Socialist recreation? Amateur film and photography in the People’s Republic of Poland and East Germany

This piece was published in a book which is very difficult to find, so I have posted my contribution below.


In Krzysztof Kieślowski’s first feature film ‘Amator’ (‘Camera Buff’, 1979), the central character Filip Mosz, a factory worker in a small Polish town, picks up his first 8mm camera to record the birth of his daughter. He soon becomes hooked on film. With the hesitant support of the director of the state factory in which he works, he establishes a film club. Bolstered by his successes in film competitions and encouraged by the attention of the cultural élite in the capital, Mosz begins to make bold documentaries which allude to the cronyism and corruption that operates in the factory-town. Released at the time of the birth of the Solidarity/Solidarność Trade Union and before other critical commentaries on events of the day such as Andrzej Wajda’s documentary ‘Robotnicy 80’, ‘Amator’ reflects on the effects of Real Existing Socialism on Polish society. However, Kieślowski refused to offer a simple political-moral fable. When the film was released, the director was criticized by the anti-communist opposition for his interest in doubt:[i] the culture of dissent in late communist Poland demanded greater moral and political certainty on the part of artists. When the chief character, Mosz is forced to confront the effects of his films, he comes to recognize the complex moral economy in which even party functionaries like the factory director operate. His film has not simply recorded the world: it has changed it.

In selecting this theme for his first feature film, Kieślowski picked the most ordinary subject in the most ordinary of settings. Amateur photography and film-making had become a well-established feature of life in the People’s Republic of Poland and elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc in the 1950s. Workers were encouraged to establish amateur photography and film clubs in their factories and offices, as well as in the widespread network of houses of culture. The benefits of membership were many: expensive equipment, such as enlargers for printing photographs, were owned in common, whilst the club offered the promise of obtaining film and other consumables in short supply. Technical knowledge was offered to members as well as opportunities to participate in local and national exhibitions. In his 1978 book offering guidance to those wishing to establish an amateur photography club in Poland, Ryszard Keyser listed 87 such groups, many located in the kinds of small town that provided the backdrop for ‘Amator’.[ii] Located in cultural centers and factories, Polish clubs were supported by publications like the monthly Fotoamator (a supplement to the leading title, Fotografia), national competitions and exhibitions organized by the Federacji Amatorskich Klubów Filmowych (Federation of Amateur Film Clubs) and the Federacji Amatorskich Stowarzyszeń Fotograficznych (Federation of Amateur Photography Societies). The latter was a self-consciously proletarian organization which had been established in 1948 in competition with the art-minded Polski Zwiążek Artystów Fotografów (Polish Union of Art Photographers). These new organizations enjoyed places at the table of government agencies such as the Centralna Poradnia Amatorskiego Ruchu Artystycznego (Central Council of the Amateur Artistic Movement) which were organized to promote amateurism. Amateur photography and film were also plugged into an international network which connected Poland, the GDR and Czechoslovakia in ways that seemed to uphold the mythical fraternity of socialist nations. Warsaw in August 1955 was, for instance, host to a heavily promoted and widely reported international meeting of amateur photographers from West and East Europe as well as the Far East.[iii] Like a cog on a wheel in vast machine, the individual worker photographer was encouraged to feel international and socialist fraternity with his or her fellow enthusiasts abroad.

The regulated setting of the house of culture or the factory club distinguished ‘worker photography’ as its strongest champions preferred to call organized amateur photography, from the self-indulgent practice of the hobby. In this spirit, German journalist and apparatchik Gerhard Henninger wrote:

Under our new social conditions, photography, for the first time, completely serves to communicate and propagate the great humanist ideas of peace, of friendship among the peoples, and of human happiness. The direct consequence for the practice of our amateur groups is to enhance the amateur’s responsibility for the meaning and effect of his images. The less the amateur takes photographs just for himself, the more he takes photographs to communicate his thoughts, feelings and opinions, his experiences and perceptions, the more he lets others participate in them and generates similar thoughts and sensations. The stronger and faster that his creations grow out of the private and individual sphere, the stronger and faster his artistic effort and lay-artistic practice will become socially effective.[iv]

Amateur photographers were encouraged to produce images which not only met with the socialist realist aesthetic precepts which had been imposed on all forms of art in Eastern Europe in the late 1940s, they were asked to train their lens on ‘progressive’ themes.[v]

Fotografia, September 1955, with a cover photograph by Edmund Zdanowski.

In Poland, mass circulation magazines such as Świat (World), a photo-journal based on the format of the American title Life, held competitions inviting readers to send in their own photographs and to vote for others not just in terms of aesthetic quality but also ideological merit.[vi] In East Germany, commentators objected to the aestheticism of ‘serious’ amateur photography (‘the laundry line motifs, the cobblestone motifs, etc.’) and stipulated socially and politically engaged themes: in 1960 Henninger demanded that the worker photographer pay attention to ‘his own practice within production, his life in the brigade, within the family, his holidays, his recreation, his sports.’[vii]

Locked into the officially-sanctioned infrastructure of amateur culture practiced within the houses of culture and subject to a clear aesthetic creed, it should be clear how amateur photography and film can be understood as a sovietized field. But what were the ideological and historical roots of this phenomenon, and were they to be found in Soviet Russia? Moreover, did sovietization necessarily mean control? And what of the photographs taken and films made by these amateur groups and individuals? Do they too represent sovietization? Might their images – like those made by Filip Mosz, Kieślowski’s everyman hero – upset the world which licensed their production? This essay sets out to answer these questions by focusing largely on the case of Poland, where amateur films and photographs produced during the socialist era have been collected and exhibited in recent years.[viii]

The Problem and the Promise of Leisure

The answers to these questions are not to be found in approaching amateur photographs and films as art or propaganda, but as products of official strategies to manage ‘free time’. Leisure constituted a problem both for Party ideologues and for official sociology. In its sanctified form, leisure was closely related to the promise of a communist future, a world just over the horizon, free of drudgery and alienation. In an oft-cited passage in Das Kapital, Marx described this as the ‘realm of freedom’:

