Fotograf Magazine

Two traditions: between the past and the future

The Upper Silesia: the blessed and at the same time the cursed land. Extraordinary place where in a beautiful wavy landscapes coal mine towers and steel-work chimneys suddenly appear; where streets and houses are crowded taking breath away from the city, which without any open spaces ‘between’ already becomes a different city. The land hiding ’black gold’ greedily searched for and the land covered with dust and smoke, with just remains of forests in which birds have ceased to sing. People here are also different: speaking melodious Silesian dialect with long and short vowels, with soft words still preserved from old Polish, intertwined with hard German borrowings. The identity of the Upper Silesia since half of the 19th century has been connected with mining industry – this is still the basis for the living of the majority of families in this region.

What will happen to this special place, so clearly different from neighbouring lands; the place of its own traditions, language, landscapes of mining waste dumps and brick tenement houses with red window frames? Silesian land is changing its skin: coal industry is passing away. The beginning of changes is painful, as everything starts from the ruin of what used to be.

In this difficult time – time of border between the past and the future of the region – fourteen photographers from other parts of Poland and from three neighbouring countries have come here especially to record the reality of breakthrough. In their look there is a certain tone contained which harmonises with the situation of the place. Maybe it would be better to say that the look was marked with a particular train, one of resignation and nostalgy. All of them practice such a kind of photography whose disappearing we are witnessing. Similarly to different fuels and new technologies displacing mining and steelworking based on coal modern technique is replacing the chosen by those photographers traditional version of their art form. It is more and more difficult to obtain a black-and-white negative in a case, which is used in old large-format cameras; producers are giving up the production of barite paper, on which in classical chemical darkroom pictures are copied from those large negatives.

One of them, Andrzej Jerzy Lech (who has come to Silesia from as far as New York) wrote: ‘we are not photographers of the time of splendour’. He put it exactly right. ‘Classical’ photographers have the reasons to feel that they are on the margin of the main current of this field. And because they themselves decide to remain on this margin they look at the world a little with melancholy looking for pictures of loneliness, desolation, transistoriness. Who can better than they feel the special aura of this land whose life is now becoming the past?

Each of the fourteen photographers invited to the open-air has seen such a picture of the Upper Silesia which has resulted from the encounter of this place with his / her individual sensitivity and experience obtained from art work so far. Of these partial images put together we receive, like in caleidoscope, an entirely new image: multi-plot story full of unexpected meanings. Many of them speak not only of the reality of not working coal-mines and steel-works and sad houses- about ruin, ugliness and desolation but also of extraordinariness and special beauty of this exceptional land. Surprising beauty of Silesian landscape were the authors able to see in lyrical details and in epic pathetical panoramas.:: A viewer looking at this set of photographs is struck that there are almost no people. If there appear people they are tiny figures in the depth of a frame, one of many elements of a view. Photographers who use old, large cameras on tripods, whose lenses record an image in long time as a rule direct attention at objects which do not move, they do not exceed a frame while making a picture. It cannot, therefore, be report photography. However, not showing people, as a result it tells more and more significantly about them than can be shown in shutter pictures catching various situations. It is the absence of man in these pictures that is significant. What becomes significant are objects left by man and their mutual correspondence; a part is played here also by their background: the earth, the sky, light and shadow. The lack of persons whose traces are present in photographs causes that they can be ‘seen’ in a more suggestive manner than in reality, following objects and symbolic senses of shine and dark.

Photographs of Balazs Turay talk about surprise by a sudden encounter with another world, in which picteresque landscape of widespread, fair and dark clumps of trees gives suddenly place to dark, muddy yards, hiding views which bring fear and intimation of a catastrophe. Ruin and ugliness of this world is the topic of pictures of Marek Szyryk – they present a silent show played by the same stage-design: remains of already non-existing factory like scattered bones on a concrete desert. With sadness and resignation, not fear, does Wojciech Zawadzki look at the landscape where instead of streams unending pipes snake around abandoned factory buildings. Sunlight, which is reflected in dusty windows, brings a ray of hope into this repellent surrounding.

Silent and still coal-mine machines, including a trolley with recent output in photographs of Sławoj Dubiel are waiting in sleep for new life – like discontinued double railway track, which seems to be going straight into the sky. Symptoms of new, already completely different life, which is secretly going on in deserted and forgotten places, is found in apparently indistinct closes by Bohumír Prokůpek. Jaroslav Beneš, catching in its lens flashes of blinding light entering the landscape, transforms grey and chaotic landscapes into non-material phantoms. Further, in the photos of Jan Reich – dark figures of odd buildings make an impression of fairy-tale-like dragons-giants fighting with one another in the wreaths of smoke and steam. Secretful places photographed by Gabor Kerekes with gallows painted on the wall and a trace of children’s room with walls open onto the street bring to the mind not a fairy-tale but rather disturbing ominous dream of war or another catastrophe which has swept the city inhabitants away.

The walls of buildings in Marek Liksztet is a reminiscence of ancient buildings – Silesian walls have simplicity and dignity of Egyptian or Sumerian temples. Andrzej Jerzy Lech with sorrow and nostalgy describes the fortune of original and charming Silesian industrial architecture more and more deeply hidden in growing bushes and trees. Madness of ivy twining everything around and covering gravestones of and old churchyard is shown by Ewa Andrzejewska catching images of this place against the light – poured with shine, it becomes a metaphor of the end and the vision of the second life. Can what is presented by Jakub Byrczek – barely visible on saline paper of his archaic Talbot photography from the store-room of unnecessary things – be named ‘life after life’? Those rejected objects have a chance to find their buyer in a secondhand shop, who will invent a new role for them…

In Tomáš Rasl’s works the forgotten places are neither ugly nor frightening, nor generating melancholy. They seem intriguing and not so much secretful as almost joyful – they play a game with one another which we will maybe understand, though no sooner than in the future. In those pictures a new fair perspective opens – however where does it lead? Human enterprises, even if done in full swing, are small in comparison with the beauty and power of nature – photos of Jozef Česla seem to be saying. Is it really the best that can be done in the perspective of rapid changes of the whole region to trust the wisdom of nature? In those field landscapes shocking with beauty of the evening sunshine lying low on the grass is there more faith or stoical peace in the face of the Unavoidable?…

Alżbieta Łubowicz