By Andy Markowitz
David Hlynsky’s introduction to communist Europe was “a gut-level impression of a change of color.” It was 1986, and the U.S.-born, Canada-based photographer was en route to Krakow, where he’d been invited to exhibit his work. Freshly over the West German border, driving through the Czech city of Plzen, “suddenly I had this feeling of a cinnamon brown and ocher cityscape, which was very unusual.”
“It seems like a minor thing, but it was quite a horrible thing at the time,” Hlynsky recalls 23 years later. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that what I was actually experiencing was a lack of highly saturated primary colors … that were part of Western advertising.”
From this earth-toned first impression grew, indirectly and at times without the artist even being fully aware of it, a fascination with the commercial culture of the communist world. On that trip and three more to the Eastern bloc in its last throes, Hlynsky increasingly focused on shop windows and storefront signs, a deceptively simple urban landscape he recalls now as a “museum of a different kind of materialism.”
The results, which have been the subject of shows in Prague, Berlin, and New York, are a remarkable record of the period just before the wave of consumerism broke over Central and Eastern Europe. Ranging in style and tone from spartan to sweetly decorative, the windows in Hlynsky’s lens both reinforce and belie Cold War-era tropes of grim eastern deprivation, and bring into sharp relief the difference between labeling a product for sale and branding it for mass consumption.
The 62-year-old photographer says the shop-windows series is perhaps the closest to his heart of nearly 40 years of published and exhibited work, and he is shopping a book-length collection. He talked to Transitions Online about the genesis and development of the project by telephone from his home in Toronto.
TOL: What led you to begin traveling to communist Europe in the late 1980s?
David Hlynsky: I’ve been an artist in Toronto. I immigrated to Toronto in 1971 from the U.S., and a Polish immigrant to Canada was organizing an exhibition in Poland and she asked me to be part of it in 1986. So I basically took it as an opportunity to travel to Poland and to exhibit my work.
I grew up in the U.S. during the Cold War, and during that time, anybody with Eastern European heritage was considered kind of a backwoods bumpkin. There were anti-Polack jokes, and the Russians were cheap thugs, and, you know, all of my own ethnic heritage was kind of put into a category of being less sophisticated than most of Western Europe. All of my relatives were from Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and kept on talking about the “old country.” When I had the opportunity to go to Poland, I thought, here was a perfect time to go see what the old country really was. The first trip was about a two-week trip, and it really opened my eyes.
How and why did you begin photographing shop windows, and what drew you to them as a subject?
When I was invited to this exhibition, I took a Hasselblad camera with me, thinking I was going to shoot portraits. This camera is really a studio camera, a portrait camera; it’s not the kind of camera you would use on the street at all. But as soon as I got into this landscape, I realized that it was an unusual landscape, and it was the camera that I had, and I started taking photographs of the street. I didn’t know how far I could tempt the system, but my instinct was that the business of the landscape, the business that the people were carrying on, was so banal that if I presented myself as part of that banal landscape, I wouldn’t be in trouble.
My impulse first is to photograph what I thought was representative of people on the street. My technique was to find somebody interesting, move ahead of them, find the background, and then wait for them to enter it. Well, the backgrounds were store windows. And there is a picture, it’s in a folder on my photo website, of a woman walking down the street [in Krakow] with a Marlboro bag. If you look in the background of that picture, it’s a shoe store, and there’s almost nothing in the shoe store. When I got back to Toronto and I started looking at these pictures, I started seeing them in much greater detail. I saw that the woman was dressed a certain way, there was a Marlboro bag in her hand, I wondered where that came from. I saw that she was right in front of a shoe store. I saw that the store was empty. I saw that there was a lottery sign in the window. All of these things start to become like clues to a bigger mystery, and the picture gets more and more interesting and more and more mysterious as you study it. At that point I said, “Wow, that’s an interesting store window.” So the next time I went back, two years later, I said, “Well, I want to shoot a few more store windows.” By the time I made my third trip, the secondary theme was a much stronger theme.
It doesn’t sound like you started out with a documentary intent, to go capture what shop windows are like or what advertising is like in the communist world.
No, I didn’t start out with that intent at all. It became intentional after I started noticing the backgrounds in my street portraits. It wasn’t, philosophically, until later, after I had finished the shoot, that I started to be able to articulate for myself what was interesting about these images. What I had come to realize was that the Cold War was about this vague kind of word, “freedom.” It was kind of tossed around, especially in American media and especially through the American government. Well, you know, the McCarthy era wasn’t very free in the U.S., and the Vietnam era wasn’t very free in the U.S. I saw my friends being clubbed in the streets for protesting the war. So “freedom” was this expression that didn’t really seem like it gelled with this idea of freedom, although I’ve come to realize over the years that we did have considerably more freedom of expression than people in the Eastern bloc. But there were artists over there [whose] artistic expression was quite critical of the government, but it was couched in all kinds of interesting symbols. So freedom of expression was kind of an odd one to wrap your head around. What was this freedom that we were trying to get hold of? What were we protecting?
And then I gradually came to realize that there were all kinds of freedoms – freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and all that – but there was another freedom, and that was free enterprise. That seemed to me more the root of the Cold War than much of what the propaganda was trying to say. At least, it seemed like kind of a hidden agenda. And the Cold War then became for me not only about liberating poor, oppressed people, but also liberating a marketplace. Then I started looking at the store windows, and it was a very interesting kind of museum of a different kind of materialism, and this museum contained all kinds of things. It contained artifacts of a culture. It contained the necessities for daily life. It contained design strategies of the shop owners. It contained advertising strategies of the state-run factories and corporations. And all of these were things that were parallel to what I was seeing in the West.
