative energies were directed all the more stringently towards experimentation.
While there was only one truly avant-garde photographer working in the late forties, Zbigniew Dłubak, by the late fifties there were very many of them. They usually worked in small artistic groups, e.g. Zdzislaw Beksiński, Jerzy Lewczyński and Bronisław Schlabs who organised an exhibition entitled Antyfotografia / Antiphotography in 1959. Beksinski used large prints to juxtapose "artistic" photographs with reproduction, creating surreal pictures; Lewczynski created series of shots of posters, notes and broken objects; and Schlabs displayed pictures which were the photographic equivalent of "informel" painting. At the same time, Andrzej Pawlowski, who was linked with the Kraków Group, was creating many series of camera-less photographs and in 1957 organised a series of light projections called Kineform.
In the sixties a very vibrant group was the Zero-61 whose best-known achievement was the W starej kuźni / In the Old Forge exhibition (Torun 1969) which mixed photographic works of art with objects found on the exhibition site. Since 1970 the creators of this exhibition (Józef Robakowski, Antoni Mikolajczyk, Andrzej Rozycki, Wojciech Bruszewski) were involved in another group, Warsztat / Studio affliliated with the Film School in Łódź and whose influence extends through our day. 1970 also saw the start of the Permafo group (Zbigniew Dlubak, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, Andrzej Lachowicz) whose work accentuated the vagueness of boundaries imposed on art, its continuity - just like the phenomena of ordinary life - and artistic events were documented using photography and film. During this period the various photograhpic media became a vital tool in the exploration of ways of perception and provoking discussions on the very idea of art.
A fundamental role in the development of artistic photography in Poland was played by two huge collective exhibitions which provided an overview of the possibilities offered by an independent creative photography: Fotografia Subiektywna / Subjective Photography in 1968 and Photographers Exploring in 1971. The latter in particular revealed new possibilities through installations, photo-objects or sequences and was later shown with great success in many European countries, in the United States and in Japan. The counter-culture forms being created at this time meant that many outstanding Polish artists (like Tadeusz Kantor, Wieslaw Borowski, Zdzislaw Jurkiewicz, Janusz Bakowski, Ireneusz Pierzgalski) started to express their vision through the photographic media, student circles in particular became very active and many groups and galleries which concentrated on photography and multimedia work came into being. During the seventies many artists made their debuts using these forms, and some of them remain as the leading lights of Polish photography to this day.
A significant influence on many photographers was the international Rodzina człowiecza / The Family of Man exhibition shown in Poland in 1959. Zofia Rydet, for example, modelled her work on this exhibition and in 1961 and 1964 showed the results of her own observation on the world of children and the world of old people. Afterwards she systematically took portraits of people in their home surroundings and by 1990 had amassed tens of thousands of these documents, mainly from the rural and suburban areas of southern Poland. Another fascinating area of work is that of Adam Bujak's series entitled Misteria / Mysteries which, since about 1965, has shown living forms of religious cults developing on Polish territory despite the pro-atheist policies of the authorities. Pawel Piersciński and Fryderyk Kremser, on the other hand, have reverted to the concept of "motherland photography". Pierscinski has organised, since 1963, the Biennale krajobrazu polskiego / Polish Landscape Biennale, the longest-running exhibition in Poland alongside Konfrontacje fotograficzne / Photographic Challenges, which have been organised in Gorzow Wielkopolski since 1969.
The eighties were subject, once again, to intense political pressure brought to bear on artistic life. The formation of the Solidarity reform movement and the imposition by the regime of martial law in 1981 meant that most artists declared themselves on the side of political opposition. Photographers documented strikes and demonstrations, reminded people of the regime's corruption in earlier years and, at the same time, joined in the phenomenon of the expressive arts which turned back to the traditions of the avant-garde spiced with elements of post-modernism. The achievements of these years were not only the surveys of sociological photography organised by Andrzej Batura or Anna Bohdziewicz's extensive Fotodziennik / Photodiary series, but also events of the so-called Kultura Zrzuty / Chip-in Culture (surveys of independent, anarchically inclined works) and photographic conferences culminating in the huge exhibition entitled Polska fotografia intermedialna lat osiemdziesiatych / Polish Intermedial Photography of the Eighties (Poznan, 1988).
