The Dream Warsaw of the 50s and 60s
#travel in poland
small, The Dream Warsaw of the 50s and 60s, Warsaw, 1965. Bird’s eye-view of the city, Juliana Marchlewskiego Street (presently Jana Pawła II Avenue), at the intersection with Karola Świerczewsk, 1_sizb_240612_02_maly.jpg
A special photographic exhibition entitled The Dream of the City: Warsaw of the 50s and 60s in Zbyszko Siemaszko’s Photography from the Forum Agency archives is on display at Ks. Jan Twardowski Square in Warsaw.
Originally from Vilnius, Zbyszko Siemaszko was a prominent photographer of Warsaw. He was strongly connected to the capital of Poland, producing a body of documentary works which depicted the post-war transformations of the city as well as the everyday life of its inhabitants. The exhibition was prepared for the 10th anniversary celebrations of the History Meeting House (Dom Spotkań z Historią), an urban institution devoted to promulgating the history of 20th-century Warsaw. History Meeting House also promotes the artistic heritage of both Polish and international photographers and reporters.
The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with the FORUM Polish Photographers’ Agency. It honours Zbyszko Siemaszko, whose work has an important place in the history of post-war Polish photography. The curators of the exhibition are Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner from the History Meeting House and Krzysztof Wójcik from the FORUM Agency. Apart from the photographs, special materials prepared by Varsavianist scholar, Jerzy S. Majewski, also accompany the exhibition.
Siemaszko photographed Warsaw at a time when its post-war reconstruction took on a head-spinning pace, and a new burst of energy was felt after the end of the Stalinist era. The Warsaw that he depicts is a dynamic place, and a city awakening to its new life. His subject choice and deliberate aesthetisation make up a specific vision of the capital in the 50s and 60s, one which is very attractive and appealing from today’s perspective. Katarzyna Madoń-Mitzner, the co-curator of the exhibition from the History Meeting House, commented:
We were fascinated by the photos of architecture taken from up above, with a great depth of field, views which were often panoramic and which depict Warsaw of the 50s and 60s in an extraordinary way. Although everything seems to be as we know it – the buildings, the streets, the city’s squares, churches, train stations and shops… still, the artist creates his own telling vision from all these elements. The selection of photographs that we proposed to display shows just how much documentary photography is something creative, what great powers it has of creating illusions as well as messages of propaganda, albeit its indirect kind. Even if it only focuses on architecture and urban planning. After all, in the 50s and 60s, the city depicted by Siemaszko must have looked different in everyday life – devoid of both the splendour and the unique light which illuminates mundane Warsaw life in his photographs. Siemaszko depicted a capital which none of its inhabitants of the period could remember, even if they were very familiar with the specific locations he portrayed. It is an idealised image. A dream about a metropolis of the era, about a new city which grew on the rubble of the old one.
The photographs concentrate on modern architecture, the topic Siemaszko took up in a reportage series for the Stolica weekly. His images depict new districts, modernist buildings, newly opened cafes and shops as well as the growingly abundant neons, cars and buses, and apartment and shop interiors with elements of design of a kind which is now again gaining new popularity. Some of the portrayed locations are Plac Konstytucji square, the Muranów housing area, Centralny Dom Towarowy, Supersam, Dworzec Gdański railway station, building of the stations on the suburban no. 1 train line, including the Warsawa Powiśle stop, and the glass pavillions at the crossing of Marszałkowska Street and Jerozolimskie Avenue.
To ensure the best effect, the photographer searched for the best take, he waited for the right light, and changed perspectives as he climbed onto the roofs of buildings with his medium format camera. Sometimes he would shoot from a crane or an aeroplane. According to Krzysztof Wójcik, the photographer and co-curator of the exhibiton from the FORUM Agency:
Many of those who look at the now dated photographs by Siemaszko underscore the extraordinary light that emanates from them, a special aura surrounding his depictions of the city. Others ask about the tricks he used to obtain such an effect, in an era when Photoshop did not exist. But there is really no secret here, perhaps apart from the yellow filter which made the sky darker while lighting up other areas on the photograph. Zbyszko had a talent granted by God, but he was also a prominent professional, who continued the best traditions of the pre-war craft. Thanks to the tripod, which was indispensible back then, he composed his shots with great precision. He knew what time of day to choose and where to set his camera up. He selected his optics. He was patient. He waited for the light. Just that – and as much as that.
Apart from architecture, the photographs of Siemaszko portray people in their everyday activities – on their way to work, taking a rest, frequenting trendy nightspots, and moving along wide, clean avenues. In an introduction to the album which accompanies the exhibition, Jerzy Majewski comments:
People play the role of staffage, like the little figures in Canaletto’s landscapes. They crowd the sidewalks, they walk around housing areas with children in prams, they wait at the bus stop or at the train station. As he was fascinated with the dynamics of movement and haste, Siemaszko liked to take pictures of crowds of people seen from above. The streets are animated with cars. And it’s not only those produced in Poland or other peoples’ democracy countries, but also Western vehicles of fashionable form. Warsaw seems to be a cosmpolitan city in these images, although it really was not.
An interesting element that adds on to the exhibition is the series of contemporary photographs by Wojciech Kryński, images of the same places that Siemaszko shot. They can be viewed by scanning QR codes. An 180-page-long album in Polish and English also accompanies the exhibition.
The Dream of the City
charm of warsaw
Zbyszko Siemaszko was born on 30th August, 1925, in Vilnius to a family of photographers. His parents Leonard and Tatiana ran a photographic studio together. During the war, Siemaszko was part of the 3rd Vilnius Brigade of the National Army, where he used the pseudonym Swojak. In 1945, he arrived in Poland as part of the repatriation. He lived in Bydgoszcz and in Katowice, where he went to high school and worked as a photographic reporter for the Odra weekly. He completed his university studies at the SGPiS economic school in Warsaw. In 1949 he took up work at the Capital City Construction Enterprise, documentating the capital’s new buildings. From 1951 he was member of the ZPAF Polish Photographic Artists’ Association. Between 1951 and 1953 he documented the reconstruction of the city for the State Enterprise for Conservation of Monumental Architecture. In 1953, he began his cooperation with the Stolica weekly, and three years later he had a regular post at the paper. Between 1969-1990 he was a photographic journalist for the Perspektywy weekly. He died in 2015. The family tradition of photography is now being continued by the late artist’s son, Maciej Siemaszko, who runs a photographic studio called ‘Siemaszko Family PHOTOGRAPHY, est. 1919’, on Narutowicza Square together with his wife Jolanta. The collection of Zbyszko Siemaszko’s negatives is part of the FORUM Agency collection, as well as the National Digital Archives. Zbyszko Siemaszko died in 2015, aged 89.
Organisers: Dom Spotkań z Historią, FORUM Polish Photographers’ Agency
Patronage of the exhibition: Związek Polskich Artystów Fotografików, Ośrodek KARTA, Polskie Radio,
fotoTAPETA, Newsweek HISTORIA, Architektura Murator, archirama.pl, dzieje.pl, Gazeta
Wyborcza, wyborcza.Warszawa.pl, co jest grane24.
The exhibition is co-financed by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
Source: Dom Spotkań z Historią, edited by AZ, translated by Paulina Schlosser, August 2016