Stary Gieraltów, Poland, 1985
Sopot, Poland, 1987
Wuppertal, Germany, 1988
Hartford, Cunnecticut, 1989
Jersey City, New Jersey, 1991
Long Island, New York, 1995
Tamworth, Ontario, 1995
Tampa, Florida, 1996
Gdańsk, Poland, 1997
New York, New York, 1998
New York, New York, 2000
Jersey City, New Jersey, 2000
Tamworth Ontario, 2000
NewYork, New York 2001
Cold Spring, NewYork, 2001
Jelenia Góra, Poland, 2001
Lutowiska, Poland, 2001
Jabłonka, Poland, 2002
New York, New York, 2002
Jersey City, New Jersey, 2002
Warsaw, Poland, 2002
Jersey City, New Jersey, 2004
Andrzej Jerzy Lech and the Genius of Memory
by John Wood
They are with me
Autumn and wooden wheels and tobacco hung
Under the eaves. Here and everywhere
Is my homeland, wherever I turn
And in whatever language I would hear
The song of a child, the conversation of lovers.
Czeslaw Milosz, from "Mittelbergheim"
I do not think anyone could look at a photograph by Andrzej Jerzy Lech and not immediately be struck by its ghostly beauty, its brilliant artistry and craftsmanship, and finally its genius. The beauty, the artistry, and the craft at once arrest the eye and force it to linger over the image. These aspects of Lech's art need little explication or commentary. We look--and instantly we are touched, we are moved, and we want to return to look again simply because the photograph is beautiful and beautifully made. But the genius of Lech's imagery, though equally arresting and compelling, is a more complex matter. That "genius" is not merely a reflection of what is intellectually brilliant about the subjects he chooses and the way he photographs them, in other words, his actual genius for the art of photography. It is also his art's pervading spirit, its genius loci, the source of his creative power. That pervading genius is what is finally so deeply and emotionally rewarding in Lech's work--the genius of memory.
His photographs--without making a single visual reference to the past (other than his post-September 11th images of the New York skyline) reverberate with its memory. I think of his photographs as evocations. You look into them and the past is conjured up out of chemistry and light, and we are transported off through our own memories. What is most amazing is that in order to achieve this effect he has not had to resort to the old photographic processes, which have now become fashionable among the most avant-garde of contemporary photographers. Nor has he had to resort to the lovely but antique Pictorialist aesthetic of soft focus, muted tones, and manipulated negatives. Lech's eye and genius for memory allow him to find the evocative scene that transforms everywhere he might be--Poland, Canada, Germany, the U.S.--into his homeland, just as was the case with Milosz. It is this genius, this pervading spirit, that allows the viewer to traverse time and place with him. Whether we are looking at a train track in Tamworth, Ontario in 1997, a train track that immediately transports me to my childhood nearly half a century earlier in the American South; or a father, mother, and child sitting together on a sofa in Opole in 1985, looking as they might have looked in 1912 or 1939 or 1968; or the morning fog in a park in Ksiaz in 1986, a canal in Gdansk in 1996, or a man, his face obscured by his hand, a bag over his back, and the Baltic Sea beside him at Sopot in 1987; whether we are looking at these or most any of his images, Lech carries us far beyond their physical content. And we are left wondering, "How did he do it?
His secret, his magic, is the magic of poetry, of metaphor and powerful imagery. It is the same magic of Milosz, who in his poem "At Dawn" wrote:
How enduring, how we need durability . . . .
The bygone lives are like my own past life, uncertain.
I cast a spell on the city asking it to last.
Lech casts spells and not only makes things last but does it in such a way that they are remembered, again as Milosz does, even by those who have never been to Ksiaz, Gdansk, or Sopot, who have never met the family in Opole or seen the railroad tracks in Tamworth. In another poem from the same volume, Unattainable Earth (Nieobjeta ziemia), Milosz wrote, "In Salem, by a spinning wheel / I felt I, too, lived yesterday." In another, he recreates "1913" by creating a memory of "Italy right after the harvest" as "the McCormick harvester / For the first time moved across our fields." Lech's 1912 Swiss Calendar is in many ways a similar kind of recreation. In still another poem, "Winter," Milosz writes,
And now I am ready to keep running
When the sun rises beyond the borderlands of death.