The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases … Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature.[ix]

If leisure, as ‘the realm of freedom’, was the promise of the future, it was also a problem in the present. Holidays and days of rest were guaranteed in law: in Poland, they were promised in the 1952 Constitution and extended in the form of the two-day weekend in the early 1970s; whilst East Germans enjoyed a statutory five-day week from September 1967.[x] But free time risked encouraging sloth or, worse, appeared to endorse a calendar of religious observance. Moreover, the image of extravagant leisure was a central feature in the ideological armory of the state, particularly during the Stalin years. The worth and standing of the citizen was closely related to his or her productivity: conversely, the idle enjoyed their leisure at the expense of the majority, as numerous caricatural images of Western ‘rentier’ capitalists and anti-social loafers testified. In the binary fashion characteristic of the period, private, wasteful leisure was invariably pitched against public, virtuous labor. Asceticism was, for instance, a marked feature of both the rhetoric and, in some instance, the lifestyles of prominent communists throughout the Bloc until the late 1960s.[xi]

Production was valorized for ideological reasons as well as for pragmatic ones, not least because industrialization was claimed as the engine of the socialist transformation of consciousness. Work in the factory or the collective farm not only made a better future, it made better minds. In contrast to the capitalist West where leisure and labor were polarized – one seen as a reward for the other – the challenge facing Party ideologues was to make leisure more like production: collective, transformative and progressive. If production, freed of the damaging effects of alienation, was capable of becoming creative, then leisure could be properly productive. This was, for instance, signaled by the widespread promotion of new leafy ‘parks of culture and rest’ decorated with open-air theatres, leafy avenues and classical statuary in various Eastern European cities including Wrocław and Bratislava in the 1950s. These new sites of leisure followed a Soviet model established in Gorky Park in Moscow in 1928. The worker was to be reinvigorated by the experience of visiting the park, ready for the great challenges in the workplace and ultimately of building socialism. In this way, the park was to be an extension of ‘the red corner’, the zone allocated to intellectual improvement in the work-place where the worker could access sanctioned culture and political thought. Even at home, the worker was to concentrate on building socialism. Of the new homes being built in Warsaw in the early 1950s, for instance, one commentator wrote:

The new, bright and comfortable flats are not only a place of rest for the working man. They are also a place where one can work on self-improvement, a place where one may work out many of the ideas about efficiency that present themselves in the course of professional work.[xii]

This conception of productive leisure has roots in the nineteenth century notion of ‘Rational Recreation’. As numerous historians have demonstrated, working class leisure underwent a radical transformation in the major urban centers of Western Europe during the course of the century.[xiii] Rowdy, ludic and sometimes brutal forms of recreation were replaced by ‘rational’ pastimes. Disciplined, morally-improving and segregated forms of recreation such as visiting public museums and playing organized sport were promoted by the state, whilst, at the same time, traditional pleasures were heavily regulated through the mechanism of the law. Not only were such measures – often laced with a heavy dose of middle class, Christian morality – viewed as the means of the self-improvement of the individual, they were also claimed to bring benefits to the whole of society. Healthy bodies, improved by sport, were more efficient; and regularized holidays ensured that the ‘tempo’ of industry could be maintained and regulated. The conclusion of this new enlightenment was, of course, sinister: disciplined, sober and fit bodies would be best able to serve the nation on the battlefield.

Recast in a sovietized context, ‘rational recreation’ was accompanied by strong claims on the untapped potential of the working classes for self-development. This is what distinguished socialist leisure from the alienated forms of ‘amusement’ which prevailed in capitalism. Famously, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1947) have characterized capitalist leisure as the eviscerated double of capitalist industry:

Amusement under late capitalism is the prolongation of work. It is sought after as an escape from the mechanised work process, and to recruit strength in order to be able to cope with it again. But, at the same time, mechanisation has such power over a man’s leisure and happiness, and so profoundly determines the manufacture of amusement goods, that his experiences are inevitably after-images of the work process itself. The ostensible content is merely a faded foreground; what sinks in is the automatic succession of standardised operations. What happens at work, in the factory, or in the office can only be escaped from by approximation to it in one’s leisure time. All amusement suffers from this incurable malady.[xiv]

Adorno and Horkheimer’s Frankfurt School colleague, Walter Benjamin, provided a contrasting image of the unalienated Soviet worker in his 1934 lecture ‘Der Autor als Produzent’. Benjamin mythologized common readers who picked up the pen and the camera to contribute material to the post-Revolutionary press:

we see that the vast melting-down process … not only destroys the conventional separation between genres, between writer and poet, scholar and popularizer, but that it questions even the separation between author and reader.[xv]

In becoming producers of culture, the new Soviet man and woman would, he argued, become conscious of the forces of progress in the world. Here was a properly Marxist response to the alienating effects of industrialized culture and a challenge to the prevailing conception of the ‘creative personality’ which, in Benjamin’s words, had long been ‘a myth and a fake’.

