Today the role of the Catholic Church in Polish statecraft is a matter of some debate, but 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to overlook the church in the political arena. The ruling Communists recognized the church as a hostile yet powerful player; for Solidarity, it was a potent if at times uncertain ally.
In 1989 Josef Glemp was in his eighth year as the head of the Polish church, steering a careful course between the regime and opposition through difficult times, most notably the introduction of martial law in 1981 and the 1984 murder by state security officers of the popular dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko. While Lech Walesa viewed the interests of the church and Solidarity as the same, some dissidents suspected the Catholic leadership was too willing to settle for peaceful coexistence with the Communist government.
But according to some historians, by 1989 Glemp recognized that an agreement with the regime was possible, and he didn’t want it to happen without church involvement. The primate played an important role in preparations for the Round Table, which paved the way for the multiparty elections of 4 June 1989. Following the peaceful transition of power, Glemp came to be seen less as a conservative unwilling to confront the regime in support of the opposition and more as a long-term strategist whose non-confrontational approach helped smooth the road to democracy.
Glemp, who had been made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1983, remained the primate of the Polish church until 2006, and as such played a role in the key social and cultural controversies of post-communist Poland. He has been dogged for yeas by allegations of antisemitism, accused by Jewish groups of insensitivity to their concerns during the rancorous arguments over the construction of a Catholic convent outside Auschwitz in 1989 and the unauthorized erection of crosses near the camp nine years laters.
His attitudes toward Poland’s all-but-vanished Jewish community resurfaced in the firestorm over Neighbors,  a 2001 book detailing how Catholic Poles massacred hundreds of Jews in the town of Jedwabne during World War II. Pre-war conflicts between Poles and Jews had an “economic basis,” Glemp told the Catholic news agency KAI. “Jews were cleverer, and they knew how to take advantage of Poles. That, in any case, was the perception.”
In 2005 Glemp was publicly critical of the Catholic and stridently conservative Radio Maryja, saying it was causing a rift in the church. Politics intervened again just as he was leaving office, when the man named to succeed him as archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, was accused of collaboration with the communist-era secret police. Glemp defended Wielgus, saying the accusations against him were exaggerated, but Wielgus resigned only a month after his appointment.
Through the two decades of democracy, as the Polish Catholic Church gradually receded from its former position as the dominant reference point for many social groups, Glemp’s influence faded, but his presence is still felt. This year, remarkably for any cleric – much less a cardinal – he appeared in a feature film, playing himself in the biopic Popieluszko. In the view of some commentators, Glemp’s screen appearance was an act of homage to the charismatic priest by a church leader who had been criticized in the past for not doing enough to protect Popieluszko in the tense period leading up to his murder.
Polish journalist, dissident, and politician, 1927–
When Poland needed a recipe for national reconciliation after five decades of totalitarian rule, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime ministerin Central and Eastern Europesince the late 1940s, came up with the gruba linia – the notorious“thick line” that was to be drawn over the past. Whether this was a better solution than the harsh lustration law proposed by the government of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski remains a bone of contention in Poland.
The legacy of Mazowiecki’s 17-month tenure (August 1989-January 1991) includes more than the “thick line” formula – which, whether or not it was intended that way, has come to be seen as a conciliatory gesture to the outgoing totalitarian regime. He undertook radical steps aimed at moving Poland toward a free-market economy. The crash reforms were successful, but only at the cost of sharply rising unemployment and a fall in real wages – fallout that cost him a shot at the presidency in November 1990, when, in a shocking setback for his policies, Mazowiecki finished third behind his erstwhile ally, Solidarity titan Lech Walesa.
That year marked a split within the Solidarity camp, which Walesa and Mazowiecki had co-led for a decade. Mazowiecki, a former parliamentary deputy, was one of the principal legal advisers to the striking shipyard workers and helped mobilize intellectual support for the union. In 1981 Walesa entrusted the first Solidarity publication, Tygodnik Solidarnosc, to Mazowiecki, who was imprisoned when martial law was declared in December of that year. In early 1989 he was a key figure in the Round Table Talks that opened the door to political competition.
