Tender attention is an empathic attitude towards the world. One that points to an insightfulness that the photographer may observe reality with, and a respect that he or she has for their subject. This notion is bound up with alertness, openness, and involvement. Consequently, in photographic practice, it denotes an approach antithetical to simply chasing after eye-catching images. Instead, tender attention affords an emotional dialogue between the viewer, the photographer, and the subject.
In the context of building a collection, tender attention signals an attitude that is open to new phenomena, one that is both keen and critical. It can be thought of as a work of “leaning over” cultural phenomena and a non-dogmatic approach. The photographic collection of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź was created in precisely such a way. Indeed, it was developed with a sense of the pulse of the contemporary, with a profound understanding of the dynamic changes taking place in the field of visual culture, individual creative processes, and pivotal moments in the history of photography.
The viewer is guided around the exhibition by Urszula Czartoryska – an art curator and critic whose research, writing, and curiosity for photography in all its manifestations have shaped not only the Muzeum Sztuki collection, but also generations of Polish artists. The show’s title, Tender Attention, is borrowed from her essay on the Magnum photographers. It refers directly to humanistic reportage photography in post-war art, though it can also be interpreted in the context of a broader humanistic reflection. The title also corresponds with the nature of Czartoryska’s research, allowing one to see how categories such as sensibility, tenderness, or care work, are not constructed anew, but rather rediscovered.
While Czartoryska had a formative impact on the character of the Muzeum Sztuki photographic collection, she was not alone in building it. Accompanying her in that work from the very beginning was Grzegorz Musiał (1977–1984), and later she was joined by Lech Lechowicz (1980–1996), Krzysztof Jurecki (1985–2000), Jolanta Ciesielska (1995–2001) and Agnieszka Skalska (1996-1997). The decisions of the museum’s director at the time, Ryszard Stanisławski, also played an important role. The auteurs of the collection sought to present the full range of phenomena important for photography, both historical andcontemporary. The point of departure, according to Muzeum Sztuki’s profile, was the pre-war avant-garde and its post-war continuations. At the same time, the collection was expanded with works representing genres such as studio photography, documentary photography, humanistic reportage, and pictorialism. Experimental film and video works were also included. Aiming to build a collection showing photography in the broadest of spectrums, the strategy was based on theoretical foundations laid by Urszula Czartoryska.
Czartoryska perceived photography as a complex artistic-social phenomenon and emphasized the context in which the auteur and recipient operate. Asked in an interview about her method of classifying photography, she replied that she was wary of speaking of systematics because “it could always stifle photography.” You look from one perspective at photography presented at an enthusiast club and from another at a photo essay featured in a newspaper; one kind of perception is at work in a museum and another at a scholarly conference. At the same time, Czartoryska stressed repeatedly that all those set-ups influenced each other and only by surveying the totality of the development of the medium was one able to know it better. It was impossible to understand photography in detachment from other realms of culture, such as the visual arts, film, or the printed press (today we would also add the Internet and social media). Therefore, she was particularly interested in the fringes of photography, the “alliances” it struck with other fields of life: advertising, science, the applied arts. It was there, she believed, that the most exciting things happened, those that captured the essence of the medium’s development. Already in her early essays Czartoryska placed photography within the scope of art-history and cultural studies. This seems pretty obvious from today’s perspective, but it was hardly so in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s.
What irritated her was repetitiveness, showiness, and empty rhetoric. In a 1976 essay, Photography as Communication, she stressed the role that photographers could play in building a conscious reflection on contemporary visual culture: “Through comprehensive strategies aimed at sensitizing the viewers, such as shows of photography current and historical, professional and amateur, artistic and kitschy, we enable them to independently judge the media of mass communication and persuasion, including television programming.” Today, the ability to critically and analytically process visual messages is a crucial and vital competence, one that allows us to move safely around a photography-dominated world. Czartoryska mentioned also a “vote of no confidence” in the image, pointing to an overwhelming glut of visual stimuli and the dangers it entailed. She noted that not only viewers but also artists were tired of the omnipresence and garrulousness of photography, and searched instead for simple, minimalistic and sparse forms.
