POLAND OF 1963 IN THE EYES OF A DANE
by Anna Baranowa
"The contemporary life photograph ("Life"-Photografie) is a briskly flowing current
like reality itself".
Anna Baranowa is an art historian and critic, born in Dobromil , Ukraine in 1959. Lives now in Crakow. She studied art history at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, Poland and graduated in 1988. She was awarded the Herder scholarship in 1988, and spent the academic year of 1988/89 in Austria at the Vienna University. Became a post- graduate student at the Art History Institute, Jagiellonian University (1992-1997). and was awarded scholarship from the Ministry of Culture RP in 2004 and 2006. She does in particular deal with the history and theory of the 19th and 20th century art, and specifically with issues of artistic utopias, relations between the arts, and the place of art and artist in a society. She has numerous publications in books, art catalogues, university press as well as in magazines devoted to literature and art, and is also a curator of exhibitions. Works at the Art History Institute, Jagiellonian University and is a member of the Art International Critics Association (AICA) and the Association of Art Historian.
The thirty-year-old K. Frank Jensen came to Poland at the beginning of autumn of 1963 with the intention of taking a series of photographs and getting to know the Polish photographers' milieu, the praises of which he had heard from his Danish friend who had studied to become a movie director at the Lódz film school. To him, Poland seemed to be a photographer's paradise, not only because it was visually attractive, but above all because of the status that photographers enjoyed here. He was impressed by the fact that in Poland, as in other Eastern bloc countries, photography was considered an autonomous field of art, and photographers enjoyed the status of artists with the many privileges accompanying it. In the article on Polish photography which he published on his return to his homeland, Jensen praised the many ways in which the Polish Ministry of Culture supported this field. His native Denmark was very different in this respect. Polish artist-photographers could display their work not only in general and specialised cultural magazines, but also through a network of galleries, an array of professional and amateur competitions and retrospectives, and the most famous ones even published their own albums. The popularity of photography in Poland is illustrated well enough by the fact that in 1963, 45 national and local photographic associations existed in the country. From South to North and East from to West, everybody was taking photos!
Through the Danish-Polish Friendship Association, K. Frank Jensen reached the senior of photographers, Alojzy Czarnecki in the town of Torun; and his daughter Janina Gardzielewska, a photographer of renown herself, through whom he met Edward Hartwig, Henryk Hermanowicz and Krystyna Neuman-Gorazdowska. There was no time for meeting with other colleagues, even though the young Dane equipped with a good Leica camera was undoubtedly a great attraction for his Polish counterparts, who did not have the opportunity of many contacts with foreigners at that time. The Polska monthly even organised „My meeting with a foreigner" competition for its readers.
With two companions, Jensen travelled by private car from Szczecin to Zakopane, stopping for longer in the Lowicz area, which turned out to be the most interesting for him. The Danish photographer sought the authenticity, the testimony to the endangered and disappearing world; he was interested by the photographic document. He captured themes, events and places which, under the pressure of civilisation and mass tourism, were becoming a thing of the past. He had already done long photo sessions through which he immortalised the unique ambience of the French Camargue region and Great Britain's areas associated with the legendary Knights of the Round Table.
Lowicz and its surroundings were examples of an authentic peasant culture which Jensen believed could not be found anywhere else. He was fascinated by the authenticity of its people, so different from the glib official image promoted, especially for tourists' sake, by the official propaganda. The inhabitants of this "endemic" region lived their own rhythm both in their everyday and festive mode. Jensen photographed them on market days and holy days, fascinated by the behaviour and the faces of the people who seemed not to notice the foreigner spying on them through his camera. Old women wrapped in scarves engaged in unhurried conversations, returning from church or just patiently waiting. Also the young where in no hurry to get anywhere themselves, caught in the rhythm of the natural and the ritual course of their days, their years and their lives. In Jensen's photographs, the inhabitants of the Lowicz area are suspended between everyday and festive life, between the profane and the sacred, and their surroundings are set in picturesque ordinariness and festivity at the same time.
A different atmosphere was found in Poland's capital of course, which Jensen photographed in the sun and the rain. Here, too, he was most interested in people, observing them with a reporter's perceptiveness in the streets, in the shops, on the benches, in motion and in rest. He was fascinated by the horizontal rhythm created by the anonymous people queuing up or waiting at a bus stop, people under their umbrellas. He caught the fleeting seconds of shapely legs climbing aboard a tram; of a small girl running across a square; of a portly woman refreshing herself with kefir drunk straight out of a bottle in front of a shop. Jensen's impressions from the visit in Warsaw are worthwhile comparing with the opinion of a prominent French critic Pierre Restany, who, in an article published at the time in the Paris La Gallerie des Arts magazine, decried the city's horrid urban planning, devoid of any modernising tendency. Jensen probably thought the same when he photographed the stocky form of the Palace of Culture and Science in a shortcut or the chaotic urban planning of the newly-created "modern" parts of the city, which he shot from the building's terrace. Also Warsaw's Old Town, which Restany brutally criticised as the symbol of Polish national sentimentalism, did not enchant the guest from Copenhagen. His photographs clearly reveal the phony character of the facades of the capital recreated from ruins. Even back then, the artificiality of the idea could not be masked. Only people, full of energy and joy, devoid of the city lustrer, made the city alive.
That was the time of "small stability" in Poland, when the Communist authorities re-established, through more veiled means, the main de fer policy after the relative liberalisation of the period of post-Stalinist "thaw". The carefully orchestrated propaganda of the official mass-media created appearances of a normal, civilised life. The characters in Tadeusz Rózewicz's play Witnesses, or our small stability thus describe their uncertain situation: "stupidity assumes a size/ of the normal / infinity is shorter / than the legs / of Sophia Loren / love and hate/ reduced their expectations/ white is no longer so white / so grossly white / black is no longer so black / so truly black / temperature is average / breezes moderate / (...) legs are crossed / houses stand/ cars drive / gentlemen have ladies / ladies have fur coats / fur coats have collars / (...) you can join / you can leave/ you can be indignant / not too much/ you can have a coffee (...)". Doubters should be convinced and fortified by reports from construction sites, factories, and scientific laboratories. The authorities did not wish to impose socialist realism through decrees, but they would have loved to finally do away with the black prose by café existentialists and replace it by constructive, vigorous examples taken from real life. In this, they counted very much on the professional photographers, but also on the more and more numerous group of amateur photographers who had at their disposal the immediate medium which supposedly cannot lie, which at a time arouses and quenches the hunger of the world.
Did Jensen, who enthused about the possibilities of Polish photography, realise its ambiguous situation? Uncommitted self-improvement, pure experimentation, freedom for freedom's sake, did not, could not, exist in Polish People's Republic. Jensen encountered in Poland just the photographers who adopted a clearly aesthetic approach, shunning direct illustration of reality. Had he met Eustachy Kossakowski or Tadeusz Rolke, he would have seen how much effort they invested in taking photographs which were interesting from the formal point of view, yet politically correct, in accordance with the propaganda project of the Polska monthly for which they worked, and which was, quite characteristically, published in two differing versions: one for the Polish public and one and for those on the other side of the "Iron Curtain".
Jensen spent but a short time in Poland and he do not lose his fresh perception. Looking at the contact sheets of a dozen or so films he had shot in Poland, we can see the immediacy with which he chose the people, the naturalness with which he looked for motifs, the ease with which he selected the shots, retaining only the most accurate ones. In his country he could not enjoy the status of "graphic artist", but it was him who practised the "life", "total photography" which his contemporaries were dreaming of.
Krakow, October 2009
Photo by Karolina Dylag