Photographing is sort of like touching, to me, like crossing certain boundaries of their intimacy. That’s why I enjoy taking photographs of the people I know.
Touch is the subject of a series of captivating works by Zbigniew Łagocki. The project created in a music school for blind children in 1960 tells the story of an isolated person deprived of one of the basic human senses – the sense of sight. Several photographs depict how sight is replaced by touch, which allows one to overcome the barrier of isolation erected from one’s inability to see, as well as learn how to master the difficult art of playing an instrument. One photograph is especially poignant – a young musician playing a piano. He is captured from behind, blurred head and an enhanced view of his hand visible in the frame. The photographer captured the moment of the child reading sheet music written in braille. The hand looms incredibly powerful. It represents the power of the physical touch and its special meaning compared to the other human senses.
Another series dedicated to the sense of touch is entitled Dotknięcia (Touches). Recently, I had a chance to view these photographs on the artist’s solo show at the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Cracow. These photographs are the personal credo of Łagocki, who raises questions about the nature of photography. What does it mean to take a picture? Is it like touching? The artist’s own words opening this essay provide an excellent definition of the series. The photographer’s hand reaching outside of the frame and towards the selected body parts of a model. The series was made in 1980 and it tells a story of crossing boundaries but also of the boundaries that mustn’t be crossed according to Łagocki. By taking a photograph, he approaches the boundary and yet doesn’t traverse it. Every person has their own boundaries we should always respect.
I enjoy taking photographs of the people I know.
Łagocki very carefully selected the people that he photographed. In that regard, he tapped into the potential of the city of Cracow and chose figures from the world of art, science, and literature: Piotr Skrzynecki and the community around “Piwnica pod Baranami”, Ewa Demarczyk, Marek Grechuta, Stanisław Lem, and Henryk Sztompka. His most important series of portraits were titled Piwnica and Znajomi z Krakowa. His portraits with an enhanced modelling of light and dark clearly embody his attempts at modernizing the traditional canons of portraiture. I can’t help but think that the artist has some sort of feelings towards all of the people in these photographs. Perhaps feelings of sympathy, respect, and at times, admiration. His images are imbued with naturalism and spontaneity. They carry the hallmarks or attempts of creating “psychological portraits” of sorts.
At the centre of Zbigniew Łagocki’s photography stands a man, a human – people and their daily lives, portraits, people against the backdrop of architecture, people in nature, people in rooms, abstract representations of the bodies of models. Snapshots taken as if they were from some movie or the Italian cinema, citations from literary fiction of that period. Composition and a point of view of a documentarist. Curiosity about life and the world we live in. Deeply subjective observation of an individual and situations they find themselves in. That is my personal impression of Łagocki after visiting the exhibition at the Manggha Museum.
He was associated closely with Cracow, the city he grew up in and where he studied architecture at the University of Technology. The studies fuelled his passion for photography, facilitated and systematized his photographic perception of the world, gave order to the composition of his shots as they became well-constructed, based on the balance of horizontal and vertical, and often diagonal, lines. At first glance, it seems that their main subject was architecture as a very specific background for records of human activity, photographic anthropocentrism. Architecture studies and his first job at the Swiss design studio opened up another possibility – possibility of traveling, of which Łagocki availed himself eagerly. Various trips and journeys resulted in photographs from different corners of the world.
Architectural motifs did not dominate Łagocki’s work although they did appear in his photographs as part of his professional activity or documentation of travel. In the early stages of his career, Łagocki viewed himself as a “documentary photographer”. The artist believed that it was the most innovative specialty similarly to Wojciech Plewiński and Wacław Nowak, his long-time friends and collaborators, members of the unofficial art group “Domino”. The collaboration of these Polish photographers spawned various exhibits, projects, concepts, conversations, and activities.
What matters the most in photography is my own commentary. Meaning the manner in which I photograph something. Naturally, technical skills are also important. I enjoy those skills but the thing is they should be transparent.
One can only marvel at the technical skill involved in the creation of photographs such as Forum Romanum, Fragment świątyni Wespazjana, Dwie kultury, and Stadion Azteków, displayed on the monographic exhibit in Cracow. They also place an emphasis on the architectural aspect of Łagocki’s photography. Their construction and flawless composition, framing, precision of choice, finally an abstract and synthetic understanding of form reminiscent of the developments in the global art world around the same period. More importantly, this way of thinking is associated more closely with sculpture rather than flat-surface compositions. Though two-dimensional, his photographs seem kind of reminiscent of the Cubist sculptural forms. In my opinion, there is an incredible spatiality and geometry to them, for instance in the series Poliformia (1967) or Aerotica (1965). These works demonstrate the artist’s interest in the topic of form. Attention remains focused on the human. However, the body serves as the foundation for building structures and forms. It’s viewed in an abstract fashion, as evident especially from Poliformia – a series of photographs created in a darkroom, in the process of making prints and developing film. Łagocki created a desired geometric shape by placing negatives on top of one another. As a result, abstract symmetrical forms emerged from the photomontages showing fragments of a model’s body. His approach diverged from the one applied slightly earlier to the series Aerotica, where extremely sculpturally sophisticated shapes were created on the basis of very dynamic female nudes in precise poses alongside unorthodox perspective and framing methods. The nudes are by no means erotic – they are anti-erotic. Viewer has the impression that the model’s body is a collection of blocks and dynamic foreshortening. In 1967, Łagocki won the gold medal at the International Art Biennale in Sao Paulo for this visually appealing series of photographs.
Exhibition at the Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology in Cracow features 111 photographs by Zbigniew Łagocki from various periods in his art practice. The curator herself informed me that the exposition, which was developed for almost three years, is not a retrospective. There are a number of key motifs and paths guiding viewers through the exhibit. I had a pleasure of seeing it twice, and each time, I discovered its brand-new aspects. Deeply thoughtful selection of photographs offers a broad, sweeping perspective on the artist’s oeuvre. Design of the exhibit seems very appealing and surprising, dominated by two-colour scheme. On the ground floor, we see green, pistachio colour – elegant, powdery hue combined with bright stripes. The lines introduce a certain rhythm and order not only in relation to the exhibition room itself but also horizonal and vertical lines of composition of numerous photographs put on display. The first floor is bathed in pink, the kind of pink typical of the 1960s and 1970s, according to the curator Maria Luiza Pyrlik. The background is again juxtaposed against the lines of a stronger pink colour, analogous to the green room below. Here, you can view for instance the photographs of women, nudes and bodies depicted in the series Poliformia, Aerotica, Deballage, or the incredibly evocative Dotyk. Exhibition arrangement seems very fascinating – internal contrast arising from a seeming harmony.
The curator collaborated with young artists on this interesting design. Mateusz Okoński is the author of the exhibition arrangement, whereas Kuba Woynarowski designed the graphic elements and the poster, which directly references Forum Romanum, Łagocki’s genius photograph from 1970. Its incredible simplicity and composition create “an abstract graphic sign”. Woynarowski’s design is an excellent interpretation of its structural potential resulting in unconventional, bold, and striking graphic elements of a sign, poster, and invitation accompanying this exhibit.
Written by Julita Deluga
Europe – Far East Gallery
26.09.2021 – 14.11.2021
The Manggha Museum
ul. M. Konopnickiej 26