Her writing was crystal-clear and communicative, devoid of unnecessary academic jargon. She frequently referred to her own experiences and emotions, and liked to make a recourse to metaphor. Highly precise in their argumentation, her essays and texts referenced current trends in humanistic reflection, navigating deftly among the most recent concepts and theories. She worked through ideas analytically and without dogmatism; not afraid of unorthodox comparisons; she created associative collages that opened new paths of inquiry and interpretation.
Until her death in 1989, she closely followed the latest trends in art, the development of amateur photography, the ever wider use of photographs in the mass media and advertising. All those processes she viewed with her typical attentiveness, thanks to which she understood people and their needs: of expression, acceptance of transience, experimentation, of testing the limits of perception and of care. She realized that photography could be a way of satisfying all of the above.
Very early on, Czartoryska stressed the need for viewing the image critically; and for visual education. She wrote about the dangers entailed by the oversaturation of the public sphere with images, about the blurring of the limits of privacy in photography, about the need to respect the subject’s boundaries and to ensure ethical representation. All those issues have gained prominence with the onset of the digital revolution and the rise of social media.
The exhibition Tender Attention is constructed around four themes that preoccupied Urszula Czartoryska in both her research and curatorial practice. The titles of the sections are borrowed from her essays. The chapter Photography Contested presents the experiments and investigations of artists who explored the tension between photography and reality, challenging the apparent transparency and objectivity of the photographic image. The section titled Private, Super-Private, Anti-Private narrates the migration of photography from the private sphere to the public one, seeking to answer the question why its makers are so keen to use amateur or family photographs. The next section, Reshaping Images of Reality, features works by artists who use real-world imagery to communicate their personal experiences. The last one, Points of Contact with the World, is devoted to documentary photography, whose main subject is the visible reality. The breadth of Muzeum Sztuki’s photography collection – over 3,000 artworks of which 150 are on show – makes it possible to demonstrate the continuity of artistic investigations and the development of selected creative attitudes from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. It also allows for tracing the evolution of a medium so described by Czartoryska as a “unique means of communication.”
The exhibition includes also works acquired by the Muzeum Sztuki, before and after Czartoryska’s tenure; as well as works secured by staff of departments other than the Department of Photography and Visual Techniques. Even though it was not Czartoryska herself who decided on their inclusion in the Muzeum Sztuki collection, we believe they aptly illustrate the range of her interests and the themes she explored.
Photography’s ability to show the world in its tiniest detail means that from the very outset it was considered a “mirror of reality.” Today we know for sure that the objectivity attributed to it is only becoming apparent. In her essay Photography Contested… (1978), Urszula Czartoryska emphasizes the role that the artists of the first avant-garde played at the beginning of the twentieth century in developing reflections on the actual “non-transparency” of the photographic image.
Through their experiments, those artists demonstrated the illusory nature of the image. Fascinated by photography, they set about exploring its inherent qualities. Embracing innovative means of expression, such as bird’s-eye view, worm’s-eye view, extreme close-ups, or non-standard framing, they encouraged the viewer to reflect on the nature of perception and representation. Defining the camera as an extension of the sense of sight – a prosthetic device able to record more than the human eye is able to perceive – they captured dynamic scenes, such as a skier gliding down a slope (Edward Olszaniecki) or a swimmer going down a slide just before hitting the water’s surface (Anton Stankowski). Czartoryska described such phenomena as “casting a gaze at a merry-go-round arrested in motion.” Similar attempts were made by photographers not strictly associated with avant-garde movements, such as Krystyna Gorazdowska, Witold Romer, or Kazimierz Lelewicz. They, too, somewhat cautiously adopted the modern ways of representing reality. It seems apt to say that they “saw a world devoid of unambiguity and stability . . . They . . . challenged the principle of the gravity of the world, the sense of the identity of objects.”
Similar formal means of expression were also embraced by a later generation, for example by Andrzej Strumiłło, even if the mood of his photographs is quite unlike that to be found in the works of his predecessors; gone are dynamism and optimism, replaced by a sort of melancholy, a painful post-war mourning that expresses both the beauty and burden of existence.