The programme of ‘cultural enlightenment’ which was promoted in the Soviet Union was already far more didactic and centralized than Benjamin knew or was prepared to admit. As Anne White has charted, the policy of cultural enlightenment can be traced at least to 1930 when the Council of People’s Commissars launched a building programme of educational clubs.[xvi] Stalin’s programme of collectivization was to be accompanied by an infrastructure of new worker’s clubs and houses of culture, staffed with professional cultural workers who sought to shape the political consciousness of the working classes through education and the arts. In her words, ‘the purpose [of the programme] was to use adult education and collective amateur arts to mobilize the population to industrialize and fight the war’.[xvii] The spread of houses of culture, rural reading rooms and factory educational clubs throughout Eastern Europe which followed the Second World War was the imperial face of this programme. Houses of culture and workplace clubs promoted not only culture (understood in the highly conventional terms associated with the official aesthetic doctrine of Socialist Realism), but also sought to inculcate positive attitudes to the Soviet Union in the new satellites. Czesław Miłosz, in The Captive Mind (1953), wrote about the new programme of cultural enlightenment in Poland in the darkest terms:

We should … call attention to a new institution, the ‘club’ whose significance is comparable to that of the chapel in the middle ages. It exists in every factory, every school, every office. On its walls hang portraits of party leaders draped with red bunting. Every few days, meetings following pre-arranged agendas take place, meetings that are as potent as religious rites. … People who attend a ‘club’ submit to a collective rhythm, and so come to feel that it is absurd to think different from the collective … as these individuals pronounce the ritual phrases and sing the ritual songs, they create a collective aura to which they in turn surrender. Despite its apparent appeal to reason, the “club’s” activity comes under the heading of collective magic.[xviii]

Visitors to the houses of culture were not simply audiences for indoctrination. They were encouraged to become producers of culture too. A high ideological premium was placed throughout the Bloc on amateur cultural activity of various kinds. At the beginning of the new system, much state-support was given to promoting vernacular culture, particularly in the fields of the crafts, dance and theatre. The ideological roots of this support can, it seems, be traced to a fetish made of particular and historically specific constructions of ‘authentic’ working class culture. Established artistic culture – the ‘output’ of the gallery and the salon – was often viewed with suspicion, tainted by dint of its élitist associations. By contrast, any form of culture which could be linked to working class or peasant roots was ideologically valuable to the Stalinist regimes. Cultural forms which appeared to emerge from the collective genius of ‘the people’ and were made without the profit impulse, were celebrated as being instinctively ‘correct’. In 1949, ideologue and Minister of Culture, Włodzimierz Sokorski, characterized the forms and themes of amateur and folk culture as a reflex of progress.[xix] Ten years later the East German authorities took a more self-consciously proletarian stance. In April 1959 Walter Ulbricht launched the Bitterfeld Weg (Bitterfeld Path), a movement to produce a new generation of worker writers and artists. Under this lead, professional writers were encouraged to go into factories to learn about the industrial production at first hand. These encounters would, it was claimed, take the intelligentsia back to first principles and thus overcome the separation of art and life.[xx]

Following Stalin’s death, the propaganda function of the houses of culture and worker’s clubs was the subject of sharp criticism, particularly in Poland and Hungary. Yet amateurism continued and was even, as White has argued, re-invigorated by the Thaw.[xxi] Whilst the chief symbols of amateurism in the Bloc during the Stalin years had been ‘traditional’ peasant dance and song, new and unmistakably modern forms of expression – such as photography and film – came to enjoy its protective marque. Associations promoting stamp-collecting, gardening and dress-making and other hobbies enjoyed positions in the cultural infrastructure and, as such, were able to draw on the resources of the state. Moreover, the rise in hobbies – many characterized by fetishistic relations with things – paralleled the growing consumerism that was encouraged by the post-Stalinist authorities.[xxii] Whilst some commentators took a hard line on what they saw as the ideological impoverishment of socialist culture by the rise of hobbies, others continued to press the case for amateurism. This was an echo of a larger debate about alienation unleashed by the Thaw.[xxiii] Reform-minded intellectuals within the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza (Polish United Workers’ Party) such as Leszek Kołakowski proposed a ‘Marxist Humanism’ to reconcile their commitment to Soviet socialism with new intellectual currents like phenomenology and existentialism.[xxiv] In this context, individual pleasure and creativity were reclaimed and adopted in sharp critiques of Stalinism by the left-wing intelligentsia. Much of the criticism vented during these years was often from a broadly Marxist perspective – albeit one which drew much from the ‘young’ Marx – stressing humanistic, democratic values. Even when the intellectual freedoms of the Thaw were withdrawn by the state in the late 1950s, the ‘battle against alienation’ (‘walka z alienacja’) remained a legitimate intelligentsia preoccupation. Official sociology, for instance, sometimes took a critical line on the malign effects of industrial culture in Poland. In this context, amateur photography continued to have its ‘socialist’ uses. In the late 1960s, Polish sociologist Wiesław Stradomski argued:

Along with advancements in specialisation, one of the characteristics of the industrial organisation of production is that the humanistic essence of labour declines, as it is split into minute operations performed by a skilled workforce, who may never see the final product of their common efforts. Their respective jobs require of them neither knowledge nor creativity. The level of responsibility drops down to a minimum … And here lie the roots and the reasons for the development of amateur film-making, an activity, which at the very core lays a completely creative as well as reproductive act, without the intention of a direct financial gain.[xxv]

Here, it was not only amateurism’s eschewal of profit which lent it its socialist credentials, it was also given a key role in staving off the alienating effects of modernity, even in the superior conditions of socialism.

Promoting Amateur Photography in Poland and East Germany

Cover of Fotografie, January 1958, with a photograph entitled ‘Blast Furnace Worker’ by Erich Angenendt.

It is important to note that, within the general patterns of socialist recreation unfolding across the Bloc in the 1950s and 1960s, there were national differences. The characteristics that describe the Polish case are not necessarily shared elsewhere. The distinct interests shaping worker photography in East Germany and Poland provides a clearest illustration of this fact. In East Germany, the chief specialist magazine serving amateur photographers was Fotografie. It was first issued in 1947 by Wilhelm Knapp Verlag, a publisher with a long and venerable tradition of publishing specialist photographic literature. Despite its location in Halle, this title had a relatively pan-German character throughout the 1950s as did many of the amateur photography competitions before 1961.[xxvi] Fotografie’s status as the leading East German title was underlined by the fact that Fotografik, a rival title which eschewed ‘rigid, limiting rules’ in the name of creativity, survived less than a year, closing in May 1958. It was a still-born product of the East German authorities’ failure to grasp the reforms launched by Khrushchev.[xxvii] In fact, Fotografie underwent an ideological ‘renewal’ in the late 1950s, becoming a vocal supporter of the Bitterfeld Weg. In serving the interests of both amateur and professional photographers, Fotografie illustrated a loudly-endorsed social ideal of the movement, that of eradicating the difference between amateur and artist.[xxviii] In 1960, Gerhard Henninger wrote ‘the smaller the principle difference between the practice (of the amateur) and that of the advanced photo-artist, the more we begin to bridge the seemingly unsurpassable gap between both, despite their different levels’.[xxix] ‘Already today,’ he continued, ‘the worker and co-operative farmer who take photographs stand next to the writing, painting, singing and music-making worker.’

