From 1921 until 1937, Stefania Gurdowa (1888-1968) ran her own photography studio in Dębica, Poland. In those days, it was by no means self-evident for a woman to practice such a profession or run her own business. The studio was confiscated by the Nazis when they occupied Poland. Stefania Gurdowa continued to work there, now as an employee. In 1942, she was sent to Auschwitz. She survived, and after the war, she decided to make a new start and opened another photography studio. When she died, her apartment was cleared out, and her huge collection of photographs and photographic plates was dumped.
Only a fraction of her early work survives. There remains, however, an unanswered question: why was her collection of glass photographic plates hidden in the wall of her Dębica studio? Was it Stefania Gurdowa’s conscious decision? As a responsible professional, she understood that ‘negatives needed to be stored’….
It is impossible to break away from them. All, without exception, draw the viewer into the chalk or paper circle of fascination. They radiate an aura that, though sensually imperceptible, is beyond doubt real and slightly disturbing. There is something of a hypnotic trance in their impact, one from which it is hard to liberate oneself. Having intensely stared into them, when I return to my other tasks, it seems that I have just been awakened from a very long sleep. I cling insecurely to the real, but these pictures are still strongly inside me. They will not let themselves be forgotten.
Looking at Stefania Gurdowa’s glass negatives, what I primarily feel is joy (for a moment, let us put aside the anxiety). It is a joy that must be the same as that of an archaeologist who unearths precious shards of pottery from ancient times. Yet these few hundred negatives from the years between the two world wars, discovered by chance in an attic in the town of Dębica, is a discovery – at least as I see it – of no lesser measure. A fragment of a life once lived is suddenly returned to existence. It begins, quite unexpectedly, its life after life, as if we were participating in a successful resuscitation (to place the event within the medical discourse) or in the miracle of resurrection (to use the vocabulary of theology). Photographs are nomadic by nature. They continually travel. They move from place to place, from hand to hand. They wear and tear, diminish, wane, break, crumble into dust. They are irrevocably lost. This time – blessed be the coincidence or the miraculous act of faith (it cannot have been historical necessity, or can it?) – made this world, in hibernation for all these years, available for us to view. As I am viewing it, the sense of great privilege, through no merit whatsoever of my own, keeps mingling with some uncertainty, inexplicable, and an internal discomfort.
The glass negatives came from a photographic studio – which provided routine ‘service for the people’ – run by Mrs Gurdowa. Little wonder then that their dominant subject is the portrait. It is curious and noteworthy that in most of these negatives, we see binary arrangements. We do not know the reason for such doubling of persons. Presumably, it did not result from any deliberate plan by the author, but from mundane economics. It would, however, be hard not to notice that today, this circumstance of a purely technical nature creates an entirely new context for understanding these portraits. It provokes us into looking for connections where there must have been none. It stimulates fantastic fables and generates exciting continuations. What is more, it introduces an additional value to the negatives as we view them: an unexpected movement, a dynamic. The people portrayed enter into peculiar interactions with one another: they are very curious to see each other, or precisely the other way round. They engage in silent dialogue.
Coincidence connected these people, following strange lines. Sometimes, as if possessed by some structuralist virus, coincidence juxtaposed them according to powerful oppositions (male/female, young/old, naked/clothed). At other times, it would seem to have connected people according to a principle of similarities. Occasionally, it repeats the image of the same person in different takes. More rarely, it turns the negative into something like a playing card, the half-figure doubled, one half turned upside down.
These are hundreds of portraits of people I do not know. No first names, no last names, no biographies attached. Washed, combed, ironed. Sterile. Strikingly festive. Dressed with a studied elegance, indeed, very nicely dressed, as if they were going to visit a doctor, or … a photographer. No one is smiling. Everyone is sitting or standing, stiff and upright. All of these people are seen from the waist up. Their eyes are focused on the lens.
‘Now, please don’t move… just another moment … oh yes, … just look straight ahead…’ The shutter clicks.
A boy wears a light, woollen coat with buttons, an invasion of buttons – the edges of a white shirt peering from under the collar, hands clenched, close together; a young woman with a full face, in a white blouse with a disturbingly long collar reaching nearly to her waist; a boy in a black jacket, tightly buttoned up, one hand in the other; a half-naked man, hands crossed over his torso, combed sleek: somewhere down to the left is the edge of a belt and (probably) braces; a clearly balding man in a skullcap, with long side locks spiralling down the sides of his face and a bushy beard; a boy in a uniform, the part in his hair precisely drawn, the thin hair done up and curled; an elderly woman in a patterned dress, hair combed back, crisscrossed veins and arteries clearly marking her right hand; a little girl in a chequered shirt, two solid plaits tied with ribbons; a middle-aged man, face clean-shaven, moustache, thick woollen, threadbare coat, shirt buttoned up to the neck…
Let us look at the photographic grammar of these glass representations. What may first catch the eye is the unnatural character of the individuals being photographed. There is tension visible on the faces. The photographs are clearly posed. These do not seem to be images of the living, with blood circulating in their veins. It is rather a theatre of gestures frozen in the image, a theatre of masks. It is photographic staging. What lie before us are frozen poses, carefully arranged by Mrs Photographer, following her own sensibilities and the standard visual patterns of her time. We are not looking at people engaged in any action, or photographed performing certain activities or tasks (which would at least give them a semblance of ‘true life’), but at countenances caught in the net of conventional presentations. The people she photographed here resemble unmoving dummies, as stiff as the figures at Madame Tussaud’s. At first glance, they do not look like – to use that perverse phrase – people of flesh and bone. This variety of human personage tends to fit cleanly conventionalized types of representation: student, athlete, little girl, landlady, farmer, Jew, bachelor. They construct a visually mythologized ‘truth’ about the individuals they represent.
