Karol Brandel photographing Marcin Olszyński in his workshop
at Nowy Świat 57, circa 1870
photo: National Museum in Warsaw / History Meeting House
In 1795, the Third Partition of Poland ended the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and wiped Poland off the map of Europe. All fields of life became influenced by the Austrian, Prussian and Russian occupiers, and photography was no exception. The early days of Polish photography were intertwined with the economic and cultural development of the three ruling empires. As a result, photographers from the Polish territories were
active in many places outside their native land, like Paris or St. Petersburg.
On the other hand, the occupation allowed technological innovation to spread rapidly. Photography is commonly held to have been discovered by the French engineer Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 with his famous picture View from the Window. According to archival sources, the first Polish photographic experiments (which were called talbotypes at the time) were
taken in 1839 by Maksymilian Strasz, also an engineer.
The trend caught on among scientists and technicians. Nineteenth-century photography was a craft with established rules and procedures. There were travelling photographers who moved from village to village, and gradually commercial studios appeared. Among those craftsmen, the artistic quality of three Warsaw photographers stood out: Karol Beyer, Maximillian Fajans and Konrad
Karol Beyer, a technician of German origin, devoted his life to portraying Poles. He founded the first photographic studio in Poland, which made a profit chiefly out of portrait photography. It was frequented by the most prominent members of Warsaw’s political, cultural and artistic elite. However, the parlour’s owner had broad interests. He explored remarkably varied themes in photography – just like other well-known studios around Europe. Politically-inclined, Beyer is considered to be the creator of the first Polish photo-reportages. In 1861, from the window of his workshop, he photographed Russian troops stationed in Saski Square. He also made Five Killed Men, a collage of touching posthumous portraits of five protesters who died that same year during a patriotic demonstration on 27th February.
Maximillian Fajans was a Polish Jew and proud Varsovian. He carefully documented the construction of railway lines around his home city. He also photographed Warsaw’s stations and the interior of its city hall during renovations. These images went on to win awards at the 1873 World Exposition in Vienna.
Finally, Karol Brandel stands out both because of his unusual life and his approach to photography. He convinced the municipal authorities to let him fly above Warsaw in a hot air balloon to capture Polish landscapes from above. During the 1870s, people from all over the country and beyond came to Warsaw just to see the peculiar flying object carry a man holding an even more peculiar device. Brandel is also considered the first Polish press photographer, mostly thanks to his invention of an automatic shutter mechanism in 1881.
Summer Goblin (Vilnius) by Jan Bułhak, 1930
photo: Arkadiusz Podstawka / National Museum in Wrocław
As previously mentioned, Polish photography rapidly spread beyond the borders of Polish territories. One such instance was in Lithuania, where Jan Bułhak endeavoured to elevate photography from craft to art. Before Bułhak, there was no conscious artistic intention in the field. But influenced by the Western school of thought, Bułhak took the aesthetics of photography to a brand-new level ‒ he founded Polish pictorialism, a
movement concerned with interfering with the development of negatives to create photographs that looked like paintings.
In 1908, Bułhak ‒ who would later be called the father of Polish photography ‒ created a variety of images he nicknamed ‘photo-graphics’. They were the precursors of artistic photography, both from a theoretical and artistic standpoint. He was especially attentive to the impressionistic possibilities provided
by contrasts, and consciously strove towards abstraction in his photographs. There was also a strong patriotic streak in his work, so it is sometimes described as a part of the nationalistic photography movement. Essentially, Bułhak combined the patriotic functions of 19th-century photography with aesthetic postulates from the West. He also founded a photography association that survives to this day, currently called the Union of Artist Photographers of Poland (Polish acronym: ZPAF).
Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz as Professor Pulverston
by Józef Głogowski,
photo: Stefan Okołowicz and Ewa Franczak
Most of Witkacy’s life is still shrouded in mystery. He was a writer, playwright, poet, painter, photographer, philosopher and art theoretician, a visionary ahead of his times, and a legendary prankster. In short, he was a man whose cutting-edge judgement and catastrophic prophecies would influence art for many decades to come.
