1. Aesthetic and artistic transformations in world photography

At first one should observe that there was no significant breakthrough in the photography of the 1990s which would change the direction of its development or mark a new approach towards the changes signified by postmodernism. Processes of the 1980s and even 1970s are still being continued. What changed was the context of the evaluation of photography or those arts which employ photography. It was connected with the growing popularity of deconstructive and feminist methods employed by numerous theoreticians, as well as with the ideas of Michel Foucault, Jean Baudrillard and, to a lesser extent, Jean-François Lyotard.

On the other hand, one can reinterpret or deconstruct the methods used by artists of the 90s who search for spiritual values and situate their art within the limits of the democratic society which supports liberalism.

In the case of photography or cultural transformations it is difficult to speak of conscious strategies which belong to the modernist period, whereas nowadays we should rather point to some stylistic formulas, often interrelated in a hybrid way, promoted by the art market, galleries and museums. In the 1990s critics more often write of the “art industry” instead of art because the current situation resembles the end of the 19th century in terms of extraordinary artistic development, connected with the notion of ideological exhaustion and eclecticism.

The dadaist/surrealist formula

In the face of the projected hyperreality and the crisis of reality many artists use the techniques of image construction which go back to the avant-garde transformations of the 20s and 30s. Collages, photocollages (Cindy Sherman), photograms (Pidder Auberger), photo-montages, photo-performances (Urs Lüthi, Dieter Appelt, Jürgen Klauke), ready-mades etc., are used in order to conduct experiments which reveal the monstrosity and grotesqueness of the world as well as references to history and the most recent threats to our world order. Some of the most important works, not only in the Polish or European context, have been  created in this mode by Zbigniew Libera – for example “Lego Building Blocks” (1996) or “The Universal Penis Expander” (1996, digital photography and an object). Libera, stressing certain elements of consumer, post-totalitarian society, creates critical art in a much more convincing style than, for example, Jeff Koons. Photography in his works is hidden, used in conceptual and surrealistic ways - and surrealism, having been rediscovered in the 1980s, became one of the most effective artistic strategies of our times. Its effect may be reduced to visual shock, but its most significant aspect is its critical and hostile attitude towards consumer society, reminding one of the role played by photography in the bourgeois society of the 20s and 30s. The reception of surrealistic images, since in this case we should speak of surrealism in such terms, is present in various forms in staged photography, for example in Cindy Sherman’s works which employ different media. Another confirmation of the popularity of this trend may be the “Thanatos” series by Grzegorz Przyborek, one of the most important artists in Polish photography of the1990s, a pioneer of digital artistic photography.

Artists of this trend often use pictorial quotations and pastiches (Joel-Peter Witkin, Jan Saudek), usually playing games “in museum ruins”, like, in Poland, the Łódź Kaliska Museum group, active on the artistic scene since 1988. 

The digitalization of photography and its consequences for culture

More or less since the middle of the 90s new formal qualities have appeared, connected with the use of new technology, especially with digitally transformed images (the Azuz/Cucher team, Inez van Lamsveerde, Jeff Wall, Chieh-Jen Chen, Veronika Bromova, Valie Export). They are the result of the experimental passion, rooted in modernism, leading to the discovery of new qualities in connection with new projects which disassemble the Judeo-Christian tradition or are undertaken in its margins from heretical or neognostic standpoints.

The situation of the latest forms of humanism is reflected in the photography of Sebastiaõ Salgado, while virtual reality, based on scanning all material  forms and multimediality, points to a new kind of visual performance. More often than not it is connected with the notion of the world without God, specified for the first time at the 1992 exhibition called “Post-human”.