For the next decade and a half Mazowiecki remained in the thick of Polish political life, serving in the Sejm until 2001 and co-founding two parties, the Polish Democratic Union in 1991 and the Democratic Party in 2005. He also served as a special UN rapporteur in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 until 1995, when he resigned to protest the big powers’ inaction over the bloodshed there, including the massacre at Srebrenica.
Mazowiecki left high politics in 2006, but he is still active on the public stage as a journalist and commentator. On 31 October, in Berlin, he joined other statesmen in office in 1989 – from conservatives George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl to reform Communists Mikhail Gorbachev and Miklos Nemeth of Hungary – for an informal commemoration of the events of 20 years ago.
For some prominent film festivals in Central and Eastern Europe, the 20th anniversary of the mostly peaceful revolutions that emancipated the region from the crumbling clutches of communism were an occasion to dust off old documentary reels.
February’s Berlin International Film Festival offered a retrospective look at the years before and after the change, poetically titled “After Winter Comes Spring,” featuring, among other works, Helke Misselwitz’ Adieu Winter, a documentary about women of various walks of life in East Germany in 1988, and Polish documentarian Jozef Robakowski’sFrom My Window, which consists of footage shot from his Lodz flat between 1978 and 2000. “The Velvet Generation Comes of Age” at the Prague edition of the One World festival of human-rights documentaries offered the late Jan Spata’sThe Greatest Wish, which juxtaposes young people’s dreams in 1964 and 1989, and acclaimed surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer’s allegorical short The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia.
Moving eastward, though, the commemorative relay slowed down. Festivals in Sarajevo, Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, and Sofia paid scant attention, while the Moscow International Film Festival delved further back for a program marking 70 years since the start of World War II.
This lack of attention to the events of 20 years ago is reflected in the output of filmmakers in the region; films dealing with the anti-communist revolutions of two decades past are a relative rarity.
The reasons, experts say, range from aesthetic to sociopolitical. “The notion that a film’s characters can and should be reduced to mere ciphers for the historical and social changes that happen around them is a Marxist one,” says Andrew Horton, former editor in chief of Kinoeye, a now-defunct website that focused on Central and Eastern European film. “Hardly shocking, then, that directors [in the region] have rejected it so overwhelmingly.”
HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD
In throwing off old ideological strictures, many of the region’s filmmakers eagerly embraced mainstream techniques, even in films dealing with 1989, adopting the Western model of history as entertainment where “the political changes are more or less background,” according to John Cunningham, a specialist in Central European cinema at Britain’s Sheffield Hallam University.
With its Velvet Revolution subplot, the Oscar-winning Kolya was the first feature film – and to date the most internationally popular – to deal directly with the events of 1989.
Such was the case with the biggest international hit set in the revolutionary period, Czech director Jan Sverak’s Kolya (1996). With its endearing story of a Russian boy invading the life of an aging roue amid the heavy anti-Soviet mood of late-’89 Prague, the film charmed Western audiences and won the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, but Czech critics still harbor misgivings about its sugary Hollywood approach.
In a similar vein, Polish director Juliusz Machulski’s How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? (2008) is a whimsical family comedy involving a time warp to and from the last years of communism and conveys the simple message that things are a lot better now than they were then. The film was Poland’s third-biggest hit last year, according to boxoffice.pl, although its 155,000 viewers was half the total for the leader, Tomasz Konecki’s Ladies, a sort of Polish Sex and the City firmly anchored in the country’s capitalist present.
Reflecting on Hungarian cinema, Horton views the Hollywood influence as a positive development.
“Personally, I think most of the films ‘about communism’ have been some of the worst to have been released in the post-1989 period,” he writes in an e-mail. “Many young filmmakers seem to be inspired by the power of American film to reach its audience through easy-to-relate-to characters, an accessible storyline, and a strong setting immersed in popular culture, and this kind of film-making is what they aspire to.
“I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, even if this approach to filmmaking seems to be a work in progress for Hungarian directors. At least it’s trying to build a relationship with young Hungarian audiences after decades of declining cinema attendance.”
The internationally recognized Romanian New Wave is the outlier, producing films that have poked and prodded at unwieldy and controversial recent history to wide acclaim. Three of the four Romanian films released in 2006 – Corneliu Porumboiu’s12:08 East of Bucharest, Radu Muntean’s The Paper Will Be Blue, and Catalin Mitulescu’s How I Celebrated the End of the World – offer intimate and wryly funny explorations of the events of December 1989, while Tales from the Golden Age, the new film from Cannes Film Festival prize-winner Christian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), is an omnibus of seriocomic stories set in the late Ceausescu years.