Trying to categorise the
kaleidoscopic Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz is almost impossible. As a painter, he was eccentric and ultra-modern. He assigned every painting a code that represented the type and dosage of psychoactive substances he had taken during its creation. His photographs are equally disquieting. Multiple Portrait is an excellent example of his approach: nothing is certain, nothing is at it seems, eyes lie and so does art.
Witkacy is also considered to have defined modernist photography. He rejected landscapes and pictorial photography, preferring deeply psychological expressionist portraits and self-portraits, along with almost dadaist staged scenes. His most valuable portraits were taken during the years 1912 to 1919, a period that exhibited vast differences between his shots of other people (nostalgic, romantic, soft, often touching) and those of himself (aggressive, wild, weird, even confusing).
Karol Hiller with a palette, Łódź, 1937-1939
photo: Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź
Hiller based his works on small drawings that invoked roll film. His work belonged to organic abstraction, a precursor to the mixed-media trends of the 1950s. He was a modern artist who did not consider himself tied to one particular technique, and his works implicitly criticised the postulates voiced by proponents of the avant-garde.
St. Kazimierz Church on New Town Square, 1947
photo: Karol Pęchersk / Warsaw Rising Museum
While the avant-garde saw photography as a way to create surreal, absurd and disturbing images, there were always other photographers intent on capturing commonplace everyday reality. They used small cameras, like Leicas, with sharp-image lenses.
In Poland, documentary photography took two forms. There were press images for high-circulation publications, used to
put political events in a social context (like Jan Ryś and Henryk Śmigacz of the Kurier Warszawski). The second form was not intended for mass publication, but rather the photographer’s oeuvre, like Aleksander Minorski's photographs documenting the life of Warsaw's poorest inhabitants during the 1930s.
Like in most artistic fields at the time, the majority of practitioners were men, but Zofia Chomętowska did not allow social
conventions to hold her back. Born to a noble family in 1902, she captured the peacefulness of the Polish countryside until it was ravaged by war. However, not even the widespread destruction of WWII could stop her. Her photographs showing the ruins and reconstruction of Warsaw were included in the first post-war exhibition at the National Museum in Warsaw in May-June 1945. Called Warsaw Accuses!, this landmark exhibition was a strong statement about the condition of the Polish capital
after the war.
There can be no mention of Polish post-war photography without the inclusion of Leonard Sempoliński, who took one of the most moving pictures of Warsaw after its destruction, or Jan Benedykt Dorys, whose series Kazimierz nad Wisłą remains one of the gems of Polish documentary photography. The latter was shown abroad and gained
worldwide recognition, but Dorys is today mostly known for his portraits. His photographs show great humour and creativity. Unlike Chomętowska, whose artistic path was defined by WWII, Dorys stopped being a photographer in order to fight the invading forces. Only after the war ended did he return to photography.
Photograph by Zofia Chomętowska, 1925-1945
photo: Gabriella and Piotr Chomętowski, Archeology
of Photography Foundation
Exotic Poland, as the artist called it, was a popular subject among photographers of the interwar period, but Chomętowska alone was able to capture the diversity of themes and histories found in the region. Although her works do not create a consistent series, a common theme binds them strongly into one cohesive oeuvre. Her vast collection of negatives portraying pre-war Polesie is undoubtedly the most complete documentation
of this long-gone world.
She began using a Leica in 1927. She belonged to a small group of Polish Leica enthusiasts and even wrote about the camera in a 1936 collective publication: Leica in Poland. The 1930s, when she moved to Warsaw, were her most prolific years. She photographed the palaces of the capital ‒ the Kronenberg Palace, the Koniecpolski Palace, Palace Blanka to name just a few. She joined the Polish Photography
Association in 1932 and quickly became a key participant of most important national photo events. She had two solo exhibitions in Warsaw during, the first one in 1936 and the second one in 1939, the first photography exhibition to be shown at Czesław Garliński’s famous gallery.