The German theoretician of photography, Andreas Müller-Pohle, was not in the wrong when he said: “Digital world-order is being born and everything seems to prove that it will do away with analogue relations”.* Writing, among other things, about the lessening of photography’s validity, Lech Lechowicz pointed to changes connected with digital copying: “The digital process in photography not only breaks the bond of light, linking the object and the image, but it also reduces the role and the place of time in photography. The process of registering, copying and reproducing the image in traditional photography contains in itself a significant element of time, being a somewhat mysterious process of its embalming. But in digital photography the image is made available immediately, it is the effect of the analysis of an optical image, transformed into a record of a specific and finite combination of the binary code, becoming something absolutely finite, countable and devoid of any kind of mystery”.**

In the catalogue of the most important photographic show in Poland which promotes digital photography, “Cyberphoto 2001”, I wrote: “A new kind of digital art is coming into being, aiming at interactivity, new computer spaces, the Internet and virtual reality, although it may find it also belongs in traditional gallery spaces in the form of print-outs. [...] Thanks to cameras, graphic programmes and creative inventiveness, digital photography steadily broadens its aesthetics. This new technique is rooted in the viewpoints and ideas of modernism, but also in the latest technological thought, which – in the sphere of culture – already makes use of the ideological background of postmodernism.”***

The only Polish artist active in the world field of “Photography after Photography” (the title of one of the most important exhibitions of 1994) is Mirosław Rogala, who experiments with the stereotypes of seeing and perceiving reality.

The conceptual (hidden) formula

After the radical experiences of conceptualism of the late 60s and 70s, every newly appearing trend or tendency must contain a notional element which might give evidence to the accepted system of relations, including the traditions of constructivism or minimal-art (for example John Hilliard, Victor Burgin, Goerges Rousse, Alain Fleischer, Natalia LL or Jan Berdyszak). Naturally, artists who express themselves using the language of advertisements or photogenic images are not obliged to conceptualize their realizations since they perform within the circle of another tradition and another system of artistic and aesthetic relations. Conceptualization is present in the works of many prominent German photographers, like Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky or Anna and Bernhard Blume.

Staged photography

This kind of photography was dominant in the 80s and at the beginning of the 90s. Although still popular, by the end of the 90s at exhibitions in many parts of the world, including Poland, the audiences seemed bored with eclectic constructions, influenced by the tradition of painting, pastiches and quotations. Staged photography has its national variants: German (Gerd Bonfert, Gundula Schulze, Thomas Florscuetz), Dutch (Erwin Olaf, Rommert Boonstra), British (Mari Mahr, Ron O’Donnell, Keith Arnatt), American (John Coplans, Les Krims), French (Tom Drahos, Pierre et Gilles), Spanish (the team of Mabel Palacin&Marc Viaplana), Czech (a group called Bratrstvo [Brotherhood], active between 1989-1994, Jan Pohribný, Vladimir Židlický) and Slovak (Josef Sedlak), to name but a few most important ones. But new factors of reflection on artistic consciousness (multi-layered reading of history) and on the legacy of art in largely theatrical, large-format, coloured works, related in their form to billboard aesthetics, were discovered in the 80s and 90s by the Canadian Jeff Wall. One should note the high intellectual and ideological level of his works, which seem to deny the postmodernist notion of exhaustion.

The new star of such an approach in the last decade turned out to be Louis Gonzales Palma (from Guatemala), who convincingly relates to South American myths, bringing to mind the prose of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Palma’s photography is staged – it is also coloured, toned and glued together from smaller pieces, even though those manipulations are not especially refined. One can also find them in American art, for example in the works by Mike and Doug Starn, twin brothers. Palma himself calls on the controversial photography of Joel-Peter Witkin who presents authentic horrors and attacks past and contemporary religions. The problem is that Witkin’s works present refined stylistics – they are suggestive and convincing.


