March 14: It is remarkable, and unbelievable for my generation, that this year marks half a century since Diane Arbus’ suicide. Today is her birthday (1923), also that of another radical, lesser known.
The year is 1956. For both photographers — and others I mention here — it was pivotal. Arbus was taking classes with Lisette Model who encouraged her to concentrate on her own work, and she left her business partnership in fashion photography with husband Allan to stalk the streets of New York. She marked the negative file from the first of her forays #1. Three years later their marriage ended.
That year, Lee Friedlander moved to New York for a commission with Atlantic records and also was out producing the first of his distinctive street photography in that city and in New Orleans.
Garry Winogrand was freelancing for PIX agency after having taken Alexey Brodovitch‘s photojournalism classes.
William Klein was preparing a book of confrontational photographs taken during a brief return to his hometown in 1954, for which he won the Prix Nadar in 1957
In 1956 Robert Frank was all over the United States on a Guggenheim-funded extended road trip with his family to photograph for The Americans, returning to New York in 1957
The unjustly now less well known Leon Levinstein was showing sixty-five prints covering seven years of work in his habitual close-range shot-from-the-hip style at Helen Gee’s Limelight Gallery, which was unique in New York for being devoted solely to exhibiting photography. His was the first exhibition of 1956 and in Gee’a opinion he was “a photographer I considered one of the best of the non-professionals. Perhaps, even the best.”
Freelance fashion designer Frank Paulin haunted Times Square in his spare time and in 1957 also exhibited at Limelight.
Meanwhile Saul Leiter had adventurously taken up colour, on Kodachrome, which was then expensive to print. It was only seen publicly at Edward Steichen‘s early 1957 talk “Experimental Photography in Color” at the Museum of Modern Art, in which he projected 20 colour photographs by Leiter. The work did not surface again until the 1990s. Leiter later announced that he “spent a great deal of my life being ignored. I was always very happy that way.” And over in Chicago in 1956 Vivian Maier, unknown until 2007, was also shooting colour.
Like most of them, Arbus adopted the 35mm camera — a Contax, a Leica, but mostly a Nikon S2 rangefinder, as the most discreet, and as she had done with her teenage friend Phyllis Carton for a game, followed her subjects around, screwing up the courage to seek them out in the dark and daunting places of New York.
This early work, an archive released by her daughters in 2007, and much of it not seen until shown in 2016 in diane arbus: in the beginning at the Met Breuer, was done under the guidance and encouragement of her mentor Lisette Model before, in around 1962, she took up the Rolleiflex. Her 35mm imagery develops toward the medium-format work, becoming less oblique in the grab shots on the street and distinctively confrontational as she selects and beguiles her subjects.
When Arbus first went to her classes, Model said that her photographs were hard to read. “After three months her style was there. First only grainy and two-tone. Then, perfection.” Diane herself in 1971 recalled that Model “kept saying to me, the more specific you are, the more general it’ll be;” in other words, her harshly sharp, often flashlit, larger format pictures became more universally relevant.
It is not hard to see in these tentative 1956 images — of the woman impassively watching her toddler, another tensely carrying her sleeping child, and of young children at the kerb, about to step out — Arbus’s own sense, as a mother, that this was a dangerous threshold, like the one she herself was standing on.
Born 7,000 km away from New York, the year after Arbus but also on 14 March, at Tomaszów Lubelski, in Poland Jerzy Lewczynski served during WW2 in National Army, when he started making amateur photos, then until the end of the conflict, fought in the Polish Army.
After the war he studied at the Silesian Polytechnic at Gliwice in engineering, marrying in 1947 and having two children. From 1951 he was apprenticed for five years to photographer Tadeusz Maciejko (1903 – 1979), bought a folding Voigtlander Bessa 6×9 and decided to become a photographer, joining the Gliwickie Photographic Association and from 1956 onwards was a member of the Union of Polish Art Photographers.
During 1957-60, he associated with Zdzisław Beksiński and Bronisław Schlabs, abandoning socialist realism under the influence of Beksiński and took up the formal experiments of the avant-garde of the interwar period.
Ironically, while American street photography may be seen in the context of the 1956 presidential election of the Republican Eisenhower, the Polish photographers opposed the primacy of reportage as the genre, socialist realism, associated with the communist government and advocated freedom of expression, experimenting with metaphor, surrealism and abstraction. 1956 in Poland was the year of “Gomułka’s thaw” a year of transition in which International pressure significantly weakened the hardline Stalinist faction.
Schlabs created abstract works, subjecting the negatives to direct interference (e.g. cutting, heating, sticking to various materials).
The three participated in their exhibition Closed Show at the Gliwickie Photographic Society in 1959, which was condemned as “anti-photographic” by the (later more enlightened) art critic Alfred Ligocki (1913-1984, editor of the monthly Odra)
What is photography? “It is preserving of commonly perceived appearance achieved with the use of physical, chemical and mechanical processes, as the result of which we receive a plane covered with colour spots, ordered in a certain way. The ordering of these spots causes an illusion of perceiving by a viewer three-dimensional objects in space(…)” [Alfred Ligocki – [translation cited in Archeologia fotografii (“Archeology of photography”) by Jerzy Lewczynski, Wydawnictwo KROPKA, Wrzesnia 2005, p. 53]
They also showed at painter Marian Bogusz‘s gallery Krzywe Koło (“Crooked Wheel”) in the street of that name, the first in Poland to show the country’s contemporary art and a haunt of Polish intellectuals. The trio’s output accorded with Otto Steinert’s “subjective photography” movement, the idea of which is reduced to self-expression that goes beyond the practice of registering reality itself, even if their stance was more radical. Schlabs was the only Pole represented Steinert’s Subjective Photography exhibition in Essen in 1958. In Lewczynski was included in Photographers Of The New Generation, in Pescara, Italy.
From 1956 Lewczynski became fascinated by “photography regained”, with “naîve” photography and the idea of photographic archaeology. His belief is that the photographer records things for the future. The afterlife of the photograph is an inspiration for a process of “restoring meaning to things that were rejected, disregarded, doomed to oblivion or being at the mercy of fortune”.
That a photograph is created not only by the photographer, but also by the person who will use it later, was an innovative way of thinking rare in the 1960s, and in that Lewczyński was well ahead of his time. The exhibition Beksiński – Lewczyński. Necessary Complement in Częstochowa City Art Gallery, Poland in October 2018 brought together Jerzy Lewczyński and Zdzisław Beksiński in one space reveals the importance of a photographic experiment that took place at the turn of the 1950s and 1960s. In exhibitions held in Warsaw and Gliwice they presented innovative methods of imaging obtained by building images from fragments of photographed matter, editing, and introducing text. Importantly, and unprecedented in Polish photography, was the assembly of these fragments into series, like building a sentence, analogous to a film sequence.
Lewczyński, who died in 2014, in one of his last interviews said: “I have changed my life into photography”.