Vernacular photographs of late modernist architecture of the Kuyavian-Pomeranian region through the lens of Henryk Nahorski.
When it comes to those unworthy of attention, entropy is salvation. A leap into the cosmos of images which with the hand of a curator (collector, author of the text) are fished out of the litter bin and placed on a pedestal. Because such is their will – supposedly insignificant, and yet so powerful.
Wojciech Nowicki Dno Oka. Essays on photography
When I met Mrs Elżbieta Nahorska, widow of Henryk Nahorski who died in 2012, for the first time a few years ago and heard about her husband’s photographic archive kept in plastic bags in a cupboard, I immediately thought of Jerzy Lewczyński and his definition of photography archeology: „I call photography archeology actions aimed at discovering, investigating and commenting on events, facts and situations which took place in the so-called photographic past. Thanks to photography, the continuity of visual contact with the past creates opportunities for expanding the impact of former culture-forming layers on those of today. „
In 2016, Mrs Nahorska visited the Foundation once again, this time as a participant in a workshop on digitisation and archiving of photographs as part of the Vintage Photo Festival. She brought with her dozens of negatives and slides, which she kept as her late husband’s legacy, joking that „she would probably destroy them because she doesn’t know what to do with them and nobody wants them anyway”. The photographs had a diverse range of subjects: from reports on social events for CAF, through photos of Toruń’s Gothic buildings, to family photos. Among this arbitrary archival collection, I was able to recognise the reproducible style of great shots of the late-modernist architecture of the region. Several of them resembled the today’s fashionable subgenre of architecture porn. Similarly to food porn and other related hashtags, architecture porn has its origins in professional architectural photography, including the tourism industry (this is also the origin of Nahorski’s photos). However, it frees itself from its utilitarian function of photos, nearing conceptual photography. And it was these photos that caught my attention so much that from that moment on I was looking for a way to save them from destruction and oblivion. I begun the adventure with the archeology of photographs by Henryk Nahorski.
After a year of hard work, I was able to organise an exhibition crowning these efforts. On September 5 2017, the Farbiarnia Gallery held the opening of the exhibition of photographs by Henryk Nahorski as part of the 25th European Heritage Days under the slogan: „Heritage of landscape. Landscape of heritage. ” The exhibition displays only a fragment of a rich collection of several hundred photographs by Henryk Nahorski presenting modernist and late modernist architecture within the former Bydgoszcz and Toruń provinces from the post-war period, which we present in a a more complete version in this album.
The album’s title is a non-accidental fusion of the words „architecture” and „archive”, strictly referring to the collection of photographs found in the family archive, which Henryk Nahorski, a geographer by education, deceased in 2012, proudly published in tourist brochures of the region. In this collection we will find buildings from the ’70s and’ 80s, often underrated modernist and late modern properties, usually associated with badly perceived communist reality. These buildings, as Filip Springer puts it, “were born at a wrong time, a difficult, painful, any lousy time”. Fortunately, nowadays more and more specialists, but also ordinary people, are beginning to notice the value of these buildings. Modernism tours are gaining in popularity and efforts are being made to restore these objects to the pre-neglect condition. One can even talk of a current modernism craze in Poland.
The photographs show mainly the newly created architectural objects and landscapes characteristic of the cities and towns of the region, which in the post-war years underwent a period of quite intensive development associated primarily with progressive industrialisation. The archive contains a unique and rich iconographic documentation, which is a valuable material for the analysis of the history and transformation of post-war Polish modernist architecture and urban planning. In the surviving collection we find photographs taken, among others, for the purpose of brochures of regional tourist organisations operating in the 1970s and 1980s which Nahorski was editing. He photographed office buildings, hotels, housing estates and restaurants characteristic of that era. However, the collection’s greatest value is the fact that in addition to the canonical architecture of the late modernist architecture of the region (BWA Building in Bydgoszcz or the Vice-Chancellor’s Office of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń) it contains a whole lot of vernacular and peripheral architecture, such as the Forest Camping Site in Zamrzenica or the Modern Housewife Center in Lubień. Nahorski’s photographs show these objects in their best aesthetic representation. Viewed today, in retrospect, they constitute a sentimental and nostalgic collection, especially in the light of the progressive erosion of a great majority of late-modernist architecture in the region.
Nahorski’s photographs constitute a kind of utilitarian photography, also known as vernacular photography. They were an indispensable addition to his work as a geographer and cartographer. At the time of their creation they were not treated as creative works; rarely was the photographer’s name included in the publications in which they appeared. Credit was given to photographers in a collective footer at the end of the folder. Hence if not for the surviving archive, we would not even know who their author was. In his book Vernacular ones. Essays from the history of photography, Clement Cheroux emphasises that, although quantitatively vernacular works constitute the overwhelming part of the overall photographic production, they are on the periphery of what matters and is of worth, and that which is a reference point in the artistic sphere. The reason for this state of affairs is that it has been accepted that vernacular photography is qualitatively insignificant and devoid of uniqueness: „It is considered worthless because it is created without the so-called kunstwollen, meaning the artistic will – a notion coined at the beginning of the 20th century by the German art historian Alois Riegel. ” Although at the time of creation Nahorski’s photographs did not have artistic ambitions, the type of architecture shots shows that photography was more than a commission job to Nahorski. It was a calling that forced him to stop somewhere off-road in Kuyavian-Pomeranian province and take a picture of a bus stop spotted from the road. These suppositions are confirmed by posthumous reminiscence of Nahorski by Roman Robaczewski: „Let the fact that he spent the money received from his mother for layette for his newborn daughter Ewa on a [Kiev] camera be a testimony to how much he loved photography. ” (…) The main change in his life occurred when he purchased his first [professional] photographic camera. Photography became his passion, and he remained faithful to it for the rest of his life. (…)”.
Although he did not graduate from any photography school, he photographed architecture like a professional. Most of the preserved photographs are typical modernist black and white medium-format frames, i.e. classic shots in which photographers have framed modernist architecture since the 1930s. . Some of these shots resemble works of Julius Shulman, others the conceptual photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher. What distinguishes him from the classics are colour photographs. The preserved collection contains several hundred medium-format slides. Subjected to the test of time, affected by decay, yellowed and faded, they affect the viewer even more by transporting them into the spirit of that era. Some of them marked by the author with patches or markers suggest the way of framing and are permanently inscribed in the matter of the original, providing valuable tips for the curator.
Photography is now a full-fledged branch of art, and many photographers today belong to the canon of art, while the art world, as Wojciech Nowicki writes in his book Dno Oka, „absorbs and puts craftsmen of past eras on a pedestal.” The attitude towards vernacular photography is changing and this album is a testimony to this change.
The photographs of Henryk Nahorski are an extraordinary iconographic chronicle of the region’s towns and constitute an important testimony of cultural heritage at the local and regional level. Wojciech Nowicki wrote that an image lasts much longer than the reality it reflects. Nahorski’s photographic images are an excellent example of this thesis. In the era of widespread thermal modernisation, they make us think about the need to protect and notice the historical and aesthetic values of buildings that testify to their time, a testimony to this uncomfortable existence.