Classics of the neo-avant-garde
There are several artists whom one might describe as classics of the neo-avant-garde still working today and exerting a powerful influence on Polish photography. They have succeeded in adjusting to two great upheavals: the post-modernist re-assessment of the principle of the avant-garde which took place in the eighties, and the profound changes in the way Polish culture has been functioning since 1989 when democratic principles were restored and, along with them, came the economic rules of the free market. One of these classics is Zbigniew Dłubak (born 1921) who was for many years one of the leaders of the analytic and conceptual trends in Polish art. After a short silence when he emigrated to France in the early eighties, he returned to the Polish art scene with the Asymmetries series. His ascetic and meticulously realised series of paintings and photographs has acquired a greater sensuality without, however, losing any of the intellectual energy specific to his art. The nineties saw several retrospective exhibitions of his work in Poland, and they launched wide-ranging discussions about the present meaning of the avant-garde tradition. A recurring point of reference of these discussions have also been Dłubak's theoretical works on art and photography which he has been publishing since 1948.
An outstanding personality in contemporary art has been, and continues to be, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz (born 1937), who worked with Dlubak during the seventies in the Permafo group. Many of her works are photographic records of her own face against accessories and groundings, giving them a very powerful evocation. Other photographs are records of her numerous performances in which the artist attempts to express Man's basic existential problems, relying on symbols taken from myths and Christian theology. Some aspects of her work have, since 1975, shown strong links with feminism. Lach-Lachowicz uses various media (video, painting, installation) in a very powerful and inspirational experiencing of art. She is also the author of important theoretical texts.
Equally well-known in Poland and abroad during the nineties was the work of Zofia Kulik (born 1948) who, in the last ten years, has been creating enormous compositions using photomontage and a technique of multiple-imaging of motifs like the naked human form, banners, blades, decorations, gun-shells, wire, and scenes of executions taken from television screens. This work is an attempt to settle accounts with totalitarian ideology and to reflect on the psychological conditioning created by domination, the use of force and submission. The pictures are several metres long and have the form of tapestries, mandalas, and the outlines of Gothic architecture. Other recent works by Zofia Kulik include an effective photographic record of the artistic activity she was involved in during her earlier collaboration with Przemyslaw Kwiek. During the seventies and eighties she was a leading figure in the alternative, critical trend in Polish art and she has collected a valuable archive collection linked to this.
Unceasingly active since the Zero-61 group days has been Józef Robakowski (born 1939) who now shows works of artistic film, photography, installations and painting. He also organises collective exhibitions (e.g. Energie obrazu / Energies of a Picture ) and involves himself in multimedia work, pursuing new forms of expression. His strategy of making "mechanico-biological recordings " in various forms reveals an attitude which has much in common with many aspects of 20th century art where instinctive vitality combines with an acceptance of new technologies. Robakowski is also an art historian and the author of numerous theoretical and critical texts on contemporary art. He runs Galeria Wymiany / The Exchange Gallery from his home in Łódź, containing the works of artists from all round the world. A collaborator of Robakowski's for many years was Antoni Mikolajczyk (1939-2000) who, towards the end of his life, worked mainly in light installations which he then photographed very effectively. Many of his other photographs were records of moving light objects taken over longer time intervals. Mikolajczyk, through his teaching activities, exerted a considerable influence on the art of photography and video in Poland.
