On 9 October 2015, we opened the container. While unwrapping the papers, we were able to discover the subsequent results of each shutter click, and their common denominator became increasingly clearer in the course of time. The faces were not unknown, and the photographed places seemed familiar from the pages of individual biographies. Focused, penetrating, at times troubled, time and again they allowed us to fix our gaze on the photographs and exchange insights.
On 21 October, the works were displayed on the walls of the Gallery of 20th-century Polish Art and thus their properties could be shared with the increasing number of visitors.
In the final sentences of his speech, the curator of the exhibition – Janos Frecot – expressed the need to open these photographs to a new perspective, and to make them the subject of a public debate using the workshop nature of their layout. Why not? Who else could be the first to respond to this request but the coordinator of all this confusion.
After the opening evening of the exhibition, I repeatedly returned to the Gallery in order to stand “face to face” with these personages in the peace and quiet of the exhibition space, and to add my own commentary to the presented display. Moreover, these visits made me revisit the question I asked myself at that time, namely how I would personally define the status of this kind of photography in the era of omnipresent iconography.
Works by Gisèle Freud appealed to me with their unpretentious sincerity and the authenticity of each – often deeply concealed – emotion. The artist has turned the bridge between the photograph and the spirit of the subject immortalized therein into the essence of her own definition of photography. She did not hide the fact that the term “photojournalist” linked her to the field in which she felt most at ease. Her reporter’s eye allowed her to emphasize the drama of gesture, the significance of which permanently adhered to the interpretations of Gisèle’s iconic photographs.
The objects that I have felt close to ever since we unpacked the shipment, and throughout the days of setting up the display with the assistance of the Curator and Ms Renata Kopyto – the Head of the Nuremberg House in Krakow (the co-organizer of the exhibition), managed to create in this section of our Gallery an unbelievable story about people – famous, though still not to this degree, recognizable, although not in the context presented by the artist. Virginia Woolf herself complained to Victoria Ocampo about the invasive nature of Gisèle Freund’s visits at her home, accusing her of a significant breach of her intimacy boundaries. Like an inconvenient witness of events, this disgust is featured in quite a few portraits of Virginia displayed here. Roland Barthes wrote, “Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing”, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” It seems to me that avoiding this kind of statuesqueness was one of the main intentions of the Photographer.
The works feature plenty of so-called punctum, countless details drawing the attention of even the most neutral observer. Gisèle repeatedly manages to capture the right expression of the portrayed, their faces without masks.
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed,” claimed Susan Sontag. Thus, in the aforementioned sense, history “possessed” the portraits of Freund’s models. They are now functioning as cross-references between the subject and his or her characteristics, between “what happened once” and “what can consequently be repeatedly reproduced”.
However, reflections on this topic would not end for a long time. It certainly was not the last time that the exhibition had made me “pause” in this way.
There are people whose ability to marvel at the unique has been taken away by the camera. And there are also those who captured these moments for future generations. I have tried to decipher them. And I would like to thank Gisèle for it.
“A good photographer has to read a face like a book (…)” Let’s say that we should choose the genre of literature…
Katarzyna Pawłowska – coordinator of the exhibition Gisèle Freund. Photographic Scenes and Portraits, which can be seen in the Gallery of 20th-century Polish Art until 24 January 2016.
Title photo: Katarzyna Pawłowska – exhibition coordinator, photo: Mateusz Szczypiński – NMK Photography Studio