IWO ZMYŚLONY: Why didn’t you end up following in your father’s footsteps and becoming a bronze caster?
BOGDAN ŁOPIEŃSKI: I thought I would, back when I was a child. After World War II, the Łopieński Brothers still had about forty employees working for them, because someone had to restore all the capital’s bronze monuments. The factory was located at Hoża Street, not far from where I lived. I would often spend entire afternoons there after school, observing the craftsmen at work. But once the monuments had been restored in 1950, the government took my family’s business away. My father said to me, “Listen, you’d better find some other trade, because this one is done for.” Four years later, the communists took away his right to work. And I became a photographer.
Before we move on to the Biennale of Spatial Forms, let’s talk about the art of photography itself. What kinds of pictures do you enjoy?
People keep asking me what makes a picture good. A friend of mine who’s a math professor asked me that same question recently. So I started explaining, but he interrupted me and told me that I kept repeating that everything has to be “good”: good lighting, good aperture, good composition. That it was a tautology [laughs]. With his scientific mind, he just couldn’t understand that not everything is supposed to be taken literally.
In that case, what isn’t literal?
1st Biennale of Spatial Forms in Elbląg, 1965,
photo: Bogdan Łopieński, courtesy of the authorI have a certain general theory. I believe that the best pictures comprise a self-contained story. These stories can’t be told: it’s best to let them tell themselves. When a good photograph catches your attention, it conveys some specific information. But photojournalism shouldn’t be too obvious; for example, today you see a lot of pictures from the 70s with people carrying bundles of toilet paper tied up with string. I never took pictures of that. I knew that others were going to do it. In that sense, I don’t find the new style of documentary photography interesting, where you take pictures of just about anything. On top of that, those photos are often technically poor, intentionally or unintentionally.
You emphasise that aside from the information in a photo, the composition is important as well.
Flax scutching, 1965
photo: Bogdan Łopieński, courtesy of the artistWhen I started taking pictures, I faced the dilemma of whether to take shots that conveyed some interesting information but weren’t necessarily well composed. Or vice-versa. With time, I decided that the information was most important. Of course, the fact that I was working for the press had something to do with it. I look for shots that I’ve never seen before, shots that tell a story. I take photos of interesting things, not pretty things. I also try to show things “happening”, like a person being defined by their surroundings, reactions, and emotions. Composition is a secondary issue.
There’s a lot going on in this photo, for instance: a young girl is shoveling snow off the tracks. There’s sexiness, energy, joy, irony, fun…
But that photo is also about socialism! It’s communism in a nutshell: that’s the main train station in Warsaw. All the workers from some other company were bused in to clear the tracks. Otherwise trains couldn’t pull into the station. That’s what communism was all about. Today, no one would even think of pulling office workers out of their skyscrapers to shovel snow! [laughs]
The winter of the century, 1965,
photo: Bogdan Łopieński, courtesy of the artistDid you ever seek inspiration in the work of other photographers?
When I was just getting started, I copied the style of the photographers in Świat weekly [published 1951-1969 – ed.]. Aside from them, Henri Cartier-Bresson was a major influence. But I also remember the great effect that the Dutch “little masters” had on me. I was captivated by that unpretentiousness. Painting used to be an art of the elite, and here they began portraying the lives of normal people. I wanted to show the lives of everyday people as well. Take for instance this picture: flax scutching. A women is drying flax over a hearth, while in the background women are crushing the flax fibers. Nobody does that by hand anymore. Or this one: two people drinking beer behind a store, yet both of them are very smartly dressed.
How did you manage to get that close to them? Didn’t they notice you before you took the picture?
No, I’ve worked out a few techniques to keep people from seeing me. I’m not much to look at, anyway. [laughs]
Born 1934 in Warsaw to a family of outstanding bronze artists. He is a World Press Photo (1967) and Interpress Photo (1975) winner, and has been a member of the Association of Polish Art Photographers (ZPAF) since 1969. His images can be found in the collections of the National Museums in Warsaw and Wrocław, the National Library, and ZPAF, as well as in private collections. His photos from the Biennale are on display at the Zachęta Gallery as part of an exhibition by Hanna Wróblewska, titled Doubly Regained Territories: Bogdan Łopieński, Andrzej Tobis, Krzysztof Żwirblis. The show runs from 3 March to 13 May 2012.
