Witold Krassowski's photobook is a rare example of a successful and formally consistent recapitulation of many years of photographic work which was not initially planned as a project.
Krassowski documented the heroic phase of the political transformation that followed the dismantling of socialism in Poland in 1989. Even though the book was published in 2009, the pictures collected within were taken between 1989 and 1997. They are organized into fourteen thematic chapters, each containing six to nine photographs. The individual chapters – each of which is preceded by a journalistic introduction written by Sławomir Mizerski – reference press photo reportage and recount selected fragments of the dynamically changing reality: politics, the migration of Roma people to Poland, state agricultural farms, the disco polo culture, the Miss Polonia pageants. This reference to the convention of photo reportage becomes all the more interesting in light of the fact that this photographic genre also fell victim to the transformation – the changes in the press industry and the new technologies and philosophies of digital media.
Krassowski, then, presents the life of the Polish countryfolk and elites by borrowing the formal language of the previous social and cultural era. He ruthlessly clashes the noble black and white humanist photo reportage, associated with such figures as Henri Cartier-Bresson, with the brutal reality of the first years of capitalism in Poland. This technique could also be associated with the tradition of the so-called black reportage, reaching back to the late 1970s. Krassowski is close to the grotesque, which shows for instance in his pictures of the high life, photographed with a strong dose of irony worthy of Martin Parr. In his critique of the social order, Krassowski also does not spare the common, impoverished people nor the workers from the state farm villages. The photographer acts as a participating observer and is at the same time incredibly distanced from the events and the political and economic changes that are unveiling before him.
Poland in the first half of the 1990s, as seen through Krassowski's lens, at times resembles the Polish People's Republic from the 1980s, with an added superficial layer of advertisements and commerce. For the photographer, these two worlds naturally merge. The social divisions, political conflicts, and the Solidarność demonstrations testify to the continuance of the transformation. From today's perspective, especially appealing are the faces sensitively photographed by Krassowski which pose a fine counterpoint to the mugs of politicians from the front pages of newspapers, former money changers, and businesspeople working their way up. The book – coherent, but nevertheless diverse – features, apart from observed everyday scenes and the aforementioned portraits, powerful, graphic, and symbolic shots of Polish landscapes, fields, and crossroads – devoid, however, of pathos. Krassowski's book presents dense photographs and formulates a group portrait of a society at a time of change. Its strength is telling a story face to face, in close, physical contact with people – in the street, at a state farm, in a subway. It is prosaic and mundane, and yet poignant.
The photographs, adequately saturated with black, look great in the large album format. The bold, contrasting juxtapositions of the spreads emphasize the scale of social sentiments and increasing inequalities (the only shortcoming of the graphic design is the weak, illegible typography). Krassowski's Powidoki z Polski (Afterimages of Poland) is one of the most interesting and daring Polish books devoted to the transformation. It is free of the emptiness and melancholy which appear in other photobooks that touch on the same subject, but focus on the material attributes of the transformation (like in the case of Wojciech Prażmowski's Biało-czerwono-czarna/White, Red, and Black). Instead, there is ambivalence found in people's faces. The portrait of a crying, elderly man selected as the cover image works well as an opening, but also as an appealing closure to the whole – it confirms the ambiguity of the processes taking place, as well as the joy, despair, sorrow, and nostalgia accompanying them.
photographs: Witold Krassowski
texts: Sławomir Mizerski, Thomas Urban, Jacek Żakowski
graphic design: Honorata Karapuda
publisher: EKpictures, Warsaw
year of publication: 2009
volume: 224 pages
format: 31.5 x 24 cm
cover: paperback, glue bound
print run: unknown
Original text: polishphotobook.tumblr.com
, transl. Ania Micińska, July 2015