Another important figure in Polish photography is Stefan Wojnecki (born 1929). Since the fifties he has been searching for points of contact between science, technology and art. He has been constantly experimenting with various ways of existing in photography, e.g. in his series Pozaprzedmiotowość / Supraobjectivity he displayed different levels of the existence of matter. In the eighties Wojnecki became an influential theoretician of photography, criticising the abstract nature of avant-garde art and proposing a post-modern model in which the presence of art's different contexts (e.g. the cultural, the private) are all revealed. Stefan Wojnecki's ideal is an art that breaks down all barriers and he believes that photography is particularly well-equipped to do that by exploiting the possibilities offered by the electronic media. In the nineties he succeeded in an awe-inspiring way in expanding the specialist teaching of photography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan, and, having organised many conferences and exhibitions there, has managed to make Poznan the most important centre for photography in Poland. Evidence of this were the two Polish Photography Biennales (1998 and 2000).
Irony, the grotesque, self-mockery
Many other artists in Polish photography of the middle and younger generations draw on the neo-avant-garde tradition, although sometimes in an astonishing way. The Łódź Kaliska group founded in 1979 (including Marek Janiak, Andrzej Kwietniewski, Andrzej Swietlik) parodied avant-garde methods, thereby attacking all authorities, conventions and criteria previously imposed on art. They were very much in the news again in 1999 when they organised a number of events to celebrate the group's twentieth anniversary. For the members of the group photography and film are means of recording that artistic activity which aims to comment on something by using parody or pastiche. The creator of the majority of photographs is Andrzej Świetlik who is also one of the country's most highly regarded portrait photographers. However, his portraits and his records of the work of the other Łódź Kaliska members has an exceptionally self-mocking quality in which grotesque subject matter is mixed with a subtle aesthetic of commercial photography.
One of the more interesting individual exhibitions of the last ten years was Fotologia / Photology by Krzysztof Pruszkowski (born 1943) in 1993 containing photographs taken in Egypt and using a method of piling multiple shots of the same subject on top of one another, drawing on the extreme synthesising aspect of the art of ancient Egypt. Pruszkowski had earlier achieved success with Alexander (1980), depicting the fate of a Parisian clochard. After this he became known for his technique of "photosynthesis" whereby images of subjects of a similar type are laid on top of one another to draw attention to the relativity of generalisations and typology. An example of this was the ironic observation of social differentiation in the "photosynthesis" of sixty 1st and 2nd class passengers of the Metro. Pruszkowski refuses to use digital techniques in his "photosyntheses", claiming that a manual composition of the pictures is more transparent and intellectually more meaningful (Zofia Kulik shares this view). At present, the artist is working on projects based on an analysis of particularly significant archive material.
The work of Wojciech Prazmowski (born 1949) and Grzegorz Przyborek (born 1949) has been highly thought in Poland and abroad since the eighties. Prazmowski often makes use of archive photographs, putting layers on top of one another, making them shine through like layers of memory. He also uses photographs to create spatial objects combining sentimentalism and the private nature of photography with the pathos of monumental forms. Grzegorz Przyborek, who had earlier juxtaposed photographs of nature with natural objects (feathers, branches) in exhibitions, started to build symbolic spatial forms in the nineties which he then photographed. Exploiting the laws of optics he frequently created visual puzzles in these photographs that were reminiscent of surrealist paintings. In many of his exhibitions, Przyborek displays the design drawings of a construction alongside the spatial objects themselves and alongside the photographs, thereby showing not only the stages of the creative process but also the possibilities open to different means of expression.
Questions concerning the conventions of the pictorial world and their deconstruction are also of particular interest to Krzysztof Cichosz (born 1955); he draws on themes from various well-known photographs and breaks them down into tiny fragments. These fragments, rearranged on various layers of transparent foil, can only be reconstructed into the initial piece when viewed from a particular viewing point. Equally intriguing are the photographic installations by Konrad Kuzyszyn (born 1961) whose basic reference is the human body fragmented, often resembling medical specimens. Using elaborate arrangements, Kuzyszyn tries to emphasise the mysteries of life's processes and to ask questions about its meaning (e.g. by adding electronic projections of various texts to the photographs). Irena Nawrot (born 1960), meanwhile, treats the human body like a painter's ground, photographing fragments of the body and laying dyes on the close-ups. Her works exude a subtle sensuality from which the material nature of the body vanishes.