I already see mountain ridges in the heavenly forest
Where, beyond every essence, a new essence waits. . . .
Do not die out, fire. Enter my dreams, love.
Be young forever, seasons of the earth.
This could be the credo of any artist but especially Andrzej Jerzy Lech, who through the genius of memory turns every image, every essence he has captured, into a new essence awaiting the viewer who will personalize it, who will bring to it his or her own memory and thereby catch the image's truest, yet changing, renewing essence. And if it is not a personal memory, the viewer will find in it an historical one, a memory of a history we have learned or inherited--a memory, for example, of Switzerland in 1912, a peaceful place and moment still two years before the most wrenching change to befall Europe in centuries. The Great War marked the true beginning of the twentieth century, and its cruelty and horror defined that bleak and bloody century's tone. As English poet Philip Larkin put it in his poem "MCMXIV," "Never such innocence, . . . / Never such innocence again." It is often that vital and important memory of innocence that Andrzej Lech recreates in his work.
The twentieth century was the most brutal, the most cruel century in human history--not because modern man had become any more savage than in the past but because the technology of murder had become superior to that of any time before. He could killwe can and do kill--with greater efficiency than ever before. The world might have been less convenient prior to the Industrial and Technological Revolutions of the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, but it was far safer. Prior to the indiscriminate savagery of aerial bombardment, of mustard gas, of tanks, and of an entire generation, an entire generation!, of young men lying dead in the mud, the trenches, and the fields of Europe, no eighteenth, nineteenth, or early twentieth century gentleman would have though himself "innocent." But so much death and maiming changed it all.
The ugliness and horror of the twentieth century caused many artists to feel the only appropriate response to it had to be an art of equal ferocity and brutality. "The age demanded an image / Of it accelerated grimace," as Ezra Pound put it. Though this attitude has changed and the best contemporary art--visual, literary, and musical--seems reinvigorated with a culture of hope, many artists are still obsessed with their work having some "edge," as if affirmation and beauty are not the most radical edges any artist might hone--especially after the moral catastrophe of the past century. To express hope and to find beauty in a world where horrors daily continue to occur is a radical, existential act, an act of faith equal to that demanded by any religion. To suggest through memory a moment and place prior to the disaster, to bring the old world back to mind and then to make us realize we are looking at the new--not Lucerne 1912 but Opole 1985--is an artistic leap of faith, an edge, if you will, of the greatest insight into the human condition. What we first see and think is a moment from a long gone, peaceful past but then realize is our own moment reminds us that art's great power is its ability to redeem, to heal, and to offer hope.
This is the most fundamental characteristic of Andrzej Lech's work, of his genius, and of his use of memory. It is something we also find not just in Milosz but in the art of another countryman of his as well--Wojciech Kilar. Kilar began as a dissonant and experimental Modernist but over the years has come to embrace melody, harmony, consonance, and beauty. The change in his style, first seen in Krzesany (1974), is marked by the embrace of memory. In musical terms it is spoken of as an integration of folklore into his art, but what is folklore but the living memory of a people? After Krzesany came Koscielec 1909, a work he called an attempt to slow down the disastrous seconds which took the life of Mieczyslaw Karlowicz in an avalanche in the Tatras. Then came Orawa, a work that celebrated the sub-Tatra Podhale region, the people and the place. Years earlier Karol Szymanowski had shed his experimental phases with a similar return to folklore for inspiration and a literal return to this same region, to Zakopane itself, a town, which interestingly enough was also home to that strange genius Stanislaw Witkiewicz (Witkacy). Finally with Kilar's Requiem Father Kolbe his embrace of memory is at its most intense and painful, but also most redemptive and healing.