At Mayor Stefan Starzyński's request, she created a series documenting lacklustre aspects of Warsaw life, like rubbish collection and homeless dogs, for
an exhibition entitled Warsaw Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, organised at the brink of WWII at the National Museum.
Chomętowska did not abandon photography after the Second World War. Her prints of the ruins and reconstruction of Warsaw were included in the first post-war exhibition Warsaw Accuses!, shown at the National Museum in May-June 1945. This milestone exhibition, which was later presented abroad, was a strong statement
about the condition of the Polish capital after the war.
Chomętowska followed the Warsaw Accuses! exhibition all over Europe. She decided not to return from London, and from there she submitted a written request to join the association that later became ZPAF (the Union of Polish Art Photographers), making her a co-founding member. In 1947, after being reunited with her daughter Gabriella and son Piotr in London, she moved to
Argentina with her children, where she finally retired. Her contribution to Polish photography was forgotten during the following decades, but modern-day critics consider her work to be incommensurably valuable.
Queen of Spades, circa 1982
photo: Edward Hartwig / National Library / Polona
There were three trends within social realism: classical, pictorial and documentary. How did artists react to being confined to specific styles? Many of them perpetuated ‘nationalist photography’, following in the footsteps of Jan Bułhak. Zbigniew Dłubak was considered the most important pictorialist in this field until the late 1980s. His works featured both photography and painting in equal proportion. He was the
editor-in-chief of the magazine Photography, which focused on the conceptual aspects of social-realist photography.
Fortunata Obrąpalska also decided to try her hand at pictorialism, but unlike Dłubak, her artistic style shifted over time. She adapted modernism and social realism to her own signature naturalistic style. Obrąpalska studied chemistry at university, and her passion for science can be felt throughout her work, with
her best-known series being Diffusion in Liquid, Curse, Silence, Dancer II and Studiums. Each one analyses the structure of bodies, shapes and shadows in some way. For example, she would photograph the diffusion of ink drops in water to create metaphorical and poetic compositions.
Edward Hartwig was also a pictorialist. He tended to comply with the rules of nationalistic photography propagated by Bułhak – his works display a
broadly-understood realism which ties in with national symbols.
Forge, from the last exhibition of the group ZERO-61
photo: Andrzej Rozycki / CSW Toruń
Zdzisław Beksiński's works were remarkably distinct and reminiscent of interwar surrealism. He used amateur photographs, reproductions from magazines (including pornographic ones), worn out negatives and also reproductions of dictionary texts, presented in forms referring to film narration. He gave his works shocking and surprising titles, which interacted with
the juxtaposed photographs. In 1959 at the Photographic Society in Gliwice, a group exhibition went down in the history of Polish photography under the name Antiphotography. It was then that Beksiński presented his famous work Sadist’s Corset alongside a set of fourteen untitled works inspired by surrealistic photography and the film editing theory of famed Soviet constructivist Vsevolod Pudovkin. After his photography period, Beksiński later became a draughtsman, graphic artist and
Meanwhile, Jerzy Lewczyński used a multifaceted form of ‘lost and found’ photography, creating the basis for what would later become photographic archaeology. In the years 1957-60, he was part of the informal group that also consisted of Zdzisław Beksiński and Bronisław Schlabs. In those times, Lewczyński radicalised his views, chiefly because of Beksiński. He
was inspired by surrealism and Man Ray’s rayograms, creating negative photomontages, which referred to the civilisational changes occurring in Silesia. He was also inspired by family photographs dating back to his childhood and to experiences of the war.
In the 1960s, the avant-garde weakened as photojournalism and press photography emerged. But there were still photographers who tried to circumvent the artistic rules imposed by
the ruling powers. An association of photographers called Zero-61 Group was set up in Toruń. Experimenting with modernism, pictorialism and symbolist painting, the group included Czesław Kuchta, Jerzy Wardak, Józek Robakowski, Andrzej Różycki, Antoni Mikołajczyk and Wojciech Bruszewski. They slowly evolved from art photography to increasingly progressive concepts, and toward the end of the group's existence they experimented with a mix of dadaism and pop art.
