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Abstract

The monumental photographic exhibitions shown in many parts of the world during the first post-war decades were an important landmark in the history of photography. In this paper, two of the exhibitions became the starting point for a discussion about the perception of the medium of photography and its function in the 1950s and 1960s. The first, titled The Family of Man, was set up in 1955 by American photographer and curator Edward Steichen; the second, organised less than a decade later, was the worldwide exhibition Was ist der Mensch?, by the Austro-German journalist Karl Pawek. The two projects, although generally based on the same ideological and structural principles – a spatial installation building a narrative of a humanist nature – are antithetical to each other in terms of approach to the subject. Rooted in the complex context of the cultural, social, and political post-war period, they reveal a number of tensions hidden behind the strategies of constructing a visual narrative. The author mainly focuses on the issue of the representation of World War II experiences in photography, especially its most poignant event – the Holocaust. Stories about the human condition and realities of the contemporary iconosphere are investigated through relevant images. The reflections are based on case studies – the reception of these exhibitions in Germany and Poland. The analysis is supported by little known theories by Karl Pawek, by the voices of historians and critics of photography, as well as the latest developments on the subject. By revealing the circumstances of the reception of these projects and the resonance of their humanistic message questions are raised about ways of understanding the medium of photography within the broader history of visual culture. An important theme in the discussion are changes in the way we reflect on photography – criticism of a medium perceived as a visual language of universal character, taking into account the fundamental role of the historical, social, and cultural context in the process of creating meaning and interpreting images.
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Abstract

Polish photography in the first years after Poland regained independence remains a poorly documented area of research. Studies so far had mostly focused on the interpretation of the works of a few key artists from the avant-garde milieu (Witkacy) or photography (Jan Bułhak). It transpires however, that photography – not only as an artistic practice, but as poetic metaphor or an element of a broader aesthetic reflection – has functioned within the circle of the artistic avant-garde. An analysis of the presence of this medium in the consciousness and creativity of Polish artists allows us to see in a new light certain aspects of their technique and intellectual viewpoint. The article focuses on selected characteristics of this assimilation of modern reflection on photography by the Polish avant-garde artists in the first decade after the country regained independence. For the Formists – Tytus Czyżewski and Leon Chwistek – photography was an important point of reference as a metaphor of a new, cognitively uncertain, but also “deeper” way of seeing reality. It was an important help in defining the relationship between reality and its image and subject within a broader theoretical program (the theory of plurality of realities). For the Constructivists in turn – with Władysław Strzemiński and Mieczysław Szczuka at the forefront – photography became the means that enabled them to go beyond the usual schemes of capturing the external world, and as part of the concept of photomontage, it became a new material for creating an artistic reality. The dynamics of the process of assimilation of photography by the avant-garde artists was analysed in the context of the reception of new artistic trends born outside of Poland, primarily Futurism (the theory of photography by Anton Giulio Bragaglia) and Suprematism (reflection by Kazimierz Malewicz).
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