#photography & visual arts
Zofia Rydet's first photobook is, for its time, a superproduction. The uniqueness of Mały człowiek (Little Man) results not only from the quality of its photographic material, assembled over the course of more than ten years by a then still little known photographer from Gliwice, but also from Wojciech Zamecznik's involvement – one of Poland's most original graphic designers of the mid-20th century.
His design for the book maintains a late avant-garde spirit, is filled with flair, and gracefully combines photographs by Rydet with excerpts she selected from Janusz Korczak's texts, which provide an intellectual framework for the project. This is one of the most famous Polish photobooks, and the first to become the subject of a research project. The latter resulted in a thorough re-edition published in 2012 by the Archeology of Photography Foundation. Typically for contemporary publishing industry, the second edition, accompanied by a critical commentary, was released in a print run eight times shorter than the original.
From today's perspective, Zofia Rydet's album is a model photobook of the golden era of publishing in the Polish People's Republic which was the 1960s. In a broader perspective, Mały człowiek demonstrates the exemplary features and criteria of a mature photographic book.
Firstly, for the quality, coherence, and authorial character of the photographic material. Mały człowiek comprises works from 1952-1963 and offers a selection from Rydet's first fully developed series. This is a superb example of humanist photography, inspired by Edward Steichen's The Family of Man. The photographer comes across as a watchful and tender observer, who is able to – literally and figuratively – get very close to children. On the other hand, she keeps a cold distance towards the photographed scenes, documents children's tears and sorrows. Interestingly enough, Rydet never had children of her own. Perhaps it is this perspective, that of a childless woman, that somehow determined the uniqueness of the book, which is ultimately a post-catastrophic affirmation of fertility and having children.
Secondly, for the captivating and transparent narrative, and the formation of an eloquent plot based on photographic sequences. The book has a clearly defined structure. The photographic material was split into chapters, which provide the whole with a narrative rhythm and at the same time establish various iconographic types included in the series, specific typologies of “little people” and the emotions they experience (for instance, Little Women, Dramas, Thinking and Working). The excerpts from Korczak's texts that accompany the images were printed separately on narrow interleaves of a different colour to the rest of the pages, and thus, instead of disturbing the visual story, they complement it.
Thirdly – the originality and relevance of the graphic design and the quality of publishing. The exhaustive work performed by the photo editor was adequately highlighted by the creative and effortless treatment of the material by the graphic designer, who frames and replicates selected motifs, without, however, defeating the photography but helping it play a role that is relevant to its position within the whole. Thanks to that, this – to be fair – quite cliché and predictable subject is enjoyable and exciting to look at. The book's leitmotif is a multiplied, most elementary geometric form – a circle. It first appears on the cover and organizes the graphic layout inside the book. A circle may be associated with a childlike circle, sun, or face, in reference to the theme of the book, as well as with its universalist message. With regards to publishing, the nowadays unseen rotogravure seduces with its soft, deep, black areas, which was in fact typical for a lot of the other albums published at the time.
The Family of Man
archeology of photography fouondation
polish people's republic
Finally – the message, cultural momentousness, and social significance of the book. It is one of the first Polish photobooks that acted as the autonomous statement of an artist, yet concerned specific social issues. Rydet's book raises a topic that at the time was crucial, i.e., the first generation born after World War Two growing up, an antidote to the global trauma of war. This is not a typical, propagandistic mass-produced publication with children in the main role, many of which were released in 1950s. Mały człowiek includes – besides the dominant pictures taken in Poland – numerous shots from the photographer's travels (across Albania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Yugoslavia, and Lebanon), where the children represent a community formed by experience – they are not communists or capitalists – they represent humanity. Socialist propaganda hides behind the mask of universalism here. Rydet's photographs and texts by Korczak create a vision of an ideal society, free of class divisions, and based on equality and sincerity. On the other hand, in the context of the previously mentioned The Family Man, it is striking that the book features children of virtually one skin colour. The beautiful, universalist utopia was faced with some practical difficulties in this regard – the artist's vision was evidently restrained by the limited travel possibilities in a world severely divided by the Second World War.
photographs: Zofia Rydet
texts: Alfred Ligocki, Janusz Korczak
graphic design: Wojciech Zamecznik
publisher: Arkady, Warsaw
year of publication: 1965
volume: 272 pages
format: 25 x 19.5 cm
cover: hardcover with dust jacket
print run: 8750
Original text: polishphotobook.tumblr.com
, transl. Ania Micińska, November 2015