The stand-out of Zero-61 was Józek Robakowski, thanks to his focus on creating a new media language that strived to rid film of ‘alien elements’, such as anecdote, literary forms, narration, and make it simpler yet more information-dense. Besides various photographic experiments (e.g. Photo-Painting, 1958-1967; double-exposure photographs employing mirror-image composition),
Robakowski made photo-objects, such as Colander (1960), a photograph of a colander nailed to a plank.
Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, better known as Natalia LL, was the obvious queen of the 1970s - her most renowned photographs were taken during that decade. In the 1980s, she shifted towards feminist art, and with time drew closer to existentialism, weaving religious subtexts into her scandalising images. Her riveting style has
disgusted and delighted audiences all over the world.
Joseph Beuys, Düsseldorf, 1971
photo: Tadeusz Rolke / AG
Artists who valued freedom of expression had to put their ambition on hold. Fortunately, some of them managed to find their own path in spite of the restrictions imposed on their art.
Tadeusz Rolke is not only one of the most important photographers in Poland, but also an unforgettable character. During WWII, he spent his teenage years as a member of the underground paramilitary Polish Scouting Association, and later operated as a liaison officer during the Warsaw Uprising. After seeing black and white photographs in Die Wehrmacht and Der Adler magazine, he
fell in love with photography. His first camera, a Kodak Baby Box, was a gift from his mother after she managed to salvage it from the all-encompassing destruction of the uprising, knowing how important it was to her son. After the uprising, he was sent to a work camp in Germany. After many transfers and further entry of the Red Army, he finally returned to a ruined Warsaw in April 1945. His anxiety about the communist regime lead to him being sentenced to 7 years hard labour for being part
of an illegal organisation and keeping banned materials from the American embassy. Thanks to the amnesty, Rolke was released early and devoted the rest of his life to photography. He remains an iconic documentary photographer in Poland to this day. His portraits are also critically acclaimed.
Chris Niedenthal was active throughout the communist years, but the incommensurable worth of his oeuvre was only openly celebrated after the fall of the regime. His photographs were an accurate representation of life in Poland under communism, often highlighting the absurdities of the system. He is most famous for his iconic shot of a tank beside an Apocalypse Now poster, an
image that later came to symbolise the Martial Law period in western media.
Krzysztof Miller (b. 1962) developed a characteristic, reflective style as an emotionally engaged news photographer concerned with the plight of people. Although Miller took up photography in the second half of the 1980s, his best-known pictures only appeared in the following decade. At that time, Miller was travelling the world as a news photographer for the newspaper Gazeta
Wyborcza covering major events: armed conflicts in the Balkans, Chechnya, Afghanistan, South Africa, and famines in Africa. His photographs often accompany
the texts of Wojciech Jagielski, with whom he formed a unique journalistic duo for many years.
Polish photojournalism doesn’t end with those three names, of course. There are so many more amazing figures worth discovering. Among them Cezary Sokołowski, the first Polish photographer to win a Pulitzer.
Photograph from the Sociological Record series
by Zofia Rydet, 1978-1990
photo: Zofia Rydet Archives
Cities changed at an alarming rate during the 1950s. The rapid political and material shift disoriented many citizens. Zofia Rydet immortalised the most vulnerable members of Polish society during these frightening times. Her images of children and rural families in Poland from the 1960s and 1970s are among the most insightful and well-executed photographic series from post-war Poland.
Her magnum opus is entitled Sociological Record. It consists of tens of thousands of negatives taken in rural Poland from 1978 to 1989, representing people from all walks of life in their everyday surroundings. The photographs span the entire spectrum of human emotion, from loneliness, fear and loss to happiness and hope. Rydet's Sociological Record has been compared to August Sander's study of German society in the 1920s.
Outside the box
Paweł Kwiek, self-portrait from My Liturgy series
photo: courtesy of the artist
The shock to society that was martial law came into force on 13th December 1981, forcing Polish culture into the artistic underground. The slow return to cultural life would progress only gradually until the 1989 elections, when a new government led by Tadeusz Mazowiecki lifted censorship and allowed liberalisation to seep into all aspects of national life.
during the 1980s, the main current against the ‘country at war’ were exhibitions organised in churches in Poland’s larger cities. It was borne from the desperate need of the likes of Zofia Rydet and Paweł Kwiek for neutral grounds where they could showcase their art.
