Krzysztof Gierałtowski is one of the most important representatives of the Polish school of photography. A brilliant interpreter of human faces, he captures his models in a very insightful, visionary way.
Life and Work
He was born on 10th August 1938 in Warsaw. He studied at the Medical Academy in Gdańsk and Warsaw (1956-1958 and 1958-1960 respectively), and in the National Film School in Łódź (1961-1964). He’s been taking photos since 1961, and his first exhibition took place in 1963. At first, he worked for the press and publishers, for whom he took photos of fashion exhibitions and advertisements, and he was also the author of several reportages from industrial plants and workplaces. From 1967 to 1973 he worked for the journal Ty i Ja, and from 1971 to 1972 for Perspektywy. Later, from 1977 he worked for the weekly paper Razem for a year, and after that he moved on to ITD, where he stayed until 1981. He was a member of the artistic board of the quarterly 6x9 Fotografia from 1991, and later, in 1994, he began working with Twój Styl. Also, ever since 1996, he’s been in charge of the Gierałtowski Gallery/Studio. Apart from his work and photography in Poland, he also worked on several ad campaigns all around Western Europe.
He founded and was part of the jury of several Polish photography competitions: Szansa, organised by Foto magazine, and Wielka Szansa, sponsored by Gazeta Wyborcza. He is the author of the collection Polacy, Portrety Współczesne, which includes over 80 thousand negatives. His have works appeared on many individual and group exhibitions throughout Poland and the world. His photos of the Polish middle class are also readily used by foreign ad agencies in their social and ad campaigns, and in a album 1998 called Krzysztof Gierałtowski: Portrety (Krzysztof Gierałtowski: Portraits). Moreover, a movie Polacy, Polacy, was released by TVP2, directed by Borys Lankosz, in which Gierałtowski is shown while working on his portraits of Wisława Szymborska, Stanisław Lem, and Krzysztof Penderecki. He also talks about his work, or, while enacting the role of Stańczyk, about modern times.
Krzysztof Gierałtowski is a member of the Association of Polish Art Photographers, the ZAIKS Association of Authors, and the DGPh German Photographers Association. He has received scholarships from the French government, the USA Information Agency, and the Dutch Ministry of Culture, as well as its Polish counterpart.
For over 30 years now Geriałtowski has been taking photos of famous Polish scientists, politicians, culture creators, and intelligensia. In his works you can see that he is particularly interested in his models’ personality. He tries to place his subjects in an environment familiar to them, somehow connected to their habits and interests. The theatrical effect in his works is often created by overexaggeration, staging strange situations that the models are thrown in. In an interview he says:
My photographs of people stem from curiosity and a need to play, to interact with the famous people of today. My portraits are very subjective, I try to choose one trait of my models and build upon it, visualise it. I photograph everyone in the way that I see fit. I’m always questioning my choice of people, their photos and opinions that I have of them.
The products of his work are always one of a kind and extremely interesting. Through glances and slight changes in facial expressions their deeper feeling and concerns, their moods and dreams are revealed. Witold Lutosławski’s portrait emanates concentration, something characteristic for the work of this excellent composer and conductor. Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, a renowned actor, is portrayed with a carnival death mask covering his face, Krystyna Janda is shown screaming in pain, as expressive as remembered from her cinematic creations. Maja Komorowska is shown in some kind of trance, with her eyes set on some unnerving scene that is not in our view, Magdalena Abramowicz, the famed sculptress, is deep in thought, confined within herself. Krzysztof Kieślowski is in a film frame, with half-closed eyes, looking steadfastly into the future, Adam Ważyk – a poet – jovially smiling, not taking himself too seriously, while Prof. Wiktor Dega’s face is in agony, showing the feeling of the patients before this world-renowned surgeon helps them. What’s interesting is that not every portrait has a face in it. For example, Józef Czapski, painter and writer who was forced to emigrate is envisaged with a picture of his hands. Ryszard Kapuściński, journalist and writer, once wrote about the photographer in the catalogue for the exhibition Gierałtowski: Portrety Subiektywne:
He is one among very few in Poland, even all around the world, who are that consciously and passionately committed to portraits. The human being is his only passion, but not the human being in relation to others, but in relation to oneself, interesting on one’s own. This human fills the whole picture, everything else, landscape, architecture, masses of people, would only steal attention from the subjects, and thus weaken our ability to get to know Gierałtowski’s models. The portraitist’s calling is the search of truth is the faces that are captured. The one on the surface, but, more importantly, the deeper, more mysterious one, the one that stems from the inside. This truth is enclosed in the gaze, facial expression, facial features. The ability to uncover it is the real measure of a photographer’s talent, as each portrait is like reading a book in foreign language. Art, also Gierałtowski’s art, is a search. His portrait cycles are not a closed whole, they keep changing with time, some faces disappear and are replaced with others. These cycles are a real, living society that is constantly verified by its creator. There is only one criterion of this verification – a search for inner truth and revealing it in appropriate form, the form that is able to strengthen the message and expression of the portrait.
