From 20th century greats hailed as fathers of the art, to avant-garde portrait makers with an eye for the surreal and award-winning landscape shooters addicted to the mundane, this list of Poland’s 10 most quintessential photographers is a testimony to the nation’s prowess in the field.
Tomasz Tomaszewski cut his teeth working for the Polish underground press during the dark days of communist rule, finally entering the global spotlight in 1986 with the publication of a series of portraits entitled ‘Remnants: the last Jews of Poland’ (Ostatni. Współcześni Żydzi polscy) in National Geographic. Since then, his work has focussed heavily on the marginalised underbelly of society, both domestically and abroad, drawing out the visceral and earthy side of the world for all to see. Of particular note are his selections called ‘Piece of Work’(Cześć pracy) from 2009—which considers the lives of miners from Upper Silesia—and ‘Sugar Town’ (2013), which chronicles factory workers in Java, Indonesia.
In the late 1930s, Zofia Chomętowska began working for the Polish Second Republic’s national Department of Tourism. She was tasked with presenting a positive and attractive image of the country to visitors, in the hope that people would holiday there again following centuries of Partitions and decades of war. Of course, unbeknownst to Chomętowska, Europe was not done with violence, and her snapshot of everyday mundanities, landmarks and wonders from inter-war Poland—a traditional mountain bar in Zakopane; an exquisite theatre in Płock; riverboats in Nowy Sącz—has become something of a haunting image of what could have been were it not for Nazism. Her works were published in 2013 as part of a project by the Archaeology of Photography Foundation, entitled Poland on the Road.
Seven decades of art in a whole cascade of various media from Żywiec-born photographer and neoavant-gardist Natalia LL, has produced one of the most striking and startling repertoires in all of Polish modernism. Throughout, her work is characterised by a deep and existential consideration of the concepts of freedom and identity, fuelled—like so many in the period—by the political upheavals of 1980s martial law and the rise of Feminism, but also transcending political boundaries to critique numinous forms and abstract ideas—from mysticism to Hindu reincarnation and Blakean chaos. For the most totemic of Natalia LL’s works, check out ‘Consumer Art’ (1971), Panicked Fear (1990) and ‘Platonic Forms’ (1993).
After graduating from the Krakow Polytechnic University in 1955, Wojciech Plewiński went on to study sculpture at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts. There, he began taking photographs and soon became involved with the weekly news publication, Przekrój, taking cover shots and fashion images. It was an association that was to last more than 40 years, and give Plewiński his famous repertoire of so-called ‘kitten’ shots: sexualised, suggestive compositions of women in tantalising poses. Plewiński is also famed for his celebrity portraits, including those of iconic Polish actors, painters, jazz artists and politicians.
After studying at the Institute of Creative Photography in Opava, Czech Republic, Tomasz Wiech returned to his native Poland to work. He has won accolades and runner-up positions from the World Press Photo Competition, the Leica Oscar Barnack Award and Magnum Expression Award, and is known widely for his lengthy collaboration with the news publication Gazeta Wyborcza. Wiech’s work is something of a self-proclaimed fusion of the Realist and the Romantic, floundering somewhere between the Wordsworthian ideal of elevating the mundane, and reducing (or simply avoiding) the sublime. Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this is his recent essay, ‘Poland. In Search of Diamonds’, which reveals Wiech’s native country warts and all – dilapidated; downtrodden; cold; grimy, though ultimately speckled with human and natural gems.
Hailed as one of the fathers of Polish pictorial photography—and therefore one of the sources of modern aesthetic manipulation in the art—Jan Bułhak was born in modern day Belarus in 1876. After failing to graduate in history and politics from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, he turned to amateur photography and soon found himself one of the luminaries of pictorial composition in circles in Vilnius. Bułhak then studied photography in Dresden, Germany, and went on to become lauded for capturing landscape images of cityscapes and monuments in Krakow, Warsaw, Gdansk and Poznan to name just a few.
Bogdan Łopieński began working as a photojournalist in Poland behind the Iron Curtain. Having experienced the political upheaval of Communist rule first-hand—when his father, a successful bronze caster, was forbidden to work his trade by the Russians—he came to see photography as a mode of storytelling: an essential method of communication that could augment the press with images that conveyed the reality of happenings in Poland at the time. Today, Łopieński is perhaps best known for his much-lauded photo-essay chronicling the famous Elbląg Biennale back in 1965, recently re-presented at the Doubly Regained Territories (2012) exhibition at the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw.
One of the most thought-provoking photographers currently living and working in Warsaw, Paweł Bownik has given the world a curious breed of neo-realism that seems to thrive on concepts of artificiality, sci-fi, pop culture and the like. Consequently, there are works like ‘Disassembly’ (2009), which ostensibly presents simple and classical images of wild flowers, but actually focusses on the artist’s own Frankenstein-esque deconstruction of the natural form. Then there’s ‘Gamers’ (2007-2009), where the objects of the scene are pasty computer gamers, giving an unsuspecting face to the man behind the digital divide.
Arguably the most totemic name currently on the contemporary Polish photography scene, Tomasz Gudzowaty has wowed the world with his presentations of images from right across the globe, garnering prestigious World Press Photo awards, Grand Press Photo first-prizes galore and Pictures of the Year International excellence accolades to name just a few. He is credited with pioneering a whole new aesthetic in the sphere of sports photography, and—more recently—in portraiture too, abandoning traditional 35mm composition for large format cameras and adopting a stark black and white style that really emphasizes the organic shapes and shallow lights in the field. Gudzowaty’s most famous exhibitions include Sports Features (2008-2011), and the more recent Beyond the Body (2011-2014), which has been shown from Slovakia to Switzerland, Sopot to China.
The work of Anna Orlowska is like a series of unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions, forever suspended somewhere between the viewer’s imagination and ability to perceive; never dealt with or resolved. Her images often combine a shadowy and uneasy chiaroscuro with an imperceptible and inexplicable composition. In one, a swinging body can be seen as if hung, though the head is out of shot—the viewer doesn’t know. In another, a pregnant lady lays wide-eyed on an unmade bed. Don’t expect neat allegories and stark realism from Orlowksa: expect questions to be raised.