Despite the fact that amateur photography was claimed by its writers as a living demonstration of the achievements of socialist culture, the magazine viewed its function in disciplinary terms. Articles regularly promoted the official doctrine of Socialist Realism and amateur photographic clubs were admonished for limiting their discussions to technical matters and for failing to address ‘ideological, aesthetic and political questions’. When Western photographs appeared on its pages, they were often used to represent decadence: in 1962, for instance, a nude study by celebrated British photographer Bill Brandt, in which the distorted figure was arranged as ‘material’ on a beach, was used to illustrate an article entitled ‘Western Photography at the Dead End of Late Bourgeois Philosophy’.[xxx] By sharp contrast, the kind of critical views of the fragmented bourgeois world afforded by photo-montage were a legitimate form of ‘volkskunst’ with a politically-correct history supplied by the communist artist John Heartfield, who had returned to East Germany from exile in 1950.[xxxi] West German photographic magazines were particularly targeted for attack, particularly after the erection of the Berlin Wall or what Ulbrich called his ‘anti-fascist protection wall’ in August 1961. In December 1962, for instance, Otto Croy, the editor of the Munich-based FOTO-Magazin, was the subject of a long and aggressive character assassination.[xxxii] Fotographie’s writer set out to represent Croy as a supporter of the Third Reich and a war-mongerer, comparing his apparent enthusiasm for images of war technology during the Second World War with his contemporary interests.

Like all publications, the magazine was subject to censorship: all images that appeared on its pages were approved by the Zentrale Kommission Fotografie (Central Commission for Photography) which had been established in May 1958.[xxxiii] After the erection of the Berlin Wall, security became a pronounced issue. Fotografie’s readers were presented with a long list of prohibited subjects with the following justification: ‘enemies of our social development use photography to spy and gain information … Prohibitions and restrictions are necessary to impede … the enemies of our republic’.[xxxiv] Whilst some of the prohibited spheres of photographic activity were clearly determined by Cold War political considerations (aerial and industrial photography for instance) others sought to guarantee the rights of the photographer. A 1962 article on ‘unlawful photography’ stated with remarkable directness that ‘Under no circumstances should a prohibition of photography be used to protect the commercial interests of a private … photographer’.[xxxv] Fotografie’s ideological ‘highpoint’ was only achieved in the mid-1960s – at the time of the Eleventh Plenum of the Central Community of the Socialist Unity Party in December 1965. This meeting of the leading members of the Party had been planned as a fanfare for the ‘second stage’ of the New Economic System. However, the event took on a hysterical tone when the Party leadership used the platform to launch a savage attack on several artists and their work. With culture now clearly marked out as a battleground by the Party, the magazine’s writers made strident demands for tendentious photographic practice and aggressive criticism of ‘bourgeois’ tendencies in photography.

To bolster its political bona fides, Fotografie presented amateur photography as a revival the radicalism of the Weimar era when communist activists had organized groups of worker-photographers. They had taken their cameras into the streets, housing districts and factories to record their struggles with brown-shirted fascists and rapacious landlords. Their images had been reproduced in a specialist magazine, Der Arbeiter Fotograf.[xxxvi] Writing of this generation in 1960, Wolfgang Hütt wrote: ‘Those few who are still alive do not make a big fuss about their work and their struggles. This is actually regrettable, for how much could they teach us!’[xxxvii] He wrote this sentence following a call issued by the Sozialistische Partei Deutschlands to ‘make use of the wealth of revolutionary tradition from the workers movement [of the 1920s] in developing an interesting socialist cultural life’.[xxxviii] Worker photography’s connections with anti-fascist struggles in the 1920s were, it seems, more important than its Soviet ‘heritage’. Whilst amateur photography had been encouraged in the Soviet Union during the 1930s with hand-held FED cameras (copies of the Leica named after Felix Dzerzhinsky) available through loan schemes,[xxxix] Benjamin’s optimism for the wholesale reorganization of the relations of media consumption and production in Soviet Russia, described above, had been excessive. The Soviet camera industry had largely supplied the export market in the 1930s. Very few cameras found their way into ordinary hands. In fact, according to Elena Barkhatova, the first photography club in the Soviet Union was not established until 1953 under the auspices of the Vyborg Palace of Culture in Leningrad.[xl] This was followed by the slow growth of the phenomenon throughout the Soviet Union during the Thaw years. By contrast, amateur photography was relatively well established in the Eastern Bloc in the late 1940s as both the East German and Polish cases demonstrate. The fact that it was institutionalized more rapidly and extensively in the satellite states than in the Soviet heartland should not necessarily be viewed as a symptom of local fanaticism, but a reflection of the fact that the transition to state socialism in the late 1940s was a shift from one order of modernity to another. The fact that the camera – the paradigmatic instrument of modernity for Benjamin – existed in Eastern Europe in large numbers was, in part, a legacy of capitalism. The practice and material infrastructure of popular photography had been embedded there in the 1920s with, for instance, American commercial interests such as Kodak and German manufacturers competing for the market for small cameras.[xli] The establishment of a network of amateur photography clubs in the late 1940s should be seen, in part, as an attempt to manage the cultural and material legacy of the inter-war years. Sovietization, in this case, was not a simple importation of Soviet practices. In fact, a reverse trajectory can be charted in the traffic in objects and in ideas: entire camera factories were, for instance, transported from Jena and Dresden as war reparations in the 1940s; and twenty years later, the exhibition of photographs from the satellite states of Central Europe at the heart of empire stimulated Soviet interest in social documentary and photo-journalism, practices which eschewed the inexorable optimism of Socialist Realism.[xlii]

Fotoamator, ‘a supplement to the monthly Fotografia’, October 1965, with a cover photogram by Zbigniew Korbel.

