Vintage, Modern, Posthumous - Photography from the Collection of Joanna and Krzysztof Madelski

11.10.2018

ESSAY by Adam Mazur

Question: What is the subject of all of this?
Answer: There is no subject
- Julia Hartwig, Błyski

Among collectors it was generally accepted to classify prints according to the period in which they were made.  Vintage includes the prints made by the artist right after exposition of the negative, at the time when a photographer works on a set or a series of photographs.  Modern includes the later prints, made by the author from the original negative after some years or decades from taking the photograph.  Posthumous, well, are made already by the inheritors of people in possession of rights to the artist's heritage (hence they are often referred to as "estate prints").  The exhibition at the Vintage Photo Festival is an occasion to have a closer look at classic darkroom prints made by masters of Polish photography, through the prism of this essential, yet not so obvious, criterion.  Photography never ceases to play tricks with artists, gallery owners, and collectors who while hunting for old prints encounter new ones, or are often conditioned to deal with posthumous ones (which, all things considered, still sounds better than "post-mortem"). 

Edward Hartwig is the classic of Polish photography after 1945 and the master of darkroom, whose numerous prints exist in a great condition on the market.  The photographs from the collection of Joanna and Krzystof Madelski was taken in 1970s, a peak period of the artist's oeuvre.  Even though it does not come from the greatly important Fotografika (1960), it reflects the style the artist developed in the 1960s.  "Fotografika" by Edward Hartwig (1909-2003) recaptures the neologism coined by Jan Bułhak and references the idea of art photography.  Hartwig, however, understands it differently to Bułhak.  His photographs are free from the obligation to document the beauty of the homeland, there are no forced analogies to painterly motifs in urban and rural landscape, nor search for a perfectly correct composition.  Hartwig's photographs are close to graphics through saturation of the photos with black hues, increased contrast, but also often through losing the motif, balancing on the edge of recognisability.  Instead of documenting motifs significant from the point of view of Polish history and Poles, Hartwig photographs objects of beauty, flickering, and even trivial.  Perhaps, in the art of Hartwig there is less of Bułhak's influence and more of "subjective photography", so popularised in the 1950s by the German photographer Otto Steinert. 

Photographs from the collection of Joanna and Krzysztof Madelski present a female nude, yet in an original way which requires attentive viewing.  The black-and-white photograph is flattened by the regulated focus depth which was fixed on the central motif while leaving foreground and background blurred, abstract.  The blurring of shapes at the bottom and at the top of the frame adds softness to the composition and contrasts with the nude placed at the centre. At the same time, the vertical nude is a photograph within a photograph, somehow fixed into the composition, lying on the blooming branches of the bush.  It resembles a mirror placed on the flowers, reflecting the image of the model right next to the photographer.  Torso of the naked woman, with clearly exposed breasts is sharply different from the bright background.  The silhouette of the model can suggest that the woman sits lightly, almost levitating.  Hartwig plays with the viewer by contrasting different scales of the photographed motifs, highlighting the tension between blurred image of the plant and the contrasting photograph of the nude, setting the focus depth in the photograph of the bush and its lack in the photograph taken in the studio.  All of these manoeuvres are particularly photographic, yet the end result is far from what we expect from a photograph.   Hartwig manages to achieve a difficult thing, to convey a feeling that sometimes all things suddenly start to exist in twos; firstly, clearly and in its entirety, as we know them, and secondly, pale, dimmed and disturbing as if someone has already been looking at them, secretly and with unfamiliar eyes.  The casket composition seduces, while the banal motif gives much satisfaction to an attentive viewer.  The artwork is completed with the artist's signature in the down right corner. 

The series Ktoś inny [someone else] by Zbigniew Libera (born 1959) is an example of modern prints, dating of which is characteristically spread between the years of 1988 and 2006. The photographs taken by the young artist were printed after two decades when Libera was already a mature author, recognised on the art scene.  The artist returned to his juvenile years deciding to expose unknown works, as if the right time for their exposure and interpretation has arrived.  Surely, times have changed and what was an eccentric behaviour of a young man in the period of late communism has become perhaps not so much a norm, but an acceptable, yet strange, queer, and thus fascinating behaviour. The to-camera performance of Libera, misunderstood at the time, after years fits in with the current discussion around sexual identity, queer, relation of art and sexual minorities, and LGBTQ themes.  The title given after years to the photographic triptych can be referred to the famous remark of Arthur Rimbaud: "I is another".  The poetic reference works in photography which allows, even for a short time, to change one's identity and immortalise an extraordinary state.  The most famous photograph from the triptych portrays Libera sat on a couch registering his own reflection in the mirror.  The artist is wearing a lipstick, his eye lashes and eye brows are highlighted.  The vertical composition of the image reflected in the mirror is constructed by Libera's hands holding the camera (probably the Soviet ZENIT) pressed against his face, as well as his interlaced legs in dark, patterned tights.  Sidewise light gives the whole composition character, hiding the interior of the flat, which is more visible on other pictures, in darkness and shades. Interestingly, when printing the photograph after years, the artist leaves the black frame around the mirror, probably placed on the floor for the purpose of the photograph.  The photograph gains on depth, but also on a remarkable, ambiguous atmosphere.  Darkness surrounding the mirror creates a passe-partout highlighting that essential linkages emerge through mystery.  It bears the characteristics of a falling dark beauty of unfamiliarity and a touching restless yearning for otherness. Posing, exposing his torso, smoothly combing back his hair, bending and eventually documenting this whole masquerade of gender, Libera challenges the photographic realism, better still, nulls its seriousness. It is only an artificial, ridiculous little mirror which reflects face after face, identities appear and disappear one after another. Libera's photography is a stylised representation, an unrealistic one which accents otherness and alterity.  Playing with photography, but also with a cultural construct (gender), the artist changes identity. For Libera, gender differences are a cultural construct based on the change of roles and masks.  The gender masquerade contains in its arsenal gestures of both power and fear, and yet it also allows acts of liberation.  One of such acts is Libera's to-camera performance.  In the series Someone else, the artist confirms that an unchanging gender does not exist, surely not in photography.  If this is the case, then there is no way to clearly and permanently separate the mask from what is behind it.  For Libera, the mask consists not only of an appropriate disguise, but also of the photographer's pose. 

