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//Well-known or Unknown, or the International Reception of Polish Photography// – Agata Ubysz

Well-known or Unknown, or the International Reception of Polish Photography – Agata Ubysz

In the last three decades, the growing knowledge of photography, its history, use and aesthetics, in connection with the ever-more interested audience, led to the exceptional surge in this medium’s popularity. Museums, foundations and research institutes connected with photography sprang up all across the world in astonishing numbers, there are also various festivals and sessions, while bookstore shelves are now laden with volumes on the history of photography, anthologies, exhibition catalogues and photographic magazines. The easy access to source materials, the digitalised holdings and archives published online brought to light the output of many generations of photographers. At the same time, this growth in institutional interest ran parallel to the dynamic development of the commercial market. In 1996, Paris held its first edition of Paris Photo, a show that is to this very day considered as the most prestigious and crucial event in the photographic world. What is more, art fairs all around the world are attended by an ever-growing representation of galleries that deal in photography only. The exhibition boom and the resulting increase in demand for photography drive prices and shape evaluation criteria. When it comes to old photography, what counts the most is the name of the author, authenticity and quality of the copy (vintage), whereas the price of contemporary photography is shaped, apart from the artist’s reputation and their exhibition curriculum, by edition, i.e. the number of copies of a given work in a given format. It now seems that, since photography has already reached a level of prices comparable to painting and sculpture, the debate as to whether photography is art or not has finally ended. In 2011, the auction market scored a true record, with Christie’s selling Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II for over four million dollars.

So how does Polish photography fare in comparison to international art? Are Polish photographers known in the world and what is their level of participation in international art markets? Are international photographic institutions really interested in Polish creation? If we are to answer these questions, we need to take a look at the availability of information on Polish photography and its history across international markets, since these factors have a significant impact on the commercial market. Books on the history of photography rarely mention Polish artists. One of the most important monographs and the first publication on this topic, the exhibition catalogue Photography 1839–1937 (New York 1937) by Beaumont Newhall, contains no references to Poland. When assembling the exhibition that illustrated the one-hundred-year history of this medium, Newhall limited his work in Europe to France and England alone. As a result, many countries of the Eastern bloc were for many years excluded from the international circles of photography. Newhall could not have known that Word War II and the new geopolitical order would disable any official exchange of information between the East and the West. Poland also did not have its own history of photography for many decades. Given this lack of source materials, it should not be surprising that international curators are hard-pressed to mention even one or two Polish photographers. A random selection of information on the history of photography in our country is only now starting to reach opinion leaders. For many decades, news on Polish photography only seeped through the borders thanks to emigrating artists (Bogdan Konopka, Krzysztof Pruszkowski, Tadeusz Rolke), or those that enjoyed a strong enough position in the country to be able to participate in exhibition and travel abroad. The 1989 transformation set free many an art initiative that could not have been implemented before. This does not mean, however, that there was no institutional exchange between the two blocs during the Cold War. Such co-operation did in fact take place, as can be seen on the example of the exhibition Polish Photography 1839–1979 (International Center of Photography, New York, 1979) or La Photographie Polonaise 1900–1981 (Centre Pompidou, Paris, 1981). Both shows were accompanied with critical catalogues, and Adam Mazur said that the presentation at the International Center of Photography was ‘so far the only synthetic summary of the history of Polish photography of such a grand scale and ambition’.[1] We should also mention the fact that when it comes to photography, there was also an informal system of co-operation and exchange that complemented the official route with regular contacts among non-official art circles, curators, agencies or directly with artists.