In contrast to Fotografie, the leading Polish title of the period, Fotografia, eschewed the function of regulator performed by the German title. After the Thaw of the mid 1950s, the magazine’s editor abandoned the high ideological tone of the Stalin years. Categories like ‘Socialist Realism’ or ‘bourgeois photography’ disappeared from its pages in favor of once controversial subjects such as abstract photography and the ‘new vision’ of the Soviet avant-garde of the 1920s, as well as extensive coverage of technical matters. This lowering of the ideological temperature should not be seen as de-politization. In fact, the magazine can be associated with the interests of a loosely organized group of well-connected Warsaw intellectuals, many of whom were party members. Fotografia was staffed by writers and an editor who were associated with the Klub Krzywego Koła (Crooked Circle Club) which was formed in Warsaw in 1955. This debating club was the intellectual motor of the Thaw; a machine which produced and circulated ideas during the turbulent years of the mid-1950s. Located in the Dom Kultury in the Old Town, it shared space and energy with a jazz club and a gallery showing modern art, both of which were fields of culture that had been under prohibition during the Stalin years. The editor of Fotografia, painter Zbigniew Dłubak, was the director of the Krzywe Koło Gallery, whilst one of the magazine’s chief writers, Juliusz Garztecki, had initiated the Klub by hosting its first discussions in his home.[xliii]

The Klub Krzywego Koła was closed down in February 1962 in the period known as the ‘mała stabilizacja’ (‘minor stabilization’) when the Polish state sought to reign in the intellectual freedoms claimed during the Thaw.[xliv] As journalists, educators, curators, film-makers and artists, the associates of the Klub Krzywego Koła continued to enjoy access to the public media after the club itself had closed. Magazines like Fotografia can be seen as a continuation of Klub Krzywego Koła pre-occupations. In this light, three consistent themes addressed on its pages in the 1960s can be understood as mirroring the interests of the editor, Dłubak, and his intellectual milieu rather than those of the Party under Gomułka. Firstly, like many such titles around the world in the period, Fotografia promoted the role of the photographer as photo-journalist, recording and commenting on the injustice. For instance, ‘dziennikarz’ (journalist) Marek Holzman’s gritty images were regularly reproduced with glowing comments about his investigative approach to society.[xlv] Secondly, the magazine’s fascination with the avant-garde of the 1920s – particularly in its Soviet and Weimar varieties – was essentially autobiographical: it reflected a desire to ‘reclaim’ avant-gardism – in the sense of both aesthetic innovation and social function – as the territory of the artist and not the state.[xlvi] (Or, as Dłubak put it at the height of the Thaw, ‘the battle against …. the status quo is the obligation of every artist’[xlvii]). Thirdly, the magazine’s interest in amateur photography – whether in the form of the sanctioned practice emanating from factory clubs or the snapshot – represented a fascination with the potential of the lens and the untrained eye to record the world in unpredictable ways. The official imprimatur of ‘amateur’ legitimated what might otherwise be understood as an illicit interest in strangeness. In 1963, for instance, ‘the unusual amateur’, Janusz Krippendorf was singled out for special attention.[xlviii]Anonymous behind his Werra IV camera, Krippendorf trained his lens on the scatological graffiti of the city or on life in the countryside, capturing forms of everyday surrealism. His candid images recorded the broken pots and pans in the hands of children or the odd tenderness of peasant farmers cutting each other’s hair. Focusing on the detritus and mundane rituals of everyday life, Krippendorf’s photographs disturbed photography’s mission of uplifting realism.

Untitled photograph by Janusz Krippendorf published in Fotografia, November 1963.

Independent and apparently unschooled, it was precisely the unaligned aspect of his practice that appealed to this magazine’s editors and the Warsaw galleries which showed his work. In writing about the strange effects and fantasy of these photographs, Fotografia’s writers echoed the interest of Weimar intellectuals such as Benjamin in the ‘spur’ (the trace) as something hidden in the middle of the unremarkable contours of everyday life.

The fact that the East German and Polish magazines – which occupied the same position in the official cultural hierarchy – could come to hold such different views of amateur photography reveals much about the relationships of the intelligentsia and the state in each country. The Polish art world was gradually released from its ideological obligations over the course of the 1960s, whereas, in the GDR, this pattern reversed.[xlix] Sovietization – viewed in this light – was hardly as uniform or as choreographed as some commentators have suggested. One should not, however, confuse amateur photography and film-making as represented on the pages of magazines with their practice. This is the final theme to which I will turn.