Gierałtowski does not portray just anyone. He is a brilliant portraitist of brilliant Poles. I appreciate him for a number of reasons: his passion for seeking, his need to go further, reach the borders of danger, get to the verge. I admire that he is true to his subject and I appreciate his formal experimentation. Here I have to mention a few of his outstanding portraits, that of Henryk Stażewski, Andrzej Wajda and Leopold Buczkowski. Stażewski's face is almost completely hidden in darkness, with only a small part of his face illuminated by a sunbeam. Wajda is also in the dark, but this darkness is pierced by a soft, warm light that reveals his profile. Buczkowski is covered is cigarette smoke, which distorts linear light, making it vibrate and bend. Sometimes these experiments are pushed really far, as far as deleting the subject whatsoever. The face of Erwin Axer in hidden behind a glass ball, while Krzysztof Jasiński is covered with old newspapers. We nave to take the author for granted and believe that these really are Axer and Jasiński.
For many years Krzysztof Gierałtowski photographed in black and white, but he has recently started to experiment with colour, which in his compositions is often very intensive, saturated and energising, which helps the artist create further iterations of portraits of his contemporary artists. He reveals:
Everyone has eyes, a mouth, a nose, but only a frown, glimmer in the eye, face structure, appearance of some magical item, captured in a photo and connected with the camera angle, perspective, frame, lightning and colour enable the creation of a subjective portrait. It doesn’t aim at the objective truth, it is rather an impression of an engaged photographer. The fight between the photographer and the model, about how much of each is in the portrait is the key.
In his never-ending search for the definitive portrait formula, Krzysztof Gierłatowski still considers gaze, expression, pose, gestures and situations and circumstances to be the most important.
Exhibitions, albums and awards
In 2009 a portfolio of Gierałtowski's works was released, entitled Indywidualności Polskie (Polish Individuals). The publication, published by Museum of the History of Photography in Kraków, consists of 44 works of the artist from between 1972 and 1995. It also involves artist’s commentary in four languages: Polish, English, German and French.
In September 2013 a new exhibition Portret Bez Twarzy (Portrait without a Face) which summed up the output of the photographer was inaugurated in the Royal Castle in Warsaw. The exposition of 150 photos later visited the National Museum in Wrocław, the Museum of the History of Photography in Kraków, the Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions in Rzeszów, the National Museum in Lvov, and Mościce Art Centre in Tarnów.
Ring, an exhibition in the Znaki Czasu Centre of Contemporary Arts in Toruń which opened in 2015, was a collection of his works from years 1975 to 1985. In 2015, the exhibition Remake was opened in Ney Gallery&Prints, which presented portraits of artists from Russia, East Germany, Poland, and the Netherlands taken in the autumn of 1990 during the Passage Oost – Europa festival. The photographer commented on the exhibition saying:
In Poland there are no more festivals like that, no more people like that, they lost the war with Coca-Cola and beer events, and that's why we arranged this remake, to remind people. Because of Monika Ney’s invitation I am able to show these photos 25 years later in Poland. Today, in the days of wild Polish capitalism, nobody, apart from celebrities who don’t interest me, is interested in portraits, which leads to the disappearance of the memory of who we really are.
In 2007 Gierałtowski received the Zasłużony Kulturze Gloria Artis silver medal from the Ministry of Culture, in 2011 he received a Cyprian Kamil Norwid award, and in 2013 he was awarded the annual visual arts award from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage. In 2014 he received the Order of Polonia Restituta from the Polish president, and the honorary Bene Merito badge from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for strengthening the position of Poland on an international level.
A list of all the awards the artist has received can be found on his website.
Author: Jerzy Brukwicki, April 2004, updated by NS, February 2017. Translated by AS, February 2017