A photographer known for his photographs of wartime Warsaw and inspired images of cultural life in post-war Poland and Germany. Born on May 24, 1929 in Warsaw.
During the war, as a teenager, he was a member of the Grey Ranks. He spent the Warsaw Uprising at Sadyba, a district of Warsaw, where he operated as a liaison. It was around this time when he became interested in photography. ‘I bought German illustrated magazines – Die Wermacht, Der Adler – about ground forces and aviation. There were excellent black-and-white war photos’, Rolke recalls.
So he went out and got his first camera, a Kodak BabyBox, which his mother managed to salvage from the destruction of the Uprising, knowing how important it was to the young Rolke. His earliest surviving photos – of a coachman on Kredytowa Street, where Rolke lived till the outbreak of the Uprising, a tank on a train platform in Józefów, outside of Warsaw – were shot in 1944.
After the fall of the Uprising he was sent to Germany as a gastarbeiter. There, for the first time, he clearly defined his life goals. The landlady, in whose house he worked, wasn't satisfied with his efficiency as a worker. When asked what he was going to do with his life as such a lazy and weak individual, he replied, ‘I will travel the world and take photos’. For the first time he stated his goal out loud. Frau Gensch expressed her opinion with little more than an ironic smirk.
Rolke managed to realise his dream, but it wasn't right away. After the war he studied Art History, first at the Catholic University in Lublin, then at the University of Warsaw. His studies were abruptly interrupted by his arrest in 1951. Rolke was imprisoned and accused of participating in the alleged Universalist Movement, said to have been run by Władysław Jaworski, author of Economic Universalism. The book – and likewise its author – was regarded as hostile towards the regime. Rolke recalled:
It turned out that I was on Jaworski's list and his notebook was seized. It was considered an illegal organisation. And this is how I found myself in prison.
Sentenced to 7 years for ‘participation to an illegal organisation and for keeping illegal materials from the embassy’, Rolke was released prematurely thanks to an amnesty. The ‘wolf ticket’ on his record barred him from continuing his education so he leaned once again in the direction of photography. He was hired as an employee of a photo-technical laboratory at the Polish Optical Works in Warsaw. In 1955 he was transferred to the Slide Workshop ul. Ogrodowa, where he worked as a photographer.
During this time he also began cooperating with popular press titles - Świat Młodych (World of the Youths) and Stolica (a magazine initially known as Skarpa, dedicated to the problems of rebuilding Warsaw). He was hired as a staff photographer at Stolica in 1956, responsible for documenting, among other things, the historic rally of Gomułka. He cooperated with this magazine till 1960, then moving to the Polska daily, where he joined fellow photographers Marek Holzman and Irena Jarosińska, as well as Eustachy Kossakowski, a close friend. He also collaborated with the Świat weekly and the monthly magazine Ty i Ja (You and Me). For Przekrój, published in Kraków at the time, he began shooting fashion spreads.
When photographing Aktion Sühnezeichen (Action Reconciliation) he met a German reverend named Daumann, who funded his educational journey around Germany. Meanwhile, the political crisis of 1968 sparked up in Poland. Rolke remembered:
I'd had enough of censorship, I had enough of March of '68, after which I wanted to leave right away but I was denied my passport, because I was already on a black list. And then my last hopes were shot down by the Intervention in Czechoslovakia.
In 1970 he decided to leave Poland and move to Germany, where he spent over ten years. He lived mainly in Hamburg, where the editorial offices of the most known magazines were based. He collaborated with many titles - Stern, Die Zeit, Der Spiegel. It was at this time that he made his most well-known series of photographs: Velgen, Sycylia / Sicily (1974-1975) and, most important, Fischmarkt / Fish Market. He brought a singular character to images about such diverse topics, such as a hippie commune outside of Hamburg, a typical German fish market and the relatively exotic island of southern Italy.
His oeuvre is very diverse, but perhaps closest to the atmosphere of reportages of Cartier-Bresson, which the artist himself admits. In a 2006 interview he said:
The most difficult genre is the photography of the moment. The master of it was Cartier-Bresson. Last year in Lublin I had a camera, but I was not alone and that makes photographing more challenging. Four people wearing coats walked right in front of me, they were very bourgeois. And each of them was eating something - some sandwiches or pies wrapped in paper. I didn't have the time to capture it. I lacked reflex. A photo walked past me. This is how I often think about the surrounding world. Is this some sort of obsession?
The ‘moment’ captured by Rolke's lens is often very humorous – like the snapshot from the Sicily series, where woman's head seems to be lying on a tray in the foreground (1974) or when a pig's head covers the face of a butcher at the Ukrainian market place (2003). His ease with the medium allows him to play with convention and bring new meanings and dimensions into each individual composition.
Rolke, following his divorce with his German wife, was lured back to Poland by the promise of a social and political revival in Poland associated with the beginnings of Solidarity. He began with increasing frequent visits to his homeland, working on material on the Solidarity Congress at the Warsaw Polytechnic for the German magazine Stern. During the time when many people were desperate to leave the People's Republic of Poland, he chose to go in the opposite direction. Soon after the introduction of Martial Law, he returned to Poland for good.
The day after I started visiting friends trying to figure out what happened. Not many people thought I was sane. I cared about them the most. The everyday people asked: why did you come back? But those few knew why.
Upon his return, he continued working for German magazines – Art and Brigitte in Hamburg. When he met Kora (famous Polish singer) he made album covers for her band Maanam. In the 90s he cooperated with Magazyn Gazety Wyborczej (a magazine insert of the Gazeta Wyborcza Daily) for a short period of time.