The View Through the Lens

The worker photographer and the amateur film-maker may have been licensed by the state and may have used the resources made available, albeit with notorious irregularity, by the command economy. But this does not make the images that they produced ‘official’. There is, for instance, relatively little evidence that the disciplinary discourses of Socialist Realism promoted in the popular press in the early 1950s were followed by any of the enthusiastic amateur photographers and film-makers. In fact, what evidence that does exist – in the form of the photographs themselves – suggests a far more ordinary set of uses for the camera. Lenses were trained on friends and families as well as on monuments and landscapes. Reflecting on the practice of amateur photography in the Soviet Union during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev years, Ekaterina Degot has argued that the state inadvertently encouraged the production of private images:

… taking photographs on city streets without the requisite journalist’s identification was a risky business that could result in arrest … The authorities were concerned about unauthorised reproduction (especially in the foreign press). … As a result, amateur photography in the USSR, especially in post-war times, was actively channeled to ‘parks of leisure and culture’ and the home – areas of intimate life in which there was no (or little) need for multiple reproductions. Thus, the Soviet authorities unknowingly stimulated erotic photography … Photography in the private sphere was ordinarily unartistic.[l]

However, Degot refuses to see all such ‘private’ images as a reflex of authority or an effect of alienation:

‘Life under Soviet post-war socialism was so centred on cheap self-expression – gardening, knitting, poetry writing, and photography – that, even among personal, anonymous photographs of the Soviet era, one comes across impressive artefacts focused on exalted symbols of the private: sex, eroticism, friendship, intimacy.’[li]

From this perspective, some amateur photographs can be seen not only as an escape or a withdrawal from the ideological imperatives on ‘correct’ behavior, ‘correct’ imagery, ‘correct’ attitudes, they might also be understood as what James C. Scott has described as ‘hidden transcripts’, i.e., the concealed or disguised expression of anger, frustration or self-assertion by subordinate groups in the face of power. There is, in Scott’s words, an important wish-fulfillment component in the ‘hidden transcript’.[lii] Frustrated by their inability to contest authority openly, the ruled produce hidden transcripts which represent ‘an acting out in fantasy’. An instance of this can be found in a small format black and white snapshot taken by a member of a Warsaw Photographic Club in 1952. It records three young people marching, in a fashion, as members of a sports club through the centre of the city. The caption, hand-written in ink on the back of the photo, indicates that they were recorded, apprehended taking part in a public demonstration to open a new section of the Polish capital, Constitution Square on 22nd July, a great state festivity on a symbolic day in the socialist calendar. The stiff jaw depicted on their banner is that of Bolesław Bierut, a member of the Central Committee of the Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza and the President of the People’s Republic. The manner of these marchers is conspicuous. The seemingly happy and informal way in which they make their way through the city and their casual style, seems at odds with the banner’s sombre jaw. The young man’s dark sunglasses stand out. Known as ‘mekarturki’ after General Douglas MacArthur, these inky lenses were a familiar symbol in the caricatural iconography of the Cold War. This young man’s crest of hair is fashionably heaped above his forehead in a shape that was colloquially known as a ‘mandolin’. His style was constituted by signifiers of sartorial dissidence, interpreted in party discourse as badges of allegiance to the popular culture of the West. Gesture, pose and dress combine in this photograph as a record of fantasy within an event which might otherwise only be understood in the narrow terms of ideological inscription.[liii]

This particular photograph could be the platform for a discussion of performativity in the subversive sense outlined by Judith Butler.[liv] But what is more important here is the fact that it demonstrates the highly unstable and ambiguous system of signification in the snapshot. In the snapshot, we have a massive archive of dreams, poses, social relations – material though which ordinary citizens projected themselves into the world. In these countless frozen moments, ordinary people, usually spoken for (by the state or, later, by the opposition) speak. This material is evidently seared with emotion and meaning, yet the problem is how to access it. After all, who or what was this photographer attempting to capture and memorialize in this photograph? Perhaps a psycho-analytical key might open up the photographic archive; one suggested by Benjamin, albeit – this time – in his more surrealist mood. Photography is, he famously noted, an ‘optical unconscious’ which offers to the waking mind a reality that would otherwise remain hidden: ‘the camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.’[lv] However, this line of argument leads to a conception of photography which stresses the involuntary register of the image. The private production and consumption of private images is a kind of cul-de-sac for the historian. It is only when private images are projected into the public realm – i.e., when they are projected, exhibited or analyzed on the pages of magazines like Fotografia – that they become susceptible to interpretation.

It is precisely the relationship of amateur film-making and photography to publicity which makes them significant. Their products were not what Scott called ‘hidden transcripts’, i.e., the expression of ‘a sharply dissonant political culture’ outside ‘the intimidating gaze of power’.[lvi] The support and resources that these clubs enjoyed meant that they operated within the sight-lines of authority. Yet, as Jerzy Jernas from the AWA film club in Poznań put it:

We were not forced to do anything, we only occasionally had to make a “congratulatory scroll” to celebrate the factory’s anniversary, something similar to a commercial nowadays. This was taken for granted and in no way interfered with the making of our own films. We didn’t identify with those commissioned jobs, but, at the same time, we were aware that film can serve as propaganda. We wanted to talk about our own lives and our own worlds, which didn’t resemble what was shown by the official city or factory newsreels.[lvii]

Amateur image-makers benefited from the relative indifference of the state, at least in the relatively liberal conditions of Poland in the 1960s and 1970s. Largely overlooked and valued largely to illustrate the rhetorical claims of the hegemony of the working classes, these image-makers enjoyed greater freedom of expression than their better-known and more illustrious professional counterparts. A film commissioned to record the achievements of a particular factory could become a wily commentary on working conditions or bureaucracy, and a record of official rituals could map injustice. Describing the first film made by the Radok film club in Rawicz, founded in 1964, Stefan Skrzypek recalls:

I insisted on calling it a newsreel (kronika filmowa). We were filming during Maydays and the 22nd of July celebrations. We would usually film a report that we were asked for but there was always a lot of 8mm footage left over. One day, we started looking through it, and began editing it together … It was a documentary about a Mayday parade but shown, so to speak, through the back door. There were shots that could never have been included in the official version. The film was simply made in conspiracy, while many years later it was presented on television…[lviii]

