Fotograf Magazine

Chris Niedenthal

Turning Points

Chris Niedenthal was born in a London family of Polish immigrants in the postwar years. Taking photographs in London, however, failed to satisfy him. He felt a lot more attracted to Poland – not to its communist regime, but to life in Poland and young Polish people who seemed more open, friendlier to him. As “a London photographer”, he was seen as a special and interesting person by his peers in Poland: he had a Western passport and a Western currency, and he could come to the country and leave whenever he needed, unlike the locals. From the photographic point of view, life behind the Iron Curtain seemed much more interesting and worthy of recording. Niedenthal came to Poland in the summer of 1973 – originally, he wanted to take pictures for a few months and then sell them to English newspapers. However, he stayed longer and longer, and as a result, he has lived in Poland until today. 

Niedenthal came to the country at a time when interesting things started happening. In October 1978, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla became the Pope, and Niedenthal was lucky to be at the right place in the right time and had the opportunity to photograph him from the beginning. Since that fateful meeting, he photographed all official visits of John Paul II to Poland. He also documented the strike in the Gdansk shipyards in August 1980, where he met Lech Wałęsa, and he took pictures of him and the Solidarity movement during the next decade. 

Accredited as a permanent foreign reporter, Niedenthal had a number of advantages in his job. Since the beginning, he took colour photographs, which was not very common in documentary and journalistic photography in the West, and it was very exceptional in Eastern Europe. Colour photographic material was not usually available behind the Iron Curtain, and if so, it was either used for the local production of films, which were technically useless for print, or you had to buy highly overpriced films from the West on the black market. Developing was a problem as well since laboratories in Poland were unreliable and of poor quality. But once Niedenthal started working for Western newspapers, all these problems were gone. He had a special status of an officially accredited journalist, was relatively sheltered from the communist regime, and had unlimited access to high quality film material and equipment. Editors wanted him to send the used films undeveloped to have full control over the processing and fate of the pictures and guaranteed exclusivity. This resulted in an interesting side effect. Niedenthal never saw what he photographed. He usually shot ten rolls of film a day and sent them undeveloped by airmail to newspapers, so he did not see his pictures until they were published, on the pages of magazines. Thus, he had no feedback for most of his career, did not know whether his photographs were well exposed, focused or composed, and he could not learn from his mistakes. Yet, he succeeded in capturing what was happening in Central and Eastern Europe in a unique way. His colour photographs are absolutely unique; most pictures from the period of socialism that we know were taken in black and white. 

As a foreign reporter, Niedenthal had a certain protection; yet, he did not dare to leave Poland at the time of martial law for fear that he would not be able to come back. Some of his photographs were influenced by external circumstances. He circumvented the ban on photographing during martial law and during protest demonstrations by taking pictures from the upper floors of buildings, thus gaining global views of the events and minimizing the risk of arrest by the police or attack by demonstrators who could have thought he was a secret policeman. His most famous photographs include the iconic shot of an armoured personnel carrier in front of a Warsaw cinema with a giant title Apocalypse Now, the film by Coppola that was on at that time, or the portrait of Hungarian Prime Minister János Kádár, awarded in the World Press Photo competition in 1986. Niedenthal photographed elderly Kádár with a giant painting of Lenin playing chess in the background. Due to the strong light and the physical demands of the shooting, Kádár was sweating in the face, which made him look like he was crying for his bloody crimes of the 1950s in the final photograph. 

In his pictures, Niedenthal captured both everyday life behind the Iron Curtain and important historical milestones, mainly summarized in the Turning Points series. Western media, however, were particularly interested in political issues: the visits of Pope John Paul II, the strike in the Gdansk shipyards, the establishment of the independent trade union Solidarity, and one of the leaders of this movement, Lech Wałęsa. In the late 1980s, Niedenthal moved to Vienna and started working for Time magazine, documenting life and events in Eastern Europe. He photographed not only in Poland, but, to a limited extent, also in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. The pinnacle of his photographic career was the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of an era of divided Europe. After the end of the photographic marathon in 1989, Niedenthal’s collaboration with Time magazine ended, and he photographed for Spiegel magazine for some time. This basically was the end of his career in photojournalism. 

Niedenthal describes himself as an ageing representative of old school photography and says he had to wait thirty years until his pictures began to be considered good examples of documentary photography. It is the very time interval that shows the strength of his photographs, the accurate visual representation of an era so often idealized or relativised today. The photographs that were originally taken to inform of contemporary events have become a visual chronicle of the time, a visual history.

Filip Láb