Karol Beyer’s image of the members of the Civic Delegacy from 1861 was possibly the first Polish photomontage.
Bayer, a photographer from Warsaw, created this composition between 27th February (the day of the appointment of the delegacy) and 6th March 1861. In order to create it, he combined several positives of individual members. This technique allowed the photographer to circumvent the technical limitations of the time, mainly the extremely long exposure time. Taking individual portraits and combining them later is often, quite counter-intuitively, easier and more convenient than getting several people to stand still and then taking a regular group picture.
This photo collage shows all of the civic committee brought to life in February 1861 as a response to the Russian army’s violent suppression of patriotic demonstrations in Warsaw. The original committee consisted of 14 people (sitting, from the left): Karol Beyer, Leopold Kronenberg, Józef Wyszyński, Tytus Chałubiński, and (standing, from the left): Jakub Piotrowski, Józef Ignacy Kraszewski, Mathias Rosen, Teofil Piotrowski, Ksawery Szlenkier, Józef Kenig, August Trzetrzewiński, Jakub Lewiński, Stanisław Hiszpański, and Józef Stecki.
Beyer took phootos of every member of the delegacy separately at his Warsaw atelier. However, these photos were not taken solely with the collage in mind, as individual photos were also in circulation independently of the group shot. It seems that portraits of well known personalities were much more popular as individual photos, and in that format photographs were compiled into various albums as patriotic mementos. These collections were filled with personalities in national mourning and after 1863 – in uprising uniforms.
It’s difficult to explicitly state whether Bayer took these individual photos with the eventual compilation in mind, or was it just an idea that came to him later. At first glimpse the composition looks unforced and natural – the only thing that may raise suspicion that the photo was altered are the lighter borders around the edges of the figures, which gives away the fact that they were cut out and rearranged. On the other hand, the poses of the delegates emphasise the natural, unaltered feeling of the photo – they all look to their left.
So is it safe to say that Bayer positioned his models with eventual collage in mind? Well, that was probably not the case, as each model had numerous pictures of him taken, each in different poses. That made it much easier for Beyer to choose photos appropriate for the idea in his mind. You can, for example, see versions of Józef Wyszyński’s photo, where he is standing, looking to the right, and, as in the collage, looking to the left. This applies to Chałubiński too, in his shots you can see him looking to the left, reading a book and, of course, looking to the left with his hands crossed.
Aside from that, when comparing finished group photo with individual pictures, you can discover minor visual manipulations and tricks used by the creator to make the photomontage seem legitimate. For example, by ingenious composition he managed to cover up elements that didn’t fit his concept. To illustrate, the only photo of Teofil Piotrowski looking to the left was him sitting. To work around that obstacle, Beyer is ‘standing’ in the back row, his lower body completely invisible. Moreover, diverse height of standing men seems to imply that some of them are standing on some kind of a platform. That is not the case, as this kind of arrangement allowed Beyer to evenly divide the space between each person and equally exhibit each of the delegates.
Another interesting example of tricks used by the photographer can be seen in the placement of equipment from the studio. If we take a look at individual photos, we will see a square, decorative coffee table in Beyer’s atelier. In the group picture, however, two tables like these can be spotted, one of them much longer than the original in order to let two delegates lean on the same pulpit. The priest, Józef Wyszyński, seems to be levitating. That is because a backrest was cut from behind him, so as to hide a chair that he was sitting on. What’s more, in the original photo the table that he was photographed with looked completely different.
Among the members of Civic Delegacy was the photographer himself, Karol Beyer, making the composition a sort of self-portrait. He is the sitting, bearded man, first to the left.
Author: Karolina Dzimira, December 2016. Translated by AS January 2017