But can’t they see the camera when you approach them? Doesn’t that make them feel self-conscious?
First of all, I don’t look at the people I’m going to be photographing when I approach them with a camera. I intentionally look off in a different direction. They don’t even realise that I’m walking up to them. They’re probably wondering what it is I’m looking at.
And besides, I understand people, you see. You know why? Because I graduated from a sports university and I worked in my field for ten years as a ski coach. And coaches can see split seconds. For us, time just goes by at a snail’s pace! [laughs] When I’m watching a contestant ski down a slope, I notice many things that others can’t perceive. That gives a completely different experience of time and lets me predict human behaviour well ahead of time.
But to get a good picture, sometimes you just have to wait it out. Take a look at this one…
That’s completely surreal! Things like that don’t happen in real life: a locomotive five feet in the air, a cemetery below, and a picnic in the middle of it.
Days of Blossoming Apple Trees, 1975,
photo: Bogdan Łopieński, courtesy of the artistWell, they do happen! [laughs] But I had to wait a while for that locomotive to go by. I hung around for half an hour, figuring that if there were tracks, then something had to come by eventually. And it did. I waited because I knew that the engine would complete the composition of the image.
You said that a good photograph is a self-contained story. But at the Doubly Regained Territories exhibition at the Zachęta Gallery, some of the stories are told through a series of image.
I was thinking of best pictures by the best photographers. The images I took of the Elbląg Biennale are hardly outstanding. They’re more of a thorough documentation of the event. Photographs like that have to be complete and complement each other.
So you wouldn’t say that that exhibition is representative of your work?
Absolutely not. I haven’t shown those images to anyone for close to half a century. You know how it occurred to me to hold an exhibition? I go through my negatives every few years, and the last time I did it I came to the conclusion that perhaps there were people out there who would like to see what it looked like back then.
I think it’s just the right moment. There’s recently been a surprising amount of interest in modernism and Polish industrial design from the 60s and 70s. What inspired you to do that photoessay?
Greetings from Piwniczna, 1974,
ZPAF prize in the Polish Press Photography Contest,
photo: Bogdan Łopieński, courtesy of the artistI was working for Polska monthly at the time, and they sent me to Elbląg. And I stayed there for a whole week. Other reporters showed up for a few hours at most and went right back. Besides, the communication channels in 60s society were pretty poor. People nowadays get twenty-five times as much information as people did back then. An evening paper like Ekspres Wieczorny was only four pages long, and one of them was the sports section. Half of the articles were clearly political, anyway. The Spatial Forms Biennale was unlike anything anyone had ever heard of.
What kept you there?
Just the fact that it was taking place at all. I was working as a reporter and I would visit all these enterprises and factories all over the country. I couldn’t fathom that plant directors would just let artists wander around their factory floors. That could never happen in a socialist country. Think about it: artists doing things that have nothing to do with socialist art on a factory floor in a socialist country. And then they would set their work up in socialist cities. It was nothing short of a miracle!
Didn’t you feel that there was nevertheless something political about the event?
1st Biennale of Spatial Forms
The Biennale of Spatial Forms took place in Elbląg in 1965. It was inspired by the constructivist idea of integrating art, engineering, and industry — as an “artist-worker alliance” and “artistic experiment” which involved studying the properties of modern materials and shaping public awareness through spatial organisation. The creator and main organizer of the event was Gerard Kwiatkowski. Zamech, a manufacturer of turbines, drive shafts, and bearings, provided the artists with factory floors, technical assistance, and materials. Around forty of the pieces can still be found throughout Elbląg, and are often referred to by locals as “biennales”.
There was, in a sense. This was early in the Gomułka years, and there was a struggle throughout the country, at all levels of government and society, to decide whether Poland was to be modernised or not, as that could have been too great of a departure from what Moscow expected. The Crooked Circle Club was born of that struggle, and was later shut down. Of course, I didn’t know what forces were at play, but I felt that the Biennale was an important voice.
Gerard Kwiatkowski was the driving force behind the whole event. He was an incredibly charming man, everyone loved him. But he was a young guy at the time: he was only in his early thirties. That had a political effect at several levels: the voivodeship committee and the Ministry of Culture both had to grant permission. I don’t believe the Biennale would have come to fruition were it not for the support of the director of the National Museum in Warsaw, Stanisław Lorentz, who was a member of parliament at the time. First he showed up at the opening, just to emphasise the significance of the event, and then he turned it into an exhibition at the National Museum a few months later, where he displayed my photographs along with Eustachy Kossakowski’s.