Neo-avant-garde artists resumed the work of exploring the specificity of the medium, testing its limits, and questioning the objectivity of the photographic record. In his work Uncle Thad (1977), Ireneusz Pierzgalski attempted to fully represent a human figure in a single photographic print. The male figure was divided into fragments in a manner reminiscent of the experiments of analytical Cubist painters who sought to show the object from as many viewpoints as possible. The issue of the construction of perspective, and therefore of how much a given medium determines the patterns of perception, is also present in the work of Jan Dibbets. The Dutch conceptual artist produced a tangle of planes and straight lines that deceive the eye like classic linear perspective in European painting. The impossibility of “total recording” was analyzed by Antoni Mikołajczyk who, through a gradual change of the vantage point, methodically documents a residential building. But would a complete integration of the artist with the medium allow for creation such a recording? It is with this question in mind that we may look at Paweł Kwiek’s, photographic work Video and Breath. Information Channel (1978) and at Józef Robakowski’s film I Am Going (1973).
Modern ways of representing reality were also embraced by mass culture. Already in the first decades of the twentieth century, photography transformed the printed press. Urszula Czartoryska wrote that it was used as a “persuasion technique” in advertising or political propaganda. Relatively early, for already in the 1960s, she drew attention to the way photography functioned in the public space, commenting both on the overproduction of images and the role that photographers, photo editors, and curators could play in building awareness and inspiring critical perception. Challenging the apparent objectivity of photography, artists explored also the functioning of the medium as part of a broader visual culture. Among the featured works is Bluff (1978) by Zygmunt Rytka, which deals with photography’s potential to manipulate. Natalia LL, in turn, alludes in her Consumer Art (1972) to the visual means utilized by contemporary advertising (repetitiveness, sexualization, objectification of women and so on). Bearing witness to the fundamental significance of photography in modern-day visual culture is also the famous image of Marylin Monroe, reproduced in multiple copies by Andy Warhol as based on a photographic portrait.
The works of avant-garde and neo-avant-garde artists constantly confront the viewer with the issue of the materiality of photography, the mechanicalness of recording, and the physico-chemical nature of the analogue medium. In photograms, that is images produced on photo-sensitive material without the use of a camera, material objects merge with physical phenomena to the extent that they become an inseparable whole. Photograms inspired artist Karol Hiller to develop a unique technique, combining elements of painting, graphic design, and photography, which he called heliographics. Compared with photographs or photograms, it gave the artist greater control over the creative process, one which involved treating photographic film with chemical substances; but also painting on it or interacting with it mechanically through various procedures.
Neo-avant-garde artists remind the viewer that analogue photography is not an incorporeal image, but has as its inherent part a material medium – usually a piece of paper. Already at the beginning of the 1970s, Robakowski signalled in his work Pillows that it is but one of other possible media, thus in a way anticipating what in the era of digital photography has become a common commercial practice.
Photography was employed as a tool in systemic research by artists such as Zbigniew Dłubak, Janusz Bąkowski, or Jarosław Kozłowski. Dłubak in his Gesticulations (1970–1975) explores the semantic charge of specific gestures, trying to “cleanse” them one after another of the symbolic layers accumulated over centuries. Here, as Czartoryska writes, “reality is the material, merely an introduction to the artistic decision.”
Reshaping Images of Reality
“Reshaping Images of Reality so that they no longer resemble human vision, reaching out towards an unknown scale . . . testifies to a desire to express oneself in a manner as personal as possible, precisely by taming processes seemingly so objective.” Through the skilful use of the plastic matter that reality may become, works are produced that convey complex emotions and possess a particularly atmospheric quality.
In the anxiety-filled series The Birth of a Robot(1933) Janusz Maria Brzeski employs the technique of collage to create a disturbing vision of the pitfalls of technological progress, dehumanization, and uniformization. One of the most interesting post-war examples of photography that uses “means borrowed from reality” precisely in order not to speak about the visible reality are Dłubak’s macro-photographs.. Here the artist captured organic forms in such close-up that they seemed like autonomous entities; the fragment of a material reality shown here can be interpreted as a metaphor of a mental state connected with the physiological aspect of humanity, a complex emotion so distinct and intense that it is almost tangible and, at the same time, so multidimensional that it cannot be described with words. An interesting example of experimentation are the works of Fortunata Obrąpalska who captured the effect of the dissolution of an ink drop in water, producing subtle, hard-to-define structures. Also noteworthy are Bronisław Schlabs’s photograms from the 1950s and 1960s, wherein the artist drew on negatives and treated them with various substances and liquids before contact-printing them on photo-sensitive material.