The abolition of political barriers enabled organising the first uncensored exhibition of Polish photography abroad, focusing in particular on works documenting political issues, which had previously never been shown. Seven months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne organised the exhibition L’Année de l’Est, showing 2,279 pictures made by 101 photographers from ten Eastern-bloc countries: Poland, Hungary, German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the Soviet Union (Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia). The Polish list was compiled on a more or less random basis in view of the short (only three-month) notice period, as well as the fact that Swiss curators lacked appropriate expertise and had no access to specialist publications on the history of this medium in Poland. More importantly, their goal was not only to present a historical narrative. The curators, Daniel Girardin and Charles-Henri Favrod, divided the show into two sections: documentary photography presenting the events that led to social and political change, and experimental pictures. By including a large number of works, they wanted to find a common denominator and create a coherent image of Eastern photography. However, this was a faulty assumption. As it turned out, simply gathering artists whose only common experience was life under communism was not enough. The Polish list included as many as 11 names: Krzysztof Cichosz, Wiesław Brzóska, Benedykt Jerzy Dorys, Edward Hartwig, Mariusz Hermanowicz, Waldemar Jama, Stanisław Markowski, Krzysztof Pruszkowski, Wojciech Prażmowski, Zbigniew Tomaszczuk and Tomasz Tomaszewski. The twelfth place was taken by a reportage made by several photographers in the Vorkuta Gulag, while the Independent Photographic Agency Dementi was Poland’s thirteenth representative. In total, there were 653 Polish photographs from 1930–1989. Unfortunately the organisers did not publish a catalogue, making it impossible for contemporary historians to obtain even basic information about the exhibition. Once L’Année de l’Est had ended, all photographs were purchased by the Musée l’Elysée, which currently also holds copies of works by Sławomir Barcik, Anna Beata Bohdziewicz, Grzegorz Seweryn Bojanowski, Jerzy Lewczyńsk, Latek Lusko, Jacek Malicki, Anna Pisuła-Mandziej, Zofia Rydet, Jan Bułhak and Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz.

When it comes to the holdings of international institutions, the collection of the Musée l’Elysée seems the largest and the most diverse. Of course, copies of photographs made by many a Polish artist can also be found in the collections of other museums and foundations. Such items are however usually limited to individual works or short series. Jan Bułhak’s photographs can be found in two institutions across the pond – in the Canadian Centre for Architecture (Montreal) and n the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts (Stanford), Natalia LL’s works are held by ICP (New York), Centre Pompidou (Paris) and Ludwig Museum (Cologne). Six black and white pictures by Zofia Rydet from her Zakopane portraits series can be found in MoMA (New York). The series of 159 photographs by Eustachy Kossakowski, Six Metres Before Paris, is an exception to the rule, having been purchased in full by two French museums: Carnavalet (Paris) and Nicéphore Niépce (Chalon sur Saône).

The next large synthetic presentation of Polish photographic oeuvre, 20th Century of Polish Photography from the Collection of the Museum of Art in Łódź, took place in 2006 at the Shoto Museum of Art and Niigata Art City Museum in Tokyo. It displayed almost 200 thousand works of 46 artists and was accompanied by a catalogue with a critical analysis and short bios in English and Japanese. As we can see, these 30 years provided several opportunities to systematise and register the history of Polish photography. However, until 2009, the year in which Adam Mazur’s doctoral thesis, A History of Photography in Poland 1839–2009, was published, there was virtually no basic reference book on this topic. Of course, apart from the catalogues mentioned above, one could find publications devoted to particular phenomena, periods or centres connected with photography; however, such books were available in Polish only. Adam Mazur’s book, a typical academic work, is not limited to a simple ordering of events and names and constitutes a reliable, though in places difficult source of information. It is a pity that it had not been translated into English (there is just a short English Summary of several pages), since it could serve as a resource book not only for Polish photography fiends, artists and researchers but also for international audiences.

