Fotograf Magazine

The month of photography in Krakow 2006

The 5th annual Month of Photography in Krakow presented fundamental changes in organization, focus and scope, as well as quality. This is to be credited chiefly to the group of agile young organizers, with festival director Tomasz Gotkowsky and art director Karol Hordziej foremost among the group of new leaders. Whereas previously the ill-defined festival program embraced virtually all of the photo-exhibitions taking place in Krakow at the time, or everything offered to the organizing committee, this time the organizers placed far greater stress on the quality of exhibitions, strengthening the festival’s international character and articulating one main festival theme, that of Territory. This they then strove to systematically present in a broad spectrum of 24 exhibitions. Apart from the main theme, the festival catalogue included nearly thirty other exhibitions “off program”, as well as a major retrospective of Hungarian photography – Hungary being the official guest nation this year. Another important change was the fact that almost all openings, lectures and screenings took place in the festival’s first few days -particularly welcome for any visitors from outside Krakow, since in previous years when exhibitions opened gradually, a stay of several days’ duration in the former Polish capital would not enable them to see most of the exhibitions, and the Month of Photography as a whole thus lacked the bustling excitement of Arles, Perpignon or Bratislava. And finally, another agreeable change was the shift of date from the cold of October-November to the warm springtime. However, so far it is not clear whether next year will also take place in May or whether the festival would return to its autumn date.

The most extensive part of the program was dedicated to Polish photographers. Similar to the International Festival of Photography Festival in Lodz, which starts a mere two weeks later, Krakow saw the radical transformations that Polish photography has undergone in the last few years. While until quite recently the scene was dominated by conceptual, multi-media and experimental photography, often a mere shallow reiteration of the work of pioneers in the field – Dlubak, Roba­kowski, Wojnecki or Lachowicz, the younger generation of contemporary Polish photographers are far more interested in modern documentary, portraiture, or the urban landscape. This trend was most aptly documented in the extensive exhibition Poland Now, installed in the captivating empty halls of the Szyndler plant, which was featured in the Spielberg film Schindler “s List Krzysztof Miekus, editor-in-chief of Pozytyw magazine and curator of the newly opened Yours Gallery in Warsaw, accentuated a rather ironic and critical perspective on life in his country. The multi-layered exhibition featured a host of nearly sarcastic shots portraying religious piety and sexual championships, the mistrust of immigrants, and contrasts of tradition and globalization. Among a number of excellent photographs by Wojtek Wieteska, Zbigniew Tomaszczuk, Lukasz Trzcinski, Ireneusz Zje2d2alka and others, the work of Polish graduates or current students of the Institute of Creative Photography of the Silesian University in Opava was by no means lost – Wel Milach, Andrzej Kramarz, Mariusz Forecki and Kuba Debrowski are all making a significant contribution to the rebirth of Polish photography. It was the installation as such that was somewhat startling, with photographs from one cycle displayed in haphazard places. Among a host of solo exhibitions of Polish artists worthy of note were the compelling portraits of the novices of various monastic orders and young priests by Monika Czosnowska, the subjective documentary images by Wlodzimierz Krzeminski, the black-and-white fragments of static motifs of Wroclaw and other Polish cities by Bogdan Konopka, the unobtrusive but psychologically and sociologically penetrating photo­graphs of Basia Sokotowska capturing the urban peripheries in Poland, Australia and Malaysia, as well as witty images of artificial fauna and flora by Kuba Debrowski, imaginatively installed at the botanical gardens. Naturally not all the Polish photography exhibited was of an even level of achievement, as the program also featured several dull shows, but the overall impression of contemporary photography in Poland was nonetheless a strong one.

The only competition for the Polish presentation in Krakow was the gigantic exhibition of Hungarian photography of rather uneven quality, Budapest Feeling, installed on three floors of a former brewery. On the one hand it featured for instance the sensitive color fragments of everyday motifs by Eniko Hungay, outstanding modern portraits and subjective documentary shots by Szilvie TOth, or expressive documen­tary from a dying racetrack by Tamas Deszb, and of a retirement home by Daniel Kovalovski, but on the other hand, the curator Gabriella Csizek also included a number of banal or outdated images.

The principal attraction for the public was primarily and naturally the group of exhibitions by famous foreign artists representing up-to-data trends in photography. Looking at the illusive aerial photographs of Rome by Olivo Barbieri (Italy), in focus only in small parts, one was at a loss whether these are photographs of an actual city or of its model. A pity, though, that the works of this world-renowned artist were installed in a constrained exhibition space in the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, more reminiscent of a tourist pottery shop rather than a real gallery. Among the festival highlights was the exhibition of another Italian artist, Paolo Ventura, whose large-format staged photographs featuring little puppets form a melancholy fictitious rendering of Second World War narrative. Israeli artist Michael Ackerman presented uncommonly expressive black and white documentary photographs and portraits, where his distinctive stylization, employing blurred movement and a narrowing of tonality, accentuate the subjectivity of his vision, reminiscent of feverish visions. France’s Philippe Brault brilliantly captured the typical aspects of life in a small town in America: similarly, the German-born Jessica Backhaus, now living in New York, succeeded in showing the rural life in a small Polish village, while Austria’s Reiner Riedler portrays the uneasy predicament of Russian circuses today, when the best of their artists have left for better wages in the West. Riedler’s sense of the absurd and the grotesque is matched by that of Slovakia’s Martin Kollar, whose ironic color photographs of his native country as well as other new EU countries tread a thin line on the edge of comedy and tragicomedy. Henrik Spohler’s (Germany) technically precise large-format photographs of the sterile premises of Internet companies continue the line initiated by Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer and other representatives of the DOsseldorf school of photography. One major success was the well-structured exhibition of raw, yet deeply human photographs of various villages by Jind’rich Streit [Czech Republic), who has lately made quite a name for himself with our northern neighbors thanks to exhibitions of his work in Poznan, Bielsko-Biala, Warsaw, and other Polish cities. The Krakow Month of Photography also included two small-scale exhibitions of young Czech photographers, Jan Dyntera and Jaroslav Dufek. It is a pity, though, that contemporary Russian, Ukrainian and Lithuanian photography went largely unrepresented – unlike at the Month of Photography in Bratislava, for which Krakow has become a serious competitor.

A variety of accompanying events also held an important place in the festival program – lectures, discussions, screenings of films on photo­graphy, portfolio reviews, launches of photo-books, and even concerts. Naturally the festival program as such evinced that its budget is a far cry from the financial possibilities of events such as Arles, Madrid, or Paris, but it also testified that the youthful organizers have done their homework brilliantly, as the festival won the attention of young viewers in particular (one was struck by the absence of many of the foremost Polish theoreticians, curators, or lecturers at the photography schools, including the Polish Academy of Fine Arts). The Month of Photography in Krakow this year has truly asserted itself, becoming an event of international significance.

Vladimír Birgus