On the boundaries of photography, performance art and video art
Jerzy Truszkowski (born 1961) and Katarzyna Kozyra (born 1963) is to be found. Kozyra is particularly fascinated by the inescapable destruction of the body and by the norms of behaviour applied to bodily functions, particularly in the area of sexuality. Many of her works are photographic nudes and records of people being observed in intimate situations (e.g. she used a video camera to record people in men's and women's baths). Her work, which contains many very personal themes, has provoked much polemical discussion around the subject of the morality of art. The work of Jerzy Truszkowski has aimed in a similar direction since as early as the end of the seventies. His photographs combine a subtle aesthetics with themes of injuries and violence, drawing attention to the destructiveness of human consciousness. Truszkowski is fascinated by the repressive power of symbols and how they can be concealed behind a cloak of aesthetics. The work of Leszek Golec is of a separate kind: using photographs he shows situations which are as if suspended beyond concrete meanings.
Waldemar Jama (born 1942) is fascinated by the way photography uncovers new visual forms and their separateness in his surroundings. Exploiting this, he combines documentary qualities with creative ones, e.g. by according architectural elements a poetic interpretation. Jama has been a presence in Polish photography since the seventies, as has Marek Gardulski (born 1952), creating both subtle nudes and delicate light-and-shade compositions, as well as effective records of industrial architecture. These artists, like the slightly younger Wiesław Barszczak (born 1958) and Leszek Wesolowski (born 1965), are hard to categorise within a particular trend. They skilfully exploit the dual status of photography as an objective and as a personal means of expression, combining an observation of the external world with an expression of personal experience.
Another trend in Polish photography, called 'elementary photography', which started in the eighties, is the work of artists profoundly committed to the study of nature. They set great store by directness and precision in the presentation of states of nature which should be emphasised by a skill in observing and analysing natural phenomena and capturing them at the most suitable moment. Generally, they use old-fashioned, large-format cameras, and even pin-hole photography, which is in direct opposition to the latest technology of electronic means of recording and transforming images. Despite the fact that occasionally pictures with a style reminiscent of earlier eras do appear, nevertheless this is very much a contemporary trend, a reaction against the dryness of conceptual trends in the photographic media. What is emphasised here are both the technical individuality of the photographers but also their intensely personal way of seeing the world. Among the pioneers of this trend in Poland were Wojciech Zawadzki (born 1958) and Andrzej Lech (born 1955), and among the better-known artists currently involved are Ewa Andrzejewska (born 1959), Janusz Lesniak (born 1947), Bogdan Konopka (born 1953), Marek Szyryk (born 1966).
Close to those photographers mentioned above are also Stanisław Wos (born 1951) and Paweł Żak (born 1965) who frequently stage their photographs and use photomontage. Their style could be described as neopictorial because of their attention to the aesthetic composition of their prints and their evocation of pure sensuality.
There are two redoubtable photographers who have worked independently of any shared trends for a very long time. Edward Hartwig (born 1909) has been working constantly since the late twenties. He has also worked out his own style, based on an emphasis of a picture's graphic qualities, making free use of numerous sources of inspiration. In 1960 his book of photographs Fotografika was a huge success, and many more of his books have appeared recently; Hartwig has often astounded his audience with new works concentrating on questions of colour. Another strong personality is Krzysztof Gierałtowski (born 1938) who has, since the seventies, continued making his series of human portraits in which he is aiming to reveal the inner traits of the portraits' personalities. Usually he aims to achieve a striking expression which is supposed to signal fundamental existential questions.
One source of inspiration and a point of reference for Polish artistic photography of the last decade has undoubtedly been the neo-avant-garde art of the sixties and seventies. Contemporary artists drawing on this tradition, however, tend to concentrate on experimenting with the materials and techniques introduced by way of the new media. Artistic photography is, today, often simply one of the elements of an installation or of larger projects; in other words, of art from the boundaries of photography, performance art and video art.
