The dark green, square, cardboard sheets with embossed borders, enveloped in a folder, serve as bases for the manually mounted reproductions of Dorys' photographs. These images, showing the residents of a river town near the Vistula, were taken several decades earlier, in 1931 and 1932. Its bibliophilic form, styled after 19th-century collectors' portfolios, somewhat contrasts with the photographs documenting the rather plain, not to say poverty-ridden reality of the nonetheless picturesque Kazimierz. On the other hand, this stylisation allows one to better notice the convergence between Dorys' pictures and Realist paintings of the late 19th century (for instance by Aleksander Gierymski).
Dorys' Kazimierz series, created with a small format Leica, spent thirty years in a drawer, and were revealed for the first time on the occasion of the photographer's retrospective organized in 1960. This belated première of the Kazimierz photographs was a result of the nonchalant attitude of both their author and the art circles towards snapshot photography. The entire series is a somewhat voyeuristic record of a different, exotic world. It is hard not to notice a typical outsider's – not to say a tourist's – gaze which he bestowed upon the poor, gathered around Kazimierz's main square. It is the gaze of someone who is normally surrounded by the capital's elites, theatre and cinema stars, whom he photographed in his studio, established in 1929, very competently applying artistic pictorial methods. The photographs produced during the trip to Kazimierz were intended as a test of his new camera and hence were rather extravagant in comparison to his everyday activities. Regardless of the motivation behind photographing the life of Kazimierz's community, he created an extremely valuable document. Adolf Rudnicki wrote that the series contains:
everything that is necessary to bring a world that no longer exists back to life. The smell, atmosphere, temperature, people – everything is authentic. This is a world of bitter, harmful poverty, hovels, mud, barefoot and bedraggled children playing right next to the gutter, miserable shops whose entire supply consisted of a jar of pickles, a kilogram of sweets, or an oil barrel. It is a world that is rich and soft in its poverty, unfettered by any organizational reins, a world saved from one havoc and awaiting another, a dramatic, complete, and dormant world, anticipating agony and unable to defend against it… These photographs cannot be taken in without the ensuing events, they are organically intertwined. All of these pictures look as if they were taken during the last summer – before the deluge.
Rudnicki's words could also refer to the images of pre-war Poland created by Roman Vishniac, Menachem Kipnis, Alter Kacyzne, or photographers working for foreign agencies and magazines (such as Louise Arner Boyd from National Geographic), who documented the culture of small towns and Jewish shtetls, distinctly differing from that of the West. Dorys' photographs are especially interesting in this context due to the narrator's certain “invisibility” and the extremely short distance between the photographer and his subject. This was possible thanks to the invention of film cameras that enabled the taking of candid pictures. The photographer asserted:
The Leica turned out to be just wonderful. It most of all provided the opportunity to photograph secretly. And still, one sometimes needed to endlessly lie in wait with the hidden camera, pretending to pick one's nose.
Dorys survived the occupation in a hideout provided by the family of another prominent photographer from Warsaw, Czesław Olszewski. After the war, he returned to photographing the elite – from opera divas or the violinist Wanda Wiłkomirska to dignitaries of the new government, with Prime Minister Cyrankiewicz at the forefront.
Paradoxically, some critics, including Jerzy Busza, consider the photographs taken in Kazimierz by the professional portraitist and notable nude photographer to be “the first modern photo reportage introducing the contemporary technique and style of narrating reality through the medium of photography.” When revisiting his material from Kazimierz years later, Dorys re-examined his photographs and improved contrast and composition wherever it was necessary. The photographs included in the portfolio are of various proportions, however once framed in a uniform format of the decorative bases, they form a coherent whole.
It might be surprising at first to see that a series of such significance for the history of Polish photography was published as a bibliophile edition numbering 300, especially in the times when photo albums were rarely released in print runs shorter than five or ten thousand copies. The specific theme of the photographs was probably crucial in making this decision. In 1970s, the fate of the Polish Jewish community was still a taboo subject. The Visual Arts Studio's carefully prepared, limited edition publication also specifically exposes the artistic, connoisseur aspects of Dorys' Kazimierz photographs.
photographs: Jerzy Benedykt Dorys
text: Romuald Kłosiewicz
graphic design: Henryk W. Piekarniak
publisher: Visual Arts Studio, Warsaw
year of publication: 1979
volume: 4 pages + 18 lose sheets
cover: paperback, cardboard portfolio
print run: 300