That’s what became interesting to me. I started to realize one of the differences in the aspects of those two cultures was that in the West, because of free enterprise, capitalist enterprise, all of our products were branded, they were labeled, they had a certain logo, the logo had a certain mystique, they were surrounded by images of sexuality and pleasure. These illusions were part of Western branding. The fundamental difference, I found, was that in the West we branded things, in the East things were labeled. The mystique was removed when a product was displayed. And what that did was it, oddly, made that landscape much more relaxed to me. As I walked down the street, I felt myself exhaling, taking in a deep breath, because I wasn’t being seduced. I was like, “OK, I’m walking down the street and if I need a carrot, there it is. If I need a pedicure, there it is.”
For years or generations, Western eyes were trained to look at that as confirming the stereotypes about this sort of drab world of deprivation behind the Iron Curtain. Was this something you had that got leeched away by immersion, or as an artist were you able to look at it in a very different way than someone who is used to this notion [that] a butcher shop that just has a picture of meat out front is something naïve, or gray and deprived?
I didn’t see it as gray and deprived. Probably before I went there, I became disillusioned with the advertising world. I had a lot of experiences photographing advertising photographs with people who were blatantly dishonest and wanted me to participate in that, so I didn’t see this, when I got there, as a deprived environment. I was already skeptical about Western advertising and what it meant. I saw it as a fascinating environment because the graphic display and the presentation of products was so different.
On my very first trip, on the second day I was in the East bloc, I was in Krakow, and I was introduced to a Polish photographer there who became a good friend. The outside of the building was shabby and rundown and covered in soot. I went inside of his apartment and he had a grand piano in there, and he had a full library, he had this beautiful, beautiful meal laid out that his wife made, and his young son was quite articulate in English and acted as a translator. We talked all night long. He took a book off the shelf, there were books of Western literature, and we talked about it. And I thought, this guy isn’t deprived, he’s clearly quite sophisticated, much more sophisticated than I was led to believe. It didn’t gel with the propaganda pictures of the Cold War of this guy with locked chains wrapped around his head.
Once you finished these pictures and started exhibiting them, were you concerned they would reinforce these notions? This sort of equivalence in people’s minds of communist material culture with bread lines and shortages, and that a visual image of a butcher shop or a bakery with a single piece of meat or a single loaf of bread in the window was going to reinforce that notion?
I think what reinforced that notion more are the words you just spoke. The verbal description of it is a lot more damning than a visual picture. The visual picture is a sort of inadvertent, mundane detail, and we get caught up in that. I look at the hunk of meat and I think, that’s an interesting depiction of meat, isn’t that an interesting curtain in the background, isn’t that interesting to see the fluorescent lights back there? The narrative becomes richer when you look at the photograph.
In any post-communist city, you see how purely utilitarian a lot of the communist-era architecture was. Some of the shop displays seem to be examples of that same kind of utilitarian thinking … this idea that nothing but what is absolutely required to be communicated should be communicated, and communicating anything more is unnecessary and bourgeois.
I kind of wondered too about that, but you do see little snippets of folk art coming through.
You do. You’re certainly struck by these really playful touches. There was a picture of a zipper store in Bulgaria that really showed that.
There was a little fish in the picture. Yeah, I mean, this is the art. The literal descriptions we have of that are quite severe, but in actual fact the borderline of what was [decorative and] what was not was probably a little more blurred.
What kind of response have you gotten in the countries of the former Eastern bloc when you’ve exhibited these photos?
What I’m discovering now is that there is a generation that grew up before the wall came down, and there’s a generation that was born after. I’d put these pictures up at a show that I had in Prague [in 2005], and a mixed age group comes in. The teenagers are looking at these pictures and giggling, like, “What stupid, silly landscape is this?” You know, how naïve, how backward. The older people are looking at it with tears in their eyes and thinking, no, it was a lot more complicated than that. These images are full of representations of our daily lives, and this is how we negotiated material culture, this is how we got around the shortages. I remember where that thing was, I remember that street. Isn’t it bittersweet that it’s gone? Some people were quite vehement about saying that what’s replaced it is vulgar and fast, they can’t keep up with it and all that. These pictures, I think they’ve got very complex readings, because the arguments are so complex.
I think it might have something to do with how you ended up capturing these images on a portrait camera. They really have this quality of “portrait,” the still, stately capturing of something. It’s not like a street scene from Prague in 1986 or 1988. It’s got the quality of a daguerreotype, like when you look at a picture from the 1880s and you see it’s almost formally composed in a way that’s lost, not just the image itself is lost.
I think the camera did do that, and there’s a kind of formality to it. I think the camera slowed me down. It made me frame things in very non-dramatic ways. But that fit entirely into, ultimately, what my agenda was, which was to create a view that wasn’t cloak-and-dagger, that wasn’t McCarthy-ist, that wasn’t sensationalist. It was just totally ordinary. I do believe, and not only in this but in other work, that the real value of photography is not in sensationalism, but the real value is in banality, where a photograph identifies us with a time and place that somehow is real because of the ordinary things in it. And that’s what I wanted.