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Cities for Thought

What About Silesia?

Publication: 11 October 2021

NO. 5 2011

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Images so strongly focusing on disintegration are nevertheless no more than illustrations of the effects of economic and social processes, rather than an attempt to demonstrate their mechanisms. Selection of the right strategy – type of illustration, motifs, and presentation methods – is a crucial decision when working on long-term photographic projects.

The exhibition of photographs by Thomas Voßbeck at the Silesian Museum in Katowice entitled Structure and architecture has the chance of being received as a major cultural event. When I wrote my enthusiastic review of this Berlin photographer’s album for Herito I even wondered how all the photographs would work together in a typical gallery exhibition setting. In the book they are arranged into a legible narrative and grouped into thematic sections: Canals, Chemicals, Mines, Coking plants, Power plants, Foundries, Railways. For an exhibition, however, there would have to be fewer of them, which might affect the clarity of the narrative structure. But the selection of Voßbeck’s photographs on display in Katowice laid my doubts to rest. All his photographs, which are of unquestionable documentary value and combine to form a narrative on the subject of the industrial (or rather “post-industrial”) shape of Upper Silesia’s architecture, also work equally well as individual pieces. Voßbeck’s method of working and choice of perspective are not exceptional in the context of German photography of the past thirty years, specifically work within the “new documentary” genre. But here, and particularly in the field of documentary photography of Upper Silesia, his way of photographing can still be described as “new”.

Just a few months ago the Silesian Museum also put on an extensive exhibition of photographs entitled Border states. Its author, Arkadiusz Gola, who works with local newspapers, has been taking photographs of Upper Silesia for twenty years. The nature of his work as a photojournalist, particularly perhaps in the local context, forces him to make single, stand-alone works, or at the most brief narratives. The album accompanying that exhibition comprised largely photographs taken in Upper Silesian towns, though not exclusively; there were also frames from Kalwaria Zebrzydowska and Częstochowa. If it is as visual material on Upper Silesia that we treat Gola’s statement, it is worth looking more closely at the works selected for this presentation. It was not without reason that I made reference to his line of work above, because his photographs exemplify rather well the “small pluses and big minuses” (to borrow a phrase attributed to Lech Wałęsa) of contemporary press photography.

Gola consistently attempts to speak in the back-and-white photographic reportage convention, and the poetics of his best photographs are sometimes reminiscent of works by lecturers from the Institute of Creative Photography in Opava (his alma mater), specifically Jindřich Štreit and Václav Podestát. At first Gola did use an analogue camera loaded with monochromatic film, but in the first half of the first decade of this century he began to use digital technology, in which the colour is removed at the post-processing stage. This technical detail might be of little significance were it not for the fact that the juxtaposition of analogue and digital works, which occurs frequently in Gola’s album, does point up the difference in the character of the image (to the detriment, not surprisingly, of the digital image). As a professional photojournalist, Gola has undoubtedly always had access to a broader spectrum of themes than someone working independently as a sideline. Unfortunately there is little evidence of this in his album. Granted, we do see example after example of the “border states” in the title – largely areas of poverty and exclusion, popular themes in Polish photographic reportage, but is this sufficient for a visual representation of the issues facing Upper Silesia?

The system changes in 1989 brought a departure from the centrally planned economy and had a profound impact on the landscape in Poland’s industrial centres. In the final decade of the 20th century a veritable wave of bankruptcies and closures of foundries, coking plants and collieries swept across Upper Silesia. Post-industrial ruins close to industrial settlements and towns became the landmarks of the region at that time. One such example which can still be seen, occupying hundreds of hectares of space between Stary Chorzów and Chorzów, is the skeleton of the Kościuszko Foundry (originally called Königshütte, and later the Piłsudski Foundry). Predictably, the collapse of these industrial plants brought with it the demoralisation of the neighbouring estates or districts, whose residents lost their jobs, and subsequently their unemployment benefit, en masse. One prime example of this is the historic estate adjacent to the Bobrek Foundry, Nowa Kolonia Robotnicza [New Workers’ Colony], where many residents were reduced to looting scrap metal from the industrial shops and other structures as they were being dismantled.

