The longer I am creatively engaged in photography, the more it seems unlimited to me, the more I see it as possessing greater and greater possibilities of artistic colonization, annexation, exploration… Artists make use only of a small part of its range of possibilities, means of its production, ways of mapping its territories and penetrating its depths… However, let us leave these reflections to someone else.
As far as I am concerned, as a photographer – whether working in
a group or individually – I have always followed “...my own roads” (to recall the title of my last retrospective exhibition in Cracow). Therefore it seems that for nearly 40 years, since I invented the title for a pho-tograph that has inspired this exhibition, its message has been
a “subliminal” programme of all my individual photographic paths.
I have penetrated photography deeply and have erred constanly, but nevertheless I want to remain on those paths. Moreover, I should say that I especially enjoy travelling on paths that are weeded and overgrown (forgotten).
Indeed, I have never been interested in photography that engages in a race with time, even if it was parallel to reality. In most cases I was interested in suspended, indefinite time, rather submerged in the past. Well, I was broght up on photography which next to beauty and enigmas demanded also a number of dark-rooms and a few time-consuming processes in order for the photographic image to come into being.
Placing the negative in the camera, selecting the shutter-release time (another problem of time!), waiting until every frame of the film has been used up or until one had a few negatives to develop later in the dark-room, studying the negative that is still wet… Putting the dry negative into the enlarger, making the darkroom dark, watching the image appear in the olive light – all these emotions and all this happiness distributed in time! This process had to last. It cannot be compared to the photographs of the present day which we can see immediately thanks to the most sophisticated modern technology.
The more technology, digitalization and the computerization of time are advanced, the more my imagination (even if someone were to call me anachronistic) sentimentally goes for the techniques of old.
A simplified model of my theory is this: the more the technique of image-creation is complicated and elongated in time (the more dark-rooms we meet on the way), the more respect I have for this kind of photography. This same respect can be seen on the faces of people in old amateur photographs. The older the photograph, the clearer this respect is. Moreover, standing vis á vis the camera one became a part of the whole theatre of emotions, tensions and seriousness. I must admit that I have fallen in love with this characteristic aspect of old photography. Is it still possible?
Photography undoubtedly has its own language. Of course, I have old technology in mind. For me, photography is not just “an artistic adventure” – it has its depths, obscurities and mysteries. Besides, it also has something that no other discipline of art or method of recording images has, including film – it can register and freeze a mo-ment in time. It is an incluse of time and place covered in gelatine. In times past, strangely enough, everyone knew how important it was to have one’s face preserved in a photograph by a photographer. Before a photograph was taken we were somehow anointed, we dressed in our Sunday best, posed demurely, tried to reveal our best features and qualities and look beautiful – and we generally became stiff. This stiffness results from both long-term and short-term awareness (depending on the generation), the awareness of the fact that we must devote more time to a camera and negative of low sensitivity. Perhaps this is why these old photographs emanate with truth, with knowledge of things to come and they have this gift that makes us believe in them, believe in old problems and people.
Childhood is a gift from God – a one-time unique experience, although this seems a rather banal truth. In this God-given temporal experience the power of curiosity, the intensification of emotions and feelings, the first experiences of the world’s mysteries, the first glimpses, observances and views become condensed in a young man’s soul to such an extent that… This time can never be replaced by the admirations and knowledge of adult life. Therefore, apparently the world of our childhood can never return, but – as on the other hand experience and works of many artists prove – such a reappearance can take place after all. Even if not literally, our childhood experiences become a powerful motor that stimulates important literary, musical and plastic works of art… These works additionally have the strange power of influencing other people, they become icons of generations or ages and elements of the canon of history of culture, thus achieving immortality. Can a child be reproduced? We could jest that probably so, as long as we hang onto the negative with the child’s images. However, it is best to be a child at heart for as long as one can.
By the way, though I certainly keep to the sphere of my religious interests, it seems to me that this cult of childhood could have originated within the Christian culture, mainly Catholicism. This is because in the Catholic faith the memory of Christ’s birth is cherished and cultivated annually in an ever-returning circular cycle.
Personally, though it may seem risky, I believe that photography has strongly influenced our cult of children and convinced us that childhood is an extremely important moment of human life. Perhaps is is just a coincidence that until photography became an universally acknowledged phenomenon the role of children and the time of childhood had been completely neglected. Perhaps man had to take
a careful look first and see how sombre he seemed in a childhood photograph. This moment frozen in time helps us recall our childhood in detail and makes us aware of the importance of what happened in our youth. An adult who looks at his old picture may easily recall his former sensitivity and all the stages in which his personality was formed.
A Late Note about My Father
If I admit that the photographs I was saturated with during my childhood stimulated my art, can this confession inspire and be artistically fruitful today? I must admit that the photographs from our family archives, mainly photographs taken by my father, quite often became indirect or direct inspirations for my numerous artistic photographs in all stages of my career. The weight of family photo-graphs is in my case meaningful. In fact, I do believe that it was the experience of those photographs that made me make up my mind and become an artist! Let us imagine a boy in a very provincial town to which he moved with his parents after the war because they were expelled from Baranowicze, a small town lying to the east of the river Bug. As a young boy he had no recollection of his home-town, only photographs gave evidence of the existence of this world.
