In his studio in Rouvroy (Pas-de-Calais, France), Kasimir Zgorecki had memorialized thousands of faces of the Polish diaspora in Northern France. They are now brought together in a wonderful book and an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Tours, France.
Photography allows us to grow fond of strangers who have suddenly entered our lives, as if they were a part of the family. This is true of those who put an appearance in Studio Zgorecki: men, women, and children who seem to be looking straight at us, posing with a typical early-twentieth-century solemnity — before it had become fashionable to slouch before the camera.
This majestic pose is also due to the photographer himself, “to his frontal vision,” in the words of Frédéric Lefever who, with rare single-mindedness, brought to light the work of Kasimir Zgorecki (1904–1980). As soon as it was discovered in 1990, Lefever cleared the ground for this exceptional body of commercial work, comprising over 7,000 glass negatives in four formats: 6×9 cm, 10×15 cm, 13×18 cm, and 24×30 cm. In one of the texts in this wonderful volume published by Filigranes and accompanying an exhibition at the Jeu de Paume/Tours, now extended until Fall, Lefever describes his passion for the archives and explains the interpretative choice to create modern prints (“this wasn’t a question of making fakes”). Those who have good memory will recognize some of the portraits featured at the Centre national de la Photographie in Paris in 1994, then headed by Robert Delpire.
While Kasimir Zgorecki left “no texts or writing about his practice,” his photographs, taken between 1924 and 1957, silently and attentively retrace the life of a Polish community, but without any documentary intent — emphasized Pia Viewing, co-curator of the exhibition. From baptisms to funerals, from the Polish Gymnastics Association “Sokol” to choirs, from children to notable shopkeepers — all elements are there to tell the story of a population proud of their culture and their imprint on this mining area. It was Poles who had largely built “the region’s mining industry,” wrote Yves Frey, detailing the efforts of the first Polish immigrants who settled in France before World War I.
Kasimir Zgorecki, a boilermaker by training, was twenty in 1924 when he opened his photo studio in Rouvroy (Pas-de-Calais), after briefly working, like his father, as a miner in pit 10 at Billy-Montigny. It was his brother-in-law, François Kmieczak (1895–1962), who introduced him to photography. On page 74, we can see them posing for a family self-portrait on the studio’s doorstep: Kasimir wearing a lab coat; next to him, his sister Edwige, his father, and his mother… To cross the threshold to have an identity photo taken meant becoming someone else: the sitter must assume more or less fleeting stillness and trust the photographer. In addition to identity photos, Zgorecki also made keepsake portraits for family albums; some spectacular group portraits; as well as a series of original self-portraits, posing as a dandy or a spahi.
A curious fact: Zgorecki cropped his photos in the lab, freely retouching and colorizing. His was “quite a pictorial body of work,” noted Frédéric Lefever. “It gave everyone the opportunity to access their own past.”
Par Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
Studio Zgorecki, Filigranes Éditions / Jeu de Paume, €35 euros, 168 pp., English and French Texts by Pia Viewing, Frédéric Lefever, Yves Frey, Anne Cartier-Bresson, Preface by Quentin Bajac. The book is available here.
Exhibition at Jeu de Paume/Tours, until October 31, 2021.