In 2003, as I was wrapping up my project Czarno-biały Śląsk [Black-and white Silesia][1], I was taking photographs from the window of a stairwell in one of the familoks, the traditional Silesian workers’ housing complexes, on Louis Pasteur Street in Bobrek, directly adjacent to the foundry that was being demolished. At one point the door to one of the flats opened (releasing the characteristic aroma of offal cooking) and a woman of indeterminate age dressed in an apron asked me what I was doing. When she had heard me out, she started to tell me about her family’s situation. Her husband, who had worked in the foundry, had just lost his unemployment benefits, and she, who had also been made redundant, was due to lose hers in three months’ time. She was looking for work, of course, but nobody was willing to take a 38-year-old woman on. They had three children and no idea what the immediate future would bring. I still see that scene in the house on Pasteur Street before my eyes, and even though the photograph I took from that window ultimately went into the album, the situation still disturbs me, and as time goes on forces me to be increasingly critical of the convention I chose to photograph the Upper Silesia region. While the visual allusion to the modernist monochrome American photography of the 1930s and 1940s enabled me to achieve a relatively all-round registration of the disintegrating post-industrial landscape – the industrial ruins and the surrounding workers’ housing estates, it did not extend to social issues….

In Gola’s book there is a photograph of a scrap-metal collector from Bobrek, as well as others of people looking for coal on the slag heaps or digging “poverty pits” in the Zabrze region. There are pictures of alcoholics from the Kaufhaus estate on Paweł Niedurny Street opposite the Pokój Foundry in Ruda Śląska. All these images so strongly focusing on disintegration are nevertheless no more than illustrations of the effects of economic and social processes, rather than an attempt to demonstrate their mechanisms. I direct this criticism at my own work in equal measure, of course. Selection of the right strategy – type of illustration, motifs, and presentation methods – is a crucial decision when working on long-term photographic projects. The best products of this Silesian photographer’s twenty years of work are reminiscent of photographs from Viktor Kolář’s monumental series entitled Ostrava; this is obviously intended as a complement to Gola, but not an unreserved one. The reservation comes when as we view Kolář’s works we realise that what we are seeing is situations recorded over a period of more than 40 years, and that the convention so characteristic for his images is never modified and does not react to or “airbrush” any of the changes unfolding in his industrial landscape.

The importance of all these strategic choices and decisions is illustrated well in Thomas Voßbeck’s Structure and architecture. Naturally, he does not offer sociological diagnoses in his project, but his emphasis on the “structural” character of industrial architecture (at this point I should stress that Voßbeck was working in Upper Silesia at a time when all the more spectacular-looking industrial plants had already been demolished or detonated) enabled him not only to construct a legible cycle, but also to take an analytical angle. Nobody post-1989 has ever photographed the industrial sites of Upper Silesia in this way! While industrial ruins and empty former factory hangars are a frequent theme for photographs, they are usually taken in monochrome, monumentalised, with heightened chiaroscuro effects. Voßbeck’s source of inspiration seems closer to the utilitarian industrial photography of the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, which was intended to offer a visually attractive presentation of the facility. Like other photographers who can be considered representatives of the “new documentary” genre, he draws deeply on experience generated a century ago, but the effects of his work stand apart from those of his precursors’ images in their organisation, the layout of the material in the frame, and in his analytical approach.

When I was looking at Voßbeck’s works in the exhibition at the Silesian Museum, I was reminded of the industrial photographs of Max Steckel, who worked in Upper Silesia up to the outbreak of World War II, and who in view of his skill in using artificial light when taking photographs of factory buildings was known as “the master of magnesium”. His photographs have been included in several exhibitions, largely thanks to the efforts of Piotr Hnatyszyn from the Museum of Coalmining in Zabrze, and Czarne djamenty [Black diamonds], his portfolio of 31 photogravures mostly taken underground in mine galleries and excavations, originally a bilingual publication that came out in Katowice in 1928, has also been reprinted. Steckel’s works were always perfectly lit and framed, and given that Czarne djamenty featured virtually all of the industrial sites in the Upper Silesian conurbation (their author was often commissioned by industrial concerns to execute their photographic documentation), it could offer a source of inspiring hints for people wanting to photograph Upper Silesian landscapes or post-industrial sites… if it were ever to be published as a decently edited album.

The winding-up of the industry founded on coal extraction and steel smelting resulted not only in the closure of industrial plants but also in the breakdown of the urban fabric of the residential districts and estates abutting them. This is discernible in Gola’s album, but only indirectly. In his photographs of Ruda Śląska and the no longer existing Karmańskie estate this degradation is presented chiefly in anecdotal form (with the objects of the visual anecdotes the residents and local drunks), entirely without drawing attention to the interesting architecture of the houses also being pulled down. The multi-family housing complexes erected by the industrial concerns in Upper Silesia (prior to 1914 special regulations forced foundry, mine and factory owners to make such provision), popularly known as familoks, are often disparagingly referred to as “barracks architecture”. Yet unlike German barracks buildings and post-war socialist apartment blocks, they are varied in form, and the architectural model designed for one particular estate is almost never repeated elsewhere. As these are often the first targets for demolition as the post-industrial city is downsized, there is an urgent need for a record of their forms to be created, but in a manner that preserves the unity of image and consistency visible in Voßbeck’s Structure and architecture.

