A culture scientist, researcher of the history of everyday photographic practices, creator of photographic and cultural projects, culture animator, curator. Since 2018, she has been a member of the Programme Board of the Fort Institute of Photography foundation and co-creates the “School of Looking” project. She is the author of the book Itinerant Photographic Studio (2019, published by Czarne) and What have you been thinking? Meeting women from Masovian villages (together with Aleksandra Zbroja, 2019, published by Wydawnictwo Poznańskie). She has collaborated inter alia with the Zofia Rydet Foundation, the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, the Krakow Photomonth, and the Association of Creative Initiatives “ę”. She has twice received Minister of Culture and National Heritage grants for her visual arts projects (2015 and 2020).
“Varia or looking at photographs that portray the artist”
I look at the boxes piled up against the wall. They are stacked in tall columns. It feels scary when I imagine looking inside every one of them, let alone taking out the individual negatives, which are additionally wrapped up in paper envelopes, one by one. The view overwhelms me, and yet – I think to myself – Paweł Pierściński burned over 250 000 of his negatives. You could read about it in Gazeta Wyborcza, local press and photo portals. The media repeated the same story: Pierściński destroyed his negatives since no state or city institution wanted to take care of his archive. Pierściński was asked about the gesture of destruction by Łukasz Gorczyca, who later wrote the following in Dwutygodnik: “[Pierściński] says that photographic films from the 1970s and 1980s are not flammable, so in order to destroy them effectively, they have to be cut. 6×6 negatives, which were commonly used by professional photographers at the time, need to be cut at least twice. Two hundred and fifty thousand frames times two – at least half a million cuts.”
I have trouble understanding large numbers, but half a million cuts appeals to my imagination to the point of me almost feeling the blisters that would be left on my hand by the scissors. But something else strikes me – if 250 000 frames were burned, an yet I am standing in front of a wall of boxes, each full of negatives, then how much did Pierściński photograph during his lifetime? How much did he work? Did he manage to do anything else in his life? I can think of Zofia Rydet, whose photographing is sometimes referred to as ‘compulsive’ and whose Sociological Record is described as monumental (and rightly so). And yet it only consists of 15 000 photographs. That is 16 times fewer than what Pierściński burnt, not counting what’s in the boxes I am looking at.
I read the inscriptions on the labels: Kielce, Końskie, Kałków, Krzemionki, Jędrzejów, Klimontów, Skarżysko, Sandomierz, Tokarnia, Kozienice, Tarnów, Beskid Niski, Dolny Śląsk, Góry Stołowe, Suwalskie, Radom, the Bug River valley. They seem to make up a geographical inventory rather than a photographic one. I choose a box randomly. Each negative is wrapped in a paper envelope and signed by hand. An enormous effort, also when it comes to archiving work. Most of the negatives show architecture, buildings, city and street views. There are landscapes here, too, but not like the burnt ones, for which Pierściński is best known. I close the box and read on: the Kamienna River Valley, Kurozwęki, Oblęgorek, Cedzyna, Miechów, the Raj Cave, Kielce, Ponidzie, until my eyes stumble over an inscription that is unlike those found in an atlas of Poland. Retrospective. Reproductions of my works. Self-portraits. I open it with the hope that this box will tell me something about the artist himself, rather than about what he photographed, and I am immediately stricken by a mess that calms me down and captures my attention for a long time.
I find here photographs from different orders. For example, his self-portrait against the famous landscape that has become, one the one hand, a visual emblem of the Kielce region thanks to Pierściński’s decade-long work, and on the other, an inseparable part of the identity of the photographer himself, who was connected with Kielce all his life. The collar, trousers with a crease, and the leather jacket – though not quite suitable for field work – symbolise the professionalism and elegance typical of the turn of the 1980s. Behind him are the picturesque and mathematical fields, at which Pierściński would otherwise look from a distance, from above and with the eye of an aesthete. Undoubtedly, that way of looking made him a recognised artist and gained him esteem, but it was far from neutral. Pierściński’s landscape, even though it typically presents what seems to be natural, is a cultural category. It evidences a decision on the artist’s part to reduce reality and all its natural, social and historical aspects to an aesthetic view. This seems to raise certain issues when it comes to rural scenery, which does not originate by itself, but is modelled by the physical work of peasants. As I look at Pierściński’s self-portrait I wonder what he looked like during his wanderings, whether he met people, talked to them, or photographed them.
I keep on rummaging through the box to find copies of his collages and most famous black-and-white landscapes. In the negatives I come across, I recognise blown up positive prints of the much celebrated works, sometimes reproduced many times. Perhaps they were made for the countless exhibitions, competitions and publications where Pierściński was featured. Perhaps – as is implied by the ‘Retrospective’ annotation on the box – it is an attempt to define the body of his key works. Perhaps it is a kind of non-digital backup. I am struck by the thought that his burning of the originals has increased the value and uniqueness of the copies, that when only random pieces of a powerful old archive are left, they gain special value. They represent a vastness that no longer exists.
