Jerzy Lewczynski's collection of wildly creative experimental, and sometimes anonymous found photographs were featured during Photomonth 2012 in Krakow Poland. The following interview was translated from the Polish by Stanley Bill. This interview appears in the Krakow Photomonth 2012 catalogue, but not in the book, Memory of the Image.
KED Olszewski: Why do old and damaged photographs, as well as the past and family ties, have so much significance?
I think it’s clear that history is everything we have, what remains, and whatever has meaning in confrontation with time. We must know history, investigate it, discover it anew, rummage through it. We don’t live in isolation from the past. History is the backdrop to our lives. A person who ignores the past then limits the possibilities for understanding and explaining phenomena that directly concern him.
Photography has given me several ways to approach life, to break through the barrier of the past, to conquer oblivion. I always imagine that what touches me, what is important to me alone, through photography may become important to others, to my family, my friends, my nation... I once read or heard somewhere that in ancient Egypt various attempts apparently were made to record the image. I’m not familiar with the details, since I’m not an Egyptologist, but this scrap of information suggests that people might always have yearned for what was. And they have made efforts to hold onto what was. How many human beings experience dramatic situations associated with departure and destruction? How many mothers weep over their children...? There is something in our nature dictating that we need contact with the past.
If I find a photograph of a woman, once kept in a wallet by a father or husband who went to war and died, then this photograph is saturated with certain impulses, with the energy of a bygone time, with the conditions of that time, even with its smell. I am extremely fond of all the scratches and imperfections. One day I’m walking in Gliwice and I find a negative lying in front of me. I pick it up. On it is a mother with her child and I know that this mother has gone, that the child has gone, and only the negative has remained. We cannot leave these things behind; we must find a way to reconstruct.
Olszewski: You bring together several apparently contradictory currents in your photography. On the one hand, there is the documenting of traces from the past, the archiving of tradition and nostalgia; on the other, there are photographic experiments, the smashing of stereotypes, the redefinition of values, and the overcoming of barriers. In this respect, can we say that dividing your photography into different genres – such as documentary, creative or conceptual – is simply not relevant to you?
I use all the means I feel are appropriate to convey what I wish to express. I don’t reflect on the classification of pictures into different types in the moment when I’m taking them. I don’t subordinate myself to style, but one cannot say that I do creative photography either, since it is my reaction to what I see and experience. That’s why the boundaries of style are blurred in my works. For me, photography is a kind of contact with the world, which means that visually I pick up on both the beauty and the flaws of the world.
I describe it similarly with words: I become enraptured, I am affected by it, by talking about it I become excited by it. Thus photography is a kind of visual writing. Each photograph comes into being when I notice something, or come across something in my environment, which moves my imagination and my conscience. We might imagine that there are no scenes, places, or objects entirely indifferent to man, which is of course impossible to confirm, since it surpasses our cognitive abilities.
At the same time, we know how many aesthetic approaches there are, each of them valuable from the perspective of art theory or studies of perception, but photography – or mine at least – ought to be the kind of photography that years later reminds me and other people of what is most peculiar to it. A camera in a photographer’s hand is a kind of eternal pen, writing down his inner tensions, among other things, for the future.
I strive to do everything such that I might enclose within these images my vision of the world, of life passing by, and of people. I don’t conceal that I have a kind of pro social viewpoint and I consider the unmasking of certain human positions, the emphasizing of certain value positions and the description of certain human emotions to be more important than dealing with pure theory of art or of photography itself. This doesn’t mean that I fail to appreciate other styles of photography. I’m an enthusiast of conceptual art, I get Dlubak’s experiments perfectly well, and I fully understand Natalia LL. But I’m opposed to the passing over of those values. What I do bears witness to a certain kind of dramatic situation, to viewpoints which have resulted from my own sufferings and joys. Photography shouldn’t be just lifeless recording. The most banal little scene which makes you wonder or gives you reason to pause for a moment can eventually be interpreted anew in a fuller way. By then you’ll be more mature and you’ll understand more. That’s why we should collect all photos, never throw them away or destroy them, but rather attempt to interpret them after a certain period of time.
It’s exciting to look at these photographs in such a way that they call to mind facts from the past or from your previous involvement in a deciphering of the world that is different with every passing year. The gathering together of all these materials is very valuable because they describe your biographical position in relation to the rest of the world and the rest of society. You must create something of a kind that will be legible to other people as your art, your photography, but at the same time this represents your political, artistic and aesthetic attitude to what you see around you. This is a very precious thing. I believe that only in this way can we create works of art and only in this way can we put photography on the same level with other forms of artistic creation, like prose, poetry, and – of course – painting.
For me, light is one of the elements in the creation of an image, of space, but there is absolutely no doubt that this light also has another significance, that very often light allows us to make a thing of beauty from something ugly and vice versa. I am a proponent of muted, half-toned light, which emphasizes shape and form. My favorite cycle, I Open and Close My Eyes, illustrates that we are born in a certain light, it dazzles us, we grow, we run, as early as our school days certain ideals appear: love for the mother, for God. This is symbolized by the lily. We mature, until we reach a certain culmination, but this often happens in such a way that we sin, we forget, and we lose our ideal. It goes over to the side of the woman. Over the course of the years, the ideals vanish and the figure of the woman becomes darker and darker, to the point of total blackness, and then she departs entirely.
I feel that there are things which we–not yet mature– are not able to judge. These are the things facing humanity. Perhaps the world, which is making such enormous progress, one day will be able to regenerate these impulses, this energy frozen in emulsion. Of course, I speak of emulsion because I am a photographer, but it might be the energy of touch.
One of the ideas most often associated with your creative work is the “archeology of photography”, which has been variously interpreted as the uncovering, interpretation or investigation of the past. How – with so many sources and different voices at your disposal – would you express the essential meaning of “archeology of photography”?
Despite the term “archeology”, my works have an enormous link with the present. It seems to me that by coming to know the past we can build a better future. We are able to draw conclusions from what has already taken place. Thus the past builds the future in this specific way. How do we treat this past today? How do today’s students behave? And young people, who know nothing or only pretend that they know something? This knowledge is superficial. Photography authenticates and deepens this knowledge.
I always emphasize that I am not a scholar. My reflections are those of an amateur, but I believe in them. I don’t throw away a single photograph and I have enormous quantities of this material, which I don’t know what to do with. Old photo books, old materials, old stories, texts, memoirs of good people and bad, photographs of tears ... a whole mass of things that once were. Perhaps I should establish the Foundation for the Protection of Photographic Memory? An old grandmother is dying in Silesia, where I live. From a chest of drawers she takes out some photos of the Uprising. I go back to see this grandmother two years later and nothing is left; some carpets are hanging, some new armchairs are standing there. I ask: “Where did that wedding portrait disappear to?” “We don’t know, we threw it out ...” That’s how memory dies. And can a nation exist without memory? It can’t exist!
Looking at your photographs, one has the impression that both the style and content are changeable. Does this suggest that through photography you are interpreting a reality that changes in time? Is your photography a response to socialism or to stereotypes in life and art? Adam Sobota writes: “Through photography one can take part in the formation of world views which constitute alternatives to the frameworks imposed by sociopolitical systems and conventions. One of these frameworks was the socialist conception of the person as defined by class type and easily submitted to political control”. How did you use this “weapon”?
In the 1950s, reconstructing the country was in vogue and an enormous human effort was directed into activities that were meant to be supporting the worker: major roadworks in Warsaw and so on. In this period, they opened the senatorial chamber at Wawel Castle, where there were some beautiful sculptures of the heads of royal senators, each of them looking down from the ceiling at the viewer. In creating my cycle, Wawel Heads, I was defying them, because clearly the true effort of a human being is imperceptible in the so-called mass of unknown, aggrieved or lost people. My portraits of anonymous workers, with faces obscured by shovels or represented without faces, were more dramatic at that time, more appropriate, and they held more meaning than the distinguished heads of senators or enthusiastic portraits of labor heroes. The unknown portrait is very dear to me; it is still relevant and I attach great importance to it since it represents my response to all the transformations of that strange time. It is something like my countenance, my commentary, my sign in that time. The photograph of a woman resting on an overturned wheelbarrow was the result of much meditation, which Adam Sobota very perceptively picked up. I consider Mr. Sobota to be among the most distinguished photography critics. He has intuitions that he is not always capable of precisely defining, but in this case he gave me great pleasure and truly hit the nail right on the head. This woman with her radiant smile and the whole situation on the wheelbarrow also say something about what her smile is, and what the life of this girl is, a girl so neglected in comparison with the world in which all this is going on. The smile is exceptionally natural; it conveys all the thoughts that I too often have had when looking at scenes that I have searched for and observed. She – this woman – is a continuation of the unknown from this series of anonymous people, working, shabbily dressed, and at the same time smiling, because of their youth, their cheerful nature...
Sometimes your photography literally helps discover or preserve the past. As Adam Sobota writes: “The discovery of the distinguished, though forgotten nineteenth-century Gliwice photographer, Wilhelm von Blandowski, was a great achievement, as was the recovery of the legacy of the Zamosc photographer, Feliks Lukowski”. We might also mention the monument of a woman opening a door, the story of which you uncovered through photography.
The monument at the Orthodox cemetery in Sosnowiec representing a woman in a long gown apparently departing into the past and closing the door behind her I photographed many times, trying to puzzle out the meaning of the mystery enclosed in the sculpture. Only twenty years later did I discover her past. The woman was the wife of the Prussian director of the Katarzyna Steelworks, a man named Branderberg. She was born in Yalta as a Russian aristocrat. During the First World War she was arrested for giving aid to the first Russian prisoners and then she died of a heart attack. Her husband ordered a monument for her in Dresden. A few years later he died during the revolutionary unrest in Sosnowiec. These snatches from the past are only approximations. There are photographs of the woman in Caucasian folk costume and another one displaying her full figure in a long, flowing gown. The photograph has contributed to the revelation of the past!
—Lodz, May 15, 2005; Gliwice, July 30, 2005.
Memory of the Image
by Jerzy Lewczynski
With text by Wojciech Nowicki
Bilingual publication: Polish & English
215 mm x 270 mm
Publisher: Muzeum w Gliwicach
Buy this book
A wonderful, insightful, candid interview with French photographera self-taught master of intimate photography whose subject is his own family.