At the end of the past century’s 90s, about 1200 photographic glass plates were found inside a wall in a council house in Dębica, a small town in southern Poland. The state of conservation of the found content immediately appears to be largely damaged. After several vicissitudes, the plates arrive in Krakow at the Academy of Photography and the Ethnographic Museum to be studied and restored.
The value of the found images is instantly evident. These are negatives datable between 1918 and 1939 that portray local people; merchants, artisans, farmers, priests and Jews. Unknown people, in which the portrayed fixed gazes dominate, with a fearful attitude, mainly without expressions, with a surprising serial steadiness that further underlines the rough, sober scenario, we would define as minimalist today. A work that if read with current eyes presents itself with a strong conceptual flavour. Stains, scratches and mould contribute to this sensation, which combined can create an unintentional and evocative setting that gives us the idea of temporal overlapping following multiple sedimentations of instants, which turn into stories. Stories unknown and therefore mysterious and of great interest.
A surprising matter is the presence on every single plate of two portraits. Where does this doubling come from? Most likely it was not a consciously made artistic choice, but a common sense of thrift to save on photographic materials. Today, in the reproduction of these glass plates, much of the visual tension is given by the double presence, two faces for what were two distinct prints. Thus begins an involuntary game of matching the pairs. Sometimes it is the same portrait, just slightly divergent (fig. 1), other times we find somewhat similar subjects from which a degree of kinship is guessed or assumed (fig. 2), in others we find people strangers to each other, in a strong visual contrast (fig. 3). In some cases one upside-down in respect to the other (fig.3), like playing cards, an involuntary and expressive irreconcilability. It almost seems like every person, of different age and class of the place (fig. 4), has felt the need to put themselves in front of the lens, and it is amazing the ability from the photographer to standardize, to level the differences. With a “democratizing” tenacity his gaze unites and once uniformity has been achieved, all that remains is to rely on one single data to read: the variability of the details. A button, a tie, a pair of glasses, a haircut, a fabric design, a boy’s oversized robe
Here then emerges from the photograph what Roland Barthes theorized, in the light room: the punctum, of paying attention to the detail, a pungent interest “which, starting from the scene, like an arrow, pierces me” Moreover, pondering the relationships between people who have been involuntarily paired on the same plate. It is a fascinating work – all the more so because we can simultaneously see a group portrait of a certain community; a community whose great part will soon be atrociously destroyed during World War II. At first it was not possible to identify the author of the photographs, despite his initials on the plates. It took some time for research and the active involvement of the Imago Mundi Foundation to bring out from oblivion an extraordinary figure, a woman, Stefania Guardowa (fig. 5).
There are few biographical notes. What we know about her is that she was born on December 24th , 1888 in Bochnia,
Poland. It was a mining town in the south at the time, within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father, Jozef, was the conductor of the local orchestra. She married Kazimierz Kurda and in 1917 had a daughter, Sophie.
She took up the work of the photographer which was very unusual for a woman at the time. She opened her own independent studio (1921) and had, even more surprisingly, with men as employees. The marriage failed.
Stefania took her daughter Sophie with her, a piano, as she was also a talented musician, and moved to Silesia (1930) (fig. 6 and fig. 7). During the Nazi occupation, her studio was seized. She applied to be able to work there as an employee. Her daughter Sophie and her niece Basia fled to France via Austria. In 1942 Stefania was imprisoned and sent to the Auschwitz extermination camp. She survived and remained there until the camp liberation. She found her daughter and granddaughter through research carried out with the Red Cross in France. The niece Basia returned to Poland. Her grandmother lived with her for about ten years (fig. 8). In the meantime she resumed her photography activity by opening a new studio and working in a co-op in Łodygowicach near Zywiec.
Stefania Guardowa died on November 3rd, 1968 and was buried in the tomb of the Kubiców family, who took care of her before she died. What remains is only a fraction of her work. Much of the archive was destroyed in the flood that history is, in the men’s apocalypse that was World War II. There remains a question that will not be answered: why was the glass plates collection hidden in the wall of her studio in Debica? Was it a conscious decision by Stefania Gurdowa? Why did that set of negatives come down to us? Was it an attempt to save someone from something? What is the moral task that Stefania Guardowa entrusts to us? She was a woman of undoubted talent, consistency and strong independence. She lived far from the great culture centers and this is what makes her even more interesting in the historical panorama of photography. Stefania Guardowa still has a lot to teach, her images are destined to last over time, enriching themselves with time itself. They are anonymous portraits of denied existences consigned forever to history. (fig. 9-fig. 12)