This kind of art was extremely popular in the 1980s (e.g. Christian Boltanski), but in the 1990s it did not exert much influence on photographic exhibitions. At the international exhibition “1st Ars Baltica. Triennale of Photographic Art” (1997), where Prażmowski’s works were very well received, most of the photographs were conventional in form, but aimed at breaking structures (Vladimir Kuprjanow), constructing objects bordering on sculpture (Prażmowski’s photo-objects) or were related to narrative painting. Installations were rather hard to find (Klaus Elle). Let us remember that the idea of this “European” exhibition, reviewed all over the world, was related to the notion of memory – individual and  collective memory, as well as the memory mythologized by historical time.

Important artistic features of the 1990s are new questions of aesthetic and ethical nature.

Liberalization of moral questions

The main accent of postmodernist art of the 1990s and earlier periods is connected with the liberation from the power of all kinds of taboos and the abolition of all kinds of censorship which for artists and theoreticians is an anachronism, additionally out of accord with our legal system, helpless in the face of the latest transformations in culture and manners. The fight of feminism with the masculine world revealed the interesting works of Barbara Kruger, containing references to the tradition of  constructivism and dadaism, which, along with poetic metaphors, give her message a universal character.

Zofia Kulik, whose work also belongs to critical feminism, places herself in the centre of her world, always constructed anew. Its ornament and margin, degraded in a way, are men. Kulik is critical towards all values, like the state and its socialist tradition, but also religion, and she consequently creates works based on the idea of “materialist sacrum”.

A successful attack on the notion of religion – Christianity and earlier pagan cults, including Greek mythology, has been consequently conducted for years by Joel-Peter Witkin. Not only does he disassemble the modernist tradition, but also the tradition of humanism. He is one of the artists most difficult to deconstruct, who managed not to fall into the eclecticism of pastiche. The same cultural fields are explored by the Museum of Łódź Kaliska, but in more ludic ways, by means of gigantic happenings. The visual effect of those works is dadaistic, futuristic or commercial, which seems to be the influence of Andrzej Świetlik. 

Freedom and the abolition of the borders of language, which in the opinion of postmodernists is a form of enslavement, are connected with the sphere of the body and the psyche. It is one of the most important problems explored in postmodernist culture, mainly due to Orlan, who influenced many talented artists, including Poles, like Joanna Rajkowska or Magdalena Samborska. Let us remember that the famous exhibition “Posthuman” (1992/1993) raised the subject of genetic engineering. Naturally, one should consider whether this kind of artistic exploration will not result in paranoia, at least the paranoia of artists who take part in such shows. 

The notion of artistic freedom was important in the 90s as much as in the preceding decade. It was closely associated with the sphere of sexuality (and reflected in the works by Andres Serrano), but it especially probed the problem of homosexuality (Gilbert&George, Pierre et Gilles). The category of pornography (Noboyushi Araki) ceased to be valid in the modern world of art because “obscenity” may be “a serious” work of art, as stated in the 80s by the Cincinnati jury in the case against Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos. Similar arguments may be used in relation to works by Boris Mikhailov, a controversial and perverse artist from the former Soviet Union. Since the end of the 80s the works of Sally Mann  have been bordering on child pornography (she photographed her own three children), which brings to mind the 19th century art of Lewis Carroll, a member of the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A different kind of eroticism forms the basis of Bettina Rheims’s portraits, while the sign of death seems imprinted on the daring works by Nan Goldin, erotic and pornographic at the same time.

Nowadays in the anthropological and artistic consciousness man is conceived as beast (the “Fauna” exhibition, which took place in “Zachęta” in Warsaw in 1999), or an android, a cybernetic robot. It also became fashionable to recall the question of homosexualism and the debatable problems of sexual nature. But the world still needs myth, although now it is offered but “mythems” (Stefan Morawski’s term), exemplified in Jerzy Truszkowski’s photographs with Batman - the world has been gradually renouncing its utopias, which, nevertheless, may never be lost completely.

Pragmatism. The renouncement of utopia.

It is assumed a priori that modernism was engaged in various utopias whose realization led only to hybrid forms or to social and political degenerations. That is why theoreticians and artists renounce the spiritual dimension which became deconstructed or was revealed to have been but a hypostasis in games aimed at gaining concrete profits.

