The Chroniclers

The exhibition The Chroniclers. Zofia Chomętowska and Maria Chrząszczowa. Photographs of Warsaw 1945-1947, organised by the Foundation in association with Dom Spotkań z Historią, is on through 13 November. The show features little-known photographs by Zofia Chomętowska (1902-1991) and Maria Chrząszczowa (1913-1979), both of whom, having returned to Warsaw in 1945, documented its destruction and rebirth. This fascinating double voice produces a very interesting picture of Warsaw in the first months after liberation as well as shedding light on the two authors’ artistic personalities.

In February 1945, when people started returning to what looked like a dead city, virtually everyone who had a camera and film started photographing the ruins, whether professional or amateur. They did in various ways: some rigorously documented street after street and (former) building after building for the purposes of a future reconstruction or war crime prosecution, others tried to visually convey the landscape’s dreadfulness and solemnity, while still others recorded the atmosphere of a city coming back to life.

Both professional photographers, Chomętowska and Chrząszczowa documented Warsaw from spring 1945, generally independent of each other though sometimes they worked together. Their photographs were then featured in the group exhibition Warsaw Accuses!, the photographic part of which Chomętowska curated (with Tadeusz Przypkowski).

The Chroniclers, both the exhibition and the upcoming publication, are the first attempt to discover these archives for the broad public, but also for the history of Polish photography, which has so far marginalised, effectively removing from view, women’s postwar documentations. What is phenomenal about these images is also their absence from the myth of postwar reconstruction. As the Foundation-produced exhibition demonstrates, this absence in the visual sphere is hard to explain: the excellent, formally varied images, reflecting distinct photographic temperaments, in no way inferior to those presented so far as well as offering novelty, are a voice of those who had been forgotten.

The majority of mainstream-interest photographs of ruined Warsaw were made in Śródmieście (downtown), which had suffered the worst damage. This is also the case with Chomętowska and Chrząszczowa, who documented the most heavily ruined spots, often those iconic for the imagery of 1945 Warsaw – the Royal Castle, Old Town and New Town, the Jewish Ghetto, the Prudential building, the Saski Palace, the Town Hall. Their photographs are both typical for the genre and distinctly different from it, revealing both the authors’ individual temperaments as well as the clichés of viewing a post-cataclysm city. Chomętowska, who used a 35 mm Leica, focused on details and genre scenes, often searching for shots from above allowing to take in a grid of streets. She photographed some places several times at different times of year. She also sought shots identical with those she had taken in exactly the same place before the war. Chrząszczowa, in turn, who worked with a 6x6 cm middle-format camera, built very careful compositions, searching for scenes and images that would be distinct in formal terms. Both women photographed not only buildings but also the various manifestations of the city’s rebirth – street commerce, small services, crowded streets, public transport.

The small-scale exhibition only signals the contents of the upcoming publication, which will comprise several parts: reproductions of Chrząszczowa’s hand-made album and Chomętowska’s thumbnail notebooks; an album part divided into sectors representing the area from Spacerowa Street to the Jewish Ghetto and the New Town; and essays by Sylwia Chutnik, Grzegorz Piątek, and Karolina Lewandowska.

The two photographers had different temperaments and treated their documentations in different ways. Chrząszczowa performed a sharp selection, choosing only select, usually sophisticated, images, meaning that her collection is smaller in terms of volume. Chomętowska created thumbnails of all images, including out-of-focus ones, producing a complete documentation of her archive. Both pasted the photographs into albums, describing them according to their knowledge and memory. Both collections were also donated to the Warsaw Historical Museum (Chomętowska’s in 1979, Chrząszczowa’s in the early 1980s), though they remain little known. Currently in private collections, they are being archived by the Archaeology of Photography Foundation.

Curator: Karolina Lewandowska

Dom Spotkań z Historią, Karowa Street 20
Opening hours: Tuesday-Friday 10.00-20.00, Saturday-Sunday 11.00-20.00.
The exhibition is on through 13 November.
Admission is free.

Project realised with funding from the City of Warsaw.
Project co-funded by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage.
Media patrons: Gazeta Wyborcza, Tok fm, Fotopolis, Feminoteka,