The programme of the Biennale was based on the constructivist idea of the “artist-worker alliance”.
1st Biennale of Spatial Forms in Elbląg, 1965,
photo: Bogdan Łopieński, courtesy of the authorI’ve never heard of that. No one said anything like at that at the Biennale. I saw things from the perspective of the Łopieński Brothers. From the moment it was founded in 1862, the company had always hired craftsmen with no artistic experience. There was a huge emphasis on continued education, both in terms of theory and materials science. That was very important, because casting figures out of bronze is an incredibly complex process that requires the cooperation of several people: the mold maker, molding operator, caster, bronze caster, and chiseler. Just a small mistake by any of them was enough to ruin several weeks of work. It’s impossible to cast a good bronze statue without a close alliance between the craftsman and the artist.
You captures a stirring moment in one photo: professor Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz is discussing something with one of the factory workers, and you can see the artist being born in that craftsman.
1st Biennale of Spatial Forms in Elbląg, 1965,
photo: Bogdan Łopieński, courtesy of the authorYes, those people had an incredible rapport. You know, sculptors are people who do a lot of manual labour: they shape their material with their hands and tools. Just like those workers. So they had no trouble finding a common language.
Did you listen in on their conversation?
I did, but I don’t remember any of it anymore. They must have been discussing whether or not to weld one part to another. Just because something’s been drawn on a piece of paper doesn’t mean it’s possible to make. Someone who’s spent his whole life welding has a much better feel for the material. Besides, those weren’t just simple workers, they were professional craftsmen, and their comments were very often taken into consideration.
The Eustachy Kossakowski Archive
Photographic documentation of the 1965 Biennale was also conducted by Eustachy Kossakowski. The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw has an archive of the France and Poland-based artist (a total of 150,000 negatives and 20,000 slides). His photographs of the Elbląg Biennale are available on the museum’s website.
I ran into Jarnuszkiewicz a few years later, and he greeted me like an old friend. We got into a drawn-out conversation, and at one point he started to complain. He said, “You know, I just can’t stand working at the academy. All I want to do is retire. I just can’t go on teaching them about contemporary art: they know more than I do! There’s just no point!” [laughs] It was amazing. He was saying this to someone he’d only seen once before.
He was clearly a very good-hearted person.
A very open person. He wore his heart on his sleeve! He was honest, almost naïve, and sensitive as a child. Those are the qualities of a great artist, a man of high caliber. Interestingly enough, Stażewski was his complete opposite in that regard, though he was no less outstanding as an artist. On the photos from Elbląg, he was always surrounded by a ring of admirers. Everyone wanted to bask in his light.
Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz in cooperation with
production hall worker,
1st Biennale of Spacial Forms in Elbląg, 1965,
photo: Bogdan Łopieński, courtesy of the artist And you didn’t talk to him?
Stażewski was impossible to talk to. At least I never could.
When did you stop taking pictures?
Some fifteen years ago.
Because as a photographer you have to carry your equipment around all day and travel a lot. And I’m just too old for it: I’m 77. I even tried to go back to it a few years ago, but I didn’t get good results. I didn’t take a single good picture. And the best results are the only results I’m interested in. The only way to achieve them is through hard work.
Today even phones have very decent cameras. It’s estimated that within a year, twice as many pictures will have been taken as there were throughout the entire previous decade. What do you make of all that?
That raises the question of selection: you have to know how to pick the right images. And that requires special competence: it’s a matter of experience, knowledge, and skill. It’s not just about choosing the best three out a series of ten images, it’s about picking ten out of several thousand.
We also tend to forget that aside from the pictures taken by digital cameras, we have vast archives that can still produce excellent exhibitions, and that still hasn’t been done. I think what we lack are good curators that would know how to dig through the archives in an intelligent fashion. We need people who are not just knowledgeable about photography, but also know how to think like artists. We need people that are incredibly hard-working, wise, and sensitive.
City of Chełm, World Press Photo prize in 1967, photo: Bogdan Łopieński, courtesy of the artist
The author thanks Monika Bryl for her assistance in producing this interview.
translated by Arthur Barys