In this context most convincing works were produced by Krzysztof Wodiczko, whose light projections animate metropolitan architecture, like buildings, sculptures and city space, while their aim is  to help those “who have been defeated by fate and history” - to the extent that it is at all possible.

Revealing and destroying political myths

Wodiczko’s approach may be compared with the works of such artists as Hans Haacke who reveals the phony attitudes of politicians, mechanisms hidden behind cultural activity etc. Such myths are also called upon and deconstructed in paintings by Anselm Kiefer, who at the same time shows their magical powers, which sets him apart from postmodern assumptions. In the critical sense it is one of the most important strategies of postmodernism which quite often employs modernist methods and techniques (like montage or projection), but uses them more radically, renouncing the eschatological dimension and, nevertheless, in more programmed, theatrical ways, bordering on fiction and falsity. But falsity is not important in this case, like the notion of truth or a copy, because all artistic works strive to be disseminated, devoid of originality and reliability. The fight with various political doctrines leads to political, leftist art yet again, which was confirmed by the last XLIX Biennale in Venice, dominated by video and photography.

The crisis of photo-reportage

The last decade witnessed the crisis of photo-reportage and press photography. An example may be the consecutive editions of “World Press Photo”, indefinitely repeating the same aesthetic models.**** The photo-reportage lost its credibility earlier, in the 1980s, because every kind of photograph may not only be transformed by computers but it may also be staged beforehand which in consequence makes it but a fictional anecdote. The Magnum agency has lost its prominent position. Its most important representative, still holding on to leftist ideas, is Sebastiaõ Salgado. His passionate photographs on the one hand convey the beauty of the world, but on the other (and most of all) they call for human rights for the poor and exploited literally all over the globe. Another influential documentalist is Martin Parr who has become a severe critic of the consumer society in Britain since the 1980s.

Robert Walker, using the power of colourful compositions,  and David La Chapelle, an uncompromising critic, are interesting street photographers of the 1990s. This type of photography continues the American tradition of the 70s, as well as the modernist tradition.

In Poland the author of most interesting portraits, deeply psychological and reaching far into history, collectively called “The Passengers”, is Tomasz Kizny. In his case it is difficult to speak of a classic photo-reportage, in spite of the artistic origins of the author and his works.

Commercial nature of photography and photographers

The 1990s also witnessed the further rise in significance of commercial photography and photographers whose works are counted among the most outstanding achievements in many important museums (Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon). Since the programme accepted by most (though by no means all) artists made them renounce higher intellectual and spiritual aspirations, the sphere reserved for art has been occupied by photography of Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts and Annie Leibowitz. New figures have also appeared in this expanding field: Mario Testino, who merges elegance with brutality, Steven Meisel (VOGUE), consciously modernist in his manipulations with colour and setting, and David Sims.

Some postmodernists, like Jeff Koons, try to move the point of attention from their works onto themselves, striving in this respect to become equally famous as Hollywood actors and pop stars. Of course the standards of such a phony celebrity cult were set down before by artists of great renown, like Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.

The unquestionable star of commercial photography became Oliviero Toscani whose unsettling and provocative works  bring to mind the most sensitive and irritating diagnoses of the condition of world consumer society. War, sex and death form the specific features of his rationalized but, above all, scandalous art.

Postmodernism’s artistic aim – information.

Can the aim of postmodern art, including photography, be defined? We can at least try to recreate models of the postmodern attitude which undergoes constant mutations. One cannot speak today of the hybrid nature of postmodernism, which seems to have been its original state. The specific features of its latest form are various elements of eclecticism which, let us remember, was not a depreciating category in the history of culture. It only proved the downfall of optimistic and holistic visions, replaced by realizations employing fragmentation and stylistically different, hybrid forms. In the world market in which all humanist values are offered and sold no one looks for a definite vision of the world – it is outdated, out of reach, and even beyond consumer needs. Those who do look for it remain in the shadow, unnoticed by the monstrous art market, so far still closed  for the so-called former Eastern Block countries.

