Fotograf Magazine

Month of photography in Krakow 2007

This past May in Poland boasted an extraordinary array of photography festivals. Even as many exhibitions from April’s Decade of Photography held at the Museum of the History of Photography remained open in Krakow (such as the Lartigue retrospective or the outstanding exhibition of authentic, stark photographs depicting life under the totalitarian Communist regime created by the reporters of the weekly ITD), on May 4, the 5th annual Month of Photography also opened here. A week later, the Biennale of Photography opened in Poznań, and the next weekend, the Sixth International Festival of Photography opened in Łódź, focusing in this edition on contemporary Spanish photography. It goes without saying that most Polish photographers, theoreticians, curators, and lecturers in photography are unable to participate in such a multitude of festivals, and also that the presence of their foreign colleagues is smaller in Krakow than at for instance the Month of Photography in Bratislava. Among Krakow’s problems is also the lack of suitable venues. Thus the exhibitions were held not only in museums and galleries, but also in a vacant brewery building, in the abolished municipal baths in the midst of the Stalinist-era district of Nowa Huta, in borrowed apartments, in coffee houses, even in a former factory. In spite of all these handicaps, to which may be added budgetary limitations, the group of enthusiastic young curators headed by director Tomasz Gutkowski and art directors Karol Hordziej and Andrzej Kramarz succeeded once again in creating a pleasant and lively festival, with almost fifty exhibitions, a number of well-attended lectures and projections, portfolio reviews and also an extensive catalogue of more than 200 pages in Polish and English.

Following Hungary in 2006, this year the guest of honor was Germany. Aside from a retrospective of the illustrious 1920s sociological portraits done by August Sander, the country was represented foremost by two group exhibitions. The first, entitled Appearance/Disappearance, presented a selection curated by Michael Staab, featuring not only the notorious comparative series of winding towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher, but above all the work of the younger generation of artists from the North Rhine-Westphalia region. All of the technically brilliant works on exhibition, following freely on from the descriptiveness of works by Candida Hőfer, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and other well-known representatives of the Dűsseldorf school, depicted static motifs, each eloquent also as sociological testimony. Among the most striking works were the well-articulated details taken from typical DDR interiors and the shatteringly monumental edifices of the Hitler-era baths at the spa of Prora on the Isle of Rügen by Anja Bohnhof, the spectral photographs of abandoned cars set against landscapes by Bernhard Fuchs, or the melancholy images of the village of Etzweiler before its demolition by Laurenz Berges.

Eager expectation preceded the second major German exhibition, Failed Hope: New Romanticism in Contemporary Photography in Germany, which was to show the departure of a large part of young German photographers from the cold and descriptive style of the Dűsseldorf school. Its curator, Andrea Domesle, aspired to show the inspiring influence of the work of the Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich on contemporary photography, as presented in a selection of 14 German photographers along with the Norwegian Mette Tronvoll (living in Berlin and Oslo) and Finland’s Tea Mäkipää, who created her staged photographs in Germany. The exhibition featured a number of photographs and videoprograms of high quality, which either drew directly from Friedrich’s oeuvre (Julia Oschatz, Christine de la Garenne), where references to Friedrich’s work could be traced (Ulrike Flaig, Sylvia Henrich, Daniel Gustav Cramer, Nathalie Grenzhaeuser), or where such links were loose and indirect (Tobias Zielony, Gregor Brandler). There were, however, also many rather average pictures, as well as works whose relationship to Friedrich or to Romanticism seemed evident to the curator alone. For instance, the conceptual artist Sven Johne presented reproductions of portraits of five personalities that were in some way linked to the fictitious isle of Vinta, reminiscent of his native Rügen, where Friedrich painted his Romantic landscapes. But what was actually Romantic in these portraits, accompanied by reproductions of images symbolizing the work of these figures, most probably remained a mystery to all but Andrea Domesle.

Another part-German project was the compelling joint exhibition of four artists bringing together Polish (Ireneusz Zjeźdźałka, Łukasz Trźiński) and German (Christian von Steffelin, Jan Lemitz) photographers on the desolate terrain of former mines shortly before they were liquidated, which featured older documentary films, the testimony of locals and photographs of the interiors of abandoned houses and the devastation of the landscape, as well as photographs of the new village where the inhabitants of the destroyed area were moved to.