The second, smaller underground current had a neo-avant-garde character and was called Kultura Zrzuty (sometimes translated as ‘Collective Culture’). It developed
mostly in Łódź, where it was a continuation of photo-media traditions mixed in with dadaist forms.
Elsewhere, Kwiek-Kulik, an artistic tandem formed by Zofia Kulik and Paweł Kwiek, were known for being madly in love with each other and addressing taboos. Zofia Kulik studied the female body from a feminist perspective, and the couple also photographed their son in a series called Activities with Dobromierz.
Zbigniew Libera, a visual artist, was no less controversial. His most famous installation was a Nazi-themed LEGO set. Besides several scandals in visual and performance art, he also made significant contributions to Polish photography, like his album Photographies.
Comes Full Circle
Photograph from the Ziemia Obiecana,
Droga series by Tomek Sikora, 2005
photo: courtesy of the artist
Tomek Sikora was born into an artistic family – his mother was a painter and his father was a well-known sculptor. He became a professional photographer at the age of 20 after having studied at one of the Kodak studios in Paris. The western world influenced Sikora’s perception and technique. He was one of the first to hand-colour and manually alter photographs in
Ryszard Horowitz specialised in collages. He was also a precursor of digital photo-processing in Poland. Strongly inspired by surrealism, his works recall the paintings of Magritte and Dalí. In 1959, Horowitz left for New York where he began his studies at the prestigious Pratt Institute in the commercial and advertising graphic design department. This is
where encountered his mentor, the prominent photographer, Richard Avedon. He became his assistant and worked on the sets of sessions including the famous portrait session with Salvador Dali in 1963. At Avedon’s workshop he crossed paths with Alexey Brodovitch, the most influential figure in the generation of American photographers defined as the New York School. He took part in weekly seminars led by Brodovitch, who always encouraged his students to 'Surprise me!' This mantra accompanied
Horowitz during the realization of his own works.
Jeevodaya leprosy rehabilitation centre in Gatapar, Raipur district, India, from the series Through the Glass
photo: Maciej Jeziorek / Napo Images
Sputnik Photos was born out of a widespread fascination with the former USSR. Many Polish photographers had explored this nostalgic attraction – Kizny, Tomaszewski and Kapuściński, to name just a few. But Sputnik Photos went a step further, declaring a quasi-exclusive focus on the mysterious region. It consists of seven photographers: Andrzej Balco, Jan Brykczyński, Andrei Liankevich, Michał Łuczak, Rafał Milach, Adam
Pańczuk and Agnieszka Rayss. Their editorial series are appreciated all over the world. Black Sea of Concrete, Is(Not), 7 rooms and Boiko, for example, are already iconic publications.
Napo Images is an agency founded in 2008 by seven big names from Polish photography: Filip Ćwik, Maciej Jeziorek, Adam Lach, Wojciech Grzedzinski, Piotr Małecki, Ewa Meissner and Monika Szewczyk-Wittek. Their mission: to develop and promote
Napo avoids short projects, snaps or capturing simple sensations – they focus on long-term projects that involve social, cultural and political issues. Portraying human beings in the modern world using a humanistic approach, they show great respect towards the subject of each project. Not just photographers, they are emphatic and erudite about their subjects. It would be hard to do justice here to all
their impressive work.
Filip Ćwik is well known as a portrait photographer. His unique ability to capture the inner features on people’s faces has brought him global recognition. His most famous series, 12 Faces, realised in 2012, consists of a dozen portraits taken in a makeshift portrait studio he set up next to a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey. 12 Faces was presented in a photobook, with the pictures accompanied by the
collected recollections of the photographed individuals.