Even when I hear what I know to be folk tunes and rhythms in Kilar, I do not think of Poland; I think of dancing, planting, harvesting, loving--it could be anywhere. He, like Milosz and Lech, have homelands wherever they turn and hear "The song of a child, the conversation of lovers." Just as Milosz wove his American experiences into his art, Lech has done and is doing the same in his American Travel Journal project. I have no doubt that when his Polish audience looks into these American images they will recall certain misty, morning walks in Ksiaz, a kiss on the banks of a canal in Gdansk, a day when they were children playing on the beach at Sopot.
Czeslaw Milosz, Wojciech Kilar, and Andrzej Jerzy Lechthey are a triumvirate of Polish art's response to memory in our time, three artists who imbue their work with memory's persistent but changing genius, a spirit which knows that art has the potential to heal, to redeem, and to recover hope.
John Wood, Lake Charles, Louisiana, February 2003
John Wood is a prize-winning poet, photographic critic, and art historian. He has published over twenty books, curated the 1995 Smithsonian Institution photographic exhibition Secrets of the Dark Chamber, and is the editor of 21st: The Journal of Contemporary Photography. His writings on photography have been named among the Wall Street Journal's "Year's Best Photography Books 1999," the New York Times Book Review's "Best Photo Books of 1995," the American Library Association's "Outstanding Academic Books of the Year" for 1992, and as the American Photographic Historical Society's Outstanding Book of 1989. He holds Professorships in both English Literature and Photographic History at McNeese University in Louisiana. His most recent works have been his Selected Poems, a volume covering thirty years of work, a book on Jan Saudek, and an edition of William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience done in collaboration with Joel-Peter Witkin.
Andrzej Jerzy Lech - Artist Biography:
Born January 22, 1955 in Wroclaw, Poland.
Andrzej Jerzy Lech studied at the Faculty of Fine Art Photography at the School of Visual Arts in Ostrava, the Czech Republic, in the workshop of Borek Sousedik.
In 1983 Lech became known as the main creator of the elementary photography movement related to the minimalist stance. His exhibit from the same year titled 60 Gates was the official proclamation of this program. Until 1987 he exhibited at the Foto-Medium-Art Gallery in Wroclaw, Poland, inspiring this concept.
From 1979 to 1987 Lech ran the private photography gallery called Galeria w drodze (On the Way Gallery) in Opole, Poland.
Lech formulated several photographic cycles and series of small format photographs, close-ups of objects and fragments of landscapes which have metaphorical meaning. These works were included in the Warsaw, Amsterdam, New York and The 1912 Swiss Calendar exhibits.
In 1987 Lech participated in the exhibition Preis fuer junge europaeische Fotografen (Award for Young European Photographers) in Frankfurt, Germany.
In 1988 and 1989 he participated as one of ten artists in a show titled Polish Perceptions - Ten contemporary Photographers, 1977-1988 at the Collins Gallery, Glasgow, Scotland, the Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen, Scotland, and Kirkcaldy Museum and Art Gallery, Fife, Scotland.
In 1994 Lech collaborated in the AIDS benefit auction Sunday by the Bay in Bellport, Long Island, New York. In the same year he was part of Nurturing Spirit, a group show to benefit the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
In 1997 Lech won the competition for one-person show in the Bergen Museum of Art and Science in Paramus, New Jersey.
In 1998 he took part in the multi-image photographic exhibition Beyond Words, produced in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Hasselblad. The premiere showcased at the Photokona ‘98 in Cologne, Germany, and then at the PhotoPlus East Exhibition in New York City.
In the year 2000 his solo show The 1912 Swiss Calendar, was opened during the 8th International Month of Photography FotoFest in Houston, Texas.
In 2001 some of Lech’s Photographs were printed in the book Architectural Photography, published by RotoVision Visual Arts Books Publisher, Hoven, England.