So what about the contemporary international presence of Polish photography? It seems that the Festival of Photography in Łódź and the Photomonth in Krakow have become its best ambassadors. For many years now, their organisers have created international programmes, invited curators and photography historians, held portfolio reviews. Charlotte Cotton, curator and researcher co-operating with the Photomonth, said that this event ‘illustrates the phenomena that fascinate many of us within the photographic milieu. When I met the organisers and other partners, I realised that their creative pursuits spring from the basic assumption that they had adopted; that they wanted to focus the various interests of photographers around a specific theme, closely connected with the local but nevertheless with an international bearing’.[1] Marta Szymańska, programming director at the Festival of Photography in Łódź, says that when she joined this project in 2005, international curators were still attracted by the exotic allure of a former Eastern bloc country. They wanted to explore the unknown. Today, those who come to Poland are much more aware of our photographic scene and are interested in new developments. Poland’s position as an exceptionally fresh and strong art centre is also confirmed by the number of invitations to contemporary art fairs, received recently by the Warsaw gallery (or rather collective) Czułość, which describes itself as ‘a grassroots initiative, and an independent, avant-garde movement in contemporary photography’.[2] After the presentation in Japan (Tokyo 2013) and at the JustMad fair in Madrid (2012), the owner of the gallery, Janek Zamoyski, decided to expand his business and promote creative exchange among institutions, groups and collectives of a similar profile. The activities run by Czułość in 2013 are to be concentrated on the promotion of its artists at international markets.

Poland had three pioneers that paved the way towards international markets. In 2010, three Polish galleries participated in Paris Photo: The Asymetria Gallery and The Czarna Gallery from Warsaw and the ZPAF i S-ka gallery from Krakow. Asymetria, which offers historical photography, showed copies of Zbigniew Dłubak, Jerzy Lewczyński, Marek Piasecki, Zofia Rydet and Wojciech Zamecznik, etc. Polish artists are particularly popular among American museums. MoMA bought nine copies of Marek Piasecki, dated 1960–1961, and Lewczyński’s works were purchased by the Art Institute, Chicago. ‘International institutions are drawn to Polish photographic creation thanks to commercial galleries’[3], says Patrick Komorowski, former co-owner of Asymetria, today  working in his private gallery Pole Magnetyczne. In his opinion, the economic dynamics of photography is now stimulated mostly by collectors and museums, and it is the art market itself that creates new opportunities. Unfortunately, only one of the three pioneering galleries still continues its co-operation with Paris Photo (ZPAF i S-ka closed in 2012, while Czarna had a one-time presentation only) and holds negotiations concerning the purchase of other Polish works with international museums, such as MFAH and Tate Modern. Its owner Rafał Lewandowski thinks that it is important to co-ordinate the institutional activities connected with photography in order to promote the growth of this medium in Poland and abroad. Museums tend not to treat galleries as having any role in the promotion of Polish culture, although their exhibition programme is very ambitious. Despite its difficult, contemplative nature, Asymetria’s last presentation at Paris Photo in 2012, Communism Under Construction: Polish Photography after 1945, met with positive reviews among curators, including the Tate Modern chief of photography, Simon Baker.

The history of Polish photography after 2000 is presented in the bilingual lexicon in Polish and English created by Adam Mazur, The Decisive Moment.[4] Many artists participate in collective exhibitions organised by international museums and galleries. In 2010, Agata Madejska, Sylwia Kowalczyk and Anna Orłowska took part in a now legendary show, which tried to delimit the areas of interest of the latest photography and present its creators. The ReGeneration2 exhibition (Switzerland, Musée de l’Elysée), travelled across four continents, presented 80 young artists from 30 countries in the world, and its outstanding catalogue published by the prestigious publishing house Thames & Hudson became a guide of the new photographic scene and a wonderful platform for all artists that participated in this grand undertaking. The publication summarising the latest trends in Eastern European photography, released by Horst Klover, Berlin, LAB EAST: 30 Photographic Positions from Central and Eastern Europe, presents the portfolios of five Polish artists: Bownik, Michał Grochowiak, Rafał Milach, Adam Pańczuk and Piotr Zbierski. Many photographic magazines have presented the portfolios of Paweł Jaszczuk (‘Capricious’, ‘British Journal of Photography’), Łódź Kaliska (‘Eyemazing’), Marcin Owczarek (‘Eyemazing’), Adam Pańczuk (‘OyodePez’, ‘Yvi’) and Przemysław Pokrycki (‘Yvi’). More interestingly, also Polish publications on photography gained international renown, with as many as four listed as The Best Books 2012 (ranking organised by Photo-Eye Editions). The list distinguished the following volumes: Distant Place, an album of the Sputnik Photos collective published by the Copernicus Science Centre, Michał Łuczak’s Brutal, a collection of photographs presenting the old, no longer existing railway station in Katowice, In Search of Diamonds by Tomasz Wiech and Memory of the Image by Jerzy Lewczyński.