Seizing the means to ‘talk about their own lives’ with their own bodies, homes, workplaces and possessions, and operating in the liminal space between public culture and private life, some amateur film-makers produced exceptional images. ‘Impreza’ (Party), a 1972 film directed by Franciszek Dzida from the Klaps club attached to the sugar factory where he worked in Chybie, represents the slow drunken drift of a private party into a dreamy sexual encounter. Similarly, ‘Nieporozumienie’ (Misunderstanding) of 1978, a film made by Piotr Majdrowicz in Poznań, explored unrequited homosexual desire, a theme which barely surfaced anywhere in Polish culture at the time. Neither film can be seen as an instinctive expression of fantasy, but rather as a commentary on it within the peculiar conditions of the People’s Republic of Poland, a land policed by the Party and the Roman Catholic Church. In Dzida’s words, ‘I would like to emphasise that this place, this club, thanks to celluloid film, was a place where another world ruled … it was a magical place.’[lix]

In turning ordinary homes and streets into sets, workers into actors, dreams into celluloid, some amateur film-makers in Poland appear to have escaped the gravitational pull of convention and ideology. Benjamin had once imagined that workers with cameras would be able to overcome the alienation of capitalist modernity: in the People’s Republic of Poland, it seems, workers turned to the camera to escape the alienating effects of socialist modernity and morality. Leisure taken in this way might not necessarily be seen as a privatized cosmos of involution or withdrawal. Moreover, its traces – viewed as articulations of fantasy – might well be read by the historian as the expression of dreams, desires and attitudes which are not recorded elsewhere. Far from being minor materials, these transcripts of leisure may well reveal much about the ordinary experience of, and attitudes to, Soviet-style socialism.

[i] ‘“Camera Buff”, [in] trying to avoid being Manichean, showed, for example, the reasoning of the people representing the Communist authorities in a more ambiguous and complex light than other films such as “Man of Marble” or Zanussi’s films. Friends started calling him “The balladeer of communist tears”. I think that Krzysztof pursed what he inwardly felt to be the truth or a way to the truth. But he was very sensitive to the fact that many people, some of them close friends, thought he had rather overstepped the limits.’

Agnieszka Holland interviewed in 2003 for the Artificial Eye DVD edition of ‘Camera Buff’ (2003). See, also, Annette Insdorf, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski, (New York, 2000).

[ii] Ryszard Kreyser, Amatorski Klub Fotograficzny, (Warsaw, 1978), at 99-106.

[iii] Anon., ‘Międzynarodowe spotkanie fotoamatorów’, in: Fotografia (August 1955), at 12-13.

[iv] Gerhard Henninger, ‘Weg und Ziel der Amateurfotografie in Der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik’, in: Fotografie 8 (1960), at 292.

[v] Alfred Ligocki, ‘O realizme socjalistycznym w fotografie’, in: Fotografia (August 1953), at 2-3 continued in Fotografia (September 1953), at 2-4.

[vi] Świat, 200 (22 May 1955), at 24.

[vii] Henninger (1960), op cit.

[viii] The thoughts in this essay were stimulated by seeing Entuzjaści z Amatorskich Klubów Filmowych, a remarkable exhibition/archive of amateur films curated by Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings at the Centrum Sztuki Wśpołczesnej in Warsaw in the summer of 2004. The 300 films collected for this project will form an on-line ‘open’ archive of amateur film. See

[ix] Marx, Capital, III, (London, 1997), at 820.

[x] Article 59 of the Polish Constitution (1952) stated, ‘Every citizen of the Peoples Republic of Poland has the right to rest.’ The first clauses of this article guaranteed worker rights to rest and the second promised a shopping list of organised ‘holidays, the development of tourism, sanatoria, sports associations, houses of culture, świetlice, parks and other forms of organised rest to provide the possibility for healthy and cultural rest for the mass of the urban and rural working classes.’ See Paweł Sowiński, Wakacje w Polsce Ludowej. Polityka władz i ruch turystyczny (1945-1989), (Warsaw, 2005). On leisure in East Germany, see David Childs, East Germany, (London, 1969), at 168.

[xi] Polish leader between 1956 and 1970 Władysław Gomułka acquired a reputation for monkish asceticism. See Eleonora Salwa-Syzdek & Ryszard Strzelecki-Gomułka, Między realizmem a utopią. Władysław Gomułka we wspomnieniach syna, (Warsaw, 2003).

[xii] Świat, (March 1953).

[xiii] See, for instance, Lynn Abrams, Workers’ Culture in Imperial Germany, (London, 1992); Peter Bailey, Leisure and Class in Victorian England: Rational Recreation and the Contest for Control, 1830-1885, (London, 1987).

[xiv] Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (London, 1979), at 137.

[xv] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Author as Producer’, in: Understanding Brecht, (London, 1977), at 90.

[xvi] Anne White, De-Stalinization and the House of Culture: Declining State Control over Leisure in the USSR, Poland and Hungary, 1953-89, (London, 1990), at 35. See, also, Simone Hain & Stephan Stroux, Die Salons der Sozialisten. Kulturhäuser in der DDR, (Berlin, 1996).

[xvii] White, op cit., at 36

[xviii] C. Miłosz, The Captive Mind, [1953], (Harmondsworth, 1980), at 197-8.

[xix] W. Sokorski, ‘O Właściwy stosunek do sztuki ludowej’, Polska Sztuka Ludowa, 5 (1949).

[xx] See David Bathrick, The Powers of Speech. The Politics of Culture in the GDR, (Lincoln, NE, 1995), at 109-128.

[xxi] White, op cit., 49 and 63.

[xxii] For a discussion of consumerism in Gomułka’s Poland, see my ‘Warsaw’s Shops, Stalinism and the Thaw’, in: S.E. Reid & David Crowley (eds.), Style and Socialism. Modernity and Material Culture in Post-war Eastern Europe, (Oxford, 2000), at 25-47.

[xxiii] Paweł Machcewicz ‘Intellectuals and Mass Movements, Ideologies and Political Programs in Poland in 1956’, in: György Péteri, (ed.), Intellectual Life and the First Crisis of State Socialism in East Central Europe, 1953-1956, (Trondheim, 2001), at 127.