In 2002 he was invited, along with several other photgraphers, to take part in the prestigious exhibition Around Decade - Polish Photography of the 90’s, at the Museum of Art in Lodz, Poland and the National Museum in Wroclaw, Poland.
In the same year Lech exhibited photographs from a work in progress entitled Travel Journal America in several galleries in Poland.
In May of 2002 he took part in a large exhibition The Photographic Landscapes of Jersey City, which was organized by Pro Arts in the Jersey City Public Library, Jersey City, New Jersey.
On September 11, 2002 his multi-media show dedicated to the WTC was shown simultaneously in 14 galleries in Poland, in Ostrava, the Czech Republic, and in Jersey City, New Jersey. It was comprised of 46 photographs taken before the tragic event, on 09.11.2001, and in its aftermath. The show was accompanied by a published booklet.
In the Fall of 2002 Lech took part in several exhibitions. They are The End of Life Show (The Irving Goldman Community Art Gallery, Jersey City, New Jersey), Forms of Matter: Artists’ Views of Nature (Victory Hall, Jersey City, New Jersey), Central New Jersey Railroad Festival (by invitation, CNJ Railroad Terminal in Liberty State Park, Jersey City, New Jersey).
In March 2003 he showed in Poland the exhibition titled 60 Gates, exactly 20 years after the original exhibition date.
In December 2003 he took part in the IV Biennale Internazionale Dell Arte Contemporanea in Florence, Italy. He has shown photographs from his project titled Travel Journal America, Poland for which he received the Medal Medici and the Fourth Prize.
In March 2004 he opened in Frozen Monkey Café in Hoboken, New Jersey, solo exhibition titled Travel Journals.
In December 2004 Lech will open his solo exhibition of 111 photographs in the Rotunda Gallery in the City Hall of Jersey City, New Jersey. The title of this show is Travel Journal America, Canada, Poland, Italy.
Andrzej Jerzy Lech is invited for the second time by international panel of judges to participate in the Biennale of Contemporary Art in Florence, Italy, which take place in December 2005.
Lech is currently working on a few photographic projects: Travel Journal - America, Travel Journal - Poland, and The New York Bay Photography Project.
Lech is represented in the United States by the Graphistock Alternative Photography, New York, Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, London.
Andrzej Jerzy Lech’s photographs are in the permanent public collections of the Museum of Modern Art in Lodz, Poland, the National Museum in Wroclaw, Poland, Mala Galeria in Warsaw, Poland, Exchange Gallery in Lodz, Poland, BWA in Legnica, Poland, BWA in Jelenia Gora, Poland, Icon Pictures in New York, New York, and in many private collections.
Krzysztof Rytka about Andrzej Jerzy Lech
I was showing Andrzej's photographs to my friends. Including the ones from his American travels. During the discussion, if one could call sharing feelings a discussion, someone could not recall the name of the person who invented photography. Well, it happens. I couldn't recall it either and had to look it up in an encyclopedia. It surprised me, though, that I couldn't remember a name I previously came across.
I don't remember many names I have come across. On the other hand, I do remember many pictures from my life. Some of these images are so distant that they go all the way back to my beginnings. I recall many images and many of them flow together into sequences, short films almost. I am not alone in this. We all possess memory. We are all composed of small drawers in which we store words, entire texts, numbers, dates, and even smells and melodies. But nothing is more lasting than the images captured by our sight, pictures from our lives here in this three-dimensional world.
To spite this, photography is two-dimensional. So how can this be reconciled? No painted portrait or landscape is a true depiction of reality, no matter how much effort the painter puts into the work. What about photography then? Maybe photography which isn't manipulated is so close to the ideal in order to accurately depict what we see. But is that true? Is what we later see in a photograph actually what we saw at the click of the shutter? Or is it what we wanted to record for our ever-failing memory? Does objective photography exist?
And now for Andrzej's photographs… I've already seen many of them. Even when they portray places hundreds of miles away, places at different ends of the globe, I cannot help but think that they have something in common. I can't even begin to define this similarity, it's too difficult a task. Yet I feel this "something" subconsciously and it is something surprisingly close to me.