The second and broader group of exhibitions Theatres of War was put together by the Magnum photo-journalist Mark Power in the premises of the former Schindler factory. This was dominated by a powerful multimedia projection of images by the Dutch photographer Geert van Kesteren from contemporary Iraq, entitled Why Mister Why?, where projection on several screens was accompanied by interviews with American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, various evocative soundscapes and live radio news broadcasts from Baghdad. In his visually strong color images Van Keesteren created a many-sided composite of the tragedy of Iraq, showing the drastic methods of American marines when arresting and interrogating Iraqis suspected of terrorism, parades of flagellating and fanatical Shiites, American politicians and diplomats, victims of suicide bombers, the exhumation of the corpses of hundreds of victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and also the night clubs where the richer echelons of Baghdad society attempt to achieve at least momentary oblivion from the surrounding hell. Altogether viewers were presented with a vivid image which showed the failings of practically all sides of the Iraqi conflict – without offering much optimism for a solution to the very nearly hopeless situation. Among the other powerful sections of Theatres of War was the exhibition of panoramic photographs by Luc Delahaye (France) from his cycle History, showing with emotional detachment corpses on the side of the road to Kabul, smoke rising above the bombed positions of Taliban fighters, a memorial ceremony for the victims of the World Trade Center in New York, or apocalyptic destruction in a Baghdad street. Even though Delahaye is one of Magnum’s photographers, the huge prints of his aesthetized photographs reminded one more of the staged photographs of Jeff Wall than traditional war reportage as we know it. Among the works that stood out for their visual merit were also the details of the empty interiors of the so-called Kill House, located in an uninhabited part of Arkansas, where the members of special military squads are trained to destroy enemies in the Middle East. The power of these enigmatic images by Christopher Stewart (UK) was made even stronger by the installation, with the images spotlighted against the derelict backdrop of a disused factory. In contrast to those, the photographs of watchtowers on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland by Donovan Wylie seemed tediously descriptive and uninteresting. A curious sociological commentary was provided by the photographs of Lisa Barnard, depicting the contents of dozens of packages of cosmetics, lollipops and candy, toys, biscuits, instant soups, and other objects that Americans send their soldiers abroad, in order to lighten their tours of duty and bring home a little closer to them. The many-faceted collection of exhibitions Theatres of War was doubtless the highlight of this year’s Krakow festival.

Another part of the official festival program, from the somewhat vaguely defined section entitled Distinguishing Marks included several exhibitions of artists of international reputation. None of those, however, was extensive enough to become an attraction to draw crowds of viewers, as is the custom with the stars of photography presented at other festivals. England’s Martin Parr was represented by a small display of portraits that he had commissioned from commercial studios in various countries, the Swedish photographer Anders Petersen presented an expressive collection of photographs of mentally ill people, the British duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin showed their far more static portraits of the patients of a psychiatric clinic in Cuba, and the young Danish artist Jacob Aue Sobol his none too successful visual diary recording his relationship with an Eskimo girl from Greenland.

Among the disappointments was the unsatisfactory presentation of the illustrious Royal College of Art, London, which was far below the standard of the annual presentation of diploma works of the said institution. Even more than this, one was forced wonder about the absolutely minimal presence – with the natural exception of the works of local Polish artists – of photography from the countries of the former Soviet block, which have traditionally been given extensive coverage at the Month of Photography in Bratislava, and which one year ago were even in Krakow amply represented, by for instance a gigantic retrospective of Hungarian photography and three Czech exhibitions. Russian photography was represented by self-reflexive Polaroid pictures by Sergei Bykov. Czech photography was represented merely by the projection of several mutual portraits of Hynek Alt and his Slovene wife Aleksandra Vajd in one borrowed flat, to which after the opening only probably only very few visitors even found the way. The much-published portraits of hens by the Slovak photographer Tomáš Agat Bloński were displayed in the far more sumptuous venue of the Camelot Gallery, which thanks to its owner Weronika Łodzińska and the Imago Mundi Foundation is rapidly becoming Krakow’s most important center for photography, featuring a bookshop, reading room, and a photography shop.

On the other hand, the numerous exhibitions of contemporary Polish photography brought many pleasant surprises. The sociologically-minded color photographs of various wedding and funeral-goers by Przemysław Pokrycki were compelling, as were the evocative computer generated portraits of non-existent people by Aneta Grzeszykowska, the expressive black and white images of traditional Indian wrestlers by Tomasz Gudzowaty and his Hungarian colleague Judit Berekai, and the collection of 365 self-portraits, created once per day over the last year, by the Krakow-based photographer Marek Gardulski. Among the work of the youngest generation, most striking were the mosaic of modern documentary images and portraits by Marcin Morawicki and Marcin Pajdosz, or the large-format color portraits of people in everyday situations by Paweł Olejniczak. Most of these exhibitions surveyed the current departure of many Polish artists from the multi-media and conceptual work dominant in Poland from the 1950s until quite recently, and their tendency towards awareness of a far broader spectrum of contemporary trends.

Vladimír Birgus