27 January 2015

Polish Palimpsest: Iwanowski and Pawlikowski

In 2013 the Polish photographer Michal Iwanowski (b. 1977) set out to retrace the journey taken by his grandfather and his uncle after they escaped from a prisoner of war camp in Kaluga, southwest of Moscow.  Anatole and Wiktor had no way of knowing whether they would be able to make their way home to Poland in the tumultuous final months of World War II, but they were determined to die trying.  Their 2200 kilometer trek took the two men  through Belarus and Lithuania and all the way to Wroclaw where they were ultimately reunited with their relatives.   

They made their journey on foot, moving mostly at night.  With no way to know who might be friend or foe, they avoided all human contact; hence Iwanowiski's title for this photo portfolio: Clear of People.  The men survived on a meager diet of wild berries and mushrooms, and the occasional stolen potato or cabbage.   What preserved their spirits through cold, dark and sleeping on the ground was the strength of their mutual bond and, perhaps, the diary in which Wiktor chronicled it all.

In his introduction to the exhibition of Clear of People,  Iwanowski writes that his grandfather lived a long life in Wroclaw, surviving until the age of ninety-two and that his uncle Wiktor is still living in Szczecin, Poland.  Clear of People was presented in February 2014 at Ffotogallery, University of Wales, Newport.  Iwanowski, who lives in Cardiff, was supported in this project in part by the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.

At about he same time that Iwanowski was moving from west to east across Central Europe,  Polish filmmaker Pawel Pawlikowski (b. 1957)  was tracing a similar path in the other direction.   To make Ida (pronounced Ee-da) Pawlikowski returned to his native country for the first time since childhood.  Although the film is set in the early 1960s just as youth culture was beginning to trickle through the Iron Curtain, the Polish countryside appears impervious to the passing of time.

The filmmaker's own  mixed ancestry led him to the relationship between  Catholics and anti-antisemitism . "I come from a magnetic field of Catholicism, " Pawlikowski says, adding that his father's mother died in Auschwitz.
A film needs a narrative hook to hang more on than photograph does, so Pawlikowski created two characters loosely based on two people he has known: a Catholic priest and a former prosecutor, Teresa Wolinska.



Anna, a novice, played by first-time actress Agata Trzebuchowska, has been raised in a convent to a religious vocation.  She knows that she was abandoned there as a baby, but no more than that. As Anna prepares  for her final vows, the prioress sends her to Lodz to meet her only surviving relative, Wanda Gruz.
Wanda, played brilliantly by Agata Kulesza, reveals to the young woman that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that her parents were killed during WW!!. snorts derisively    “A Jewish nun,”  she says derisively.  Wanda is also no longer the person she once was; a former state prosecutor for the Communist regime who staged show trials that sent innocent people their deaths, she has fallen out of favor with the Party,  demoted to presiding over petty domestic disputes.  She drinks and picks up faceless men  but her anguish has less to do with guilt over the  blood on her hands than with the fate of her sister, Ida’s mother.

Their road trip in search of the truth takes them through the bleak countryside and  brutal urban architecture of Communist Poland.  In her nun's habit, Ida elicits reflexive respect from people but it is Wanda, wrapped in the tattered shreds of her  judicial authority, who intimidates information out of anyone who would obstruct her.  When they eventually track down  the farmer who appropriated the Lebensteins’  farm, he is dying so Wanda pitilessly wrings the truth out of his son:  Ida survived  through the kindness of the man who killed her parents because she was the kind of Jewish little girl; she looked Christian and could pass.   Her parents  were killed because they could not.
This is not a film about salvation through religion or divine love; history does not allow it.  In the final scene as Ida flees Lodz, her agitation surfacing at last, we see a godless landscape.

The cinematographers used the unusual aspect ratio  of  1.37:1 and static camera shots, effectively weighing the characters down to the lower part of the screen, suggesting  the weight of Polish history.  Shot in natural light, the framing is all right angles and parallel lines;  window frames, doorways, railings, and even the trees appear to stand up straighter. Only during Ida’s final flight from Lodz does the camera mimic her agitation.
Ida, a film that cost $1.8 million dollars to produce, has just been nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film.

1 - 5.  Michael Iwanowski - Clear of People, 2013, Ffotography, University of Wales, Newport. 
6. Pawel Pawlikowski - Agata Kulesza and Agata Trzebuchowska, still from Ida, 2013, Soloban Films, Poland.

19 January 2015

The Floating World of Henri Riviere

Two women walking in the snow under an umbrella bent against the wind.  We have seen this kind of image before in Japanese prints from the floating world (ukiyo-e).   But the Louvre Museum and the glass pyramids  in the background are something new, or are they?
This could be the unidentified photographer's sly recognition of a fortuitous combination of pictorial elements drawn from japonisme, the  French term for their infatuation with all things Japanese, aterm coined in the late 19thc century.   What the French love, they appropriate as their own.  Henri Riviere (1864-1951), an artist nicknamed the 'Little Hokusai" by the Japanese, turned Paris and then Brittany into his own versions of the floating world.  Whether etching, color woodcut, or photography, Riviere  demonstrated the influence of Japanese art on western aesthetics. The print below comes from Riviere's series Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower (1902),  an  homage to Katsushika Hokusai's ukiyo-e  masterpiece Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji (1826).  But there is something else, something remarkable, going on in  Riviere's work.

