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A portrait sketch. On the concepts of Dorys’ photography.
The photographic oeuvre of Benedykt Jerzy Dorys has been classified in the history of Polish photography as reflecting a certain concept of portrait photography. It has also been classified as documentary photography wrongly called modern reportage . Once the artist’s whole archive stored in the National Library in Warsaw was made public a few years ago, questions subsequently arose – what kind of a photographer was he really and what were his artistic interests? And from a present historical perspective, which of his works could be considered most important?
Ignacy Płażewski wrote in his study on the history of Polish photography that at the beginning of his artistic career, Dorys “was interested chiefly in the portrait. As a consequence the board of the Society [of Photography Aficionados] assigned him in 1929 the task of teaching a course on portraiture that gained great popularity. Portraits also predominated in his individual exhibitions, all made in “impeccable bromide, employing artificial lighting and soft-focus lenses””. The reviewer was particularly captivated by “the unparalleled portrait of Miss Pologne that conveyed the extraordinary charm and grace of a Polish girl” .
As did many of his generation (such as Włodzimierz Kirchner, Julian Mioduszewski or Zygmunt Szporek) he advocated Pictorialism with its attachment to the fine art photographic techniques (such as bromoil, carbon print, cyanotype, gum bichromate etc.) and its pursuit of the universal ideal of beauty. Dorys’ participation in the First International Salon of Artistic Photography in Warsaw in 1927 was definitely a huge success and it is precisely in that very artistic milieu where the creative attitudes closest to his heart are to be found. The exhibition presented the works of the Polish photographical elite with Jan Bułhak at the forefront. According to Płażewski it was a formative event for the greatest talents of Polish artistic photography and it was where many artists made their debut […]”
Official studio portrait
Static portrait photographs were being taken in his Warsaw photographic studio chiefly for the wealthy clientele: the cultural elite, politicians and the military (until 1939). After WW2 he continued his work by expanding his repertoire to meet the demands of the party activists. These were mainly commissioned works, made in such a way as not to cause any controversy among the clients. As official portraits they could not stir a reaction or provoke with content such as the pre-war eroticism or highly developed experiments with face cropping. By considering the Pictorialist emphasis on the sfumato effect combined with an attempt to convey a certain intimacy and poetic air that came with this esthetics, one can certainly consider Dorys’ portraits as drawing from Pictorialism. Needless to say, these were idealized portraits, beautiful by definition. Similar works were created by Frank Eugene. The shadows dating back to the Romantics were used also by Heinrich Kuehn and Edward Steichen – one of the most world-renowned Pictorialists. The latter’s sunsets and nudes must have influenced European photography. Yet in terms of the realistic form, although of the type characteristic to realistic painting, Dorys might have been drawing from the early tradition dating back to the 1840’s and 1850’s when David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson were striving for psychologism. Their accomplishments, as with the ones of Julia Margaret Cameron, are echoed in the works of the American pictorialists .
Between the 1920’s up until the 1960’s, Dorys was an outstanding artist when it came to studio portraits bearing the marks of psychologism and idealization and was likely the last and most important link between the 19th and the 20th century in Poland. His oeuvre can be perceived as continuing the 19th century tradition exquisitely exemplified by such artists as Walery Rzewuski, Józef Sebald or Józef Kuczyński who remained active till 1939. That said, the latter was a member of the Polish Photo Club and like Jan Bułhak and Dorys, owned a photo services shop. Some of the so called shop photographers, mostly artisans, at the beginning of the 20th century strove to transform themselves into artist-photographers while still making their living as artisans.
The post-war studio works by Dorys certainly convey a certain realism, possibly inspired by Yousuf Karsh – a Canadian photographer of worldwide popularity who from 1941 emphasized the class, occupation and facial psychology of the subjects he portrayed. Prior to that Dorys photographed in a pictorial manner pursuing the beauty canon, visibly influenced by the esthetics of Jan Bułhak’s works or, to be more precise, by Robert de la Sizeranne, whose essay La Photographie est-elle un art? triggered Bułhak’s esthetic meditations.
Seen in this light the nudes, both the female and the slightly more perverse male ones, are of particular importance as private works of art not created for exhibitions but to be seen only by the chosen few.
When it comes to the female nudes one needs to remember that this type of photography was very popular with the Pictorialists. Nudes were commonly taken by such artists as Edward Steichen, Frank Eugene, Constant Puyo, Robert Demachy or William B. Dyer (L’Allego, 1907). In a European context also the international success of the Austrian photographer Rudolf Koppitz cannot be overlooked who in the late 1920s took extremely refined photos, both formally and in terms of their poetic air, depicting dancers from the Vienna State Opera (Motion Study, 1925). The nudes by Dorys were influenced by the painterly Jugendstil and the Young Poland (Młoda Polska) movement.
