Fotograf Magazine

the 2005 international festival of photography in łodź

Łodź, Poland’s second largest city, is full of contrasts. On the one hand there is the sadness of empty textile factories that were unable to compete with cheap Asian products, the city’s confused urban design without a distinct city centre, its high level of unemployment, Potemkin houses whose facades hide courtyards as dirty as any in St. Petersburg or Moscow, grotesque cement monstrosities right next to Art Nouveau palaces. And then there is Piotrkowska street, almost four kilometres of cosy cafés and restaurants, elegant shops and excellent galleries, bustling with life late into the night; there is one of the world’s oldest museums of modern art with an outstanding collection of both Polish and international avant-garde art and the best photography collection in Poland; a renowned theatre, film and television school at which internationally acclaimed artists such as Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, Roman Polański and Krzysztof Kieślowski studied or taught; great theatres and a lot of energy.

Contrast was also a defining element of the International Festival of Photography, organised by a small group from the Foundation of Visual Education and led by the energetic Krzysztof Candrowicz. The festival has made a lot of headway since its beginnings. While in the early days its focus was more regional, it is now international in character, thanks in part to the Union of European Festivals of Photography, whose founding was initiated by the Łodź organisers. The city of Łodź also provided the festival with its large exhibition spaces in a factory previously belonging to textile magnate Karol Scheibler, which now bears the name of the Artists Museum and houses the festival offices. Despite the assistance it has received, the festival’s budget remains well below those of similarly sized festivals in Western Europe. As a result, its programme does not include any opulent receptions and the exhibition spaces within the maze of abandoned factory halls are equipped with simple panels and simple lighting, with most of the exhibits open only for several days in order to save on security costs and (more importantly) so that foreign organisers and participants can take their works back home with them at their own expense. Nevertheless, the festival has a wonderful, casual atmosphere and visitors can see many fresh photographs and choose from a wide variety of accompanying events: lectures; discussions with photographers, curators and photography book publishers; concerts and film screenings. It is a festival organized by young people and primarily for young people, with most of the exhibited photographs made by young artists. It is a festival that has found its specific place among the many Polish photography festivals held in Krakow, Warsaw, Poznań, Jelenia Góra, Bielsko-Biała, Gorzów and other towns.

The around forty exhibitions of the festival’s fourth year were divided between the main program, which presented artists directly invited by the organizers, and the open programme featuring twelve exhibits selected from a hundred applicants. Among the most attractive exhibitions were the shocking but refined colour images by Canadian photographer Naomi Harris depicting American swinger couples exchanging their sexual partners in various special clubs, at summer camps or at well attended congresses. Many visitors must have been surprised at this face of the ever more conservative Bush’s America. Visitor interest was also high in the works of André Kertész – a legend of Hungarian, French and American photography. The images, which belong to the collection of the recently opened Jeu de Paume centre of photography in Paris, included photographs of people reading taken between 1912 and 1981. Current trends in documentary photography were well represented at several exhibitions. These included Dolores Marat’s subjective colour documentary photographs from Paris and New York, Turkish artist Ali Taptik’s expressive black-and-white photographs of urban life, the stylised swimming pool shots by French photographer Karine Laval, and the subtly ironical images by Hungary’s Krisztina Erdei and the Czech Republic’s Tomáš Pospěch, who chose as their subject the ongoing progress of globalization. Classic black-and-white documentary photography with a humanistic focus was represented by the Mission series by Czech photographers Alena Dvořáková and Viktor Fischer, which depicted the humanitarian activities of Catholic missions in various places around the world. A more static and descriptive approach to documentary photography was represented by the Czech-Polish exhibition Margins of Architecture prepared by Lucia Lendelová and Tomáš Pospěch and featuring matter-of-fact shots of tacky little weekend cabins by Veronika Zapletalová, ugly buildings in a provincial Polish town by Krzysztof Zieliński, images from non-touristic Prague by photographers Lukáš Jasanský and Martin Polák, banal details from gardens by Jan Bujnowski, Tomáš Pospěch’s miniature romantic castles in both private and public spaces, and Tomáš Souček’s bus stops at twilight, lit mysteriously by the headlights of passing cars. The increasingly common crossover between documentary and staged photography could be seen most strongly in the exhibit by the Babis group, consisting of works by three female students from Opava’s Institute of Creative Photography, Barbora Krejčová, Barbora Kuklíková and Martina Novozámská. One of its most interesting parts was Kuklíková’s colour series Feelings in a Foreign City, an exceptionally refined series depicting the feelings of four young émigrés living in Prague. More experimental trends dominated the group exhibit by seven contemporary Finnish photographers, the Private Woman exhibition of works by Slovak women photographers and the exhibit by painter and photographer Dorota Sadovská – whose largest series, Korporality, however did not fit very well with her portraits of famous artists from Paris.

Besides exhibitions of contemporary artists, the former textile factory’s labyrinth of buildings provided space for presentations by many photography schools from Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Serbia and the United States. The most frequent representatives, Polish schools, showed varying levels of quality since private schools for slightly advanced amateurs received similar exhibition space as renowned photography departments of art academies. In some cases (for example the Poznań and Cracow Academies of Fine Arts), a gradual shift could be observed from the conceptual trends prevailing in Poland since the 1960s towards a much broader spectrum of current trends.

As could be expected, Polish photography was represented by several other exhibitions. Among the most interesting was the retrospective of works by Jerzy Lewczyński, one of the main representatives of Polish experimental photography, held in the Museum of Art. In addition to combining text and images or depicting photographs with analogous shapes and meanings, the exhibit above all included his inventive works using found negatives (he himself labels this approach ”archaeology of photography“). Without any doubt, the strongest part was the large installation Our Enlargement – Nisa 1945, composed of an anonymous image of a train packed with war repatriates and a number of larger enlargements made from various fragments of this image. Polish ”searching“ photography from the 1960s was represented by the exhibition The Phenomenon of Group Zero-61, put together by Lech Lechowicz from a number of contemporary original works by Józef Robakowski, Andrzej Róźycki, Jerzy Wardak and other intermedia artists who, in photographs, assemblages and installations, react to current trends in conceptual art, op-art and other contemporary art. It is too bad that – except for the exhibits by photography schools only a relatively small amount of space was dedicated to the younger generation of contemporary Polish photographers, as many of them could certainly have presented good works that are very different from the works of the older conceptual and experimental photographers. This is likely to change during the fifth year of this fresh festival, when organizers plan to have each school represented by only one artist.

vladimír birgus