Artistic Adventures of Photography

12 January 2023

What is fine-art photography in Poland? Adam Mazur, curator of the exhibition at the Museum of Photography in Krakow, talks about how photography became an artform in the 20th century.

Author: Adam Mazur

In 1927, Jan Bułhak coined the term “fotografika” to make a distinction between artistic photography and “professional and trade photography and to stress its kinship with printmaking and graphic arts in general”. The term quickly entered the vocabulary, and fotografika has become an important element of contemporary visual and plastic culture. The exhibition prepared for the Museum of Photography in Krakow presents some of the finest works by dozens of Polish artists, from Edward Hartwig and Fortunata Obrąpalska to Zofia Rydet and Wojciech Zamecznik.

The exhibition is a curated exploration of a fundamental, rarely written about period of Polish photography when modernist ideas of photography as an art and photographers as artists were being shaped. Work on the exhibition with Łukasz Gorczyca, started in 2019, has roots in critical reflections on Polish photography of the 20th century, as well as countering the fragmented and rather two-dimensional research into the body of work of artists working in fotografika. The exhibition wouldn’t have happened without a prior collaboration with Marika Kuźmicz on a monumental volume dedicated to the work of Edward Hartwig. The publication coincided with a presentation of Hartwig’s work at the Museum of Photography in 2019. Another important context is our respect for the talent of the participants in the Vilnius and Polish Photo Clubs and a genuine admiration for the prints by the accomplished artists.

Photography hasn’t always been seen as an art. In the 19th century, it was mainly regarded as a craft allowing portraitists and landscapists to make a living. And while some of the pioneers achieved high levels of technical skills which would be difficult to replicate today, they didn’t see themselves as artists. The fashion for artistic photography arrived in the late 19th century once the technology was mastered and popularised. The growing numbers of photographers included usurpers whose mission was to elevate the technique to an artform. The transformation of photography into a fully-fledged artform happened in the early 20th century. The development of unique, signed prints and the evolution and codification of artistic language resulted in the creation of exhibition salons, clubs and associations and discourse on the subject. The Lwów-based painter and photographer Henryk Mikolasch proposed the idea of fine-art photography during the interwar years. However, it’s not he but Jan Bułhak from Vilnius who is seen as the father of fine-art photography in Poland.

We present fotografika as an artistic trend with clearly-defined dynamics, timeframes and styles – a trend which has become an important element of contemporary visual and plastic arts. It is a multidimensional phenomenon and we don’t want to reduce it down to a single aspect, therefore we have split the exhibition into several chapters which serve as probes revealing different aspects of this fascinating genre. Starting from two manifestos – a confrontation of a photographic vision of art for art’s sake, represented by the founders of fotografika Jan Bułhak and Edward Hartwig – we present different aspects of Polish works, all the way to the Sociological Record launched by Zofia Rydet in 1978. Additionally, we are deliberately downplaying the political context which has dominated the discourse until now. While politics had a major impact on the history of Polish photography, it cannot overshadow the inner logic of artistic life and continuation of ideas and attitudes fundamental for the circles.

We are also stressing the influence of experimentation with the photographic form on ways of seeing, graphic design and related genres. Each chapter of this story reveals the direction of potential/future studies without exhausting them; they are a sequence of research ideas and questions rather than an outline of ready answers.

The key context for fotografika as an artform were changes in contemporary art during the 20th century. Of particular importance were formal attempts to step away from naturalistic imagery which exaggerated the subjective, individualistic nature of the artistic gaze on one hand and focused on an analysis of the vision apparatus and structure of the image on the other. This is perhaps clearest in artworks by artists such as Karol Hiller, Andrzej Pawłowski and Wojciech Zamecznik. Due to its technical aspects – images are generated by an optical mechanism independent of the human eye – photography is a medium perfectly suited to studying the visible world and exploring questions of its artistic interpretation while maintaining a fundamental connection by the image illuminated on the negative. A formal exploration of fotografika can also be seen from a different perspective – as a means of finding abstract structures bringing order to the world and interpreting the reality as an infinite chain of artistic adventures, as Urszula Czartoryska would have it. The creative impetus of fotografika began to fade during the 1970s under pressure from new artistic trends such as conceptualism and sociological photography, as well as shifting social and political realities. By the end of the third quarter of the 20th century it was becoming increasingly difficult to defend the genre, and it gradually became hackneyed, clichéd and even kitsch. Even in this decline it generated cognitively-intriguing works by gradually opening up to new definitions of art, perhaps best demonstrated in works by Jerzy Lewczyński presented at the exhibition.

Fotografika presented at the Museum of Photography is the first major attempt to showcase fine-art photography as a flagship 20th century trend. By working on the exhibition with Łukasz Gorczyca, we assumed that fotografika is a historic term which should be fixed (although not necessarily enclosed) in a particular timeframe, similarly to Impressionism and Surrealism. It continues to endure, but its meaning is rather different than between 1927 and 1978. Everyone involved with photography in Poland should ponder fotografika: what is this phenomenon, and what do I think about Jan Bułhak and Edward Hartwig? What is fine-art photography? The questions are as important for art historians, curators and collectors as they are for contemporary artists working in photography.

Adam Mazur

photo from the family archive
Critic and theorist of photography, arthistorian, columnist, university lecturer. Author of books about early and contemporary photography.

The text was published in the 4/2022 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.

Fotografika: Fine-Art Photography in Poland 1927–1978
MuFo Rakowicka
3.12.2022 – 7.05.2023



Kraków Travel
Kids in Kraków
Close We use cookies to facilitate the use of our services. If you do not want cookies to be saved on your hard drive, change the settings of your browser.