Tomasz Sobieraj made a name for himself during the past few years, presenting his works, namely documentaries and pin-hole photography, at several exhibitions, but his greatest achievement was the contribution to the festival called FOTOSEPTIEMBRE USA in 2011 where he showed his Banal Objects. Sobieraj was interested in pin-hole photography for a few years of his artistic career, including colour photography which he hybridically combined – or rather tried to combine, since it is rather impossible – with documentary photography. Observing his artistic evolution one could risk saying that he did not take up photography as a follower of tradition or some school of photography but rather as the follower of literature which in his case is very strongly bound with the photographic medium, although it is not an easy problem to analyze. On the basis of his own reflective writing he was building his unique photographic style, either of the prose of life (The Colossal Mug of the City) or of poetic imagery (Banal Objects); he also combined prose and poetry (Enclave).
I. The search for an enclave in the tradition of photography and in his own life
Among the several series of photographs by Sobieraj his Enclave, divided into four parts, begins with colour pictures taken with a pin-hole camera, pictures in which architecture and the presented scenes have been shown completely out of focus, while thanks to the colour they gain an oneiric character which is characteristic of the kind of imagery wherein the deliberately softened image is made to resemble a vision in a dream. Initially everything in the Enclave is unreal: buildings, staircases, characters, the figure of Christ blessing a gas station. Empty streets and stalls are symptomatic; someone wanders with a stolen dog. In the part shot using a traditional photographic camera the imagery becomes documentary and sharp in its artistic form. The black-and-white reality shows sombre figures, the narration becomes more personal, as if it was a reportage-like dissection of childhood and youth, and then his style imperceptibly seems to move in the direction of the tradition of photography by Eva Rubinstein – it becomes more aesthetic than oneiric and rapacious.
The style in this series is candid, although what is at stake here is not its truthfulness or detailed exemplification of concrete everyday or even “banal” events. In my mind these works are associated more with the notion of the revival of the memory of the place and time of given events. A photograph called …where long ago we kissed girls – with the initiation of maturity suggested in the title – is a broadening of a document by existential experience, and this is an important feature not only of this series. By means of their narrative and poetic titles these photographs gain new meanings, they come alive and turn into an epic story about human life and a derelict city. Therefore the artist builds his story “on the ruins of culture and history”. The next part contains photographic illustrations to Robert Frosts’s poem The Lockless Door. Enclave ends with erotic photographs, as if only love could be a deliverance in this phantom-city that is falling apart. The most poetic series focused on the transitoriness and phantasm of vision is The Street of Crocodiles, inspired by the prose of Bruno Schulz. The artist purposefully uses and explores the qualities of black-and-white photography in order to finally blur the contours of reality by means of the fuzziness of individual takes. A pin-hole camera is probably the best of tools to express the problem of another kind of reality which balances on the edge of legibility and credibility but which shows a surrealistically oneiric reality.
II. Contemporary but also historical image of the memory of Łódź
The focus on the problem of a document, sometimes in its painfully sad aspect, forms the ground for the Colossal Mug of the City. The title of this touching series was borrowed from Polish Flowers by Julian Tuwim, a poet from Łódź. It turns out that such a pessimistic, and sometimes tragical and comical image of Łódź, is still valid. Has the city not changed much through the years or has Sobieraj’s imagination merely selected and employed Tuwim’s images in his own artistic statement?
What does the notion of a document mean today? A document is and has always been a presentation of one’s faith in the reality/truth of history or an event which is being illustrated, without any arrangement or staging of presented scenes, conducted in identifiable time and concrete space. Let me stress here that in Sobieraj’s case we do not have to do with a reportage but with a photographic document, which in my opinion is most convincing and honest. Naturally this type of interpretation, realistic, although leaning towards expressionism, may be found in the dark depths of the history of photography. Let me mention here pictures by Jacob Riis, the Farm Security Administration, and later most of all the works by William Klein, Robert Frank and Garry Winongrand, critical towards reality, works by artists who were looking for completely different photography than the tradition of the decisive moment established by Henry Cartier-Bresson.
In the historical and still degraded centre of Łódź we can see bleak alleys, uncouth antisemitic slogans written on the walls and people as if from a nightmare – for example “the pigeon eater”. The atmosphere resembles that of Bohumil Hrabal’s The Corpse Burner. This deeply painful image of Łódź is strongly contrasted with advertising billboards that represent Baudrillard’s artificial, commercial “hyper-reality” which belongs more in the myth of Las Vegas or Tokyo, not in this ruined city. Time in Łódź has imperceptibly stopped but it is hard to say when – before or immediately after the war when many of the inhabitants of Litzmannstadt disappeared from their hometown. On the other hand there is more poverty and destitution in contemporary Łódź than in the 1970s or 80s.