The work of Eva Rubinstein, daughter of the celebrated pianist, belongs to the “realm of the intimate experience.” The capturing of a trace of human presence became in her works an illustration of an ephemeral atmosphere, recognizable for a sensitive observer, a kind of self-portrait. The photographic works of Teresa Gierzyńska, Teresa Tyszkiewicz, Konrad Kuzyszyn, Ewa Partum, or Romuald Kutera can be interpreted in the same context. They are a record of mises-en-scène staged for the camera by the artists, communicating subjective feelings often associated with the experience of one’s own corporeality and reflection thereon. Czartoryska wrote about such photographs, among others, that they “convey the expression and full testimony of the psyche.”
Private, Super-Private, Anti-Private
The Muzeum Sztuki collection includes hundreds of photographs taken at the turn of the twentieth century. Some of those are by figures pivotal for the history of Polish photography, figures such as Karol Beyer, Walery Rzewuski, or Konrad Brandel. But most are anonymous, sometimes bearing the name of the studio where they come from (e.g. “American Photographer” Łódź, “Janina” Nowy Sącz and so on) or of the donor (e.g. Anna Frydrych’s collection). The majority are studio portraits of men, women, and children, usually taken for private purposes and meant to be pasted into an album or presented to family members. At the same time, there are also pictures of celebrities, taken for publicity purposes; we will find among them portraits of famous actresses (Helena Modrzejewska by Walery Rzewuski, Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar) as well as pictures documenting Stanisław Ignacy “Witkacy” Witkiewicz or Kazimir Malevich in “domestic” settings.
The presence of private photographs in an institutional collection is one of the forms of photography’s transition from the private sphere to the public one. Czartoryska writes about this same transition in the essay Privacy, Super-Privacy, Anti-Privacy. She also performed such gestures of transference as part of her critical and curatorial practice; in the 1960s, she published an image of her daughter, accompanied by an essayistic commentary, in the magazine “Fotografia”; and in the exhibition The Liminal States of Photography (Katowice, 1977) she showed an amateur photograph from her own family archive.
Czartoryska devoted a lot of attention in her writings to vernacular photography – practical and private. In such images, not intentionally “artistic,” she saw an antidote to the contemporary iconosphere – loud, manipulative, stereotypical, dominated by advertising and propaganda photography. First of all, however, she stressed that the power of vernacular photographs lay in their special “emotional tension,” stemming from the way they evoked desires, memories, or anxieties common to all people. Old photographs emanate particularly strongly, and it is such photographs that make it easier for us to accept the passage of time because, as she wrote, “rootedness in time is precisely such a profoundly universal human experience of transience.”
Entering the private sphere is a particularly moving and powerful experience for the viewer when the photographs document dramatic and traumatic events. This is the case, for example, with a collection of contact prints from the Łódź Ghetto, taken probably in 1942. These are pictures whose “emotional tension,” to quote Czartoryska, is extreme; pictures that allow us to participate in the “mystery of transience.” On the one hand, they show a world that no longer exists, people who were annihilated along with their culture; on the other, the photographs themselves, small (approx. 3.7 ☓ 2.5 cm), damaged, and bent – bear witness to the passage of time. Their author remains unknown – we do not know whether he was a German soldier or an inhabitant of the ghetto; nor is it clear how the pictures ended up outside the ghetto; the faces and places in them are very hard to identify. In the work of “reading” these images, of imagining what is not visible in them, we may be helped by a careful look at Jerzy Lewczyński’s Our Enlargement – Nysa 1945 (1971). Here, the author has paired a photograph documenting the westward journey of Polish repatriates from the east with close-ups of their faces, thus forcing us to look not at an anonymous crowd, but at the individual stories of each of the protagonists. Lewczyński often incorporated old or found photographs in his works, calling his practice the “archaeology of photography.”
