A Legendary Photographer
Wojciech Plewiński (born Warsaw, 1928) is one of the most significant Polish photographers of the postwar period. A versatile lensman of eclectic range and omnivorous inquisitiveness, he has, over the course of a career spanning more than half a century, established himself as an accomplished portraitist (of writers such as Szymborska, Mrożek, and Lem; of film directors including Wajda, Polanski, and Has); as a fashion photographer, in particular of young female models for the cover of ‘Przekrój’ magazine; as an auteur who produced a striking visual record of the postwar Polish theatre; and as a dedicated documentarian, with a knack for combining the disciplines of photojournalism and fine-art photography even when on deadline, whose documentary instincts link him as spiritual kin to the French humanists Henri Cartier-Bresson, Édouard Boubat, and Robert Doisneau.
Plewiński is an architect by training. But only two years after completing his studies in Kraków, in the late 1950s, he began gravitating toward photography, soon receiving his first photographic assignments from the seminal ‘Przekrój’ weekly, then in its heyday, initiating a collaboration which would last until the end of his professional career. (Retirement aside, the eighty-nine-year-old Plewiński has remained active as a photographer ever since.) He also worked with influential periodicals of the era such as ‘Tygodnik Powszechny,’ ‘Ziemia,’ and ‘Polska,’ although it should be noted that a significant portion of the works featured within this digital archive resulted not from commissions but from Plewiński’s own ceaseless need to document.
Additionally, whole negative strips never had a chance of originally making it into print, owing to the strict censorship of the day, which disallowed depictions, however accurate, of a down-at-the-heels Poland ‘without its makeup on.’ In this vein, and of note, the digital archive includes previously unpublished frames from Plewiński’s ‘Western Territories’ (1957) and ‘Katowice Steelworks’ (1976) photo-reports: the former, a stark record of seemingly indelible postwar blight, entrenched poverty, and endemic despair in Poland’s so-called ‘Recovered’ (formerly German) western provinces, more than a decade after the end of World War II; and the latter an emboldened Plewiński’s rebellious representation of the Katowice Steelworks—a massive industrial investment and the jewel in the crown of the Communist government—as a teetering scrapheap of a plant which, instead of rising proudly up from the lunch-pail foundations of a rejuvenated Communist Poland, appears to be slowly sinking into a morass of muck and mire.
In contrast to many of his photojournalist peers, Plewiński elsewhere stands out for his warm and sympathetic attitude toward his human subjects. Any winks toward the viewer or ironic touches are never of the malicious or condescending variety, but instead speak to the photographer’s playful, amused curiosity. In his documentary work, he tends to focus on the ‘minor history’ of incidental stories and underdog protagonists, rather than on momentous, era-defining events such as Communist Party conventions, political rallies, or labour strikes. As such, Plewiński introduces us to the endearingly oddball DIY amateur car constructors of the ‘SAMs’ series (1959); to the subdued subjects of ‘Elderly People’ (1964–65), his series of empathetic portraits of elderly nursing-home residents, who though in a physically weakened state are nevertheless endowed with subtle emanations of grace; and in ‘Biebrza’ (1962–79), a generation-spanning chronicle of life in the countryside of northeastern Poland, to the parents, grandparents, and children of the families Plewiński boarded with and befriended over the years while holidaying in the region.
As of 2017, the archive has begun to be augmented by Plewiński’s documentation of theatrical performances. A prolific theatre photographer, he worked regularly, throughout the second half of the twentieth century, with Poland’s most important drama institutions—such as the Stary Theatre and the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, both in Kraków; the National Theatre in Warsaw; the Polish Theatre in Wrocław; and the Witkacy Theatre in Zakopane—contributing promotional material and distinctive documentation of plays directed by the most significant names in postwar Polish theatre, including Konrad Swinarski, Jerzy Grzegorzewski, Andrzej Wajda, and Krystian Lupa. Notable, too, are his images of visually captivating productions directed by Krystyna Skuszanka, with set design by Józef Szajna.
All told, Plewiński’s archive boxes came to encompass documentation of more than eight hundred productions spanning half a century, constituting a visual encyclopaedia of the postwar Polish theatre unto themselves. Of immense documentary value to drama scholars and theatre buffs alike, Plewiński additionally captured in these images the raw dramatic power, shiver-inducing electricity, and hushed wonder of the thespian realm in such a way that his theatre photographs are capable of deeply affecting latter-day viewers irregardless of familiarity with the specific actors and productions being documented.
In sum, the Wojciech Plewiński digital archive and virtual exhibition is a curated space in which, in close consultation with the photographer himself, we have sought to distill the essence of Plewiński’s ambitious documentary practice while simultaneously reflecting the broad thematic and expressive range he has embraced across the years. And while our aim was certainly to trace and illustrate an evolution that was equal parts technical maturation and creative liberation, our underlying desire has been to at every step along the way tap, channel, and celebrate the irrepressible fervency of Wojciech Plewiński, a realist documentarian inspirited by the abiding faith of a true believer.