Advertisements and utilitarian photography
In the nineties, advertising photography and utilitarian photography finally found suitable conditions for their development in Poland. Several artists have found a way of achieving their deep creative aspirations thanks to this. They were, however, artists who had already been well-known for major work before, and who did not compromise their artistic ambitions. The most important of these photographers include Tomasz Sikora (born 1948). Leszek Szurkowski (born 1949) and Maciej Mankowski (born 1949). Also very popular in Poland is the work of Ryszard Horowitz (born 1939), who has been working permanently in the USA since 1959.
Press photography has also benefited from improved prospects brought about by the democratic changes in the country. In previous years, with censorship in force, the more interesting material might appear sporadically in exhibitions or in the underground press. For instance, in the eighties the Independent Photographic Agency Dementi was very active recording the struggle for the restoration of democracy to Poland and thereafter the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. One member of this agency, Tomasz Kizny (born 1958), created a lot of documentation and showed many exhibitions during the nineties depicting the consequences of totalitarianism in this part of the world. The appearance of numerous illustrated magazines has given contemporary press photography an opportunity to grow, as have the competitions sponsored by Polish Press Photography which were organised in Poland from 1959 and have been revived after a few years' break since 1993. Outstanding press photographers include: Krzysztof Miller, Sławomir Kamiński, Łukasz Trzciński, Witold Krassowski, Tomasz Tomaszewski, Piotr Wójcik, Tomasz Gudzowaty.
The Zwiazek Polskich Artystow Fotografikow (ZPAF) / Association of Polish Photographic Artists, an artistic trade association founded in 1947, has played a huge part in Polish photography for many years. Although the increased opportunities of working outside recognised institutions in the nineties have lessened the role of the ZPAF, it is nevertheless still very significant. With its headquarters in Warsaw and regional branches, it has a membership of some 500 photographers. The Fotoklub Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej / Photoclub of the Polish Republic, also based in Warsaw, unites various amateur photographers' organisations throughout the country.
There are about twenty-five photography galleries operating in Poland. The more important ones include: Mala Galeria / The Small Gallery - part of the Contemporary Arts Centre and Stara Galeria ZPAF / The Old ZPAF Gallery in Warsaw, Galeria FF in Lodz, Galeria PF in Poznan, Dolnoslaskie Centrum Fotografii / The Lower Silesian Centre of Photography in Wroclaw, Galeria Pusta / The Empty Gallery in Katowice, Galeria BiB in Bielsko-Biala, Gdanska Galeria Fotografii / The Gdansk Photographic Gallery. In addition, exhibitions and displays on the history of photography are constantly shown in two museums with collections, and departments, of photographic art: the National Museum in Wroclaw (since 1963) and the Museum of Art in Łódź (since 1977). Also, the Museum of the History of photography in Krakow has been operating since 1987.
Several Colleges of Photography were set up in the nineties and they have become important centres of growth for artistic photography. Degree courses specialising in photography can be taken at the Academies of Fine Arts in Poznan and Krakow, and three-year courses in Lodz, Wroclaw, Gdansk and Jelenia Gora. Currently, the majority of art schools are introducing extended courses in photography.
Among the important recurring events taking place in the nineties have been the Europejska Wymiana / European Exchanges Photoconferences, organised in Wroclaw by Jerzy Olka, himself a practising artist. In 1988 a Biennale of Photography was initiated in Poznan. Competitions like the Konfrontacje Fotograficzne / Photographic Challenges in Gorzow Wielkopolski (since 1969) and the Biennale Krajobrazu Polskiego / Polish Landscape Biennale in Kielce (since 1963) have had a huge impact. Since 1989 Jakub Bryczek has been organising collective exhibitions called Contacts in Katowice, based on the principle of contact prints. By way of contrast, the WRO festival of media arts prefers a more open approach to technical processes. Since the early nineties the International Photographic Trade Fair in Miedzyzdroje has been accorded an increasingly higher status as it follows the model of Cologne and pays more attention to artistic themes.
Author: Adam Sobota.