[xxiv] See Leszek Kołakowski’s ‘The Priest and the Jester’, in: Twórczość, (1959) reproduced in; Toward a Marxist Humanism, trans. Jane Zielonko Peel (New York, 1969), at 34.

[xxv] W. Stradomski, ‘Rola i znaczenie amatorskiego ruchu filmego w rozwoju kultury’, in: Fotografia (1968) cited by Sebastian Cichocki, in: ‘Czas wolny i czas uwolniony’, in: Marysia Lewandowska & Neil Cummings, (eds.), Entuzjaści z Amatorskich Klubów Filmowych, (Warsaw, 2004), at 82-3.

[xxvi] It should be noted that whilst amateur photography exhibitions in East Germany were open to all Germans in the 1950s, the guidelines issued to participants placed an emphasis on kinds of imagery that would be exhibited. Images were to represent the ‘revolutionary tradition’ or the social conditions were particularly encouraged. See Karl Gernot Kuehn, Caught: the art of photography in the German Democratic Republic, (Berkeley, 1997), at 29

[xxvii] Ibid, 46.

[xxviii] GS, ‘Bildreporter contra Fotoamateur – Fotoamateur contra Bildreporter?’ in: Fotografie 11, (November 1960), at 409-11.

[xxix] Henninger (1960), op cit.

[xxx] Bertold Beiler, ‘Die westliche Fotografie in der Sackgasse der spätbürgerlichen Philosophie’, in: Fotografie, 7 (July 1967), at 243.

[xxxi] Hermann Exner, ‘Fotomontage – eine Volkskunst’ in: Fotografie, 10 (October, 1960), at 372-375 & 404; see, also, Peter H. Feist, ‘Fotografische Entlarvungen’, in: Fotografie, 9 (September 1958), at 329-331 & 349.

[xxxii] G.O.Walter, ‘Otto Croy oder Der Mißbrauch der Fotogragfie’, in: Fotografie, 12 (December 1962), at 424-444.

[xxxiii] Kuehn, op cit., at 57.

[xxxiv] Rudolf Wedler, ‘Fotografierverbote’, in: Die Fotografie, (March 1962), at 82-3 & 96.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] See Edwin Hoernle, ‘The Working Man’s Eye’ in David Mellor, (ed.), Germany, the new photography, 1927-33: documents and essays, (London, 1978), at 47-50.

[xxxvii] Wolfgang Hütt, ‘Fotografie des Proletariats’, in: Fotografie 8, (August 1960), at 290-291. See, also, Wolfgang Hütt, ‘Gedanken zur Problematik einer Bildgeschichte der Fotografie’, in: Fotografie, 5 (May 1960), at 166-68.

[xxxviii] SED announcement made in October 1957 cited by Bathrick, op cit., 110.

[xxxix] See Oscar Fricke, ‘The Dzerhinsky Commune: Birth of the Soviet 35 mm Camera Industry’, in: History of Photography, v. 3, no. 2, (April 1979), at 135-55.

[xl] Elena Barkhatova, ‘Soviet Policy on Photography’ in Diane Neumaier, ed., Beyond Memory: Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-Related Works of Art (New Brunswick, NJ., 2004) 48

[xli] Kodak published its own magazine in Poland in the 1930s, Kodak Mowi (Kodak Speaks).

[xlii] Barkhatova, op cit., 57.

[xliii] Dłubak i Grupa 55, exhibition catalogue, Muzeum Sztuki (Łódż, 2003).

[xliv] See Witold Jedlicki, Klub Krzywego Koła (Paris, 1963).

[xlv] See Juliusz Garztecki, ‘Człowiek z kamera. Marek Holzman czyli Protest’ in Fotografia, 4 (April 1965) 85-6.

[xlvi] See, for instance, Urszula Czartoryska, ‘Sztuka Johna Heartfielda’ in Fotografia, 4 (April 1964) 76-7; Heryk Latoś, ‘Fotoreporterzy wielkiej socjalistycznej rewolucju paźdiernikowej’ in Fotografia, 10 (October 1967) 222-27.

[xlvii] Zbigniew Dłubak, ‘Walka z estetyzmem’ [1956] cited in Dłubak i Grupa 55, exhibition catalogue, Muzeum Sztuki (Łódż, 2003) 40.

[xlviii] Bohdan Łopieński, ‘Niezwykły Amator’ in Fotografia (November 1963) 272-274.

[xlix] For a recent discussion of the position of artists in different Eastern Bloc settings see Piotr Piotrowski, Awangarda w cienu Jałty: Sztuka w Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej w latach 1945-1989 (Poznań, 2005).

[l] Ekaterina Degot ‘The Copy is the Crime. Unofficial Art and the Appropriation of Official Photography’ in Diane Neumaier, ed., Beyond Memory. Soviet Nonconformist Photography and Photo-related Works of Art (New Brunswick, New Jersey, 2004) 113.

[li] Ibid.

[lii] James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, and London, 1992) 38-9.

[liii] On the organization and political signification of such parades see Paweł Sowiński, Komunistyczne świeto. Obchody 1 maja w latach 1948-1954 (Warsaw, 2000).

[liv] See Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: The Discursive Limits of Sex (London, 1993).

[lv] Walter Benjamin ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ in Illuminations (London, 1977) 238-9.

[lvi] Scott, op cit., 18

[lvii] Jerzy Jenas interviewed by Marysia Lewandowska in the publication accompanying the Entuzjaści z Amatorskich Klubów Filmowych exhibition, Centrum Sztuki Wśpołczesnej (Warsaw, 2004) 147.

[lviii] Stefan Skrzypek interviewed by Marysia Lewandowska in the publication accompanying the Entuzjaści z Amatorskich Klubów Filmowych exhibition (Warsaw, 2004) 141.

[lix] Franciszek Dzida interviewed in Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings, Entuzjaści z Amatorskich Klubów Filmowych (Warsaw, 2004) 67


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