A similar modus operandi was employed by Christian Boltanski. His Mickey Mouse Club (1972) is a set of randomly selected photographs of children that were anonymous to him. The meaning of Boltanski’s works, Czartoryska wrote, rests in the “power of the gaze that the subjects seem to cast at the viewer, in a sense of timeless connection with the photographed person.” The power of these photographs, which could, after all, belong to anyone, stems from their universality. Alluding to the viewer’s emotions, childhood memories, and mental associations, Boltanski raises questions about the work of the mechanism of memory and the role that photography can play in it.
The use of self-portrait is one of the manifestations, though usually of a different emotional intensity, of the private sphere entering the universal one. The Muzeum Sztuki collection includes a series of photographs of Witkacy. And although the artist role-plays, acts, and makes faces, we are confronted here with one of the most private encounters that can be experienced, witnessing a constant deconstruction of one’s own persona and a negotiation of identity.
Points of Contact with the World
“More than another sensitive person, the photographer is acutely aware of two points of contact with the world . . . namely, time and space.” He is particularly sensitized to the world and, aiming the lens at the chosen subject, endows it with special significance. This is an extraordinarily responsible task when the subject is not a lifeless object or something of nature, but that of a human being. Already in her first critical texts, Czartoryska points out that the function of reportage photography goes far beyond the merely informational; that it is able to actually shape reality. The author, the photographer, has all the tools and means required – including, crucially, attentiveness and respect for the protagonist – to endow particular phenomena with a universal quality, engage the viewers, and influence their vision of the world. It is such photographs – focused on the human being, “observant, perceptive, and profoundly humanistic” – that encapsulate this exhibition.
An insight into a bygone world is offered by the works of Benedykt Jerzy Dorys and Stefan Kiełsznia. In the series Kazimierz on the Vistula (1931–1932), Dorys reveals the microcosm of a provincial town, its rituals and quiet-paced everyday life. By working with a small-format camera, he was able to capture reality sharply and in close detail. The latter, in turn, recorded pre-war Lublin with its storefronts and painted shop signs. A still, other reality – urban and dynamic – can be glimpsed from the film-set pictures taken at the Cracow studio of the Brothers Karaś and from Janusz Maria Brzeski’s Report from Gdynia (1935). Besides Wojciech Plewiński’s much later photo-essay from Nowa Huta (1976), these pictures, documenting the construction of a new city and sea port, are the only ones in this section that do not have the human being as their immediate protagonist.
Eugeniusz Haneman has produced some of the most memorable and emotionally moving images from the Warsaw Uprising. Among the 15 rolls of film that have survived, there are snapshots that clearly show the emotions shared by the insurgents; and their alert concentration. A different approach, using very wide shots, was adopted by Stanisław Markowski who documented the socio-political upheavals which rocked Poland in the 1980s. Regardless, however, of the formal means employed and the historical period covered, for both Haneman and Markowski taking pictures was a political act and a gesture of solidarity with those fighting for a right cause. A voice from the inside, it demonstrated a “bond with a spontaneously expressed public opinion.” In 1980, in a similar gesture of togetherness and solidarity, Czartoryska curated t the Muzeum Sztuki the exhibition Gdańsk – August ’80. Photography, featuring photo-essays by Stanisław Markowski, Bogusław Biegański, and Witold Górka.
The oeuvre of Jan Bułhak forms a phenomenon in its own right in the first half of the 20th century. Through Czartoryska’s efforts, the Muzeum Sztuki acquired, whether through purchase or donation, many of his works for its collection. Bułhak was a declared pictoralist: he believed that in order to become art, photography needed complex darkroom processing. Among his works are idyllic natural scenes, framed so as to resemble classic landscape painting. But he is remembered chiefly as the author of “homeland photography,” which he pursued for over 40 years. Its purpose was to capture the “Polish spirit” and, to some extent, to develop and shape a national consciousness amongst the country’s inhabitants. He documented historical landmarks and cultural mementos, producing a kind of typology. With the precision of an inventory clerk, he photographed churches and monasteries, showing them from different perspectives, capturing the interiors, galleries, architectural details, showing the historical buildings looming over house roofs, written into town- and cityscapes. Resembling an attempt to create a “total recording,” the project was driven by an ambition to map as faithfully as possible the different regions of Poland.
