Photographic stories told in the first person, making reference to the legacy of photographers such as Anders Petersen, Antoine D’Agata or Michael Ackerman, certainly have their fans. Usually they tackle difficult or even extremely tough situations. The emphasis is put on pursuit of self-awareness – an act which sometimes requires the presence of the Other, a group of excluded people or, frequently, some random strangers. Depending on the context, various meanings can be projected on to them. In Poland, this area is explored by Piotr Zbierski but aIn Poland, this area is explored by Piotr Zbierski but also Mateusz Sarełło or Igor Pisuk. In terms of form, the photographs are usually contrastive and grainy, often also blurred – this austerity is meant to stress the authenticity of the story.
Where is it worth getting lost?
Józef Robakowski, the curator of Zbierski’s exhibition in Leica Gallery in Warsaw, associates Zbierski’s photographic practice with the act of depriving reality of its sharpness and erasing its contours. This blurring of the images is a manifestation of subtle delicacy, of giving some other person a hand, Robakowski explains.
In the opening text the artist defines his artistic process as choosing a specific direction, rather than collecting effects. He defines and justifies the role of the photographer (and therefore also his role) in the following words:
A photographer is someone who knows how to get lost in places that are worth getting lost in.
In the aforementioned text the subjectivity of experience is given considerable significance. To put it briefly: the author seems to be saying ‘I experience something, and therefore it is worth recounting’. What is risky in case of such a strategy is the situation wherein the subject becomes a commodity and the story turns out to be his own self-advertisement. The little booklets containing the artist's notes between the chapters form an additional, uninteresting story which distracts the reader, arousing scepticism.
To talk about photos from Push the Sky Away one can use words describing a romantic love, with all its raptures, deep and beautiful feelings, and detachments from reality. Longing for freedom of creating that representatives of the Beat Generation benefited from and the existential fear can be felt in the book. Zbierski is inspired by Hindu cosmogony and French poetry. Explorations of Thoreau and Kerouac echo in Push... and the title of the second chapter – Love has to be reinvented – is a quote from Rimbaud.
Dream, love, and religion
The first chapter opens with a portrait of a boy emerging from a swimming pool, then the portrait of the photographer appears; a shadow of a silhouette next to the road, margins, a place beyond time. This fragment of the book is like a dream: odd figures with deformed faces are wandering around, sometimes they are gloomy, sometimes they are children stopped in the middle of playing. Their outlines are lit by the sunlight or disappear in the shadow. The ambiance of summer adventure, as fresh as a draught of fresh air, dominates the album.
The second story starts with a photo of an old love. Works in this chapter are a collection of thoughts that appeared after a breakup. A remarkable naturalness radiates from twelve women portraits put on one page. It is filled with spontaneity, expression and emotions – the qualities that Zbierski seems to look for throughout the whole chapter.
Several years of Zbierski’ artistic research led him to an interest in primeval cultures, the ground which gave birth to our cultural code, as he calls it in his text. Religious symbols and mysterious rituals are put in juxtaposition to fragments of nature. The artist tries to tell a rather universal story but it turns out that it is difficult to visually represent metaphysic experience, and certainly a photograph of a cross in a rainbow glow does not achieve this end.
Innocent and disappointed
It is possible to look at this book as a story of an archetypical Innocent who moves around an imaginary, fairylike world. This figure is emotional and takes time to find its own path. A child is innocent, one is innocent at the beginning of romantic love and in the mystic experience of uniting with the Absolute. Subsequent chapters of Zbierski’s book speak, more or less directly, about these three states. French painter Paul Gauguin was an innocent too – he resigned from his office job and went to live on Tahiti, where he had depicted people who hadn’t yet been affected by Western civilisation. It was then that he created Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? (1897). Similar questions seems to occupy Zbierski as he is also interested in primal cultures.
Are Zbierski’s photos reflections of some deeper reality? Or, on the contrary, do they distort and over-aestheticise it? Undoubtedly it is possible to get lost in them. In the 1950s, the Beat Generation was a response to the consumption-focused lifestyle in America; 70 years later, when a cynical businessman and billionaire was elected the next president of a global power, Zbierski prepared a book to respond to a growing need of innocence.
This is a book about an individual doomed to freedom: about growing up, disappointment of romantic love and looking for some universal order. Even though Zbierski wants to experience the moment, he seems to be accustomed to his specific vision of the world and he sometimes lacks distance. If you are into road movies and pondering on metaphysics, the book is for you.
Preface: Patti Smith
Text: Eleonora Jedlińska
Graphic desing: Bartłomiej Talaga and Piotr Zbierski
Publishier: Wydawnictwo Biblioteki PWSFTviT, 1st edition, 2016
Number of pages: 260, format: 210 x 280 mm, hardcover
The book was also published in English (Dewi Lewis Publishing) and French (Andre Frere Editions).
Originally written in Polish. Translated by Natalia Cichowska.