Jerzy Kośnik is a photographer who took nudes and portraits of film stars, as well as photograpic chronicles of the Polish democratic opposition in the 1980s.
Photographer, author of nudes, film stars’ portraits, as well as photo chronicles of Polish democratic opposition from 1980s.
His first reportage photos were taken quite by accident. In March 1968, Jerzy Kośnik, equipped with his new 6x6 camera and only one black-and-white roll of film (with just 12 shots), was at the Warsaw Institute of Technology, where a student protest was taking place.
I was extremely excited about my new camera, so I just captured something that I was witnessing, without any deeper meaning. I was only 18 and quite lost in all political matters. However, even then I knew where I stood. When I went home and showed off my snaps, my father, a hardcore supporter of the Polish Peoples’ Republic, got… quite enraged.
Kośnik studied sociology at the University of Warsaw, which was quite lacking in intellectuals after March 1968. The artists stresses:
I got my education on the Remont Riviera rather than at the university, really. In the 1970s, that was the place where all the intellectual and artistic activity took place. It was there, in Kwant Film Club, that I first got acquainted with the world of cinematography. It was there that the Polish premiere of Antonini’s Blow-Up took place. This is the movie that convinced me to become a photographer.
Nicholson and Solidarność
His fascination with the world of cinema led Krośnik to work with Film magazine from 1977, which, in turn, resulted in his 21 visits to the Cannes Festival. And even though his photos were readily used by the editors of Film, as well as other magazines, nobody funded his ventures to the French Riviera. Krośnik comments:
Luckily, in the early 1980s once you said ‘Solidarność’ in the West, every door and heart was open to you. After Andrzej Wajda received the Palme d’Or in 1981, the atmosphere at the festival was incredible, not like any festival I’ve ever been to up to this day. One day I stumbled upon a press conference with Jack Nicholson. I asked if he liked Solidarność. He did. He took a pin from me and stuck it on his lapel, while giving one of his trademark slick smirks.
The photographer came back to Poland enthusiastic and fulfilled, counting on praise and the front page for his one-of-a-kind photo of Nicholson. However, back in Poland he met with bitter disappointment. The editor, a scared conformist, didn’t want to hear a word of the photo being published. ‘he started shouting and insinuating that I was completely out of my mind, ‘ mentions Kośnik.
Fortunately, the photo wasn’t forgotten there. It became quite a hit within photographic circles and soon Polityka was at the photographer’s door to acquire it. Nicholson, thanks to Zygmunt Kałużyński’s influence, finally appeared on the front page.
Endangering National Security
Kośnik’s nudes didn’t bring him so much publicity, however, with time they became his main form of artistic expression. He began taking them back in 1967:
To be precise, on 1 May 1967. Together with my friend, we skipped the 1 May Parade. She had a Zorka camera with her, a gift from her father to take pictures of the party leaders. We didn’t really care much for the leaders, the weather was beautiful, so we went to Urle, around 50 kilometres from Warsaw, the place where I usually spent my summer holidays. There, we went for a naked swim in a river, and also there I took my first nudes, of my friend, with her father’s camera…
In the Polish People’s Republic, the censors considered nudes on par with pornography, and pornography was for capitalists. That meant that nude photos had quite a hard time finding their place in the Polish reality. One of the few magazines brave enough to publish such photos was Perspektywy, and even better, Perspektywy paid quite well for such photos – 800zł, when the typical monthly wage was 1200zł. The shots were allowed to be published in a competition – each time the editors’ board chose one from the all submissions.
Sending a photo in was, in my case, quite a financial risk, as I had to invest in high-quality film from Pewex. Fortunately, it didn’t come to nothing, as my first photo was publish after only 3 weeks of trying.
However, not everyone liked the idea of nudes being published in Perspektywy:
I remember one day when a letter from the Main Political Board of the Polish People’s Military came. They forbade all photographers from sending in and publishing nudes with the genital area visible, as masturbation in the military had become so widespread that it ‘endangered cadets’ training regimes’. Consequently, nudes started opting for strange, unnatural poses. And, of course, butts.
5 thousand dollars!
Kośnik lost his job at Film after martial law was declared. He didn’t really have to worry too much though, as he was hired almost instantly by the French agency Gamma. He was to photograph everything he could – demonstrations, protests, fights with the police, everyday life, but, most importantly – the life of the opposition. As early as the Solidarność festival, when regional structures were being established, he volunteered in the Masovia area as a photographer in order to be as close as possible to all the events connected to the movement. In the martial law period, he photographed all the protests organised by the then-illegal Solidarność until the end of the 1980s.
I gave my pictures to Gamma via the French Embassy, which was quite an unnerving undertaking. The police were used to searching everyone even approaching the embassies of Western countries. They also sometimes conducted house searches, and, most often, destroyed cameras during protests. However, this practice was foreseen by Gamma, who gave me a Nikkormat camera: a bulky, incredibly heavy piece of equipment made especially for war reporters. During one of the protests a Security Service member threw it down the staircase where I was hidden. It barely got scratched.
After a year of such a work, Kośnik finally went to Paris, to get money from the bank where the agency had opened an account for him. It turned out that he’d amassed 5 thousand dollars – the equivalent of around 250 average yearly Polish wages.
Of course, the photos with the highest demand were those of Lech Wałęsa. Photographers went to Gdańsk after even the slightest hint of him doing or saying something important.
When he received a Nobel Prize the whole country was celebrating. It was a breakthrough that awakened us from depression and slumber. This prize, we felt, was for all of us, for each of the 10 million people that had joined Solidarność.
‘Pacuła called in the middle of the night’
Throughout the 1980s, Kośnik was still working on his nudes. Even though he had nowhere to publish them, his exhibitions organised by various students’ clubs met with high attendance. The situation changed drastically after the transformation in 1989, when one after another different erotic magazines started appearing. He started working for magazines such as Plejtboj, for whom he photographed, among others, Ewa Sałacka. One of his favourite models was Joanna Pacuła:
She sometimes called me at midnight, saying: ‘You know, I’m at some boring banquet, get you ass here, bring a six-pack and a camera and we’ll take some photos’. Sure, most of the photos taken during these alcoholic sessions landed in the rubbish, but some of them are really dear to me, especially the one where Joasia is wearing my sock with the number 34 on them.
Among the stars that Kośnik photographed you can find such names as Jim Jarmusch, Anna Dymna, Richard Gere, Janusz Gajos, Nastassja Kinski, Roger Moore, John Travolta, Krzysztof Kieślowski, Grace Jones, and many more. His nude of Anna Dymna from 1979 was included in Jerzy Lewczyński’s list of Best 100 Polish photographs, and his photo of Joanna Janikowska taken in Cannes in 1995 for Playboy appeared in Playboy’s album 100 Most Beautiful Girls in the World.
Author: Krzysztof Miękus, April 2017. Translated by AS