The pathos of bombed-out post-war daily life, its gradual revival, and attempts to restore the identity of people consigned to the dustbin of history: what Polish and Italian neorealism have in common is that they both place human beings at the centre of artistic investigation.
The photographs included in this book were taken between 1950 and 1970. A common feature of them is their authors’ openness in perceiving reality, which testifies to their attitude – which is not so much aesthetic as ethical. The drama of the historical moment is counterpointed by street scenes, formal plays with images, the smile of a child captured on film. These photographs of Poland do not show the enthusiasm known from propaganda newsreels but the rough realities of everyday life. No party leaders, only clumsy, grimy passers-by.
The Sum of Events
Neorealism as an artistic movement originated in the last years of the war as an objection to fascism and afterwards it started to tackle social problems. It opposed the traditional photographic narrative. Neorealism begins to make sense not at the climax of its action, but by accumulating experiences, generalisations, and continuous observation.
Neorealist artists departed from realism understood in terms of the imitation and representation of reality. They did not record the facts, but created them and gave them new meanings. Thus, neorealism is a kind of open form, embracing everything that happens in each framed situation. The usefulness of a photograph or film was not taken for granted, and emerged (or, more appropriately, was formed) as a result of an encounter between the narrator, the protagonist, and the recipient. Thus, the emerging content was conceived from memory, knowledge, and experience.
The photographs by Polish artists can be described as a response, and not as a pursuit: a reaction to the given reality, and not an attempt at interpreting it. The authors multiply astonishment, test the truth of everyday events, and collect meanings. The human figure happens to be merely a part of the background, and not the subject of the story. Photographs of walls or sequences of streets make up the scenery of a ‘destroyed or never created film,’ writes Paweł Mościcki.
The Potential of Absence
Each individual photograph is a quotation from reality; and building a story from a collection of quotations causes a lack of continuity. It seems as though something is always missing, or in other words, that something can happen at any time (or it never will). In this sense the resulting stories are chaotic, for they needn’t rely on the principle of action-reaction as film editing does.
The arrangement of the photographs in the book is not subjected to the arrow of time, which imposes a rhythm typical of film storytelling, which allows it a greater freedom of interpretation. The photographs that seem to be taken during a walk (Rolke, Rydet) might be as significant as the single, composed characters whose meaning is further indicated by the caption, for instance: a photo of drying shirt is titled Skin (Lewczyński).
The post-war reality was devoid of familiar, well-known forms. Capturing everyday life and its surroundings was also a gesture of renaming, restoring it to the imagination. It is best demonstrated in the works of Lewczyński, who photographed collections: piles of bombs, rods, cutlery, or a homogeneous crowd of people captured from above. He combined items which had lost their function with people whose world had fallen apart as a result of the war.
The book is rounded off by Lewczyński’s collage Train (1971). By appropriating a photograph by an unknown author showing displaced people from the eastern lands of Poland in 1945, the photographer created a new image. The collage tells a story about individuals through enlarging selected fragments of the image, focusing on their eyes and restoring their importance and identity.
Neorealism in Polish Photography 1950-1970 (English Edition)
Concept: Rafał Lewandowski
Texts: Rafał Lewandowski, Régis Durand, Paweł Mościcki, Tomasz Szerszeń
Photographs: Zdzisław Beksiński, Jerzy Lewczyński, Marek Piasecki, Tadeusz Rolke, Zofia Rydet
Design: Błażej Pindor
Publishing: Fundacja Asymetria, 2015
Michał Dąbrowski, 25/03/2016, transl. GS, April 2016