Dressed in their long white aprons, the members of this small business pose with grave faces in front of their store: a butcher and grocer, or rather, as indicated by the sign also written in Polish, “rzeźników i kolonialka.” Behind the sparkling window, we can see imposing meat carcasses and liquor bottles of all kinds, the signs of a thriving and prosperous business. In a perfectly balanced pyramid-shaped composition, we can guess who everyone is: the owner, of course, in a suit and tie, whose name Kazimierz Wozniak appears on the front of the shop; on his left is most certainly his wife, carrying their child in her arms, also wearing an apron to show her contribution to the store; and lastly, the rest of the team: apprentices or other family members who are employed thanks the merchant’s generosity and sense of community.
There were hundreds of images such as these in Kasimir Zgorecki’s archives, which Frédéric Lefever, who was married to one of Zgorecki’s grandaughters, discovered in the early 1990s. In the family attic, he found no less than 3,700 photographic plates of this grandfather and photographer who had arrived in France some seventy years earlier, in 1922, when he was only 18 years old. After a brief stint at the mine, he was quickly trained as a photographer by his brother-in-law. From then on, he became the official photographer of the Polish community living in the mining area of northern France. Weddings, baptisms, ID photos, military service— Zgorecki immortalized the big and small events that punctuated the lives of his countrymen.
“The thousands of portraits Zgorecki took during that time period were commissioned from the subjects themselves,” explains Frédéric Lefever, “and in an immigration context, the photographs had a utilitarian function: they established a connection with the family that had stayed back in the homeland.” The photographs were therefore more than just souvenirs, and were meant to be sent to the family in Poland to show them proof of a successful integration. Fully aware of what they would be used for, Zgorecki also printed them in postcard format, with a space for the recipient’s address and the stamp on the back side. By posing proudly in front of his gleeming butcher’s shop alongside his employees, the Wozniak father offers up an idealized image of himself that erases the suffering of exile and the harshness of daily life. And while this helped the family members that had stayed back in the homeland better accept their loved one’s move to a distant land, today it is his descendants who have the opportunity to recognize, for the space of an exhibition, the face of a forgotten ancestor.
By Coline Olsina
Kasimir Zgorecki, Photographs from “Lesser Poland” (1924-1939)
September 25, 2019 – March 30, 2020
Louvre-Lens Museum, 99 Rue Paul Bert, 62300 Lens