Sobieraj is a meticulous observer. In this comprehensive series he has portraited his native Łódź at the break of the 21st century when it became one of the most dismal cities in Poland; he showed various aspects of reality, including the dull life of a homeless man pulling his cart, the proverbial Edi (2002) by Piotr Trzaskalski (a director from Łódź, by the way), a rare feature film which came close to the reality of the “truth of being”. A similar image of contemporary Łódź set in the context of the Jewish ghetto and its modern-day inhabitants was also shown in an eminent documentary film by a Czech director Pavel Štingel, entitled The Bałuty Ghetto (Ghetto jménem Baluty) from 2008.
Sobieraj does not hide the primitive antisemitism in the image of the city, he asks where it comes from and how it can be fought. The theme is not new, it has been undertaken many times, for example in video works (Marcin Nowak) or in painting (Kamil Kuskowski). A vulgar slogan in one of Sobieraj’s pictures is depressing and horrifying: “Fuck the rabbis from Aleja Unii”. Such disgraceful graffitis can be also found on the walls of the former ghetto since this photograph was taken near Północna Street, and alas, they are not exceptional.Other works in the series are psychological portraits with very meaningful captions: A Morning Cigarette, Street Fighter, A Forty Year-Old Man, His Own Cell, The Mad Hatter or Young Generation, Old Habits. Sometimes we can see a touch of irony which is supposed to change this gloomy picture but a little, for example in the work called Goldfish which is actually a carp, and in certain other pictures – of a man and a dog (Friends) or of people alone. Because of such significant questions posed about the devastated history of the city and its lost identity, and because of the presentation of its antiheroes rather than heroes these works should be considered the most important series about Łódź that came into being after the Second World War. I do not know any such other series of photographs, although one must mention Eva Rubinstein’s sentimental album Łódź – Brief Encounters or photographs of other cities by prominent photographers like Andrzej J. Lech or Bogdan Konopka, who, however, did not penetrate the transhistoric city portrait so deeply and who interpreted it in a different way.
III. Banal does not mean “meagre”
Banal Objects, which have already been analyzed a few times , are an example of a completely different approach, rather artistic than documentary. What is characteristic for this series? It has neither a definite beginning, nor a developing narrative and spectacular ending. Each work, based on the multiple exposition of the negative, is a symbolic search that is supposed to arrive at the “banal objects” of the title or raise them to the level of value from the chaos of randomness. This method slightly resembles that of Marcel Duchamp but it is used in a completely different way and for a different purpose – it is meant to show that potentially everything is worthy of poetry/photography and whether the work is successful depends only on its creative power. It is also a melancholy or even a catastrophic story which corresponds to the philosophical views held by Witkacy. In this series everything – the objects of everyday use (the material world), the fragmentary world of nature and even religious objects, like a wayside shrine (i.e. also the sphere of metaphysics) – is being degraded and destroyed.
The series has a very interesting artistic dimension. Photographing in concrete conditions, the use of grain and flatness of the set brought surprising results that resemble the Surrealist tradition of the 1920s and its oneiric pictures where the real world, broken down into fragments, is permeated with Jung’s prima materia from which archetypes emerge from time to time. In a way these works are also about us, about the games we play, about our physiological habits and physical labour, in spite of the fact that we can only perceive “crumbs of memory”. I have written elsewhere that the style of this imagery and the accompanying ideas comes close to the artistic attitude of Leszek Żurek who is looking for similar emotional states.
IV. What does an analogue picture mean?
Sobieraj is attached to the photographic analogue image which signifies the equivalent of our perception and the reality of concrete existence – the place and the time, associated only with working with the negative and in the darkroom. As far as creative efforts are concerned he is not interested in the digital image whose essence is its graphic treatment, including the so-called “condensed vision”. In Tomasz Sobieraj’s General Theoryof Autumn which represents “surrealistic classicism” the author wrote about an analogue image that “Matter is vindictive, he strongly believed that. Also the so-called inorganic matter – because its lifelessness is but a delusion, and the fact that we naively keep believing in its insensibility and the state of absolute death is merely the proof of our intellectual powerlessness […] and the inability to understand that life can take on extrabiological forms” . In the authorial text called Banal Objects (A Monodrama or a Monologue, As You Like It) , he presented two ways to arrive at art-photography. The first one “[…] appears only when the artist manages to produce a construction of spatial forms and transfer it onto the plane of the frame, depriving the composition fabricated in this way of literalness to the possibly greatest degree” , which might have to do with the approach of a documentalist, while the second one is decidedly more artistic, as Sobieraj wrote: “[…] we isolate a fragment from reality and analyze it. A penetrating study of an object, contemplation, search for essence – this often leads to magnificent artistic results, gives new life to old formulas and forms, sometimes it even makes commonness sacred. Yes, Liu Fa, Six Principles of Chinese Ink Painting works also in the sphere of pure photography” .
Sobieraj’s photographic accomplishments are deeply rooted and ontologically domesticated (in the Heideggerian sense of the term) in his literary works. Pointing out these mutual connections and his contemplative attitude towards reality, let me refer to the extremely refined prose by this artist and mention as an example his General Theory of Autumn (2010). In these so different but sometimes adjacent forms of artistic expression the key role is played by the search for “the truth of being” and “the domestication in being” which expresses Sobieraj’s metaphysical attitude towards the world.