It all ended after a few commissions. They didn't really have a clear vision on how to run it all. I photographed Tomek Tatarczyk, Leon Tarasewicz, Edward Dwurnik.
It was ultimately Agora, publisher of the Gazeta daily, who bought the archive of his photographs.
In his works of this period, Rolke served a major role in documenting the art and music scene, creating a catalogue of images of a swiftly-changing culture. His works have been published in a number of comprehensive collections, including Tadeusz Rolke. Photographs 1944-2005, Warsaw-Frankfurt 2006; Kobieta to... / Woman Is... (Warsaw 2008) Tu byliśmy. Ostatnie ślady zaginionej kultury / We Were Here. The Last Traces of the Lost Culture (Warsaw 2008) and at multiple exhibits. His work has served as an inspiration for the young photographer and he often works closely with them to share his experience.
Adam Szymczyk also noticed that. In an article titled Planeta Rolke / Rolke's Planet he described Rolke as:
An artist from the dying line of photographers who believe in the value of photography as means of recording the moment of revelation. Intuitively and aptly he always finds himself there, where the planets align and capture it on film. Thanks to such people miracles still happen, and the human memory exists solely so that there is something to forget. Without him we would be living in the eternal and perfect translucent present, like on TV.
Rolke's photographic archive constitutes 60 years of Polish and European history. He photographed Warsaw in ruins and its reconstruction (for instance the picture of the silhouette of the Palace of Culture and Science rising over the rubble), anti-communist rallies, the changes after 1989. He managed to capture the changing everyday life. Such were the covers or photo-essays for Stolica - images of the grey streets of Warsaw in the 80s. He also played a special part as a photographer of the artistic life, much like his friend Eustachy Kossakowski. Both are associated mainly with the circles of the Galeria Foksal in Warsaw and both left Poland around the same time. As Anka Ptaszkowska, the wife of Kossakowski and the co-founder of the Foksal Gallery has said,
All of the ephemeral happenings of the Galeria Foksal would be lost for history of art if it weren't for the presence of Eustachy Kossakowski and Tadeusz Rolke in our group - two fully engaged photographers who participated in all of the events. The photographic documentation they are authors of, doesn't only hold a inestimable historic worth but also equal artistic value. At the time we didn't understand it, treating their work in a strictly utilitarian way.
Rolke photographed, among others, the creative activities of Tadeusz Kantor, exhibitions of the Foksal Gallery, collaborated with Edward Krasiński. But his pictures also immortalised artistic events, audiences, vernissages, artists. He specialised in photo reportages and photographs of artists and works of art for magazines – this his why his archive contains Artur Rubinstein, Alina Szapocznikow, Włodzimierz Borowski (the famous photo from the VIII Syncretic Show), Jonasz Stern, and Nikifor, and Joseph Beuys in his requisite fur coat. His is the the ironic picture depicting museum goers looking at Tadeusz Kantor's painting - an empty canvas with only a mark where a pigeon sat and defecated.
Between the 70s and 80s he intended to publish a book by Erich Fromm O sztuce miłości / About the Art of Love illustrated with photographs from his archive. According to Rolke, the book contains ‘a hypothesis that love is a form of art which is not simply a given and which needs to be exercised as long as one lives’. Recurring motifs of his works are couples in love, like the one from Palermo, captured in 1974, kissing in the catacombs, with dried bodies in the background. Another significant topic returning all these years are women – from fashion photography and portraits through nudes, such as his Ślady / Traces series.
At the end of the '90s Rolke took an interest in the legacy of Jews in Poland and the problem of the void left following the Holocaust. He documents places where they used to live, where traces of the culture still exist. ‘I look for these places. I make cutouts from this reality, I remove the attributes of the present, those TV antennas, those cars parked everywhere’, he explains.
Adam Szymczyk has said that for Rolke photography is way of describing the world and his choice of objects is not incidental. Szymczyk wrote:
He gladly photographed actors, mimes, puppeteers, puppets, their exhibits and happenings, works of art in the home surroundings, street sellers, their exhibits and happenings. He was instinctively and deeply interested in the rhetorics of portraying reality with artificial situations and made-up not natural societies. He penetrated communes, theatre troupes, he examined the human comedy in the half-lit shady clubs, he observed but also often submerged himself in each situation.
Tadeusz Rolke currently lives and works in Warsaw. He is a lecturer at the Department of Journalism of the University of Warsaw. He is the co-founder of the edition.fotoTAPETA publishing house. In 2009 he was honoured with the Golden Medal Gloria Artis.
Piotr Stasik's 2013 documentary A Diary of a Journey follows Rolke on a trip across Poland during which he reflects on his life, passes on his wisdom to a 15-year-old apprentice and reveals his never-ending curiosity and need to create.
The Modern Art Museum in Warsaw made photographs from the Tadeusz Rolke collection available at artmuseum.pl from 31st March, 2014. An initial set of four thousand photographs is available at the Internet Artists Archive.
Selected individual exhibitions:
- 1997 - Fotografowałem lata sześćdziesiąte i nie tylko... / I Photographed the '60s and Then Some..., Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw and at the Union of Lithuanian Art Photographers, Vilnius, Lithuania
- 2000 - Polish Cultural Institute, Bratislava
- 2004 - Rozproszenie / Dispersion, Galeria Artemis, Kraków (within the framework of the Photomonth Kraków)
- 2009 - Everything is Photography, Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw
- 2010 - Wir waren hier / We Were Here - Der Ort, Berlin, Germany
- 2011 - Everything is Photography, Mykolas Žilinská Gallery, Kaunas, Lithuania
- 2013 - Studio Rolke, MOCAK, Kraków