Beata Bartecka and Łukasz Rusznica, How To Look Natural In Photos

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2021 by Ośrodek Postaw Twórczych (OPT) (here) and Palm* Studios (here). Hardcover with tipped in photo and debossed lettering, 20×26.4 cm, 304 pages, with 149 images and an illustrated index. Includes an essay by Tomasz Stempowski, and texts in English and Polish. Design by Joanna Jopkiewicz (Grupa Projektor). In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Institutional archives have always tantalized photographers. In the past few years, perhaps spurred by ease of online access or shifting notions of appropriation and veracity, the pace of activity seems to have picked up. Sam Contis, Lukas Birk, Taryn Simon, and Gloria Oyarzabal (reviewed here) are among several photographers carving recent paths through the archival forest. And for those seeking controversial material, few prospects are more delicious than secret police photographs. Interactions with authority can create volatile permutations regardless of locale—as last summer’s scenes of global unrest will confirm. But 20th century Poland has an especially fraught history. A sizable chunk of its past occurred under the occupation of Germany and then Russia, enforced in turn by various suppressive and authoritative measures. 

Poland has suffered more oppression than most, but in at least one way it is typical. Cameras have been clicking throughout the country’s modern history, operated by both authorities and onlookers. This visual record was collected in piecemeal fashion, and after Polish independence circa 1990, a portion found its way into the archives of the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) in Warsaw. Like Israel’s Yad Vashem or South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, IPN was established to bear witness to past malfeasance, establishing a documentary baseline for future progress, or at least that was the hope. IPN’s mission statement: “to research and popularize the modern history of Poland and to investigate crimes committed”.  

For Polish photographer Łukasz Rusznica, IPN proved to be a goldmine. His 2014 exhibition How To Photograph? curated IPN’s archives of Polish Secret Police photography from 1944 to 1989. The show was a success. With the help of Beata Bartecka, How To Photograph? has now made the leap into book form under the slightly altered title How To Look Natural In Photos. The monograph’s droll moniker is adapted from instructions given to Polish officers capturing mugshots in the Communist era:  “When shooting a photograph, a condition for obtaining a natural look from the subject is to create an atmosphere in which he or she feels at ease.” 

Easier said than done, as any photographer can attest. And the task might prove even more difficult under authoritarian conditions. Nevertheless, many mugshots were taken and several are included here. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. How To Look Natural In Photos ranges voraciously through other photographic genres as well. In the context of recent civil unrest in the U.S., pictures of wounded civilians, burning wreckage, and flowered memorial sites feel quite contemporary. These are supplemented with surveillance footage, training exercises, crime scenes, spy materials, protest sites, refugees, court documents and more.

Such material has potential to bog down into heavy handedness. But Bartecka and Rusznica take a different tack. They have stripped the pictures of original context. There are no captions in the main body of work (they come later in a helpful rear index), and this section is presented as a loose mish-mash of archival appropriation. Images of prone bodies, marching soldiers, and covert street surveillance hint at authoritarian themes, but only in vague gestures. It’s impossible to draw much concrete information from them, and in fact most of their original menace is subjugated by aesthetic charm. These are pictures as art, not evidence. The book’s layout plays into the act, setting a brisk clip of varied forms, sizes, dates, and tonal qualities. Even the title steers toward diversion. How To Look Natural In Photos is more absurdist sobriquet than dark remembrance.

In a short colophon note, Rusznica says he conceptualized the work “on the conflict between the ethical and the aesthetic”. That may have been true originally, but the aesthetic seems to have won this particular battle. The pictures are visual dynamite. As for the ethical? It’s been shuffled off to the end, in the form of a lengthy essay by Tomasz Stempowski. He articulates the many facets of police photographs, from enemy files to covert recording to photography as threat or denunciatory material. Stempowski’s critique is sharp and well reasoned but it feels strangely divorced from the images. They just want to entertain.

The obvious touchstone is Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, improbably still the gold standard for appropriated hijinks more than four decades after publication. Sifting through science journals the pair struck unlikely pay dirt, the impact of which became outsized when separated from academic reference. The pictures found by Rusznica and Bartecka are not as consistently strong as Evidence. To be fair, few books are. But the goal feels similar, as does the irreverent tone of ambiguity. If Rusznica and Bartecka had sought to split the ethical/aesthetic balance more evenly, they might have produced something like Sandra Phillips’s Police Pictures: The Photograph As Evidence, the exhibition/book produced in 1997. Its many great images were presented as evidentiary material, with careful documentation. But, perhaps signaling a shift in 21st century mores, How To Look Natural In Photos favors gut reaction over data.

As a pure photobook, this approach works like a charm. Some of these pictures are spectacular, and many make sly insider references. The opening image is an old monochrome scene of two figures in a village hut. It would be mysterious enough on its own, but water damage has removed large chunks of its surface, creating splotchy patterns reminiscent of Meghann Riepenhoff. It might be inadmissible as police evidence, but as art it passes just fine. A protest photograph of burning wreckage from 1970 bears some similarity to the famous André Kertész’ 1928 photo of Meudon, and a contrasty picture of a woman peering out of a destroyed security office might pass unnoticed in any Daido Moriyama book. Several spreads connect unrelated pictures by visual cues alone, such as a pairing of a trapdoor hiding spot and a refugee holding open a shark’s mouth. Photographs containing light leaks, doubled frames, emulsion damage, and crop marks blend easily into the process-friendly explorations of recent contemporary work. 

If these and other comparisons invite themselves, it might be a function of the book’s sheer range, which seems eager to explore nearly every precedent. In fact the book’s very structure is photographic, with small pockets of material repeating throughout the book in fugued reprisals, like scenes being shot and reshot. A police battalion with purple crop marks makes repeated appearances, as does the bland face of a security officer named Olazewski Wlodzimierz. In a sequence at the book’s center, with shades of Robbert Flick, frames of surveillance footage cascade into smaller and smaller blocks, until any utility it might have had is subsumed by abstraction.

The idea that photographic truth is relative, with new and alternate meanings assigned later, is not new. Since Evidence, photographers including Tacita Dean, Roe Ethridge, and Hans-Peter Feldmann have helped to flesh out this terrain, to name just a few. But skepticism of reality has gained increased currency in the Trump era. Some have called ours a post-fact world. I won’t go that far. Let’s just say truth, rumor, and conspiracy now strive for footing in an equilibrium more fluid than ever. History itself is seemingly up for grabs, even broadly witnessed events. By divorcing police imagery from its original intent, How To Look Natural In Photos comments on the equivocal nature of photos, and signals a path forward. But its contribution to the conversation seems more nonplussed than political.   

Regardless of meanings applied later, photographs still possess raw power as vehicles of truth, and authorities rightly regard them with some wariness. Pictures early in the book of hidden cameras and camouflage gear depict these objects as dangerous instruments. The inside of a darkroom is photographed top-down, a bucket of chemicals looking like a cauldron of sorcery. The nascent spark of rebellion perhaps? A picture of a memorial site with framed photos on scaffolding won’t let the past be easily forgotten. Such photographs imply that pictures can deployed against the state as easily as for it. As for how to look natural in such photos? The answer will depend on the viewer.

Collector’s POV: All photographs are from the archives of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN). They are not available for collectors to purchase.

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