For humanists the condition described above will be a new barbaric age, the age of the decline of art, although art still survives. For the supporters of postmodernism it does not really matter because it has been reconstructed on the foundations of new aesthetic and social features, and postmodernism is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Its aim, as confirmed by a suuporter of postmodernism, Zygmunt Bauman, is the accidentality of being and access to the  possibly greatest amount of information, since it is information that ennobles people in the postmodern world.*****

II. Polish photography of the 1990s – its place on the map of global postmodernism******

Where should we place Polish photography of the 1990s in the above context? Polish photography developed according to its own tradition, shaped under the influence of classic American modernism of Edward Weston’s circles (the so-called “Jelenia Góra school”) and the new pictorialism of symbolical inclinations (whose centre is Suwałki, and its unquestioned leader Stanisław Woś). It has a long tradition, marked by the works of Edward Hartwig, among others. It has found a place for metaphysics (Zofia Rydet, Wojciech Prażmowski, Bogdan Konopka, Andrzej J. Lech), and multimediality of postconceptual origin which has been infected by some very interesting spiritual aspects (Zygmunt Rytka, Natalia LL, Zbigniew Dłubak). Occasionally new modernist theories appeared, like in the case of the text called “Fractors-Integrators” by Edward Łazikowski.

Younger generations, rooted in traditions other than photographic, like the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw (the workshop of professor Grzegorz Kowalski – Artur Żmijewski, Katarzyna Kozyra, Katarzyna Górna), Grzegorz Klaman’s workshop in Gdańsk or an artistic group called the Central Office of Technical Culture (Piotr Wyrzykowski, among others, an important multimedia artist) undoubtedly moved in the 90s towards analyses of moral conditioning and stamina of their own and their audiences, provoking and attempting to reveal the mechanisms, hypocrisy and myths which, in their opinion, lie at the foundations of the Polish Catholic society (Robert Rumas). Konrad Kuzyszyn, linked at first with Gdańsk artistic community, after a period of disturbing and perturbing activity in the early 90s, turned in the direction of a quest for metaphysical values, creating photographic or video installations. His works were among the most interesting at a big exhibition, organized at the turn of the century (2000/2001) by the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw and called “Scene 2001, which was not a recapitulation or foreshadowing of new trends but which presented artists whose works had been exhibited before in the Centre for Contemporary Art or in Zachęta in Warsaw.

This kind of art, exhibited in the Centre for Contemporary Art and propagated at the Academy in Warsaw and Gdańsk, is under the influence of the American and British tradition of the 1990s (for example the “Sensation” exhibition).

It seems that all models and categories of the photographic image were inclined in the 90s towards staged photography inspired by various branches of culture, including film and theatre. But what seems more important is the fact that all kinds and manifestations of photography undergo the process of digitalization, including photo-installations (Krzysztof J. Cichosz).

The positive aspect of “the privatization of Polish photography” was the introduction of photographic schools on academic, college and high school levels. Those schools immediately began to compete among themselves for prestige and acknowledgment.******* The most distinguished schools of the second half of the 90s decade and the early 21st century seem to be: the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań, especially the workshops of professor Grzegorz Przyborek and professor Piotr Wołyński (who also teach at the Higher School of Pedagogy in Zielona Góra), the Higher School of Photography “afa” in Wrocław, whose artistic director until 2001 had been Natalia LL, and the Higher School of Photography at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, managed by Witold Węgrzyn.

As in every new decade, promising talents have appeared. The most convincing of those seem to be: Artur Chrzanowski (a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź), the author of colour and black-and-white pinhole photographs, ironic and critical towards the local (i.e. Polish) reality; Bartek Buśko (a student at the “afa”), the author of oneiric, existentialist portraits; and Dominik Pabis (a student of the Higher School of Photography at the Academy in Gdańsk), who is a surprisingly universal artist, aptly following the track of visualism, whose pioneer in this case was Dłubak.