This exhibition, or should I say, in a broader sense, my first photographic works that stand behind reflections on the influence of family photography in my art, I dare call Nostalgic Photography. The meaning of the title is most significant. As far as I am concerned, nostalgia possesses a great stimulating and constructive value. I be-lieve that those works could not have come into being if I had not admitted that I was sentimental at heart. What is more, if I had not confessed for many long years to a melancholy way of recognizing and accepting the world, this exhibition would not have been possible at all. Nevertheless, I had to mature and grow up in order to muster up this courage and finally be able to admit to “the child” present in my earlier works.
Surely I would not be ready for this exhibition if I had not reflected for a long time on the origins and the arch-sense of the ways in which the photographic image comes into being. On the overpowering and magic attraction that man finds in the mysteries of the camera’s lense. The dignity of photographic act made me pursue the problem further and think of spirituality in general and of sacrum in art which has been negligently abandoned, in particular. I asked myself how it came about that sacrum was almost absent from photography in which at best we can only find its remnants. Certainly anthropology and religious studies with their convincing theories made me understand what “lost paradises” are. I moved but a step away from my “nostalgia” and a step closer to the modest arsenal of my family photographs. Melancholy that has always dragged behind me made me finally decide that as an artist I ought to return to what filled me during my childhood.
Of course, I could compose dozens of other versions of this title (and I am good at that!), but I have consciously stuck to this and not any other title as it is very telling in terms of the power of memories. Granted, I can see the sour faces many so-called “progressive” artists make on hearing this. However, progress that bows before mass and commercial culture and their technological novelties is no progress in spiritual terms – perhaps on the contrary, it becomes its own opposite. Because:
“Only nostalgic photography can make you successful and happy!!!”
It is difficult to recreate the old emotional state even if we look at our childhood photographs over and over. Outside everything seemed as usual, later one grew up and started thinking about “other things” of which young people think.That is the way it is. My “nostalgia” appeared for the first time when I was given a chance to become a successful photographer. It grew more intense when I became an accomplished artist. It revealed itself completely when I received a kind of positive support and found myself under group pressure (“Zero-61”), when I felt deeply that I had to delineate my individuality and difference most clearly. What do I mean? I mean that I had to reach for what was in me and with what I have been saturated since my youngest years.
In practice, family photographs, although they are anchored in depths of our minds, would have to be forgotten if my situation and profession were different. It is understandable because this is how this mechanism functions in the case of every common man. Photography at best becomes one of our most intimate experiences and is preserved in human memory. And even those most intense memories, sighs and private “nostalgias” usually afflict no more than one or two generations. The power of family photographs fades in time. The power and the magic of the photographs diminishes.
Why should I admit that my works are influenced by great art? Of course, I began to study art from the position of a small boy in a small town (Żychlin), situated almost in the centre of Poland but far from all cultural centres. I knew art better than almost everyone in this town, but only from usually black-and-white book reproductions or pictures published in colour magazines or newspapers. In this last case more often than not print from the other side of the page could be seen in the picture. On the other hand, my father’s photographs or other family photographs (those of larger formats hung on the walls and the smaller ones were kept in an album, though actually most of them were stocked in a round, linen bag embroidered with Kashubian motifs were, after all, absolute originals.
Those photographs were like political, lyrical and emotional cries… I could not give a name to this phenomenon neither at the time nor later because I had no need to. I did not have the instruments and tools
I have today (like, for example, the literature of the anthropologist and historian of religion, M. Eliade). Today I can easily define these photographs and call them classic examples of a “paradise lost”.
I surely knew at the time, however, that it was impossible to really return to those places or past times. It seemed to me that among all those things the most unabating was a flimsy paper photograph. One cannot forget that in those photographs the most loved ones among all my loved ones were preserved. This is something that multiplied and intensified my feelings. It was a confrontation of beauty, grace and
a perennial smile (in those days you had to smile when your pho-tograph was being taken) with the vividly grey reality of extremely modest life in post-war conditions.
Nostalgic Photography is a very important step in my career.
I could describe it metaphorically as a knot of my various experiences, studies and travels in different photographic fields at different times. Simultaneously the exhibition offers intimate readings of certain works or certain spheres of my artistic search.
Naturally, most of all it is a tribute to my father who photographed modestly, on the margins of his profession of a philologist, a Polish language and literature teacher and a teacher of Latin (he also taught Greek). How distant it all is… His photographs and the range of subjects they raised was literally monothematic (mother, family and friends), the set of poses was often repeated, sometimes manneristic (how many times can one photograph a woman among flowers?). However, these photographs were able to charm and seduce me and they still make me recall my memories “nostalgically” until today. Perhaps in a way this exhibition will help me to break free from their shackles.
Andrzej Różycki. Łódź, December 2004
Tłumaczenie: Maciej Świerkocki