Niedenthal's life would make for a great film. The London-born Pole was raised and educated in the UK. He decided to come to the land of his forefathers and received citizenship in 1998. He settled in Warsaw in 1973 and photographed the grey reality of communism until 1989.
The socialist surveillance system impeded him from developing his pictures in Poland. "I was scared of leaving Poland. I was afraid that if I left, they wouldn't let me back in", Niedenthal shares with the website Szeroki Kadr. But he found a way to cheat the system. With two rolls of film in his pockets, one with photographs, the other with descriptions of these photographs, Niedenthal wandered the train stations in search of "friendly tourists". They would transport the photographs to the newsrooms of the Times and Newsweek.
The photographer himself didn't exactly know or remember what was on the photosensitive spool. The album Chris Niedenthal. Selected Photographs 1973-1989 contains unpublished pictures – moments of the reality of Polish socialism caught on camera.
1. Apocalypse Now
Niedenthal's best-known photo. This iconic image captures the somewhat ironic superimposition of the first days of the martial law in Poland on a background featuring an equally legendary American film showing at the cinema. American films started being shown in the late seventies, and they enjoyed tremendous popularity. Martial law was implemented by General Jaruzelski on December 13th, 1981.
Niedenthal reminisces in his autobiography, Profession: Photographer:
"We were turning and from behind the trees I could see a new, better scene. If it wasn't enough that there was a banner with Czas apokalipsy (Apocalypse Now) on the cinema building, in front of it, there stood an armoured personnel carrier – SKOT – and soldiers around it. The setting looked as if it were staged. I couldn't have asked for a better photo opportunity! Yes, but how to catch it on camera?"
In a hurry, he took the picture from the building on the other side of the street. He placed himself at the end of the halfway so that the reflection from the lens wouldn't capture the attention of the soldiers.
2. Pork food stamps
Ration stamps for sugar were introduced on August 12th, 1976. Meat was distributed only through food stamps from 1981. Nine standards regulated the complicated system of distribution. Who, when and how much depended on age and profession. Food stamps were not used as a substitute for money, but rather as a tool to control in which quantity people were allowed to purchase the items in highest demand: meat, sugar, alcohol.
Since these items rapidly sold out, virtually everyone relied on the black market to supplement their purchases. Unofficial sellers would often travel to flats and factories. The habit was so widespread that it was nearly impossible to eradicate or penalize.
3. Distilled spirits made in the basement
Food stores were practically empty. The only thing of which there was seldom a lack was vodka. Profits from the sale of spirits were an important source of income for the country. With high sales, a stagnating economy and a decrease in other sources of income, in 1980, record alcohol sales reached 14% of the budget. Wine and beer were only rarely available. When the ration stamps for vodka did run out, Poles made bimber, a home-distilled alcohol, out of sugar, grain, or potatoes.
4. Product-free stores
"Most stores were small, with one salesperson. The product range was limited, there were only the basic products (one type of bread, buns and baguettes). There were also characteristic months when there were so few products that everything disappeared instantaneously. Only vinegar was left. There was always vinegar" - says the author of Stores in the Polish People's Republic in an interview with Karolina Szamańska.
5. 120% of the norm
Vistula is one of the factories which thrived under communism as well as after the transition, and exists to this day. Massive production halls, the monotony of the work, reaching the quotas – Niedenthal expresses all of this in one picture.
6. Hundreds of kilometres from God
Religious rituals helped Polish society stay connected and cultivated the national spirit. Young Poles often took part in pilgrimages, going on foot to places of particular significance to Polish Catholicism, for example, to the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.
7. Carp every day and on holidays
"Carp as an important dish for Christmas Eve is a recent custom", says Jan Łoziński, co-author of The History of Polish Taste. Cuisine, the Table and Customs in an interview for Polish Radio. "It was once one of the many different fish dishes served on Christmas Eve. It gained popularity when it turned out to be the easiest fish to raise."
8. Urban (im)perfections
Centralised urban planning had many "holes". In Wrocław, a woman walks in front of two ruined town houses – an image of the urban failure of the Polish People's Republic and an example of Niedenthal's excellently framed photographic constructions.
"I run away from people. I don't want to be a part of a group, I want to be alone. I could never fit in, I would ruin the fun for the others. I like to look at what is happening in the front from the back" – confesses Chris Niedenthal.
While searching for oil in Karlino (western Pomerania) in December 1980, a fire broke out. A rumour went around saying that it was a ploy by the authorities to distract Poles and people outside of Poland from the activities of Solidarity.
10. Lech Wałęsa - the electrician turned national leader
"I was going through boxes and came across a photo that had been lying there for 30 years. I was invited over there for breakfast, Lech was getting ready for work, we were supposed to go to the new offices of Solidarity, he put on his coat, he gave his wife a kiss, and his mother-in-law was walking around in the back with a cup of tea in one hand and a sandwich in the other – that moment is starting to come back to me, but I didn't remember it. I was really happy to have found that picture. A moment of tenderness of a very important person"– says Chris Niedenthal in an interview for Gazeta Wyborcza.
For more on Chris Niedenthal, watch this short film about him made by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
Sources: "Chris Niedenthal. Wybrane fotografie 1973-1989" BOSZ, Chri Niedenthal "Zawód: Fotograf", Jan Łoziński "Historia polskiego smaku. Kuchnia, stół i obyczaje", Gazeta Wyborcza, Polskie Radio, materiały własne, blog Piotra Sarzyńskiego "Wrzask w przestrzeni", Karolina Szamańska "Sklepy w czasach PRL"
Author: Dagmara Staga, translator: MJ 31/10/2014