Krzysztof Pruszkowski: Photographing What Doesn’t Exist
Initially trained as an architect, Polish-born Krzysztof Pruszkowski took up photography after moving to Paris in 1965. He did fashion, publicity and documentary work for several years before feeling the constraints of what he perceived as the expressive limitations of single images. He subsequently devised a method of extreme multiple-image creation beginning in 1975 called Photosynthesis. Inspired in part by Jacques Derrida’s concept of drawing numerous interpretations from a single text, the dense visual layering of Pruszkowski’s images is mirrored by their kaleidoscopic allusions to all manner of philosophical, cultural, sexual and political issues. His recent projects include a look at media representations of terrorists and their victims, as well as a series focused on myths of the 20th century.
Poland has a rich history of experimental and politically engaged photography. Although you had moved to Paris at 22, do you feel that Photosynthesis is linked to this tradition, if only in spirit?
No. I created the “total vision” concept of Photosynthesis in opposition to the dogmatic concept of the “decisive moment” formed in the middle of the 20th century by Henri Cartier-Bresson. That aesthetic became the “canon obligatoire” in photography, and it also became a nice product for the export of French culture and lifestyle. The paradoxical fact is that the exceptional quality of Cartier-Bresson’s reportage, and the quality of documentary photography in France in general, brought photography to a standstill—like painting in the 19th century—and inhibited French photographers from developing a modern vision.
Leaving aside Cartier-Bresson, have you been influenced or inspired by any other photographers?
I’m very impressed with how Julia Margaret Cameron approached the “essence” of photographic truth, and found a psychological dimension in her portraits. I appreciate the work of Baron de Meyer for the transparency of his light, especially in his nudes. I’m fascinated by the maximalist perspective that informed Bill Brandt’s creativity—using extreme wide-angle lenses for his nudes and portraits—and by his moral conscience in making politically engaged photographic documentation of English workers. And at the beginning of the 20th century the famous Polish writer and painter S.I. Witkiewicz created an amazing series of auto-portraits and portraits of his girlfriends, which, with evident will, discard the distance between photographer and model.
How did you develop the idea for the Photosynthesis process?
When I worked in fashion photography I soon realized that clients and modeling agencies selected only certain kinds of female models. In order to understand their selection principles, I began to make composite portraits of models with different physiques. That inspired me to apply this composite approach not only to portraits, but all kinds of subject matter, thereby creating visual “prototypes” for a photographic dictionary of a new visual language. Then I began to create materializations of ideas rather than objects or events.
Were single images not expressive enough for you?
Single images are boring. We can learn from those images nothing more than what we are able to see directly. They are dead. In contrast, Photosynthesis emits fabulous energy arising from the tensions that exist between different forms concentrated deep in the photographic surface of the image.
Is the layering done in camera or in the darkroom?
The miracle of image creation that Photosynthesis represents is performed inside the camera, where it is possible to easily composite countless space-time situations. I have built more than 200 special cameras with instant developing capabilities for this purpose, including an 8x10 Polaroid reflex camera. As a tribute to the ingenious inventor of Polaroid they are named Prusland cameras.
What does this layering represent to you?
It is something very special. I take photos of things that have never existed, do not exist, and will never exist. It is not the result of my imagination or someone else’s imagination. The final form of the image is not even the result of my initial intention. The form of these photographs is always “negotiated.”
15 Miradors, Madjanek, Poland
What exactly are you trying to communicate through these densely layered “negotiations?”
I want to share my experience with others. I create on photographic paper a virtual diagram resulting from the interplay of forces and energies existing between the forms and myself during the Photosynthesis experience.
The layering seems to be a way to undermine overused visual tropes so as to force viewers to look beyond the physical surface of your subject matter.
Absolutely. The process of penetrating into the surface of a photograph in order to see and understand something deeper is fundamental. My goal is for viewers to pass into the other side of the mirror like Alice in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” I want them to lose themselves and penetrate the subconscious, in the process becoming a little freer in their way of looking at and thinking about the world around them. But on the other hand, the image deconstruction that Photosynthesis creates is very open-ended. In every instant the viewer retains the possibility of coming back, of leaving the surface of the paper and detaching from the generic image.
Is the visual disorientation in the images meant to evoke the instability of modern life?
Yes, but it also concerns the difficulty of communicating the possibility of a complex situation existing in time, space and mind.
Ramses II, Luxor, Egypt
Many of these images draw on your architectural background to reference how ancient and modern structures have been used as an assertion of autocratic authority.
Yes. The image “15 Miradors,” of the Majdanek German concentration and extermination camp near Lublin, Poland, is a study about typology, the architecture of power, and the philosophy of domination. The image of the statue of Ramses II standing between stone columns is a similar expression of absolute rule.
Is it important that your work always have a strong social and/or political component?
I don’t care what is currently “important.” I work by intuition regarding problems that I am concerned about. I try to take pictures of existing things. If I express myself through art, it has to be strong. In fact, everything in life is social and political.
(Images kindly furnished by I Photo Central, on online photo gallery and collecting resource that represents Krzysztof Pruszkowki’s work. Contact: email@example.com)