The Vistula River, which flows through Kraków, Warsaw, and Gdańsk, has “always” been the symbolic backbone of the Polish identity, while in the second half of 20th century it became one of the key motifs exploited in the propaganda of the communist authorities.
After 1989, Varsovians, and – more broadly – Poles very quickly dismissed this important theme of visual culture and ingredient in shaping a communal identity. The residents of the cities also turned away from the Vistula in a more literal way. Miejsce odległe (Distant Place) – an original publication initiated by the Warsaw-based Copernicus Science Centre, is an attempt at returning to the river bank. The institution, a flagship investment of the city and government opened in a newly erected building by the Vistula’s riverside, took on the role of an enlightened patron in 2010 when it invited the vibrant group of young photographers which form the Sputnik Photos collective, as well as five writers, to collaborate. Their task was to rediscover the Vistula.
It made sense to involve the members of Sputnik. It was the photographers belonging to the group who, in times of a general crisis in photo reportage and media, made a daring effort to revive photography concentrated on describing the contemporary world with a humanistic and artistic take. Although Sputnik Photos is teasingly referred to by some as the "Polish Magnum," one ought to remember that while referring to the traditions of humanist photography and extracting the best elements of the photojournalistic and documentary traditions the collective has generated its own language of expression. Its members have been predominantly interested in creating their projects outside of Poland, in remote parts of Europe and its post-Soviet eastern peripheries. This time, they got involved in a subject that physically is very close, yet mentally perhaps even more exotic than those realised thus far. Miejsce odległe is a local and specific project which could be opposed to the propagandist publications from the times of the Polish People’s Republic.
The book constitutes an extensive photographic and publishing whole. Each of the five photographers produced his or her own project, presented as a separate booklet within the publication. All contributions, including the accompanying literary texts, are contained in a cardboard box with the embossed name of the publisher and a table of contents. Thanks to this solution, each photographer was given an opportunity to emphasise their individual take on the set theme. When browsing through the individual books-in-a-book, we pass through
portraits of people encountered by the riverside (Adam Pańczuk’s Studio Vistula), mysterious conceptual narratives based on beached objects that rest on the banks (About the Man Who Jumped Off a Bridge by Rafał Milach, Ecosystem by Michał Łuczak), and more classical topographical approaches, concentrated on sites associated with hydraulic engineering and the post-industrial riverside landscape (Agnieszka Rayss’ Closed Circuit and Jan Brykczyński’s Mission Completed).
Ania Nałęcka’s graphic design has a simple and dexterous way of exposing Sputnik’s most characteristic feature – a blend of collective, project-based thinking and the power of individual creative personas. In regards to editing, the book resembles a photographic cabinet of curiosities, and is situated somewhere between a box of family photographs, a collector’s folder, and a Chinese box filled with art surprises. The reference to the post-Duchampian notion of a valise-box as an artist’s portfolio and at the same time a collection of objects and images bordering on reality and fiction makes for an interesting strategy when used in a photographic project with documentary ambitions. This conceptual quality, apparent in the structure of the publication as well as individual photographic realisations, testifies to the artistic aspirations of the authors, but also makes Miejsce odległe all the more appealing and convincing. In contrast to the post-Romantic, monumental representations of the Vistula which served the old propaganda, a collection of less obvious and more insightful views of the abandoned, marginalised riverside landscape was created.
Looking from the Varsovian perspective, the project perfectly subscribed to the developing process of cultural revitalisation of the capital’s river banks, and, even though it was produced only a few years ago, nowadays, when visiting the riverside’s nightclubs, it's hard to recognise the dark and quiet sights visible on the pages of Miejsce odległe.
photographs: Jan Brykczyński, Michał Łukczak, Rafał Milach, Adam Pańczuk, Agnieszka Rayss
texts: Jacek Kopciński, Krzysztof Koehler, Dawid Bieńkowski, Zyta Rudzka, Krzysztof Rutkowski, Michał Walczak, and contributions from the photographers
graphic design: Ania Nałęcka
publisher: Copernicus Science Centre, Warsaw
year of publication: 2012
volume: 197 pages in 7 booklets of varying formats
format: 30 x 24.5 x 3 cm
cover: cardboard box
print run: 1000
Original text: polishphotobook.tumblr.com
, transl. Ania Micińska, October 2015