Dorys’ most successful nudes are the ones that exhibit the geometry and beauty of the body complemented by the shadows and simple geometrical forms in the background that additionally enhance the compositional value of these works. This line of work ran parallel to the practices of his contemporaries – nudes by Marian Dederka and portraits by Zygmunt Sporek (Skrzypek, 1928). Yet the boldness of Dorys’ nudes and their positioning against a backdrop of distinctly geometric forms brings him even closer to the Czech photographer František Drtikol whose works oscillated between modernism and Pictorialism and who was criticized precisely for such formal solutions. Dritkol’s artistic agenda however, was more progressive than Dorys’. The works by the Polish artist might have been modest attempts at embracing this atypical style.
1/ Private studio portrait
The category of the “private” denotes photographs whose esthetics consciously moved beyond the demands of Pictorialism. They were by the same token, artistic experiments and records of ludic situations, referring to or depicting the world of theatre, motion pictures and dance. It seems noteworthy that the male eroticism in Dorys’ pictorial works was inspired by the photographs of Clarence H. White, Wilhelm von Gloeden and George H. Seeley who often introduced it by recourse to mythological or biblical themes (Frank Eugene, Adam and Eve). These works constitute the extraordinary part of Dorys’ erotic portfolio. Dorys never exhibited any of these; until recently, before the digital Internet archive of his work was launched, only a few samples had been known by the public.
A private documentary from Kazimierz Dolny
In 1960 a series of photographs titled “Kazimierz nad Wisłą” was first exhibited and rapidly became considered Dorys’ most important artistic achievement as in those days such “quick” street photography of a social and critical character was not a common artistic practice. One of the early attempts at this genre was made in 1938 by Aleksander Minorski but the exhibition was quickly “taken down and the pamphlets confiscated while Minorski was sent to Bereza Kartuska [a detention camp]” . Such preventive actions and censorship, as absurd as they might seem now, certainly worked to discourage artists from socially-engaged work back then associated with anti-state anti-communist subversive agenda. Still, Dorys was influenced by Pictorialism to such an extent that it took some time before he started working with a Leica candid camera.
Dorys justified this new line of work in a conversation with Romuald Kłosiewicz: “the Leica madness was my private passion, a peculiar pleasure and a retreat from professional photography” . The series consists of photographs that could be subdivided thematically into the following categories: a/ Kazimierz as a Jewish city with its decrepit and poverty-stricken areas and small shops, human relationships, particularly those between “children” and “adults”. Some photos hint at Dorys’ voyeurism for which a small and light although expensive camera, came in particularly handy as it allowed the artist to quickly approach an interesting scene almost unnoticed. He also visited poor estates which evidently stirred their inhabitants, testifying to the unusual character of such exploits in those days; b) scenes from the circus and ones depicting the advertisement of a gypsy concert, as manifestations of mass culture and entertainment. One of the shots depicts the silhouette of an acrobat falling inside a circus tent, the image of which with its quick and transient quality, can be associated with modernity; c) life on the streets and the Main Square, modern cars, boys playing on the street. There are also photographs of a cloud of dust, which the artist discussed in his interview with Kłosiewicz and aerial shots of rooftops that resonate towards the Vilnius photos by Jan Bułhak from the WW1. The whole series can best be described as loose impressions, often very accurate observations, depictions of poverty, critical towards the captured reality and deeply empathetic. Some are rather chaotic due to the multitude of people photographed. Yet the series as such does not have a coherent narrative or main thesis which differentiates it from typical press reportage. It is an intuitive record of the life of the city and of its humble inhabitants, comparable to Dziga Vertov’s portrayals in the motion picture Man With a Movie Camera (1929) or, even earlier, Walter Ruttman’s in Berlin. Die Sinfonie der Großstadt (1927).
The essence of the (digital) archive, the essence of Dorys’ works
Dorys’ archive can provoke various interpretations of the artist’s oeuvre. Certainly it lets the audience appreciate him as an extremely versatile artist. Despite the variety of his work, Dorys was first and foremost an exquisite portraitist. He only occasionally played with the photographic form in his depictions of dance/theatre and with documentary which paradoxically, became his most important achievement, as was the case with his contemporaries Minorski or, even more so, Józef Szymańczyk and Stefan Kiełsznia.
As I have previously stated in my paper Budzenie się grozy. Aspekty fotografii polskiej lat 30. XX wieku i podczas II Wojny Światowej (Eng. The Horror Awakening. Aspects of Polish photography of the 1930s and WW2) whilst discussing the photographs taken with the Leica camera: “Benedykt J. Dorys documented the quotidian life of Kazimierz nad Wisłą of the 1930s without even realizing the importance of his project. Most often his works presented the pauperized lives of a small-town Polish-Jewish community. What he achieved was a realistic depiction, provided that such a thing exists at all and that this esthetic category might still be considered valid in axiological terms. It is a realism of a modernist kind but drawing from the 19th century pictorial and literary tradition. It presents static portraits as well as the dynamics of, among other things, the life of a circus.”