Adam Lach shines a light on outcasts, going where nobody wants to go. His Stigma series brought the subject of Roma people in Poland back to public attention. It documented a 60-person Roma family living in Wrocław in an encampment of temporary barracks constructed from whatever they could find. The series’ narrative is developed through accompanying stories from the
inhabitants of this harsh space, as recorded by Katarzyna Dybowska.
Piotr Małecki is an example of photographer who tries to combine still pictures with new media. As the artist claims: ‘I love photography, I love film. I do both. With the new exciting possibilities of storytelling that have emerged thanks to new technology and the modern ways of reaching the audience, maybe I can make a difference after all?’
One of the two women in Napo is Ewa Meissner, known for capturing the daily routines of the people around her. She has an impressive ability to pick the most absurd, vivid and complex scenes out of seemingly ordinary situations.
The standout of Napo Images is definitely Maciej Jeziorek. Well educated and with skills to die for, Jeziorek spent more time in India than at home as he
worked on his two most famous that built his exceptional reputation. One of these ambitious projects was Through the Glass, a sophisticated retro-style photo reportage about people with leprosy. A few months later at the beginning of 2016, he released one of the most mysterious photobooks Poland has ever produced: 317 Days to Mars. The project is the complete opposite of the previous one, full of colours, secrets and all sorts of editorial tricks. The reader senses surprise even as they
try to open it and as they go through it, it feels like a Rubik’s cube or a puzzle with an infinite number of right answers. They immediately notice that the order is distorted, with normal Euclidean directions rendered meaningless. Everything gets mixed up and intertwined, creating a big enigmatic ‘undefined place’.
In 2008, the founders of the Napo Images agency added a new project to the fold, the Napo Foundation, the main
goal of which is to educate and support young photographic talents. The wide-reaching foundation would not be possible without the organisation and delegation of Monika Szewczyk-Wittek, who acts as photo editor, educator and agency representative all at the same time.
There are also individualists who capture the world with a brand new approach to documentary photography. Both as a writer and photographer, Filip Springer
describes Polish cities with a critical eye. His fearless denunciations about poor urban planning in Poland have often turned municipal authorities against him.
Wojciech Wilczyk also keeps an urban focus. He is known for hunting anomalies in the co-existence of city dwellers with architecture. His two most important projects are No Such Thing as an Innocent Eye, and Holy War. For the first, he photographed former synagogues and
houses of prayer, some of which had been converted into functional secular buildings like cinemas, shops and warehouses, while others were left in ruins or stood deserted.
The second, Holy War, consists of photographs of graffiti by people who consider themselves football fans, a social group often synonymous in Poland with fervent patriotism and nationalism. The series consists of nearly 400 images of murals, all made by
football supporters involved in their own inner wars, with abusive language and scenes referring to racism, anti-semitism and other forms of hatred.
Man feeding swans by Marcin Ryczek, 2013
photo: courtesy of the artist
In 2012, the photographer Adam Mazur, considered one of the most important contemporary photography critics in Poland, published one of the most definitive compendiums of knowledge about the artform in 21st-century Poland.
Entitled The Decisive Moment, the publication opens with the following words:
‘The year 2000 was not an especially distinguishing moment in the history of photography. Yet as anyone who consciously experienced the beginning of the new millennium may testify, something occurred at that time that has become even more apparent from the perspective of the past decade, namely that at that particular moment something in Polish photography disintegrated and came to an end.’
What has the 21st
century brought to Polish photography? There are as many answers out there as there are new artists in search of their own photographic language.
Skalpel - Break In
Creative concept and production by
With thanks to:
Digitalisation Department of
the National Museum in Warsaw
History Meeting House
Leica Gallery in Warsaw
Muzeum Sztuki in Łodź
Cyfrowe Archiwum Woli /
Muzeum Woli /
Tatra Museum in Zakopane
Archeology of Photography Foundation
Wytwórnia Filmów Oświatowych
Zofia Rydet Foundation
Warsaw Rising Museum
Narodowy Archiwum Cyfrowy (NAC)
Polona - Cyfrowa Biblioteka Narodowa
National Museum in Poznań
National Museum in Wrocław
Stefan Okołowicz and Ewa Franczak