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October 9, 2009
Earlier this year, while in Poland for the Krakow Month of Photography, I was completely delighted to discover a book of stunning and enchanting portraits from the 1920s-30s. Their glass plate negatives had only recently been found hidden away behind a plastered wall in the attic of a tenement house in the Polish town of Debica.
With the cooperation of the Polish arts organization, Fundacja Imago Mundi, Lens Culture is pleased to be able to offer exclusive, limited editions of six elegant prints for sale at very reasonable prices. You can purchase them only at our online gallery store: Lens Culture Editions.
Dariusz Czaja, a cultural anthropologist and lecturer at the Jagiellonian University, wrote about these glass plate photographs:
Most of them are bearing portraits of different persons whose names remain unknown. In most cases, one plate carries two portraits — a frequent custom among atelier photographers, resulting from pure economy. Yet when we look at these juxtapositions, doubt is born, whether it was only a coincidence that put these people together. … For what immediately captures our attention is the relationships between the people looking at us from a single plate, and at the same time from two different photographs. Relations of the most different types: sometimes it is a similarity, and sometimes just the opposite – a confrontation of gestures, looks, and stature.
And yet other plates show some mysterious kinship, making us ask whether these might have been two sisters who came together to the studio. And if so – what they needed those photographs for. And thus the proximity that we can only sense becomes the beginnings of a narration. One that most probably will never be told. For only one trace of it has remained: a photograph.
This collection should not be evaluated solely in historical, ethnographical or souvenir categories. Of course, what we are seeing are portraits of citizens of a provincial, post-Galician town in southern Poland from between the two world wars. Yet, what we deal here with is primarily high-class artistic photography, whose value is in a sense independent of time when it originated.
Agnieszka Sabor, a Polish philologist, art historian, author and editor, takes a similar philosophical view:
Looking at Stefania Gurdowa's glass negatives, what I feel is primarily joy. It is a joy that must be the similar to that of an archaeologist who unearths precious shells of pottery from the olden times. And yet these few hundred negatives from between the two world wars, discovered by coincidence in an attic in the town of Debica is the discovery – at least, I see it so – of no lesser measure. For a fragment of life that has been buried is suddenly returned into existence. And it begins, quite unexpectedly, its life after life.
Photographs are nomadic by nature. They continually travel. They move from place to place, they go from hands to hands. They wear and tear, diminish, wane, break, crumble into dust. They are irrevocably lost. This time – blessed be the Coincidence or the miraculous act of Faith (for it can't have been the historical Necessity, can it?) – made this world, hibernated for years, available for us to view.
You can read more about this work, and see more photographs, here in Lens Culture, and at gurdowa.pl. And you can purchase the prints (while they last) here at Lens Culture Editions. Enjoy!