In Photoplasticon Jacek Dehnel practises the art of ekphrasis, which means describing works of art in words. The works of art in question are old photographs or postcards from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though there are also a few taken after the Second World War. Dehnel arranges the pictures in pairs, related by theme, in order to create a stereoscopic effect, like in a real photoplasticon. But what exactly is the purpose of the descriptions that accompany the reproduced photographs?
Ekphrasis is a singular art, at first glance rather unnecessary – why on earth describe what we can see anyway? But the person using the words must by necessity assume the role of an interpreter of the scene, someone who steps outside the frame of the picture, reconstructs the context and, to the single moment in the lives of people and objects that the camera has recorded, adds their earlier and later history. The observer also becomes a sociologist and psychologist, trying to fathom what motivated the pose and behaviour of the people being photographed, and reconstructing the social environment they lived in and that shaped their image. He also considers and describes what isn’t in the picture, or what appears in it indirectly, like the hidden revolver in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. He deciphers the messages written on the backs of the photos and also carefully reads the contexts of a different kind created by the background the photographers have arranged, and against which the characters appear.
Dehnel is fascinated by what is past and gone; this fascination is at the root of the extremely rich vocabulary he uses to describe the objects that appear in the photographs. But there is also another reason why the picture described in words becomes something more than the original: the photograph captures people and things in their individual, unique nature – while words by necessity generalise, synthesise, and fit objects into an “image of the era”. Thus Dehnel’s book is not just a description of some photographs, but also an emotional attempt to read the past; its main character is time as an extra dimension that is only added to our perception of the pictures by the descriptions, which lend them a historical context and bitter awareness of approaching events, of which the people being photographed still had no idea at the moment when the magnesium flashed and the shutter fell.
- Jerzy Jarzębski
SPARKING RUBY-RED FLASHES WITH HER SPLENDID DIADEM
Of course the most important thing is not obvious: it’s not the naked breasts, the disdainful, femme fatale expression, or the macabre display of black-and-white blood on a black-and-white block, but the light. That’s what the little man is concerned about as he darts around the studio with his sleeves rolled up, arranging the props, instructing the photographer, checking if the rose has been brought from the florist’s and finally sending his assistant to fetch the janitor who has agreed to be the body of John.
“Now?” asks the janitor from the doorway. As he removes his top, he takes a good look at everything: the easel, the boxes full of paints, the large roll of canvas, and most of all the hefty girl from the baker’s shop who has agreed to pose as Salome; wrapped in a rug for now, she is sitting on a small paint-stained stool, smoking a cigarette.
As she stands up, they tell him to lie down with his head pushed behind the stove, which at this time of year is completely cold; so he cannot see the exposed breasts, or the broad behind under the muslin petticoat. She is standing erect, with the tray borrowed from the neighbours resting on her hip, trying to hold up the big head of cabbage that’s lying on it. “With disgust, look at the head with disgust mixed with love, it’s lust, lust,” mutters the little man, examining the light, as it pours in through the tall windows and envelops her: lays itself on her milky-pink skin, hair, diadem made of a watch chain, bracelets made of tin foil, grubby petticoat and Turkish slippers. On the petals of the rose she is holding in her bent-back hand. “Now,” he hisses, and a second later the magnesium hisses.
When they finally allow the janitor to raise his head, the girl from the bakery is once again wrapped in the rug; she is tearing the tinfoil bracelets off her arms and pulling the watch chain made of Austrian kreutzers from her hair. On Herr and Frau Schmidt’s tray lie a cabbage and a rose. The janitor puts on his top, is given a coin and leaves; he will be free to come here in a month when the picture will be ready – only then will he find out what beauty passed him by as he lay with his head tucked up against the cold surface of the cast-iron stove. (Warsaw, 22 May 2008)
The things people do with photographs! How much it of all there is knocking about in boxes at the flea market: scratched-off husbands, crossed-out sisters, torn photographs stuck together with brown tape, pieces of cardboard cut in half with scissors, any old how, crookedly, as long as they’ll fit into a smaller album or a wrong-sized frame, scrawled on with coloured pencils by late grandsons, covered in teacup rings because someone used them as a mat under their glass, trodden into the ground and picked up, extracted from the rubble, or partly burned. Essential scraps and non-essential shreds, the most important bits saved: the face of a beloved brother torn from a class photo; a fiancée, folded in four and kept safe in prison through every search.
But who are these four people standing over the coffin of – well, quite – their mother, grandmother, mother-in-law and wife? So it would emerge from a simple – pardon the word – decomposition of the family, as itemised in death announcements: “Mourned in deep sorrow by her husband, daughter, son-in-law and grand-daughter. Or maybe son and daughter-in-law?
And to which group do they belong: to the important ones or the ones who have been left out? Is this the rejected piece, the superfluous relatives standing over the late lamented as she lay in her open coffin in the album with her nearest and dearest? And evoked a sigh from them every time the album was opened right at this special page? Or on the contrary, is this a dear cousin with his father, wife and child, preserved in loving memory, all of whom had to bear the chimera of a nightmare mother, who was one day expelled from the album in a fit of fury? Who tore this picture in half and why?
They are standing by the brick wall of a house – in late autumn or early spring, because the vine has no leaves, and a gusty wind is tugging at the candle flames, geranium and pelargonium shoots, and flowing over the corners and mouldings on the coffin lid. They are so restrained in their grief; they have their eyes lowered as if they cannot tear them from the coffin. As if that was what divided these five people, as if it was these four who removed the bottom of the picture, and she the top. (Warsaw, 18 November 2008)
Did they come with their own lasso, their own bow and their own holster? No, the costumes must have been part of the studio’s equipment, along with the painted background (the cabin and the tree) and the rustic set made of logs and brushwood, which served not only as the little house on the prairie (scene No 8) but also as a cosy hamlet (scene No 11, complete with a shepherdess’ costume and a stuffed ewe). Everyone, Greek or Jew, or at least goy or Jew, could bring along their goyish or Jewish little bundles of joy, and then dress them up in a rather floppy headdress and an ordinary men’s hat acting as a Stetson. The Marlboro advert didn’t exist yet, nor were there even any Marlboro cigarettes, but on the West Coast in the hot sun of California sweaty guys with cameras had been running around for a good few years now, as had bank tellers in green eyeshades, Swedish-language set builders, actresses discarding boas and coats from Poiret to dress up as submissive stage-coach passengers, squeezed into flowery dresses and bonnets tied under their chins with muslin ribbons; actors substituting well-cut dinner jackets (last night they were out until six in the morning with Harry and Jamie, playing with the Mexican hostesses amid fumes of opium and Bourbon) for sweat-soaked coats made of worn-out leather; and finally a couple of little Jewish glove makers from Warsaw who were running the whole show.Dear DaddyOn the ocasion of your aproching name-day we send you our very best wishes and may you live to be a hundred.Your Loving ChildrenA. and O. MichalskiAntos is dressed up as an indyan and Chaim as someone that catches wild cows on the steps.Dear Grandpa, may you live to be a hundred.
It is all make-believe: the painted background, the coats from Poiret and the sweet opium smoke, California, the cactuses, Mexican hostesses, cowboys and Indians, living to be a hundred, miles of celluloid, tableaux vivants – the stream of light shot through with black streaks. All that remains are A. and O. Michalski, their spelling, their two sons with the naughty look, and the bow made of sticks against a loaded weapon. (Train from Warsaw to Katowice, 28 February 2007)
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones