Eleven years ago, in the attic of a tenement house in the town of Debica, more than 1,000 damaged glass negative plates were discovered. Most of them depicted expressive portraits of anonymous individuals who lived in the neighborhood during the 20s and 30s.

At first sight, we could guess hardly anything about the author of the plates, although her name appeared on them. But our deepening research shed light upon someone extraordinary for her time: an independent, gifted woman of consequence whose workshops existed far away from the grand cultural capitals, and whose art lay in taking orderly portraits of her neighbors: shopkeepers, craftsmen, peasants, priests and Jews.

Stefania Gurdowa (née Czerny) was born in Bochnia in 1888. Her father was the bandmaster of a salt-mine orchestra. She herself played the zither. She gained her photographic education in Bochnia, and then in Lwow (Lemberg). From 1921 to 1937 she ran her own photographic workshop in Debica (and established branches in Mielec and Ropczyce for a time). It was unusual for a woman to run a business like hers in this era, yet it appears Gurdowa also hired a number of employees – Feliks Adam Czelny among them, a man who found fame after 1945, when he published a documentary report on the ruined city of Wroclaw.

Stefania and Kazimierz Gurda divorced, and from her home in Debica, the photographer took only her daughter, Zosia – and the piano. In the late 30s she settled in Silesia. Under Nazi occupation her business was taken over by the Germans, and she found herself a paid worker in her own workshop.

After the end of the war, Zosia migrated to France. Stefania Gurdowa decided to stay in Poland, and once more she started all over again – this time in Lodygowice, near Zywiec. She took care of her granddaughter, Basia for some years, until the girl was reunited with her mother in France. And she established yet another photographic workshop. Her former clients remember that there were always fresh flowers in her chilly rented flat-and-atelier – as well as a permanent Christmas tree!

Gurdowa, the distinguished artist, died in 1968. Her apartment was cleaned after she passed away, and her immense photographic archive was disposed of and lost. Only a fragment of her art endures, together with a question without an answer: who hid a collection of glass plates behind a wall in the attic of her workshop in Debica? Perhaps it was her own decision to preserve them this way. As a responsible professional, she must have been aware of the rule that “negatives are to be stored.”

Klisze przechowuje sie
(Negatives are to be stored)
Photographs by Stefania Gurdowa
Text by Jerzy Lewczynski and Dariusz Czaja
Hardcover: 218 pages
22 x 28.5 cm
Publisher: Fundacja Imago Mundi / Muzeum Etnograficzne w Krakowie
ISBN 978-83-925914-4-3
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This limited edition photobook, and the images within it, were a great discovery. Each photograph is a snapshot of living history, beautifully shot and lovingly reprinted and presented. Every photographer we’ve shown our copy to cannot put it down, and longs to add it to their library. It’s a must for every lover of photography, sociology, or history.