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Between the lines, Poland 1974-1990

Photographs by Stanisław Kulawiak and Creative Group SEM


Stanisław Kulawiak, Butcher with half a pig, Bobrowniki nad Prosną, 1983

This new exhibition, on display until August 31, 2015, features photographs of everyday life in Poland between 1974-1989, by photojournalist Stanisław Kulawiak (b. 1954) and an installation of images of food lines in 1970s Communist Poland by Creative Group SEM (Z. Bzdak, S. Kulawiak, J. Ochoński, A. Rzepecki, K. Wolski).

While few of these photographs reveal what renowned photographer and critic Jerzy Lewczyński calls "Landscapes of nonsense" of the communist reality, they mostly steer clear of political topics (Jerzy Lewczyński, Laughing through Tears, November 2008). Adam Sobota, photography expert and historian, summed them up aptly in this way:

"Photographs [...] taken in Poland in the late phase of the PRL (the People’s Republic of Poland), capture numerous peculiar manifestations of that reality. They show [...] dullness and poverty of the public sphere, the crudeness of modernization, [...] the stiff ceremoniousness of the authorities, as well as examples of the social protest after 1980. It seems, however, that the author does not intend to chronicle political events [...] His photographs were taken in his closest surrounding — where he was born and where he still lives (Ostrzeszów and its environs), where he studied (Cracow), and where he visited from time to time. Kulawiak does not show us some spectacular events as his decision to expose the frame resulted from his sense of the people’s everyday rhythm; marked by their daily activities, work, and local conditions and customs.[...] Not surprisingly he called his 1987 exhibit "The environs of authenticity". Both his method and the people’s reaction to the photographer’s presence strengthen the conviction that the author of these photos remains intimate with his models, or at least belongs with them." (Adam Sobota This is How it Used to be, Wrocław, December 2008)

Stanisław Kulawiak, Gry uliczne romskich dzieci, Bystrzyca Kłodzka, 1977

Stanisław Kulawiak, Roma children playing in the street, Bystrzyca Kłodzka, 1977

Stanisław Kulawiak started his photographic journey in 1974 while studying at the University of Science and Technology in Krakow. Here, together with a group of friends, among them Chicago’s Zbigniew Bzdak (photojournalist at the Chicago Tribune), he ran the Students’ Photography Agency, established a Photography Gallery at the Jaszczury club and a Creative Group SEM. The group’s name SEM could be interpreted in many different ways; explanations most often cited by its former members include “Sobie, Ewentualnie Muzom” (for themselves and the muses, in other words for one’s own enjoyment), and “Siła Elektromotoryczna” (electromotive force), this last one very fitting since all members were students of the department of electrical engineering and electronics. They had the objective to show documentary photography outside of its traditional outlets like a press or a gallery, blurring the lines between photography and reality. Examples of projects created by the group include: Action Cafeteria (large photographs of preparation and consumption of meals displayed in the actual space of the student cafeteria, designed to expose and highlight these routine, mundane activities); Action Traces (a series of photographs depicting various plants from nearby mountains mounted on a busy sidewalk to simulate the slow destruction of nature); and Action Trial 2 - collection of photographs showing long lines for everyday household goods and groceries. An installation of life-size photographs depicting this social problem prompted the public to begin asking why such situations were occurring. The enigmatic title of this project was a means of confusing the government censors of the project. Criticism of the government became apparent only after the photographs were displayed in public. The food line project is recreated as a central part of the Between the Lines exhibition, reminding Poles of this common occurrence in the communist era Poland, notorious for shortages of nearly everything, and bringing to mind historic images of the Depression-era bread lines in America.

We are certain this representation of Poland’s not so distant past offers an engaging experience to both, those who lived in communist era Poland, and to those who never experienced it.


Contact: Julita Siegel, Exhibition Curator, Julita-Siegel@PolishMuseumOfAmerica.org , (773) 384-3352 ext. 2107




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