During the two years from 1887-89 when the Eiffel Tower was under construction, the project that would alter the Parisian skyline was controversial.  Gustave Eiffel was only granted a permit for his proposed tower to stand for twenty years,  a fact overlooked now that the tower has become one of the most beloved landmarks in the world. At the time, engineers debated whether the four legs could support the proposed tower.  Riviere who spent his summers in the ancient Celtic landscape of Brittany was equally interested in modern inventions and became an important early photographer.  Riviere was granted privileged access to the construction site and his photographs from inside the growing tower are thrilling and deserve to better known outside France.

If I had to choose one photograph to whet your appetite for the entire set (view here) it would be this bird's eye view of the Seine from the tower's Campanile.  I don't know of another photographer in the 1880s who was doing this kind of thing.  We've become accustomed to photographers going to extreme lengths to capture what we imagine aerial views in the photos of Margaret Bourke-White and others.  Riviere, either fearless or nerveless,  began documenting the site excavation  in January 1887 and followed the  construction up until it was completed in March 1889, in time for the opening of the Exposition Universelle on May 15th.

Exactly one hundred years later the Pyramide du Louvre, designed by the Japanese architect I.M. Pei opened to the public.  Like the Eiffel Tower, it too was controversial and  has also, with time,  become a Parisian landmark.

As soon as I was struck by the similarity between Henri Riviere's famous woodcut of the little woman walking past the looming tower I suspected  the photographer  had it in mind, too.  Riviere's  Eiffel Tower series are almost as well known in France as the tower itself.  The prints are charming  but the photographs are a unique event.

1. Architectural Digest - walkers in the snow with umbrellas cross the plaza near the Louvre pyramid in Paris, January 2015.
2. Henri Riviere - a solitary walker in the snow holding an umbrella passes the Eiffel Tower under construction, 1888, from the series Thirty-Six Views of the Eiffel Tower,  Bibliotheque nationale de france, Paris.
3. Henri Riviere - photograph of the Seine taken from a scaffolding on the Campanile of the Eiffel tower under construction, 1888, Musee d'Orsay, Paris.
4. Antoine Mongodin - the Louvre and the pyramid in the snow, taken from in front of the Sully Pavillon, no date given, Louvre Museum, Paris.

09 January 2015

In Snow Country. Shiraishi and Kawabata

I was introduced to the photography of Kent Shiraishi by Suzanne, the Errant Aesthete, in 2011 when Shiraishi received an award from the magazine National Geographic.  Shiraishi, who is Japanese,  describes himself as a Samurai photographer.  He lives on the northern island of Hokkaido, an island whose shape is oddly similar to that of Newfoundland, another semi-detached province halfway around the world.  And then, like peeling back layers of an onion,  I discovered that there is something curious about the Blue Pond that put Shiraishi on the photographic map:   the blue pond sometimes turns green.

During October and November, when winter arrives on Hokkaido, the pond at Biei where Shiraishi lives changes colors, and not just the ordinary colors you might expect. In spite of overcast autumn skies,  the pond changes  from turquoise to emerald green.   Although it is known to local people as  Blue Pond, the pond is an artificial excavation, part of an erosion control system built to protect the town from damage if  the nearby volcano, Mount Tokachidaka, erupts.  The cause of this dramatic color change  has yet to be determined but scientists speculate that aluminum hydroxide in the water causes  blue light to refract at shorter wavelengths than usual through the earth's atmosphere.  Shiraishi's explanation is more succinct: "the weather."  
The weather is, of course, a compelling preoccupation of Japanese  artists at least since the time of ukiyo-e or 'the floating world.'   An archipelago of islands, Japan is a country with a culture of water; its creation myths describe male and female deities descending from above to create mountains, rivers, and vegetation of variety and uniqueness.

“Time passed. But time flows in many streams. Like a river, an inner stream of time will flow rapidly at some places and sluggishly at others, or perhaps even stand hopelessly stagnant. Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows in the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”  - excerpt from Beauty And Sadness by Yasunari Kawabta (1975)

Yasunari Kawabata’s prose is admired its combination of spareness and lyricism.  To his countrymen, Kawabata was the writer who best carried forward  ancient traditions in his novels, such as The Old Capital, Snow Country, and A Thousand Cranes.  Yasunari Kawabats was the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. 
Orphaned when he was four years old, he went to live with grandparents and by the time he was fifteen, both of them had died as well.  This left him alone in the world,  and as a young writer living in Tokyo, Kawabata experimented with several styles before finding the voice for his  stories of love's difficulties set against the the inexplicable beauties of nature.

In Beauty And Sadness, Kawabata wrote, “I wonder what the retirement age is in the novel business.  The day you die.”  In the event, Kawabata died in 1972, an apparent suicide, although the exact circumstances were not determined.

 “It was a stern night landscape. The sound of the freezing of snow over the land seemed to roar deep into the earth. There was no moon. The stars, almost too many of them to be true, came forward so brightly that it was as if they were falling with the swiftness of the void. As the stars came nearer, the sky retreated deeper and deeper into the night colour. The layers of the Border Range, indistinguishable one from another, cast their heaviness at the skirt of the starry sky in a blackness grave and somber enough to communicate their mass. The whole of the night scene came together in a clear, tranquil harmony.”  - excerpt from Snow Country (1956) 

At some point during the winter the blue pond freezes over.  Above the pond Sirius appears to the naked eye as the brightest star in the night sky but it is composed of two stars, a circle of light.  Like Kawabata or the British poet Don Patterson in "Phantom IV" we bring to our contemplations "nerve and hand and eye." 

Images: Kent Shiraishi, photographer,  National Geographic Society, Washington, D.C.
1. Blue pond in winter.
2. Blue pond at first snow.
3. The blue pond and Sirius.