THE TUFTS DAILY
BY CHLOE ZIMMERMAN
An artist’s creativity begets more than simply inspiration for new work. Artists always seem to find crafty ways to survive and even flourish under repression. In Poland’s early Communist regime, art was confined to Soviet ideals, and artists who diverged from regulations faced censorship. Within this atmosphere, some resilient artists turned to a medium both economically viable and privately sustainable: that of pinhole photography.
Pinhole photography involves no lens; instead, a tiny hole in the camera admits light. The art form remains popular in Poland today despite the restoration of freedom of artistic expression in the country in 1989.
Made in Poland (Zrobione w Polsce), the main exhibit at the Art Institute of Boston through March 4, features works by seven of Poland’s most prominent contemporary pinhole photographers. Guest curators Jesseca Ferguson and Walter Crump are Boston-based pinhole photographers themselves. This exhibit concludes a cultural exchange that began with an exhibition of the curators’ own work in Poland.
Since the curators are themselves active pinhole photographers, the exhibit presents a unique, though somewhat limited, perspective on the work. The introduction is replete with philosophical commentaries on the art form, but Ferguson and Crump seem to have forgotten that most people aren’t as familiar with the processes involved in creating a pinhole photograph.
The curators’ message really only addresses two general traits of pinhole photography, “extremely long exposure times and limitless potential for self expression in the hand made camera,” before launching again into more abstract musings. It fails to discuss the mechanisms and steps taken to construct an image, leaving the viewer unaware of what it really means to take a pinhole photograph.
The only insight into technique lies in the pinhole cameras donated by each artist. The various cameras and other tools lying side by side in a glass case do reveal one thing clearly: pinhole photography is a deeply personal form of expression. Marek Noniewicz uses cameras fashioned from old packages that he has received in the mail.
Jaroslaw Klups’ camera consists of a tiny box and wire that he wears like futuristic glasses in front of his face. Andrzej Bogacz’s camera is made out of a small metal tin with a visible pinprick in the top.
However, while these cameras do represent the diversity and personal flair that thrive in the medium, they offer about as much insight into the process and final product as one could gather from looking at a painter’s brushes.
The same can be said for the exhibit’s representation of the “extraordinary Polish photographic sensibility” it aims to reveal. This phrase and a reference to “narrative or performative aspects” are the only suggestions of what Polish art entails. Ferguson and Crump leave the viewer with the question of whether “a distinctly Polish sensibility” exists, but without explaining what that might involve.
What the viewer ends up with is an assortment of different photographic styles and techniques that seem to construct an overall impression of pinhole photography rather than anything specifically Polish.
Certain themes are pervasive, but it is up to the viewer to decide whether they stem from Polish culture or pinhole photography. Many of the artists display portraits, all of which seem soft and intimate, imbued with a sense of personality. However, this could simply be attributed to the way in which pinhole cameras capture light and movement or the warped sense of depth perception created by the tiny aperture of a pinprick.
Georgia Krawiec’s “Polish Mother I & II” (2003) reveal dark, grainy, tense figures in a way that honestly makes the viewer feel as though he or she is witnessing the scene through a hole in the wall. Danuta Gibka’s “Dana and Artur” series (1999) is composed of airy and somewhat ethereal double portraits, but even in their blurry state they manage to capture intense emotions shared by a couple, from isolation to love and physical union.
In a series entitled “Nine Memories of Grandmother” (2002), Andrzej Bogacz demonstrates a different expression of intimacy. Through simple photographs of everyday objects, Bogacz manages to create a very clear and narrative picture of who his grandmother was. Edyta Wypierowska also instills her works with a narrative feel, though her style is much more surreal and constructed. In her “Untitled 8” series, she creates whimsical yet dark pieces heavily reliant on emotionally-evocative symbolism.
Tomasz Dobiszewski definitely belongs with Wypierowska in the more surreal genre. His works involve optical illusions such as rooms with no apparent ceiling or patterns created from overlaid nude bodies. Marek Noniewicz plays with the nude body in a surrealist sense as well in his “Self Portrait inside Camera Obscura” series (1999), in which he superimposes figures onto images of buildings.
“Made in Poland” is internationally minded in the sense that it exposes American viewers to art they might not otherwise see and encourages a dialogue with the Polish photographers themselves. In terms of the collection itself, it does not really suggest a cohesive Polish theme, but rather the versatility and expressive ability of pinhole photography as a whole.
“Made in Poland” may in fact contain a wealth of information on Polish photography and culture, but the surface remains barely penetrated by the exhibit’s hazy lens.