Born in Astašyn (Grodno Region, Belarus) in 1876, died in 1950 in Giżycko, Poland. A prominent photographer, theoretician, critic and journalist, hailed as the father of Polish photography. He was an opponent of the so-called new photography and avant-garde photography.
A prominent photographer, theoretician, critic and journalist.
He started being active as a photographer already ca. 1905. Later on (1912), he practiced at the studio of the well-known photographer Hugo Erfurth. Between 1912-19, he specialized in documenting the architecture of Vilnius (at the time located within Polish borders), and later other cities in Poland (e.g. Warsaw, Lublin), surpassing the typical visual document cataloguing method, and occasionally deliberately inclining towards an abstract image (he created 158 albums in total, including Poland in the Photographs of Jan Bułhak / Polska w obrazach fotograficznych Jana Bułhaka).
In 1919-1939, he worked as a pedagogue. He was the head of the Department of Artistic Photography at the Fine Art Faculty of the Stefan Batory University in Vilnius. During 1920s, he was animating the photographic scene in Poland: he was one of the co-founders and the president of the Vilnius Photo Club (1928) and Polish Photo Club, and after the World War Two – of the Union of Polish Photographers (1947), which in 1952 was re-named as the Union of Artist Photographers of Poland (ZPAF).
He used alternative photographic techniques, such as gum printing and bromography. He created touching portraits and symbolic landscapes, as well as photographed the peasants, continuing the tradition of the 19th century studio photography. He wrote about the art of photography:
We look for the ideal in painting and for models in graphic printing.
Majority of Bułhak's works (including landscapes, images of architectural landmarks, portraits) burnt during the Second World War.
Bułhak was a good friend of Ferdynand Ruszczyc, a Symbolist painter, whose views and artistic activity largely influenced his photography. In 1930s he was a proponent of the concept of national photography – its goal was to accentuate Polish national identity and character. At that time, Bułhak, just like several other pictorialists in Poland, acquired some compositional techniques from the modernist “new photography.” He was also an amateur of pictorialist photography akin to that represented by the Photo Club de Paris, however sought to adapt it to the Polish specifics and tradition.
He was one of the major Polish artist photographers – he largely contributed to the development of photography in the country during the interwar and postwar period.
Bułhak wrote a number of articles and books on the aesthetics and techniques of photography, as well as tourist photography: Fotografika (1930), Bromide Technique (Technika bromowa, 1933), Aesthetics of Light (Estetyka światła, 1936), and National Photography (Fotografia ojczysta, 1951), which was an attempt to adapt the interwar concept of photography to socialist policies. It may be said that, after the WWII, the only continuator of Bułhak's creative and ideological output was Tadeusz Wański. Paradoxically, the ideas behind pictorialism, deriving from the upper social class, constituted one of the three fundamental currents of socialist realism (1949-1955).
After the Second World War, he took photographs of the destroyed Warsaw (displayed at the National Museum in 1946) and of the Recovered Territories (e.g. Wrocław). He participated in the exhibition titled Modern Polish Fotografika (Nowoczesna fotografika polska, 1948) where he showed his abstract pieces.
His photographs can be found in the collections of the National Museum in Warsaw, National Museum in Wrocław, Museum of History of Photography in Kraków, Łódź Art Museum, the National Library in Warsaw, etc.
Author: Krzysztof Jurecki, Łódź Art Museum, March 2004, transl. Ania Micińska, April 2015