Witkacy (1885-1939) learned how to take photographs thanks to his father - the painter and critic, Stanisław Witkiewicz. Not only did he present his son with his very first camera and taught him how to use it, but he also continued to talk with him about the medium, review his prints, and pose for some of his pictures until his death in 1915.
During that time – just before the outbreak of World War I – the young Witkacy used the camera to develop his sensitivity and attentiveness, as well as for capturing the events around him and documenting his artistic activities. Among the photographs he took back then, one will find landscapes from the Tatra Mountains, images of the first steam engines arriving in Zakopane, and portraits of friends and prominent figures from his extended family, but most of all, portraits of his father and self-portraits. At that time, Witkacy avoided documenting the events of daily life and taking snapshots, instead leaning towards alternative photography, especially the very demanding technique of gum biochromate.
Collapse by the Lamp is highly representative of his early creative output – it forms part of his most original series of self-portraits. When working on them in his younger years, Witkacy practiced forging his own aesthetics: he placed focus on the model’s face, got rid of any context or background by using tight, closed-up framing, and blurred the images by applying lo-fi lighting that forced long exposure and thus diminished the chances of creating a sharp image. His portraits and self-portraits went against the dominant style of the time, and the stubbornness with which the artist carried out subsequent attempts, as if aiming to capture the very essence of the sitter’s character, is impressive.
The author’s full mental capabilities were focused on giving in to the observed person’s gaze and fathoming his or her psychological state.
These are the words with which Urszula Czartoryska, an expert and promoter of Witkacy’s photography, described his series. People photographed by Witkacy included many influential cultural figures, such as Stefan Żeromski, Tadeusz Miciński, Bronisław Malinowski, Andrzej Strug, Tymon Niesiołowski, and Tadeusz Langier.
However, he devoted most of his energy to self-portraits. On one hand, he would carry out a form of ‘odd acting’ (as described by Czartoryska), an equivalent of the recently popular direct-to-camera performances. While on the other, he experimented with seemingly incorrect photographic effects, by means of which he wished to reflect as precisely as possible the emotional and psychological states of the author. “He made especially expressionist-like use of light in the picture in which his face, positioned next to a gas lamp, is cut across with its glow”, wrote Czartoryska about Witkacy’s piece. This focus and anxiety was also noticed by his father, who, upon receiving a series of prints for judgement in a letter dated 1st of August 1913, picked this one and gave it the title Collapse by the Lamp. The titular collapse probably refers to the mood of Witkacy, who at the time was tied up in a miserable affair with Irena Solska, and was in the course of writing his first novel: 622 Falls of Bung, or Demonic Woman.
The self-portrait of the young novelist, playwright, painter, art critic and theoretician, and philosopher, may nowadays be read as somewhat narcissistic. Nevertheless, Witkacy didn’t treat photography – or prose – as art. For him, taking pictures was not so much a routine, but a necessary exercise when exploring one’s own self, trying to make a psychological contact with men and the demonic (just like Akne Montecalfi from his novel) women who sat for him. This is what still distinguishes the artist from the numerous authors of the popular, yet dull, selfies, brought about by digital technology. In this sense, Witkacy’s photographs from his youth are best matched by the epigraph of 622 Falls of Bung:
The depth peeks from the surface, and the surface turns out to be the bottom of the depth.
Author: Adam Mazur, August 2014, transl. by Ania Micińska August 2014