This is not only because of its size and form – of modern, pocket-sized paperback albums – but most of all due to the exceptionally careful and consistent selection of photographs. It was Tadeusz Przypkowski – an absolutely outstanding figure – who took and edited most of the photographs, as well as wrote the introduction for the subsequent volumes of Piękno Warszawy (The Beauty of Warsaw). He was a trained art historian, art cataloguer and conservator, photographer, collector and bibliophile, an expert on sundials, and, finally – after the war – the first director of the museum based on his family collection in his hometown Jędrzejów. He was engaged in photography from the 1920s, participating in exhibitions, active within Warsaw circles (he was a member of the informal Warsaw Photoclub), and publishing photo reportages, in, among others, the exclusive art monthly Arkady. Thanks to support from his family, in the 1930s he travelled extensively around Europe, which certainly had impact on his photographic output. Before the war, he was a representative of the young generation of sightseers, while the language of his photographs was much more modern than that of the founding father of Polish art photography (fotografika), Jan Bułhak.
In 1935, Przypkowski started working at the Warsaw City Office as manager of the Cultural Propaganda Department and advisor to Mayor Stefan Starzyński. It was probably Przypkowski's idea, eagerly followed up by the mayor, to produce the series Piękno Warszawy, conceived as a popular touristic and propagandistic album project. The first volume, with a foreword by Starzyński, shows Przypkowski's auteur look at the architecture of Warsaw – from the Old Town to the modern cityscape of the Śródmieście, Żoliborz, and Saska Kępa districts. The ensuing books are devoted to specific photographic themes: Zieleń (Greenery, 1936), Pomniki publiczne i rzeźby ogrodowe (Public Monuments and Garden Sculptures, 1936), Kościoły katolickie (Catholic Churches, 1937, from the imprimatur of the Warsaw curia sic), and Tablice i miejsca pamiątkowe (Commemorative Plaques and Sites, 1938).
The rhetorical power of each book is substantiated by the artistic quality of the photographs by Przypkowski, and – in the following volumes – by several other prominent authors, such as Henryk Poddębski, Stefan Plater-Zyberk, and Zofia Chomętowska. Przypkowski definitely pursues his perspective as a historian of art and monuments, and is mainly responsive to the charm of the inanimate matter and the historical fabric of the city. However, his photographs also give away a strong sensitivity to architecture and its natural surroundings. He is not afraid to introduce dynamic, diagonal frame compositions or appealing views through tree branches and urban greenery. Przypkowski's city is, however, devoid of people and unnecessary staffage. It is a collection of picturesque objects presented in an unorthodox way, but organised according to the order of an inventory of historical sites. That is why the Zieleń volume seems to be the most interesting, as it is the most uninhibited and free of the cataloguing tendency in its representation of the Polish pre-war capital and the last flashes of the city blooming in the wake of the war.
The publication, beyond being a unique document of Warsaw moments before its destruction, also looks to the future, as it presents a mock-up of Marshal Józef Piłsudski Avenue. This element evidently points to the propagandistic aspect of the publication released by Starzyński's team, which was acquainted with the then modern visual media. The city authorities worked towards modernisation of the infrastructure as well as the image of Warsaw. Modern photography was one of the key tools in these efforts. These activities went well with the propaganda policies of the government – it should be mentioned that Przypkowski was also involved in the documenting and inventory works in the Central Industrial Region.
Despite the intended popular form – or perhaps exactly because of it – Piękno Warszawy stands out thanks to its editorial sophistication. It is designed in an elegant, but nevertheless modern way. The monochromatic covers are made of paper through-dyed in an exceptional, toned-down range of colours, while the typography is to this day praiseworthy. The photographs are presented in a noble, album-like way, printed on thin paper and mounted individually on each leaf. The care taken with the photographic presentation and diversity of paper textures (four different kinds in each edition) makes these books extremely pleasant to browse through and touch. The only shortcoming is the use of thick paper in the album part, which makes it more difficult to page through this small format book. Nonetheless, the combination of a retro convention with modern graphic design and the attractiveness of the black and white photographs ultimately establishes Przypkowski's work as exceptional.
photographs: Tadeusz Przypkowski as well as Zofia Chomętowska, Stefan Plater-Zyberk, Henryk Poddębski, and others
texts: Tadeusz Przypkowski, Stefan Starzyński, Stanisław Wóycicki, Władysław Kwiatkowski
graphic design: Tadeusz Przypkowski
publisher: Magistrat m. st. Warszawy (Office of the Capital City of Warsaw)
year of publication: 1936-1938
volume: v.1 & 2 – 104 pages, v.3 – 110 pages, v.4 – 116 pages
format: 24 x 17 cm
print run: unknown
Original text: polishphotobook.tumblr.com
, transl. Ania Micińska, November 2015