Fotograf Magazine

At the same place, at the same time

The 1980’s differed significantly from previous decades. The difference of decades is still more apparent from a greater time interval. If we applied this view to the area of Polish photography understood as independent creation, we can say that the tone was determined by the Neo-Avant-Garde, which was fascinated by an analytical approach and which was interested in the visual as the linguistic phenomenon of new media. The Foto-Medium- Art Gallery, which I founded in Wrocław, was one of many places where artistic acts and theoretic expression took place. In addition to this activity I also carefully followed the Czech photographic scene. Often I travelled to Prague to find appropriate contacts. It was then that I met Jaroslav Anděl and several Czech artists, who were inclined toward the origins of the Avant- Garde and who sympathised with the opposition.

One of the results of these meetings was the exhibition, Miejsca i chwile (Places and Moments), for which Jaroslav Anděl in fact served as curator. Besides him the event was attended also by Vladimír Ambrož, Dalibor Chatrný, Vladimír Havrilla, Michal Kern, Julius Koller, Jiří Kovanda, Karel Miler, Jan Mlčoch, Jaroslav Richtr, Rudolf Sikora and Petr Štembera. During the vernissage Štembera’s performance took place. From the Foto-Medium- Art Gallery they all went to the movie theatre to see Miloš Forman’s film, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which was banned in Czechoslovakia at that time. It was November 1979. The year before I had put together an exhibition for Jan Saudek; the first time his work was shown abroad.

I summarised interpretations of my views at the time in the article, Autokreacja mediów (Self-creation of Media): “The Post-Avant-Garde had no other option that to turn the non-transparency of photo-media into another creative problem. Artists connected to the Avant-Garde had also otherwise pointed out the fact that through media assigned artistic communications are characterised by a large amount of self-signals; ones that speak not so much about the structure of the delivered images, but more about the disruption that modifies them and which are the result of the disturbance created during their transmission. In fact, in this way they enrich and reshape – within certain limitations – conventional experience. Meanwhile, each such self-signal is an artistic communication of a new category; one speaking only of itself, which is its own symbol. Generally we are not aware of the broad degree to which these tools influence our conscience and how we expand it in a direction farther from reality. In our deep conviction or perhaps just subconsciously we compare image with a strongly-defined version of reality, as is our fate. Afterwards, instead of freeing ourselves from stereotypes, we instead become more submerged in them. The formally and image-wise unconventional photographs[ref]Autokreacja mediów/Self-creation of Media, Opole, 5/1980.[/ref] can help free us of these shackles.”

Further visits to the Czech Republic brought results in the form of meetings with other photographers and critics, as well as encounters with the rich tradition of this artistic segment. My personally library thus markedly expanded. In Poland I promoted the work of Jaromír Funke, Josef Sudek, Jan Svoboda and finally the young artists with whom I was often working in the 1980’s. I invited many Czech photographers to exhibit in the Foto- Medium-Art Gallery. Among them were Zdeněk Tmej, Štěpán Grygar, Miroslav Machotka, Jaroslav Beneš, Jan Svoboda, Marie Kratochvílová, Josef Moucha, Jiří Foltýn and Josef Vojáček, Jiří Hanke, Michal Pacina, Rudo Prekop and Tono Stano. My house in the Kłodzko valley, located near the Czech border, became an important meeting site. There I organized workshops with the name, Uczestnictwo we wspólnocie (Participation in the Community). Antonín Dufek, Machotka, Grygar, Beneš, Moucha… came to see me.

In that decade the situation in Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe changed dramatically. The approach to photography as a personal testimony also changed. With a view toward the tradition of classic photography – among others American, and also to a large degree Czech – I proposed defining that which was relevant to me: the term “elementary photography.” I claimed that artists who address this type of testimony “attempt to go beyond the veristic image. An overlapping that tends toward abstraction. What is most clear therefrom is that each hyper-photograph is in some sense unrealistic. And this because they primarily point out their own form. Elementary photography is also like this. Logical and rational, clean and perfect, an impressive simplicity, but also through its poetic harmony. It requires artistic thoroughness and a work discipline, a discoverer’s fascination and invention – everything necessary to record that which is common, to show things invisible. Such photographs that create a new reality, one’s own reality, create themselves a criterion of truth for the image.”[ref]Fotografia elementarna/Elementary Photography, exhibition catalogue, Galeria Sztuki Współczesnej w Jeleniej Górze/Gallery of Contemporary Art in Jelenia Góra (Hirschberg), 9/1984.[/ref]

Besides the Foto-Medium-Art Gallery, where for many years exhibitions in the name of elementary photography took place, I initiated Polish and international presentations in the Czech Republic and in Germany. The exhibition, Elementarność fotografii (The Elementariness of Photography), which took place in Wrocław in 1989, was one of the largest meetings of Czech and Polish artists. From the Czech side, in addition to some of the aforementioned artists, the event was also attended by Jaroslav Rajzik. Pavel Baňka was also one of those invited. Many times I contemplated what the difference in Polish and Czech photography stems from. Perhaps not so much in the image sphere, as in its stances. I published a summary of my essays in the article, Dużo prowokacji, mało pokory (Lots of Provocation, Little Humility). I wrote about the constant revolutions that are typical for Polish art – photography being no exception – and which often bring about artistically-interesting results. Generally, however, they do not preserve further follow-up (continuity). On the contrary, Czechs thoroughly cultivate and promote their own conventions and style.

