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Anthology of Polish photography today

Jerzy Lewczyński (born 1924) is the most significant Polish photographer alive. His work consists not only of photograph made across decades, but includes the “archeology of photography” program as well as numerous scientific and popular publications. A particularly elaborated concept stands out in his oeuvreAnthology of Polish photography 1839-1989[1], published ten years ago along with a poetic commentary. This monumental piece focuses on themes emerging from the works of Lewczyński and across history of Polish photography: destruction, death and the Holocaust on one end; subtle pictorial arts, flash photo reportage, attractive commercial works and erotic photography on the other. The Anthology is an ambivalent book, torn-apart and thus corresponding with our times, using pictures to tell our history. What sort of pictures are they exactly? Lewczyński, in a frivolous manner unattainable to any scholar, dug through collections and archives, both private and public, created by professionals and amateurs, searching for photographs that were most interesting, outstanding, most significant and most of all that were not indifferent to the viewer. But not necessarily most artistic. In this sense the Anthology establishes a unique canon of photography, only to undermine it seconds later (or, using the term of contemporary humanities, to “deconstruct” it). Knowingly and intentionally Lewczyński extends reflection on photography to non-artistic areas. His is one of the boldest calls for opening the conventional canon of Polish photography. Curators to this day learn from the writings of Lewczyński. It is also worth mentioning, that the canon of Polish photography is only seemingly firm. Today, it seems, apart from the most obvious names like Bułhak, Hartwig, Witkacy or Robakowski, transfers among the top hundred handbook photographs are becoming more and more acceptable. Judging only by the exhibitions of last few years, it seems no one is missing a single narration comprising the entire photographic spectrum. Multivoicing appears more interesting, as it shows just how plentiful material we have in Poland, a country, where visual culture has never quite been regarded too important.

[1] Jerzy Lewczyński, Anthology of Polish photography. 1839-1989, Bielsko-Biała 1999.

The choice of Asymetria Gallery has neither been a coincidence for Jerzy Lewczyński, as it is associated with the Foundation for Archeology of Photography. Rafał Lewandowski, gallery owner and a member of the Foundation, has been inspired by Lewczyński ever since he began his professional work with photography; he organized exhibitions referring to the history of Lewczyński exhibitions, he explored the Gliwice milieu (after all, he was not the only one lured by the charisma, or better yet the photographic aura of the Anthology’s author).

The Anthology of Polish photography exhibition is also more than just a recall of the cult book, but a certain tribute to the author too (or, to put it less pompously, yet another approach to unravel Lewczyński – who is he exactly?) and the next stage of reflecting on his work.

At last, the exhibition at Asymetria deals with the important topic of history of Polish photography (or rather lack of it). If history in singular may be difficult to consider today, Lewczyński unveils the perspective of history in plural. The exhibition at Asymetria, a small yet respectable gallery, is by all means a selection, touching only a fragment of a larger whole, a gesture that is modest, yet inspires further research of the past. For the most part the exhibition showcases author’s prints of predominantly artistic works from the second half of the 20th century. There are no prior, amateur works, which have been published in the Anthology, but are now inaccessible, scattered or locked up in museum depositories, which Lewczyński extracted from. Revising Lewczyński’s Anthology should actually start with photography after 1945. That was the time of the artist’s work, it was his age, nevertheless we should not lose our sight of what had happened prior to that and what should be included in the Anthology today, the Anthology, that was originally designed to end at 1989. When asked, Jerzy Lewczyński keeps repeating that he has a second part ready, but what exactly should it look like? What names and what phenomena would it incorporate? Should it reach out to the past, or perhaps only supplement the first volume with contemporary photographs? These are questions worth asking when thinking of exhibitions to come, future texts and books, as the Anthology is an open piece of art par excellence.

Adam Mazur


06.11.2010 11:53:06

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Zofia Rydet