Antologia Fotografii Polskiej (The Anthology of Polish Photography) is an exceptional auteur photobook that also functions as an autonomous work of art. It is an eloquent, unorthodox, and groundbreaking attempt at compiling the canon of Polish photography, arranged according to the iconographic and visual tensions between individual images.
Thanks to its title and unsophisticated graphic design, Jerzy Lewczyński's book is seemingly in line with conventional albums covering the history of photography. It is an appealing association, if only due to a lack of a typical textbook on Polish photography. This impression is further strengthened by the reprinted texts written by historians (among others, Wanda Kossakowska, Adam Sobota, and Urszula Czartoryska). As a matter of fact, Antologia Fotografii Polskiej (The Anthology of Polish Photography) is more than that – it is an exceptional auteur photobook that also functions as an autonomous work of art. It is an eloquent, unorthodox, and groundbreaking attempt at compiling the canon of Polish photography, arranged according to the iconographic and visual tensions between individual images. Crucial and characteristic here is a focus on single photographs, as opposed to a historical meta-narrative or critical analysis of each artist. It is the power of the specific – and often mysterious – pictures and their arbitrary selection that form the foundation of this work by Lewczyński.
Antologia… consists of a main part made up of a selection of 232 photographs dating from 1841 to the 1990s, laid out in chronological order, one per page. The album is more than just a summa of Lewczyński's impressive knowledge of history of photography and a consequence of his key position among Polish photographers of the second half of 20th century. It is also an example of the applied archaeology of photography, i.e. Lewczyński's programmatic operations with archival and anonymous photography, not just artistic. The book offers a visionary and unconventional look at the history of the medium, an uninhibited montage of images, or perhaps even a form of appropriation art. Lewczyński demonstrates a post-medium approach to reproduction and is not afraid to use actual prints and reproductions, or to copy images from catalogues and magazine covers. He attaches value to the image itself, and not to the medium (at the same time, the author supplements each image with information about its source). The subsequent spreads can be read as separate chapters. The carefully assorted photographs enter into surprising interactions, thus exposing reserves of ambiguity and inviting a deeper exploration of each photograph.
Lewczyński juxtaposes the works of established authors with those made by amateurs, photojournalists with confirmed pictorial photographers (as defined by Jan Bułhak), Poles with Germans, Jews with Ukrainians. Antologia… is the first title in the history of Polish photography which devotes equal attention to anonymous, studio, and landscape photographs, documents of war and Holocaust, as well as hippic, advertising, and nude photography. Lewczyński reunites a conflicted environment, connects separated discourses, and has enough courage to combine previously disassociated political and aesthetic orders.
The author manifests distance not just towards photography, but also history. Antologia… can be perceived as an unprecedented attempt to compose a visual history of Poland in photographs. Lewczyński is a historical determinist who guides the reader across the eras – from the partitions, World War One, the Second Polish Republic, and World War Two, through the Polish People's Republic to the Third Polish Republic. Photography is introduced as a carrier of history and it is photography that serves the author in conjuring distance towards national events. History suddenly becomes an image which can be interpreted aesthetically. At the same time, the pictures are accompanied by brief but insightful and often ironic comments from the author (with additional notes on the authors of the photographs).
The bravado of this approach to historical material with time will turn out to be a result of the artist's extraordinary intuition. Antologia… has opened up new opportunities for researchers and hence also gained the status of a cult guide to Polish photography.
Formally, Lewczyński's book is an interesting hybrid, typical for the Polish publishing scene of the transformation era. It combines elements of a luxury album with the rawness of a self-published edition. The publishing culture based on one kind of chalk overlay paper, reaching back to the crisis-ridden 80s, is met here with the shy, modest beginnings of desktop publishing.
photographs: various authors
texts: Jerzy Lewczyński, Wanda Mossakowska, Jadwiga Ihnatowiczowa, Urszula Czartoryska, Adam Sobota, Barbara Kosińska
graphic design: Wiesław Łysakowski (cover)
publisher: LUCRUM s.c., Bielsko-Biała
year of publication: 1999
volume: 326 pages
format: 33 x 25 cm
cover: hardcover with dust jacket
print run: unknown
Original text: polishphotobook.tumblr.com, transl. Ania Micińska, October 2015