My opinions evolved. In 1989 I stated: “Contemporary photography in its many forms, and the falsehoods and illusions associated with it, continues to deceive and confound us both in new and different ways. In its endless metamorphoses, in its specific self-sufficiency, as in the creation of the image it often devours itself (I am quoting or paraphrasing my earlier work), which can lead to the conviction that it is able to circumvent itself without motifs drawn directly from reality. It became overwhelmingly ambiguous. It sets other levels of senses in various formal tapestries and in various content contexts; from the intentions written into it, but also from traditional image codes. As a result its testimonial is increasingly problematic. With a promise to enrich our knowledge, it barely offers speculations on the topic, which is seemingly registered and which actually appears to be invisible.
In matters of photography concreteness changes itself into indefiniteness. Due to this nothing is certain; nothing is decided in advance. Nothing is clearly concluded in a visual form; nothing is definitively defined. It is a harmony of the current time; a time of values turned upside down and questioned criteria, a time of adoring relativity and getting lost in the possibilities of pluralism – in meanders of branched out, crossing and accumulating paths.

Photography is no longer evidence of whatever, which can be the highest testimony to its own multiple-meaningness. Versions of the world presented in photographs often hide a completely different reality. Everything appears to be relative and seems to be an illusion; together with photography. The mechanical, image universe of the time distances itself from memory for good.
In art immediate photography replaced constructed photography. Instead of discoveries, findings appear. However, even that distinction lost its meaning. For creating also became finding. Pointing out new options and creating previously non-existent beings; ones evoking for a moment general fascination, proved to be an alternative. However, when it appeared immediately, it ceased to be interesting. It is possible, for photographs kill life. It makes dead nature (nature morte) from everything (the camera) points its “eye” at. What’s more it attempts to convince us that everything must first die so that (thanks to the camera) it can live forever – a life just as fleeting as the real one.”[ref]Ni przed, ni po/Neither Before, Nor After, in: Fotografia realność medium, ASP Poznań 1998.[/ref]

Among the biggest events hosted at the Foto-Medium-Art gallery belong the East-West photo conferences called European Exchange. They took place every two years. The first occurred in 1989 and had a Hyde Park character. The second consisted of two parts: the exhibitions, New Spaces for Photography, attended by 131 artists from 24 countries (among them Christo, Christian Boltanski, Georges Rousse, Felice Varini, Gottfried Jäger, Kurt Buchwald, Klaus Elle, Akira Komoto, Satoshi Saito, Boyd Webb and John Hilliard) and a symposium, The Ethos of Photography (here contributions were read by personalities such as Urszula Czartoryska, Antonín Dufek, Vilém Flusser, Stefan Morawski, Marc Haworth-Booth and Rolf Sachsse). The third conference in 1993 took the form of a sculptural-photographic workshop with the title, Ne-přítomnost v přírodě (Non-presence in Nature). A further took place under the name, Místo kontaktu (Point of Contact), and finally a Japanese-Polish (event), Zítra je dnes (Tomorrow is Today), which was presented in both countries. More than two-hundred Czechs and Slovaks attended the photo conference, including Vladimír Birgus and Václav Macek. I think that it was in fact the Wrocław conference that inspired Macek to arrange the Měsíc fotografie (Month of Photography) in Bratislava.

We can best convince ourselves of what needs to be done with the difference in creative photography in Europe during international meetings that are open to various aesthetic preferences and artistic pleasures. The first photo conference was like this. More than 150 artists, critics, theoreticians, gallery directors and custodians of museum collections attended it. It was a free forum of diverse ideas that took place through a marathon of individual and group presentations, then on to lectures and manifestos, events and demonstrations, slide presentations and videoprojections. It filled up four days of an actual photography holiday. Sue Davies, director of the Photographers’ Gallery in London, said at the time that the main argument that made her travel to Wrocław was that she could meet many photographers in one place at one time; mainly from East European countries. She could also learn what was being created and how. A memorable event, unique in its testimony, was the happening with the name, Zákaz fotografování (Ban on Photography), presented by masked artists from the German Democratic Republic. The slogan was perfectly suited to the reality at the time, and not just the East German one.

Were I to draw on the ideas of that meeting’s programme, I would contemplate on, among other things, what could be an opportunity for European photographers. I am of the conviction that it would be the search for and discovery of our own space on the rich panorama of previouslymade works and current artistic finds. It allows for the credible visualisation of one’s own “I” and also for the creation of “here and now” – in a definite place at a specific time; authentic creation.
Although it is necessary to also know that being creative means leaving behind all that which has already been found and to begin the voyage somehow from the start; a path to the unknown, and thus difficult to comprehend. Only enduring in constant creative tension can make us original artists instead of interpreters of the long-ago discovered and recorded. Chance blossoms out of uncompromising auto-criticism and also from the lack of humility toward established authorities and toward the canons of stable traditions, as well as with respect for photography as a field of art. Then it is a matter of personal liking which path the given artist takes. After all they can choose from at least two options. Either they will examine the periphery of photography and realise themselves in the area of inter-medial art, or they will allow themselves to become enthralled by photography’s uniqueness and its natural autonomy.

It was also characteristic that at the second photo conference several persons expressed their distaste for this creative field. Among them was Wolf Kahlen, who proclaimed the end of photography. He claimed that its expressive possibilities had been exhausted and that we can expect nothing new. Another Berlin-resident, Joachim Schmid, reported that he had set up a company that professionally destroys all photography. These are only some of the symptoms of the surplus and over-saturation expected as early as 1991. However, still today the photograph remains and there are increasingly more of them. It would appear that it cannot be destroyed. Ultimately, despite this, it will be necessary to do something with its overproduction.

Jerzy Olek