To write about someone, to convey the image of someone we've known from the earliest years of our childhood, is not an easy task, despite sounding like one. Both Andrzej and I have a photograph in our collections, a photograph from a time when neither one of us saw the world from more than a meter's height. There are people in this picture who are not among us anymore, but who could still have been here. Did they depart? Physically, yes. This photograph effortlessly opens one of the small drawers and brings back memories which make me wonder how is it still possible to recall something from those salad days. One day I showed a photograph to an old man, a yellowing picture with wavy edges. The photograph portrayed the town in which the old man was born and raised and through which I was passing. His faded eyes lit up for a moment, "here I walked to school every day" -- he said. "But this house here isn't there anymore" -- he added surprised as if he hadn't thought about it the last time he walked by that spot.
He still remembered this, as many people do, people who are still among us, people who live with images which are inaccessible to the rest of us. There is namely a difference between what they saw and remembered and what we see now.
Where is this difference to be found? Places whose appearance has not altered much possess, for us, a different meaning. How can what was then, what is now and what soon will become the past be reconciled? Helplessness in the face of time.
And now for Andrzej's photographs… I have already seen many of them and I cannot help but think that there is a perfidious timelessness to them. There is even more to them. They depict places which I have never visited, but I always feel like I have seen them already. Our personal collections of images, with which to make connections, are infinite. Details don't constitute this feeling because, if I pay closer attention to them, I realize that I have been mistaken. This feeling is conveyed by the atmosphere of these photographs, by a thin sepia-colored mist which separates the viewer's gaze from the reality of those despairingly empty streets, lonely houses, bridges, train tracks which come out of nowhere and lead to nothing, parks or cemeteries… They are all equally flawless in their indifference, frozen in motionlessness and timelessness.
These photographs are not memories of places which were Andrzej's destinations in his journey through life. They are a documentary of confrontations with those places, but not a documentary of the photojournalistic type. They represent a personalreconciliation with one's memory. Fragments of the lives of long-gone persons are embroidered in this memory, together with the images we could have seen had these people been here to tell their stories.
Roberto Michael, a translator living in Paris, is a mysterious figure who enjoys Andrzej's great trust. In his letters, Andrzej often confides in him his reflections on places he has seen and later photographed. "On Monday, Magda and I went to Coney Island again. I like that place. I like it for its beautiful history. I like it for its uncommon photogenic quality, its omnipresent ambiance and an aura of things past, an aura of time lost. I like taking pictures here… As previously, I photographed the beach, the Atlantic and the demolished remains of an amusement park. In another letter: "It's very foggy today. I open the window and see the Little Lake in Poland. Empire State Building dissolved into the mist somewhere. The Hudson River, which I cross by ferry twice a day, is also invisible. The Karkonosze Mountains and room number seventeen…" Those always unexpected associations!
Andrzej wrote about one of his photographs: "This photograph is beautiful…and, on top of that, I added this idiotic hook to it. And this old-fashioned curtain with tassels… They say 'photographic thinking'. Nonsense, of course. I'm talking about the painful anticipation of an upcoming journey, about a feeling of emptiness and detachment, about the fact that, once again, I'm yearning. This is probably the beginning of a never-ending conversation."
The images produced by Andrzej's hand are a documentary of journeys in time. Of a journey which takes place at an unknown point in time, without a reference to its beginning or its end. It must be the moment which makes this journey still possible.
If one looks at these photographs very closely, signs of life can be seen in them. An imagination is needed, of course, but is that too much to ask? Try to tell one of these pictures reaching into your personal "museum" of images… When I see these pictures, I become once again aware how useless are attempts to describe such experiences with words. So I put my poems in my little drawer, when you
„Are walking pushed by an irresistible longing
to open the curtain of the horizon
behind which you will see the next one
and the next one
Krzysztof Rytka, Würzburg, Germany. Saturday, August 4, 2001