All this is hard to dismiss. It would be even more difficult to think that it is precisely this theatrical presentation of the subjects that makes these images so very enchanting, nearly hypnotic. It seems that the source of their magical power must lie elsewhere. Interestingly, all this seems to be happening in parallel to – if not against – the conventional attributes introduced by the photographer. I continue to sense that these glass negatives contain far more than what the language of aesthetic analysis implies. In other words, there is some excess in them, an excess that finds translation into clear and convincing sequences.
Staring at these glass images a little longer, an interesting phenomenon evolves. A clear-cut disassociation occurs between the mind and the eye. The mind suggests that what we are seeing are only imperfect, conventionalized representations of reality. It assumes a sharp divide between what is in the photographs and reality itself – in this case between the image of a person and that person’s real form. The eye, in turn, follows its own path. It becomes separated from reason and tends to dismiss all the mind’s discoveries and commands. It is as if our eyes penetrate the shroud of the presentation, building a space of intimate proximity, whereas the mind only perceives distance. The eyes disregard obvious, healthy reason and establish a continuity between the person in the negative and the viewer. Our eyes perceive a living presence in the glass representations, and no verdicts of the mind are capable of marring this impression. A fissure appears between ‘I know’ and ‘I see’. This particularity of looking, severed from the presence of reason, becomes even weirder once we realise that the persons portrayed are – in all probability – dead! For the entire time that I look at them, I have this deep confidence that cannot be sullied, that I myself am being looked at by living people. I know that what I am looking at is just glass covered with film, but in these flat and silent representations – in these images of those since departed – I see a living, radiating presence.
Whatever it is of and whatever it is meant to convey, photography always proves the existence of whatever it represents, of that which once entered the scope of photographic visibility and became recorded on light-sensitive material. What is invisible cannot be photographed. Photography is a testimony of existence, a certificate of presence. Photographs are a means of preserving remembrance, at times the only proof of someone’s former existence. We may quite sensibly claim that specific photographs allow only one moment of a life to become permanent. We may claim that photography provides only a partial, incomplete, and possibly even falsified image of a person, yet the very existence of that person is not simulated! It is no coincidence that, while looking at photographs, we happen to ‘mistake’ what is represented there with what is real. It cannot be emphasized enough – especially at a time of such profusion of photographic representations – that there is still something fascinating, downright miraculous in the very possibility of making a lasting image of someone. This is true despite the fact that we know that the origin of photography is very plain and unpretentious: it is the child of chemistry and optical mechanics.
Looking at the portraits made by Mrs Gurdowa, I have the nagging feeling that not only am I looking at them, but I am at the same time being looked at, being watched by them. It is a most embarrassing situation. As Edouard Pontremoli pertinently described it: ‘Someone once said that photographs are like cats. When they are looking at us, their gaze pierces us, denies and detaches us from ourselves. Anyone who has a cat knows the dispossession that the creature perpetrates.’ Anyone looking at a photograph that gazes back at him faces a similar situation.
This comparison seems to touch the essence of the problem, so let us think it through. The quintessence of this particular feline or photographic stare, one that cannot be compared to anything else, is the amazing penetration of the gaze. The penetrating character is a revelation, an unveiling. It is like an omniscient stare from very far away, from a world beyond. Or from a non-human world, a space that is alien to us, difficult to name.
What does it mean to have a cat or a photograph dispossesses us? It is possible that it makes us look more closely at ourselves, so that we see that things around us are not so self-evident, something we so rarely (if at all) realise, and the problematic character of our being here, in the here and now. Of what do they dispossesses us? What they dispossess us of is what is most ours, tamed, domesticated and assimilated. They take away what is most personal in us, transforming it into shaky ontology. We become undefined, dubious, exotic, and – from that moment onward – unsure of our metaphysical identity. That peculiar gaze makes us see what we had perceived as most personal as downright alien. It bereaves us – sitting comfortably in our human skins – of a sense of general comfort. This seems to be one of the many the reasons why the gaze of a cat or a photograph disturbs us. This is the case because, in fact, under the stare of either a cat or a photograph, we begin to feel that we are not ourselves. Let us look at this in its entire nullifying, existential horror. The Freudian notion of das unheimliche – with its reference to the un-homelike, the un-usual, the extra-ordinary and world-shattering fear – would be appropriate here. It cannot be concealed that, faced with the gaze described above, we feel as if we were standing before some unknown court of law, that we are here at the behest of the uncanny, of a reality that cannot be tamed.
Let us take another step in this direction. On the cardboard prints produced by pre-World War II photographic studios, photographers usually placed the text: ‘the negatives are to be stored’. This can be read literally, as testimony to the fastidiousness and thrift in craftsmanship, but a slight shift in emphasis allows one to see that innocent, technical inscription in an eschatological dimension. Yes, eschatological. I would claim that the radiating power of these glass images comes from an unrelenting conviction (which accompanies their viewing) that there is only a thin partition separating the living from the dead. It may be just the click of the shutter. In other words, the dead are not – it would be difficult to say this differently – entirely dead. It is as if they were only temporarily frozen, or – etymologically speaking – simply ‘in the glass’, in this archetype of fragility and brittleness. With the power of the photographic registration, they rise from the dead before our eyes. This must be the peculiar alchemy of transforming the dead into the living. This is the principle source of the anxiety they generate. Who amongst us, the living, would remain calm if the departed were to pay us a visit?
The collection of negatives by Stefania Gurdowa is an archive of silent presences. We have before us images upon glass, made to last. Giorgio Agamben’s statement about photographs also applies to these pictures: ‘They are a testimony to the countless names that have fallen into oblivion. They can be compared to the book of life that the new angel of the apocalypse – the angel of photography – holds in his hands on the last day, that is on every day.’