The first free elections after World War II and the triumph of Solidarity in Poland, thousands of students on Tiananmen Square, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, the Soviet Union rocking on its very foundations – Chris Niedenthal’s 1989: A Year of Hope, published in May 2017, offers a trip back in time to the most crucial moments in recent history.
‘What a year that was!’, the photographer notes in the first lines of the introduction. It is hard to deny this exclamation. The year 1989 was the culmination of growing discontent, anxiety, and chaos, chiefly in the countries within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union or China.
The work of photojournalists was hindered by both censorship and policies of limited mobility in these countries. Fortunately, as an employee of the American TIME magazine, Niedenthal was always allowed to be in places where the most significant decisions were made.
Chris Niedenthal's album 1989: A Year of Hope comprises a selection of over 200 photos documenting this period. Although it is not the first retrospective publication of Niedenthal’s works, it is certainly a breakthrough one. Earlier albums prepared by Bosz publishing house (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa: Rekwizyty from 2004 or Chris Niedenthal: Selected Works 1973–1989) gathered works solely depicting the reality of Communist Poland. This time the selection has been broadened and also includes photographs from the counties of the Eastern Bloc, Germany, and China. Thanks to this, it provides an opportunity not only to understand what the year of 1989 meant for Polish people, but also for the rest of the world.
For most people the name Niedenthal brings to mind the famous photo taken in 1981, when martial law was introduced in Poland. That year Chris Niedenthal took the iconic photograph Czas Apokalipsy (Apocalyse Now). In the photograph, a SCOT armoured personal carrier is parked in front of Moskwa cinema in Warsaw where a large banner advertising the Francis Ford Coppola film is hung.
Although other shots by Niedenthal from the 1980s and 1990s were shown in magazines abroad, the images are not so familiar to the later generations of Poles. The decision to publish an album focusing on the photographs from 1989 brings Niedenthal’s works back to the wider public. And it does it in a very special way: full control over the design of the book and selection of texts was given to the photojournalist. Chris Niedenthal not only gave his works for the publication, but he has also put them in their final order and wrote bilingual commentaries and a personal foreword.
Some can see it as a great advantage of the publication, others can be disturbed by the quite heavy style of the author’s writing. But for sure, none can say that the book lacks honesty. As he is better with images than with words, Niedenthal talks about 1989 from his personal perspective, with honesty and simplicity. This editorial decision of the publisher is a proof of trust for the photographer and respect for his work.
The album is divided into seven parts. Each of them is devoted to one of the countries where Niedenthal used to work: Poland, Germany, the Soviet Union, China, Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria.
The part on Poland presents images of the country’s first free elections after World War II, which took place in June 1989. It includes photos of countryside fences covered with Solidarity posters, polling stations or the opposition’s headquarters in Niespodzianka cafe in Warsaw. One of the most touching images shows a man covered with a towel and sitting on a stool in front of his house. A woman in a flowery skirt is carefully cutting his grey hair. The caption says: ‘June 4th, Kąty village near Warsaw. A man prepares himself to vote in the first free elections in his lifetime’.
The album is full of such touching images. The part on Germany is abundant in emotional photogaphs documenting the fall of the Berlin wall. Tears in the eyes of the residents of East Germany who greet their neighbours from West Germany for the first time, mixed with silhouettes of soldiers. There is also a symbolic photo of a metro train car from East Berlin attached to ones from West Berlin, covered with commercial ads.
The part on China surprises with its proximity. To take such detailed photos, Chris Niedenthal had to be in the very centre of the students’ demonstrations on Tian’anmen square. Close-ups of the faces of protesters, a provisional printery conceived during occupation – these are just some of the details documented by the photograph.
Photos from the Soviet Union occupy a considerable part of the album: photographs of Moscow intermingle with those of the republics of the Soviet Union. And again: tears, sweat, shouts and clenched fists of people tired with totalitarian reality appear. In contrast, their adversaries: committee of the Party, sumptuous dishes and poker faces of the authorities.
In the part dedicated to Romania, among some dynamic photographs a inconspicuous image of a grave appears. After reading the commentary, the image automatically gains new meaning. ‘Bucharest, unsigned grave in the middle of a cemetery path, where Nicolae Ceaușescu was buried after execution’, the caption reveals.
The album 1989: A Year of Hope is a must-read both for photography lovers and those passionate about history. It is one of those publications you keep retuning to, and it is absolutely intergenerational. To those who remember 1989, the book will be a reminder of the important events that triggered further changes. To members of the 1990s generation it will constitute a prologue for the times of their youth and adulthood. And, eventually, to those who come across the album in the future, the publication will provide a genuine and honest image of the past.
Sources: promo materials, Culture.pl; written by DS, 27 June 2017; translated by NC, July 2017