Porumboiu’s film, which won the Camera d’Or for best first feature at the 2006 Cannes festival, is emblematic of the Romanian approach, tackling the topic with depth, subtlety, and deceptive simplicity. The title refers to the town of Vaslui (where the director is from) and the precise moment Nicolae Ceausescu fled Bucharest in his helicopter – if there were no protests in Vaslui before 12:08 p.m. on 22 December 1989, did the revolution actually happen there? (The movie’s Romanian title translates as, “Was There or Wasn’t There?”) The final scene of a snowy Christmas Eve leaves audiences guessing as to the significance of this question for the ordinary townspeople.
“The idea was to focus on history, personal stories, memories, on the fact that each and every one of us changes history in order to justify his or her own existence,” Porumboiu said.
“I don’t believe in History with a capital ‘H.’ After the revolution there are only two or three heroes and two or three anti-heroes in the history books, but you will never get this other perspective, of normal people and their personal experiences and stories related to that event. So this is what I was after in my movie. It’s built like a kaleidoscope, with lots of personal views and different fragments.”
INTO THE LIGHT
What Porumboiu has elsewhere called “the uncertainty of the grand revolutionary narrative” is another factor inhibiting a regional cinema-of-’89
“Possibly the variations in approach to the theme of 1989 are connected to how the oppositional struggle developed,” Sheffield Hallam’s Cunningham says. “In Hungary there have been a number of films about 1956, probably because of its heroic resonances and its centrality in national mythology, in comparison with 1989, which was a fairly muted affair. Similarly, in Poland there appear to be more films devoted to the period of martial law and the resistance to it than to 1989.”
The whimsical comedy How Much Does a Trojan Horse Weigh? casts a contemporary Polish woman back in time to the eve of regime change.
In tackling history, most filmmakers, particularly those of older generations, stick to themes more firmly rooted in national stories. Witness the most recent works by Andrzej Wajda and Istvan Svabo, respectively Poland’s and Hungary’s most revered living directors: Wajda’s Katyn (2007) re-creates the World War II-era Soviet massacre that still haunts Poland; Relatives (2006) is Svabo’s take on an infamous 1930s corruption scandal.
While their forebears look back, younger filmmakers cast a wary eye on the present. History as such matters little in Czech director Tomas Vorel’s entertainment cinema (2005’s Skritek, 2007’s Gympl) or Hungarian Benedek Fliegauf’s psychedelic social dramas Forest (2003) and Dealer (2004). Social reality as it is, and individual destinies, absurd as they are, make up the world of such films – what Cunningham describes as “the revolt against history and grand narratives and a craving almost for the here and now.”
The echoes of 1989 do reverberate through such films, if only faintly, in their take on the disillusioned social life of the transition. “This is how we Czechs deal with difficult times – we laugh,” says cinematographer Marek Jicha, who regularly works with Vorel. Their latest project, Catch the Billionaire, is a social grotesque about contemporary Czech capitalism in which profiteers and victims alike are left shorn of their dignity.
Far removed in tone, Polish director Krzysztof Krauze’s The Debt (1999) and Savior Square (2006), also function as allegories for the transition years, emotionally claustrophobic narratives about men and women pushed to the edge by unbridled cruelty in their everyday life. Young Bulgarian filmmakers have been engaging in a different kind of allegory: Sofia and Sarajevo festival honorees Mila from Mars (directed by Zornitsa Sophia, 2004) and Lady Zi (Georgy Diulgerov, 2005) center on abandoned girls who stumble out of orphanages and must survive on their own in an inhospitable and absurd environment.
To Jicha, that subtext is the essential story of 1989. Asked how he would interpret the Velvet Revolution on screen, he describes an old Celtic myth about a knight lured deep into the woods and over a precipice by an elusive, shining nymph. “The faster he goes, the faster the light goes, and he falls off the cliff,” Jicha says. “The revolution was that hope, that light, and the poor man is the Czech people.”
Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the light of idealism where Jicha and many of his peers see the flicker of misplaced hopes. American filmmaker Gary Keith Griffin, a Sundance Film Festival award-winner who was studying at Prague’s FAMU film school in the fall of 1989, is currently at work on Listopad (November).
Bucking the trend of approaching the anti-communist revolutions at oblique angles, Listopad takes on the history head on, dramatizing the real-life story of three teenage boys who took part in the tumultuous events on the streets of Prague. (It will even climax with an on-site reenactment of the pivotal student march of 17 November 1989, staged on the 20th anniversary of the actual event.) Griffin – who was there, too, 20 years ago, filming all the while – met the principals and heard their stories years later, while shooting a feature in the Czech Republic.
“There are always differing opinions about great political and historical events, but one thing is certain: the truth belongs to those in the front lines,” Griffin says in a director’s statement at the film’s website. “For me, a hero is a person who takes action not because they believe they will succeed, but because they know it is the right thing to do. For me, the people in the front lines of November 17th, 1989, armed with nothing more than their beliefs, are heroes. I believe we should tell their story.”
Will Rogers’ quip about statistics being less trustworthy than damn lies could apply equally well to opinion polls. Or rather, to the use of poll data by their most avid consumers, the media. Poll results, nicely tabulated and presented in bite-sized, quasi-scholarly chunks, are often reprocessed by harried journalists into quick news articles, not to speak of editorials.
Widely reported in the days leading up to the big Berlin Wall anniversary, a large regional opinion survey appears to back up a number of popularly held notions about attitudes toward democracy, market economics, and life in general in Central and Eastern Europe since the upheavals of the late 1980s and early ’90s. Continue reading …
The last time the Polish farmers’ unions managed to make headlines was last year, when one of the most radical announced a “warning protest” of 3,000 farmers in Warsaw against the “critical situation” in Polish agricultural and rural areas. When the day of the protest arrived, however, the number of protesters had dwindled to a mere 1,000.
It was a far cry from the early 1990s, when protests led by Andrzej Lepper paralyzed Poland, as he led farmers to block roads. Populism calculated to gain the support of rural and small-town Poland later elevated Lepper to the posts of deputy speaker of the Polish parliament, deputy prime minister, and minister of agriculture.
In retrospect it looks as if Lepper’s rise was the swan song of populists’ efforts to build their support on the parlous situation of Poland’s rural communities. Continue reading …
By Boyko Vassilev, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with unionists and managers is the fourth in the series that resulted.
MILKO MIHOV, 70, BULGARIA
Mihov is the CEO of J.W. Cappelen Bulgaria, a Vienna-based paper company. He was the representative of Lesoimpex, a Bulgarian state-owned export/import firm, in Vienna from 1972 until 1978.
In the late autumn of 1972 I met Cappelen Senior, a Swede [in Vienna]. He told me he intended to form a company to export paper to Eastern Europe. I was surprised. “Why Eastern Europe? The big consumption of paper is in the West.” He said, “Big changes are coming to the East; it has to catch up in development.” Cappelen signed a contract with Lesoimpex and started his business in Bulgaria in January 1973.
In 1989 nobody had described the path from totalitarian to market economy. We figured it out as we went. … Before 1989 you needed special authorization to export and import. The real change was to untangle the licensing and regulatory regimes. This process continues even now. The simplification of licensing requirements has evoked a new feeling of responsibility among businessmen. Here personal attributes matter. Continue reading …
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian and Pavol Szalai
[As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with doctors is the third in the series that resulted.
MARIETTA GECHEVA, 47, BULGARIA
Gecheva, a radiologist who specializes in endoscopy, worked in the Pirogov emergency hospital before and after 1989. For the past nine years, she and her husband have run a private clinic.
Some doctors profited from the change. Among the successful were those who could afford to join a good medical institution that functions absolutely professionally, without professional compromises. But that’s only a few people. That happened with [me and my husband], because we had the chance to have some land restituted, which allowed us to found our clinic. If the restitution hadn’t happened, we would have been working in state hospitals. Don’t get me wrong, they have good specialists as well, even extraordinarily high level medics. However, the financial problems in state hospitals matter and make things difficult for these specialists. The Hippocratic oath is fine, but it can’t do what machines can. And for that, you need money. Continue reading …
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.