Some of the negatives I go through show people working or walking across fields. They are captured at the strong points of the image and they are points themselves – elements of the staffage, dots, enhancements of the composition. Anonymous figures, viewed from a distance. It Looks Pretty from a Distance – the title of the film by Wilhelm Sasnal and Anka Sasnal comes to my mind whenever I look at a landscape that is disturbingly beautiful, but safely distant. The delight over the mathematical landscape and the contrast of ploughed fields invokes the tradition of painting, which can be gloomy and display class undertones, with peasants most often being part of the composition, rather than its subjects or creators. This absence represents a piece of peasant history that needs to be restored, which apparently does not happen here. Pierściński’s landscape photographs do not stem from a reflection on the physical work and living conditions of the people who ploughed, sowed, scythed, harvested and tried to live on this work at the time of the Polish People’s Republic. Rather they exploit the work. The photographer’s look is so distant, and sometimes, literally, it is a ‘look down,’ one that ignores the social context. Where Zofia Rydet knocked on the doors of cottages to take a closer look – one from the inside and face to face (which also raises questions about the consequences of looking in this way), he went up a hill to get a better view and have the house roofs, not desirable in the composition, screened by the hills. Out of curiosity, I check whether this difference can actually be seen in their respective photographs, whether the same place can be shown from two perspectives varying so much. I find the negative of a well-known landscape made from the slopes of Mount Klonówka. Somewhere in the distance, I see some dots, probably house roofs.
I check on a map which villages can be seen from Klonówka: maybe Masłów, Ciekoty, Brzezinka, Mąchocice? I go to the website http://www.zofiarydet.com/ and enter ‘Ciekoty’ first. And here it is:
Zofia Rydet, Ciekoty, “Pepole in interiors” series, “Sociological Record”, 1978-1990 © 2068/12/31 Zofia Augustyńska-Martyniak
Same place, different ways of seeing. Rydet was almost a generation older, but Pierściński photographed longer and gained his reputation earlier and faster. And he was a man, which mattered a lot in the community gathered around the Union of Polish Art Photographers (ZPAF) at the time of the Polish People’s Republic. Rydet was the odd one out in her Gliwice Branch of ZPAF, and the members of the Kielce School of Landscape were all men. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise, given that, when asked in interviews about the secret of a good photo, Pierściński would reply that a work of photographic art should be like a woman: beautiful, wise and interesting. Although I would gladly read this statement as material for research into the ancient sexist and patriarchal reality that was gone with the 1980s, I realise that among some circles in the world of photography and art (as well as politics, education, public life, etc.), it would not arouse surprise – let alone indignation and criticism – even today. And then I come across this picture:
My first instinct is to rotate it, as it seems to be a panel showing the layout of landscape pictures – most likely photographed for reproduction purposes. I recognise some very famous frames, and only then do I notice the woman who is holding the panel while trying to hide behind it. Reproducing pictures on an easel made at home (in the atelier?) of a ladder, plywood and two hooks required an assistant. Who was she? What was she doing there? Was her task to tilt the panel at the right angle or support it from the bottom? Or maybe she was changing the panels so that the artist did not need to move away from the camera? I can see her doing her work literally in the background of his artistic activity, which earned Pierściński the title of a ‘Master’ in the local media. I reflect on the woman, screened by the landscapes, and about all those who remain in the shadow of a master’s work, when I come across a completely different picture. A colour photograph showing a family, a trip to the forest, probably in the late 1980s. A woman, a boy, and a camera as a family member. I return to the reproduced collages I spotted when I started to rummage through the box, and I view one of the works again.
A naked woman’s body photographed in such a way that it resembles an undulating hilly landscape. Above it, the face of a child as a sun, or perhaps a full moon. I check that the collage dates back to 1968 and is entitled Motherhood. Pierściński was born in 1938 and photographed from 1952, so he started as a teenager. The peak of his work and professional maturity, which includes his activity as an animator of the photographic life in the Kielce region, falls in the 1970s. I find it hard to find information about his private life, but it seems that his son was born in the early 1980s, when Pierściński had an established position and was 43 years old. The publication Paweł Pierściński. Bibliografia podmiotowo-przedmiotowa, released by the Witold Gombrowicz Provincial Public Library, is a list of exhibitions, articles, statements, publications, and studies. It has 335 densely printed pages. After Pierściński had died, his friends, acquaintances and fellow photographers would stress that he had been a good friend, a warm person, and a ‘workhorse.’ Looking at his pictures, I have the impression that his whole life was subordinated to his work – and more specifically photography, especially landscape photography. I find information that in leading the group of photographers who formed the Kielce School of Landscape, Pierściński organised a photo library for the participants, which he described as follows: “[…] I set strict rules: every week my colleagues would bring their photographs, which were then included in a portfolio and submitted for exhibitions. We started to achieve our first successes, the photographers started to believe in themselves.” So he organised, managed, structured, invented systems, and made rules. I reach for more negatives to try and understand what I am looking at.
