"Photography's deep touch"

Interlocutors: Maciej Beiersdorf, Director of the Museum of History of Photography in Krakow, and the custodian Magdalena Skrejko talk with Lech Kolasiński and Ireneusz Białek from the Managers of the Future MOFFIN Foundation.

Ireneusz Białek: Our meeting is related to the Światłoryt (Light Relief) project and this conversation is of interest to me as we are going to look at photography from very different angles or perspectives – of a blind person, of a visual artist, a photography history specialist and a museum director. Particularly interesting is whether we manage to talk in such a way as to arouse an interest in both sighted and blind persons, who may know nothing or next to nothing about photography.

Lech Kolasiński: Delivering a project like that and using such a method, we just must try hard.

I.B.: Here is my suggestion concerning the format of this conversation: being a blind person, I do not remember much of photography although as a child I used to sit in the darkroom with my father developing photos. There are other blind persons, however, who definitely have no idea what it means to develop photographs.

Magdalena Skrejko: Maybe some sighted people do not now it either in these times of digital cameras and all mobile phones fitted with such devices. (Laughs).

I.B.: This may be the case indeed. Let us remind ourselves of a handful of curious facts from history of photography.

Maciej Beiersdorf: Man has always needed and still needs inventions. Prettifying the world makes people want better living conditions. In archaeology, there was stone, then metal, bronze and iron. As there was a communication need between people, language was created. In caves, we can see the process of recording emotions and the desire to leave something behind on the walls. Later there was painting and then photography as the cheapest and most accessible technique. Also, photography made it possible to multiply images, which made it different from previous image recording methods.

I.B.: The birth of photography is dated back to…?

M.S.: To 1839 and the name immediately associated with the date is Daguerre, though many before him had applied chemistry, optics and light to record images. Yet it was just on 19 August 1839 that president Arago of the French Academy of Sciences and Fine Arts made the new invention, the Daguerretype, available to the public free of charge and so that date is known as the day when history of photography started. One should still mention the Briton Henry Talbot who even before Daguerre had invented a negative-positive technique called talbotype.

I.B.: What did first photographs look like?

M.S.: These were wonderful images! We do have some Daguerreotypes in our collection. They are so special because they were made in just a single copy and to be properly seen they must be looked at from the right angle, or set for the person looking at them. The one-off production required a proper setting and so Daguerreotypes were put in silver-plated or gilded frames and then into elegant cases; in that way the entire package became an exclusive object.

M.B.: A copper or silvered plate was exposed to iodine or bromine and as a result a light sensitive film appeared on the surface. After exposure, such a plate was developed. Later on, thanks to the invention of light-sensitive film, the image could be multiplied and then photography became a mass-scale phenomenon. Daguerreotype were still like paintings.

M.S.: Initially those photos were black and white and interestingly enough colour was sought after, an attempt at making photographs more attractive. Photo labs of the 1800s and even the early 20th century produced coloured photos, or simply ones painted manually.

L.K.: Someone would sit for hours with a brush and add colours to the black-and-white photo.

M.B.: Which, incidentally, did not always reflect the actual colours, but was attractive and a step forward. Colour in photography, however, began in 1910 in France with the invention made by the Lumière Brothers known as the autochrome.

I.B.: Was it then that photography began to play a more important part in culture?

M.S.: That moment is defined more by photo cameras entering the market which were small, light and fitted with a shutter. One could hold such a device in the hand and go somewhere with it. It should be mentioned that the earliest models of photo-taking devices were huge and heavy. The equipment the photographer would take when going to the mountains weighed around 50 kilos, as they had to carry not just the camera but also lenses, a tripod and the necessary chemical agents. And so the marketing of small Kodak cameras was a true breakthrough.

M.B.: And then came improvements in photo cameras, lenses and materials on which photographs were made, and over the last 20- 30 years there have been nothing to improve on, really, as we have got digital recording. One must remember, still, that in artistic photography it is still not just about pressing the shutter, as the process is accompanied by some creative idea, some deeper thought.

L.K.: Is it still the case?

M.B.: It used to be a true mystery play. It took several days to make a photo: a site was selected then one waited for a specific light, conditions, etc. Then there was darkroom work, not just mouse clicks. The darkroom is a very important stage of work and much could be squeezed out of the photo then by proper light setting or underexposing something. It is really non-existent now and people who take digital photos generally attach less importance to composition.

L.K.: There are still people, however, who love analog photography, work in the darkroom and devote their time to it.

I.B.: It is a bit like people who keep buying analog records despite the obvious inconvenience of using them and take the time to maintain and play them properly. It may be even a very good comparison for someone who cannot see – an analog record and analog sound versus a digital file with music, or a bit like analog versus digital photography.

M.B.: Or the book and the electronic file. It seems the same but the approach is different – in the case of a PC there is no paper rustling, or paper warmth, or page turning.

I.B.: As for books, it is probably about the habit, after all the contents are identical, but in music there is a heated debate going on about the analog having an edge over the digital. How about photography?

M.B.: One should not turn one’s back on modernity. For us museologists analog photography is important although it is often imperfect and its processing leaves much to be desired. Yet it is warmer, as a book page is when contrasted with a text page on a computer screen.

I.B.: That resembles analog music versus music from a digital file.

L.K.: When you print digital photos, they are all the same, but in the darkroom the human hand will always shake and maybe there is some mystery in it, absent in the digital.

M.S.: But in the 19th century the goal was for photographs to be as good as possible in technical terms. Photographers wanted images leaving their labs to have features characteristic of the place where they were made. Hence small cardboard pieces with photographs glued onto them. Their reverse side would carry a lithographed name of the lab, its address and specialisation as well as images of medals won at exhibitions. Sometimes images of the buildings would appear where the photo labs were located.

I.B.: And do digital photos or photos in general not obliterate words altogether? Facebook is based mainly on photographs and short movies, not analog ones, and people begin to tire of words, even digital words.

M.B.: These worlds should exist somehow in parallel. Let us take “The Deluge” the novel and its film version recently renewed and coloured up: the writer’s idea and the cinematic interpretation are two different realities.

I.B.: For me the analogy between the book and its visualisation is very interesting. I think that in the Światłoryt project we are writing with Magda a book of sorts about photographs for blind persons, that is we are trying to offer them visualizations of photos.

L.K.: We convey as if the spirit of analog photography, leaving the details of the digital aside, because one just cannot teach photography but on its analog version.

I.B.: In this way we make sure the very essence is there and so we have read the book and need not necessarily watch the film. This is an interesting conclusion of our conversation and the joint project.