The issue of the artistic potential of the medium dominated photographic discourse for decades, while the word itself – a neologism coined by Bułhak – entered everyday language. It is also no coincidence that the leading Polish post-war photographic institution – Związek Polskich Artystów Fotografików (The Association of Polish Artists Photographers) – included this term, as a certain homage to the author. Jan Bułhak's book is, as its subtitle announces, an Outline of Artistic Photography, understood, however, in a very specific way. The book's title was intentionally translated into French and English as Pictorial Photography (Photographie pictoriale), thus hinting at pictorialism – a current in artistic photography dominant at the turn of the 20th century among aspiring photo enthusiasts in Paris, London, New York, and Vienna, but also in Lviv and Vilnius. In some ways, Fotografika could be considered as a belated manifesto of Polish pictorialism. However, looking at the publication's impact on the history of Polish photography from today's perspective, such an assessment would be inappropriate. Thanks to Jan Bułhak's charisma and organizational skills, the essentially quite conservative rules for producing a photographic artwork (the golden rule of modern formalism: not what but how) were in use for the next forty years.
Jan Bułhak illustrates his extensive mission statement exclusively with his own photographs, thus demonstrating the broad spectrum of his skills. We find in it his most famous landscapes from the Vilnius Region, as well as details of fauna and flora, and the less obvious portraits. Bułhak also reveals the secrets of his technique and didactically presents examples of failed or badly processed shots. He sets the border between fotografika and the non-artistic incarnations of photography before the reader's eyes.
It is, then, a specific work, situating between an art manifesto, a photo album, and a textbook for advanced amateurs. As much as Bułhak's publications were groundbreaking for the Polish scene, Fotografika stands out among the photobooks of the time through its conservative, but nevertheless solid, print form, manifested not so much in the pictorial and impressionist style of the art photographs, as in the layout of the book (photographs printed on separate, glossy paper leaves, and accompanied by didactic comments).
In Fotografika, Bułhak also displays his care and attention towards the quality of photographic reproductions: “requiring the publisher and printer to be faithful to the original should in fact fall within the remit of the copyright law, however in order to verify the breach of this law, the common artistic level ought to be immeasurably higher than it is today.”
This issue has been henceforth (and up to this day!) one of the greatest grievances of the photographers working and publishing in Poland. Perhaps Bułhak was also the first one to publicly draw attention to this problem, connected to the mass development of the publishing industry. In this sense, Fotografika was pioneering for the conscious consideration of form and quality of photo publications in Poland.
The book establishes Jan Bułhak as a father figure to generations of ambitious photography amateurs seeking aesthetic practice and photographers aspiring to be called artists, as well as offers an interesting contribution to reflection on the image of the artist. It does not only mark the birth of the awareness of the photographic medium's artistic features, but also of the social and professional status of an artist photographer (the author devotes one of the chapters to the issue of copyrights and compensation). The book ends with advertisements of the “Artist-photographer” Jan Bułhak, who could also be considered a prominent producer when it came to the self-promotion and entrepreneurial organization of a photographer's activity. Publishing his own photographs in the form of albums with original prints (Bułhak even published sales brochures for these editions), but also on postcards, as well as making them available for the press or tourist publications – were all immanent elements of the work of the photographer, who consistently implemented the idea of pictorial photography through all possible means of photographic distribution, especially the one that was fundamental in the 20th century – print.
Photographs and text: Jan Bułhak
graphic design: –
publisher: Trzaska, Evert i Michalski S.A. Warsaw
year of publication: 1931
volume: 176 pages + 30 double-sided leaves with photographs
format: 23.5 x 17.5 cm
cover: linen hardcover
print run: 1250
Original text: polishphotobook.tumblr.com, transl. Ania Micińska, July 2015