It looks a bit as if Bernd and Hilla Becher took a local Polish road, a bit like #polskaprzydrożna (roadside Poland), but outside of the Instagram, and a bit like photo documentation for a sociological study. It is a kind of typology of what can be seen along a road – signs, posts, ways, shrines, scarecrows, high-voltage lines, advertising boards. But also people. Finally, here they are – between pictures of cows and dogs – in the panel titled Encounters on the way.
I did not realize that in 1981 Pierściński completed what is known as the Kielce-Włoszczowa project. For three days, he travelled 50 kilometres, which he inventoried with the precision of a surveyor. He numbered each photograph, marked the kilometre of the road where it was taken, and then divided them into twenty-six categories. I have not learn it from the contents of the box, because it only contains single negatives, inserted between other, undescribed ones, and with no context provided. But the Kielce-Włoszczowa project – completely different from the mathematical-like landscapes of the Kielce region – was on display in several major city galleries in the 1980s. I have found documentation of the entire project, along with a hand-drawn map made with the skill of a civil engineer, on a CD, where Pierściński recorded digitised versions of a selection of his photographs from various periods and series.
I find these photographs interesting because I see that Pierściński decided to go beyond his method – the landscape is no longer viewed from above and from a distance, it is no longer aesthetic and mathematical (though typologically ordered). It is viewed from the level of the road, from the perspective of everyday experience. He himself wrote about the project that “[…] the exhibition of documentary photographs is to present – without commenting or evaluating – the true condition of the Polish landscape, the mess and multitude of elements without defining the hierarchy of importance or the visual value of the SIGNS.” I see in this excerpt the influence of semiotics, which is understandable, because at the turn of the 1980s, it represented a major trend in cultural studies, and importantly, one based on rules and systems. I can also see the still uncritical faith in the objectivity of documentary photography and the lack of realisation that one’s way of looking creates meanings and hierarchies. Because, after all, it is not the camera itself, but a specific person that walks the road, carries the camera, looks and makes decisions. Notices or not. Considers things important or disregards them. Places them in the centre of the scene or outside of it. Fortunately, the pictures themselves reveal the presence of the artist – his hesitations and doubts (perhaps against his intentions). I find two sheets titled Miscellany. They include types of objects that do not have their own category (such as root cellars, graves, monuments, flags, a bell tower, mill). The series ends with a board titled Varia. Nine photographs for which I find it hard to find a key. Some of them could be matched to the thematic panels (a house to Houses, a tree to Trees, a bus stop to Bust Stops), but maybe, Pierściński considered them to somehow stand out? Perhaps something undermined their typological purity – the presence of a road next to the bus stop or the co-existence of a power pole and a road sign? So why did not Pierściński give up on them? Why did he put them together in the last panel of the project?
I would like to think that his engineering education, love of order and pursuit of totality in his endeavours left, nevertheless, a margin for what could not be tamed – for error, mess, chance and heterogeneity. Reality cannot be sorted out fairly into a finite set of categories. You can try, but it will always be an endeavour that – even though it may ostensibly give you security and control – will eliminate and simplify the non-obvious. In exactly the same way as narrowing down thinking about landscape only to an aesthetic and mathematical view or interpreting a photographer’s oeuvre based on what is known from his major shows and published albums. Fortunately, photographic attempts to order and structure things will always reveal cracks affording new interpretations to what seems to be known and obvious. Fortunately, the boxes Pierściński did not burn include one signed Retrospective. Reproductions. Self-Portraits, which might as well be called Varia.
 Some works were purchased by institutions, incl. BWA in Kielce or the Museum of the Kielce Countryside.
 See, for example, chapter Landscape in the publication School of Looking: http://szkolapatrzenia.pl/4-krajobraz
 Unless you treat Pierściński’s landscapes as an attempt to ‘see the Anthropocene,’ as Nicholas Mirzoeff proposes it in the book How to See the World, but this is an idea for a different text.
 The Sociological Record was also made in the Kielce region: http://zofiarydet.com/zapis/pl/library?page=1&preselect=off®ions=13.
 See: Object Lessons: Zofia Rydet’s Sociological Record, ed. Krzysztof Pijarski.
 “Your recipe for a good photo? A photograph should be like a woman: beautiful, wise, interesting. Beautiful: beautifully made, well composed and framed, technically correct. Wise: communicating an idea, some truth about life or about the landscape. Interesting: just as a woman, it must have ‘that something,’ a beaty spot, sense of humour, spunk. A picture must present something, tell a story.”
 In November 2020, the project “Contexts – Kielce-Włoszczowa 2020,” organised by The Kielce Landscape School Foundation, was finalised. The photography workshops brought together twenty photographers, who – following the footsteps of Paweł Pierściński from 39 years ago – took pictures of the same places and objects that Pierściński had gathered together in his panels. The final presentation was divided into the seventeen categories conceived originally by the author. Encounters on the way, Varia and Miscellany were not included.
 The CD is part of the artist’s archive managed by the Jednostka Foundation.
 Excerpt of a text from the Fundacja im. Kieleckiej Strony Krajobrazu website, no source given.