In this sense, the album is an interpretation and an artistic and historical study, and at the same time a trailblazing catalogue of photographic works by Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. The book, containing an introduction followed by 383 black and white and 18 colour photographs with detailed descriptions, presents mostly previously unpublished photographs and, moreover, displays them as autonomous works that are as interesting as, say, Witkacy's painting activity. In this way, Franczak and Okołowicz invent an author of key importance to Polish photography.
Przeciw nicości is the result of cutting-edge work done on the archive left behind by the writer, painter, and philosopher Witkacy. The archival, research, and – as we would say nowadays – curatorial work was carried out by Stefan Okołowicz and Ewa Franczak, who became the custodians of a large part of the artist's archive. The second half of the archive went to the Tatra Museum (the album combines photographs from both sources). As the first book presenting the photographic archive of the artist, Przeciw nicości carries a charm and innocence which are unfortunately unattainable to the contemporary Witkacy researchers. The methodological issues were still quite straightforward at the time and started complicating later on, becoming the life pursuit of, chiefly, Stefan Okołowicz, a photographer and artist, and author of numerous texts, editions, and exhibitions devoted to the author of Pożegnanie jesieni (Farewell to Autumn).
The book seems to have a classic, album-like form, however, the material contained within is diverse in theme and genre, exceeds the framework of a conventional monograph, and gravitates towards a more freely directed photobook. It begins in a convention of a typical family album: shots of relatives, pictures of a child and a youngster, and psychological portraits of family friends (such as Bronisław Malinowski, Tadeusz Miciński, Leon Chwistek, and others). It gradually leads to Witkacy's frantic self-creation and artistic manipulation. The graphic design methods applied by Lech Przybylski enhance the dramatics and theatrical expression of the photos. The majority of photographs were printed against a black background, while the narrative is additionally dynamised by the irregular layout of photographs – with one, two, four, or more of them per spread. Their nearly filmic montages effectively reflect the sequential thinking about a photographic image and highlight the internal tension of individual situations and scenes enacted by Witkacy.
Another significant and innovative characteristic is the authors' approach to the photographs as material objects. We can see enlargements and reproductions of damaged, cracked glass negatives with emulsion defects. Many of these damaged objects gained value and became icons precisely thanks to their imperfections. Franczak and Okołowicz faithfully follow Witkacy who, just like his contemporary, Marcel Duchamp, accepted the productive role of chance in creating the final version of an image.
The book is hard to ignore due to the role it played by presenting Witkacy's photographic legacy and creating a whole generation of his belated grandchildren. It is thanks to Przeciw nicości – as well as the earlier exhibitions curated by Urszula Czartoryska – that Witkiewicz became established as one of the most important Polish photographers (though instead of “photographer” it would seem more appropriate to refer to him as an “artist using photography”). In other words, Witkacy may not have been a photographer, but it is hard to imagine the history of photography without him.
Przeciw nicości is at once existential, dark, surreal, beautiful, and raw. All of these epithets perfectly match the mid-1980s, associated with punk music and the psychedelics of the neo-expressionism, coinciding with the political clinch of the late Polish People's Republic. On top of that, a common legend had it that the artist committed suicide as soon as the anticipated disaster from the East hit Poland. The album was thus even more appealing at the time of its publication, as, beyond a peculiar mental journey, it also offered a specific, artistic, and anti-regime experience of freedom.
Nevertheless, the book still remains a very interesting and contemporary endeavour. The reason for this is probably the fact that the photographs, arranged chronologically, represent the artist's process of development, which was inseparable from the process of photographing himself and his closest surrounding. Witkacy was however more than just the author of numerous selfies. The artist liked to create situations and arrange the set, then hand the camera over to trusted photographers (e.g. Józef Głogowski) to take the pictures imagined by him. This is a very contemporary understanding of photography, allowing one to work with his own image and identity as an artist. The queer and camp disguises and use of ready conventions were ahead of their time, but eventually, towards the end of the century, fell on fertile ground. Witkacy from Przeciw nicości is a post-modernist artist par excellence. This book became his most important posthumous work to seduce and inspire the next generation of young art practitioners.
photographs: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
text: Ewa Franczak, Stefan Okołowicz
graphic design: Lech Przybylski
publisher: Wydawnictwo Literackie, Kraków
year of publication: 1986
volume: 300 pages
format: 25 x 30 cm
cover: linen hardcover with dust jacket
print run: 30 000
Original text: polishphotobook.tumblr.com, transl. Ania Micińska, September 2015