Late, modern prints of Zbigniew Libera force for a retrospective linkage of the history of photography and art history.  The artist's intuition after years finds its confirmation, the photograph starts to mean something.  What would have happened if Libera showed this photograph earlier?  How would his history and the history of the photograph unravel?  The issue which is marginal for the artwork of Libera has in turn a principal meaning in the work of Jerzy Lewczyński (1924-2014). Photographs of Lewczyński constitute fascinating issues also from the collector's perspective.  It is also a problem.  The artist has never accepted the necessity to complete editions, he loved to reproduce and multiply copies, he would send them to exhibitions and sign even the print-outs from an office printer and copies of his own photographs, stating that what matters is the image, the element shown on the photograph.  What brought Lewczyński the greatest fame was the idea of "archaeology of photography", consisting in searching photographs of other authors, forgotten and lost, insignificant from the point of view of culture and art.  By appropriating photographs and negatives, Lewczyński gave them a new interpretative frame and saved them from oblivion and destruction.  Photographs from various series realising the concept of the Archaeology of Photography should be included in the "posthumous" category.  Formally, the majority of them was taken by dead authors, and Lewczyński who discovers them anew takes on the role of a self-proclaimed heir.  At the same time, we are not always sure who was the author and whether they were alive at the time Lewczyński entered into the possession of the material and started to make prints.  One should assume that it happened upon the conviction that the original author was already dead.  What is interesting, Lewczyński never sought to discover or regulate the status of authorship, nor rights to the image, assuming precedence of his action and justifying the necessity of appropriation with the photograph's right to continued functioning, replication and thus presence, ensuring the existence of people photographed.  The collection of Joanna and Krzystof Madelski includes great prints of Lewczyński made from the negatives found in the rubbish bin in New York in 1979.  Highlighting the importance of the found negative, Lewczyński develops it in the darkroom, not so much reversing it but performing a yet another transformation so that the image on the positive print would still present the same thing that the negative did.  A naked girls standing in an atelier, posing to familiar male friends is thus unrecognisable, and her identity concealed.  The manoeuvre performed by Lewczyński seems hard to understand today, in the era of digital photography devoid of the mediating layer of the negative.  For Lewczyński, the negative, usually omitted by photographers focused on the positive image, had significance and even was the essence of photography.  „It is also the aim of 'the archaeology of photography’ searching for witnesses of past events! In photography, such a witness is light.  Light, which was a technological impulse for the processes of immortalising reality, and which sculpted in the negative the past common presence!  Negative constitutes thus a mark of the 'past' light and is an authentic witness of past events", wrote Lewczyński.   In a sense, Lewczyński's production of prints, and consequently collection thereof, is an ersatz and perhaps it is the negatives themselves, as confirmations of what had occurred, that should be collected, signed and valued.  Surely, Lewczyński's positive prints presenting the negative allow to see the beauty of a reversed material, highlighting the open and infinitely discussed by theoreticians issue of the essence of photography.  How banal the photographs taken in New York are, one can see by re-photographing or downloading them from the web and reversing the image.  Unremarkable nudes, ordinary girls, photography as a foreplay, simple sexual activities is all and only this is in the pictures.  How much more poetic are the negatives which leave so many details not so much concealed but unclear.  Providing just a general shape, forcing viewers to guess the facial expression, the brightness of gaze, the texture of the skin.  As if whatever is happening is completely unimportant in the light of what could be happening. The disappointing positive (developed) image should be presented with a negative, but how to value it? Perhaps the right valuing criterion is the notion of density; the technical term which sense can be altered when speaking of the density of imagination, density of unexpected encounters, existential discoveries.  The negatives found by Lewczyński in New York are trivial.  The task of the artist is to execute a transformation, to change what is ordinary and reproducible into an extraordinary event, an inspiring idea and an even more interesting image.  Lewczyński is aware of the fact that the photographed events are only accidents in time and space.  Usually, one is placed in a wrong place and forgotten, and remains powerless as an object which no one wants to pick up.  Until the moment when an artist starts to go through curb-side rubbish.  Only then the poor amateur pornography becomes art in what is unearthed.   In Lewczyński's photography, the classification of print becomes secondary.  The idea becomes more important, and the greatest importance lies in the artist's gesture.

Adam Mazur

translated by Kosma Lechowicz