When it comes to the auction market, the most sold artist is Piotr Uklański, represented by the Gagosian Gallery. His works are regularly auctioned by Phillips de Pury; from time to time, though much less frequently, also by Christie’s. Uklański belongs to the group of contemporary artists that use photography as only one of the possible means of expression, it is therefore difficult to compare his success with creators who limit themselves to just one medium. Sometimes auctions sell Zofia Kulik’s work. In May 2009 in Amsterdam, Christie’s sold her work entitled Pattern 8b (Morris 16–1). However, Augusta Edwards of the London gallery Erik Frank (representing Eastern European artists, including Zofia Kulik), says that recently there has been no real interest in Kulik’s art. The gallery has long since last organised any solo show for the artist, and several photographs presented at Paris Photo 2010 sparked only a fleeting interest among collectors. Zofia Kulik is also represented by Żak Branicka in Berlin, which in 2008 organised a solo show Splendour of Myself (V).

The presence of Polish photography at international auctions organised by the big three (Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury) is limited to just one artist, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. In December 2012, Sotheby’s sold his self-portrait, The Madman’s Terror, for 10 thousand dollars. A year before, another of his self-portraits, dated 1912–1914, scored a record price of 52,500 thousand dollars at Philips de Pury’s auction. In 2005, another copy of the same self-portrait went for 42 thousand at Christie’s. Where does this success come from? First of all, for a Polish photographers, Witkiewicz inspires a huge number of exhibitions: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz: Photography, 1899–1930 at the Robert Miller Gallery (New York, 1998), Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885–1939): Photographien at the Galerie Berinson (Berlin, 2003), Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885–1939): Drawings from the 1930 at the Ubu Gallery (New York, 2006 and the booth at Art Basel in Switzerland), Confidence Men together with Józef Robakowski at the Żak Branicka gallery (Berlin, 2009) or the presentation of photographs and landscapes, Honey and Ashes: Part 2, prepared by Mirosław Bałka at the Douglas Hyde Gallery (Dublin, 2011).

I asked several international photographers whether they knew any Polish colleagues. Some of them mentioned one or two names; for the most, however, it was uncharted territory. They apologised for this lack of knowledge and wanted to be sent information. They enquired about books in English or French, about research, photography schools, exhibitions, catalogues. Of course, there is a group of specialists that promote Polish photography around the world, such as Peggy Sue in Ireland, William Ewing in Switzerland and Charlotte Cotton in England. It will therefore be interesting to look how the popularity of our photography develops over the next few years. All seems to be going well: the great divide between the East and the West was abolished, and research is advancing together with the digitalisation and refreshment of archives (Archaeology of Photography Foundation). Krakow and Łódź organise photographic festivals, and new historical monographs and lexicons of photography appear on the market, while Polish artists are invited to join residencies and organise exhibitions abroad.



[2] http://czulosc.com/english [retrieved: 24.7.2013].

[3] Interview with Patrick Komorowski, 25.2.2013, Warsaw.

[4] Cf. A. Mazur, The Decisive Moment. New Phenomena in Polish Photography Since 2000, Karakter, Krakow 2012.

[1] A. Mazur, Historia fotografii w Polsce 1839–2009, Visual Arts Foundation, Kraków 2009, p. 68.