To dwell for a moment on the subject of the Karmańskie estate, now flattened beneath a major regional arterial road, I recall that when I was taking photographs there in 2001, many of the buildings were daubed with swastikas and graffiti betraying an allegiance to Ruch Chorzów football club. If we go onto Gola’s website and click on the tab entitled “Karmańskie”, we will also see photographs featuring these symbols, but in the album Stany graniczne there are no similar images…. And yet this is a significant theme, because football graffiti, often with a racist slant, is a permanent fixture on the walls of Upper Silesian towns; one does not have to go looking for it. What is more, its extreme nature fits ideally with the title of the book.

The way Upper Silesia is depicted by Polish photographers reflects the poor standing of this medium in Polish visual culture and the negligible tradition of photographic representation as a source of reference for new work. When we look at the photographs by members of the KRON group, who photographed industrial residential estates in the 1980s, it is immediately evident that their shots are diametrically different to the official propaganda photographs in, say, the albums Barwy Śląska [The colours of Silesia] or Polski węgiel [Polish coal], but this difference is not tantamount to a consistent standard guaranteeing success at the level of an exhibition or publication. The most interesting and consistent of the KRONs, Michał Cała, made a Silesian series of his own over the period 1979–1992 and was the only one of the group to have a book published, several exhibitions, and a strong public reputation. I remember my own enthusiasm when I first saw his photographs at the Krakow ZPAF gallery in 1986. As I followed his works over successive displays, and his album, Śląsk [Silesia], published in 2006 by Galeria Zderzak, I found it hard to pinpoint a visual pedigree for these photographs; they seem like a phenomenon apart, and almost self-sufficient.

The work of the English documentary photographer John Davies, who launched his career around the same time as Cała and photographed landscapes in central England, may be a good example in terms of the issue of tradition and its creative exploitation as outlined above. Davies’ style of photographic imagery is close to that of the authors of non-artistic photography from a century and more ago in terms of framing and the predominant use of a high perspective. The photographs by this English artist, which we can view in his album British Landscape, are nevertheless more than the “administrative views” (a term coined by Marianna Michałowska) of the beginning of last century. They operate using a convention that is deeply rooted in the visual tradition of Great Britain; Davies not only offers a presentation of the industrial or primarily urbanised landscape of central England, but also interprets it, which given the economic and social consequences of economic Thatcherism (which are also visible in the English landscape), is an important achievement. Indeed, the title of Davies’ book itself is deeply ironic, because to the average Briton, the “British landscape” is still synonymous with stereotypical rural views of green fields enclosed by dry-stone walls, where Leicester sheep graze monotonously.

The post-industrial landscapes of Upper Silesia may evoke in the viewer above all a sense of destruction and chaos, such as we experience, for instance, when we sit by the window of a passenger train trundling slowly from Gliwice to the station in Mysłowice in autumn or winter. But on repeating the journey, the observer may begin to pick out from the disintegrated landscape outside elements of the former urban order and purely functional solutions. Voßbeck’s analytical angle and the logic and consistency visible in his presentation of the theme in Structure and architecture, John Davies’ flair and irony, and their reference to the same visual tradition in its incarnation from a century and more ago are, I suspect, extremely useful qualities in attempting to convey the urban outline of Upper Silesian towns and the unique character of the local architecture. The hope remains that someone will take up the challenge in the not-too-distant future.

***

[1] The documentary project Czarno-biały Śląsk was made over the period 1999–2003. In 2004 Galeria Zderzak in Krakow and the Upper Silesia Cultural Centre in Katowice published an album of the same title, containing 89 monochrome photographs and texts by Andrzej Stasiuk, Marek Grygiel and myself.

About authors

Wojciech Wilczyk

Photographer, art critic, curator, poet and essayist. His work covers mainly large documentary series, incl. Kalwaria 1995–2004, Z wysokości, Czarno-Biały Śląsk, Postindustrial, Niewinne oko nie istnieje. In 2019, his album Słownik polsko-polski was released.

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