Polish photography of the 90s stands much closer to world photography than before - it became more universal than regional, probably because of the normal flow of information and lively contacts with the Western world. The result of such cooperation and cultural exchange was a series of shows organized in the 90s by Jerzy Olek (and Romuald Kutera), the most significant of which was a great international exhibition presented in Wrocław in 1991, called “2nd East-West Photo-conference. The European Exchange”.


1. A. Müller-Pohle, Analogization, Digitalization, Projection, „Format“ 1997, vol. 3-4, p. 5. This new world order based on digitalization must work out its own new ethics which the Internet also does not have, or accept previously existing philosophy, meaning ethics as well, marginalized as it may be.

2. L. Lechowicz, Contemporary Photography versus Art and Binary Illusions, in: Photography ’98, the Turlej Foundation, Cracow 1998 (exhibition catalogue)

3. K. Jurecki, Where is digital photography going? Cyberphoto 2001, 4th National Polish Digital Photography Contest, Regionalny Ośrodek Kultury (Regional Culture Centre), Częstochowa 2001 (exhibition catalogue)

4. In Poland of the 90s the World Press Photo exhibition was shown annually at the National Art Gallery “Zachęta” in Warsaw and later in various galleries around the country. However, our audiences do not see original photographs, but merely reproductions standardized in single format which destroys the authorial convention of individual photographers.

5. See an apt text on the postmodern condition by Roman Kubicki, Art within the Limits of a Finite Life, in: 2nd International Art Meetings. Katowice ’98, BWA, Katowice 1998 (exhibition catalogue). On page 133 the author writes: “Postmodernity deprived us of values traditionally identified with the “spine” of European culture, justified metaphysically, meaning ultimately. We are slowly awakening in a world in which the social fate of truth, beauty and goodness is not dependent on their objective, not to say “absolute” content, but is fulfilled within the limits of the ‘metaphysical stability’ of the free market. The free market slogan vox populi, vox Dei is valid in art, science and the manners of morality”.

6. My reflections on Polish photography may be found in Polish Photography of the 90s. An Attempt at Recapitulation, in: Photography ’98, the Turlej Foundation, Cracow 1998 (exhibition catalogue), where at the end I wrote: “How can we sum up the passing decade? The crisis of document and photographical orthodoxy (if we agree that it exists, for example in the works of the Jelenia Góra school) was quite meaningful here, as well as the growing rank of postmodernism. No new theoretical concepts appear due to the crisis or even disappearance of neo-avant-garde concepts. [...] Many new names and attitudes were revealed at the “Changing of the Guards” exhibition of 1991, which presented the new atmosphere and new concepts that came into being at the beginning of the 90s (photo-performance, installation, various kinds of staged photography, the idea of ‘pure photography’).” One should also mention that “pure photography”, “direct photography” (after the notion of “elementary photography” disappeared) was successfully promoted in the 90s by the Wrocław magazine “Format”, mainly in the articles of its editor-in-chief, Andrzej Saj.

7. See Lech Lechowicz, For the Privatization of Polish Photography, in: 21st Photographic Confrontations, GTF, Gorzów Wielkopolski, 1991 (symposium materials). What counts in this competition besides the general level of professionalism is the number of individual and group exhibitions of the students from all such schools, the accompanying publications and even symposiums or festivals. The most important publication of the 90s on the subject of photography was a book called Photography: the Reality of the Medium, edited by A. Kępińska, G. Dziamski and S. Wojnecki, Academy of Fine Arts, Poznań [1998].

Krzysztof Jurecki
from "Around Decade. Polish Photography of 90s", cat. exhibition, Muzeum Sztuki, Lódz 2002.