 Urszula Czartoryska, “Magnum przeszło przez Polskę,” in eadem, Fotografia – mowa ludzka. Perspektywy historyczne, ed. L. Brogowski (Gdańsk 2006), item 1147.
 The title of the exhibition alludes also to Marysia Lewandowska’s project Tender Museum (Muzeum Sztuki, 2009) which was devoted to Urszula Czartoryska.
 “Między inscenizacją i realnością… Z Urszulą Czartoryską rozmawia Jerzy Olek,” in U. Czartoryska, Fotografia – mowa ludzka. Perspektywy teoretyczne, ed. L. Brogowski (Gdańsk 2005), p. 15.
 U. Czartoryska, “Fotografia jako porozumienie,” ibidem, p. 50.
 Eadem, “Fotografia jako porozumienie,” op. cit., p. 51.
 Eadem, “Fotografia zakwestionowana z historii kultury wizualnej lat międzywojennych,” in eadem, Fotografia – mowa ludzka. Perspektywy teoretyczne, op. cit., p. 141.
 Eadem, “Widzialne – Niewidzialne. O polskiej awangardzie międzywojennej,” in Fotografia – mowa ludzka. Perspektywy historyczne, op. cit., items 248–255.
 “Między inscenizacją i realnością…,” op. cit., p. 20.
 U. Czartoryska, Przygody plastyczne fotografii (Warszawa, 1965), p. 58.
 Eadem, Eva Rubinstetin. Fotografie z lat 1967–8, exh. cat. (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, 1984), p. 6.
 Eadem, “Portret fotograficzny – cielesność i duchowość,” in Nowe media w komunikacji społecznej w XX w., ed. M. Hopfinger (Warszawa, 2005), p. 59.
 Eadem, “Prywatność, superprywatność, antyprywatność,” in eadem, Fotografia – mowa ludzka. Perspektywy teoretyczne, op. cit., pp. 52–68.
 Ibidem, p. 61.
 Ibidem, p. 67.
 Eadem, “Bezimienny świadek na środku gościńca?” ibidem, p. 222.
 Eadem, “Magnum przeszło przez Polskę,” op. cit., item. 1150.
 Eadem, “Fotografia jako porozumienie,” ibidem, p. 55.
|Janusz Bąkowski, Konrad Brandel, Jan Bułhak, Janusz Maria Brzeski, Wojciech Bruszewski, Zbigniew Dłubak, Bogdan Dziworski, Teresa Gierzyńska, Krystyna Gorazdowska, Zdzisław Jurkiewicz, Edward Hartwig, Florence Henri, Jarosław Kozłowski, Aleksander Krzywobłocki, Jalu Kurek, Natalia Lach-Lachowicz, Jerzy Lewczyński, Bożena Michalik, Antoni Mikołajczyk, Nadar, Fortunata Obrąpalska, Roman Opałka, Marek Piasecki, Julia Pirotte, Józef Robakowski, Eva Rubinstein, Zofia Rydet, Mikołaj Smoczyński, Bronisław Schlabs, Anton Stankowski, Andrzej Strumiłło, Jindřich , Antanas Sutkus, Stefan Themerson, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz
|Tender Attention. Urszula Czartoryska and Photography
|Place / venue
|Muzeum Sztuki, Łódź, Poland
|28 May – 5 September 2021
|Maria Franecka, Marta Szymańska
|Aleksander Krzywobłocki Andrzej Strumiłło Antanas Sutkus Anton Stankowski Antoni Mikołajczyk Bogdan Dziworski Bożena Michalik Bronisław Schlabs Edward Hartwig Eva Rubinstein Florence Henri Fortunata Obrąpalska jalu kurek Jan Bułhak Janusz Bąkowski Janusz Maria Brzeski Jaroslaw Kozlowski Jerzy Lewczyński Jindřich Józef Robakowski Julia Pirotte Konrad Brandel Krystyna Gorazdowska Marek Piasecki Maria Franecka Marta Szymańska Mikołaj Smoczyński Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź Nadar Natalia Lach-Lachowicz Roman Opałka Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz Stefan Themerson Teresa Gierzyńska Urszula Czartoryska Wojciech Bruszewski Zbigniew Dłubak Zdzisław Jurkiewicz Zofia Rydet