The exhibition features over 300 private photographs from the collections of the Oral History Archive. The photographs come from family albums of individual persons recorded in the archive. The majority of them constitute 20th century photos, although pictures dating back to the second half of the 19th century will also be presented. The photographs were taken to preserve in memory important moments in one’s biography, fragments of everyday life or relationships with close people. By taking these photographs out of home albums and by stripping them of their family contexts, we can look at them from a totally different perspective. Is it possible that from this mosaic of details an image will emerge, in which social, cultural and political changes are reflected? While looking for an answer to this question, the curators of the exhibition – Agnieszka Pajączkowska and Monika Szewczyk-Wittek – ponder the status of archival photography and ask a series of other questions.Who is in the photos? Why was he or she photographed and by whom? What cannot be seen in the pictures? What histories are connected with them? What emotions accompany them? What do we want from these photos and what do they want from us? Why should we watch the photographs of anonymous people? Is private photography still a family keepsake, or is it first and foremost a historical source? Or maybe it is a picture of artistic values?
The exposition begins with albums – individual, created according to one’s needs and sensitivity, private photographic accounts of a family. The oldest album dates back to World War I, the newest one – the 1990s. The part of the exhibition entitled “Account” is dedicated to the relationships existing between photography and memory. Here, the iconography is accompanied by recorded accounts of the owners of the photos, who will tell us what they can see in their photographs taken over the past few decades. The section “Photography” focuses on the history of private photography, including changes in techniques, practices and, most of all, in the role of photography and the way it was perceived. Here we recall: the beginnings – the time when photographs were taken in metropolitan ateliers of the richest, with the following years becoming the golden years of provincial artisanal studios and itinerant photographers, the introduction of portable cameras thanks to which photography became more dynamic, and the period of urban Leica amateur photographers. The commercial availability of cameras introduced photography in the very centre of everyday life. These images are shown in “Everydayness”. Here the photographs constitute a gaze at human life from birth to death, but also a record of changes in society: traditions connected with work, leisure, the realities of cities and countries, relationships in families and intergenerational interactions. The section “History” that closes the exhibition is the part illustrating how privacy and historical events intermingle with each other, how breakthroughs and changes of general nature entwine with personal experiences of individuals, although here “great” history becomes the background rather than the main character. Among others these historical events include the January Uprising, still alive in the memory of a family thanks to a photo of an insurgent carefully preserved in the album, the Polish-Soviet War recalled in the image of a wounded father, World War I and the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty present in pictures of Józef Piłsudski. Also World War II is present in the photos, for example in the images of forced labor camps or Kennkartes, the shadow of Stalinism lingering in some pictures, the atmosphere of strikes of the 1980s or martial law recorded in some photographs.
The intention of the curators and the organizer of the exhibition was not to give unequivocal answers to the questions about the status of private archival photography, but rather to encourage the visitors not only to watch the exhibition, but also to co-participate in the event – by searching for individual answers.
In the Oral History Archive of the History Meeting House and the KARTA Centre – the largest archive of its kind in Poland – there are over 5500 biographical accounts through which we can present modern history from the perspective of an individual: common people and their personal experiences. Our recordings are used (or made available for free) in books, reports, radio plays, theatrical performances and educational projects. This time we wish to take a closer look at stories emerging from a different type of recording – photography. For the needs of the exposition we have carefully selected photographs from the collections of the Oral History Archive numbering 30 000 positions. We have assumed that their function is not limited to illustrating complex testimonies, and that it is worth a try to interpret them in terms of individual narratives about the past. The exhibition is complemented by a section presenting the rich and diverse collection of the Oral History Archive in slides.
Family album: MULTIPLE GAZES
Photographs from the Oral History Archive of the History Meeting House and the KARTA Centre.
November 20, 2016 – March 19, 2017 History Meeting House, 20 Karowa Street in Warsaw, ADMISSION FREE.
Curators: Agnieszka Pajączkowska, Monika Szewczyk-Wittek.
Media sponsors: Digital Camera, Fotopolis, Gazeta Wyborcza – Co jest grane 24, NNn6T notes-na-6-tygodni; editorial cooperation RMF Classic.