Photo-albums created by Eva Boros, interview with Weronika Kobylińska-Bunsch
Magdalena Herman: The doctoral dissertation, which you are preparing in the Institute of Art History at the University of Warsaw, concerns Polish pre- and post-war avant-garde photography. This year, however, you decided to engage in quite different research. What is this new project about?
Weronika Kobylińska-Bunsch: This year, during my research in London, I was focusing on two photo-albums created by Eva Boros – the first wife of the legendary photographer: Bill Brandt. These albums were purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013. However, despite the fact that they are connected to an artist, whose input into the 20th century art cannot be denied, these albums have not been described and analysed in detail yet. The main aim of my project was to capture the intriguing specificity of this artistic phenomenon.
MH: What are the roots of this project and how did you find these albums?
WK-B: The origins of this new project are strongly connected to my PhD thesis, in which I am describing the theoretical and social background of the development of the Polish avant-garde photography. I found Boros’s albums while I was searching for works from the inter-war period in foreign collections in order to compare them with Polish photographs. As a result, I believe that I have discovered something much more valuable, which definitely has the potential to play a far more important role than just serving as comparative material. I sensed that those albums deserve special attention and further investigation.
MH: What is so special about those albums and what is represented on the photographs put into them?
WK-B: The albums by Eva Boros were created between 1928 and 1936. The uniqueness of these collections stems from, among others, the fact that they break the traditional, chronological narrative associated with this type of objects. For instance, while we usually would expect that intimate albums would include only snapshots from vacations or family gatherings and that it will be easy to identify people portrayed in, this is not the case in these albums. Instead, the images flee from the regime of the linear time-line. Moreover, sometimes they do not have any descriptions, so the names of many characters are unknown. Neither the history (events), nor the people are our heroes here. In my opinion, the key for every page is hidden in a pure game of visual associations. The power of the eye appears to be far more crucial than the urge to preserve memories. This is very surprising considering that we are dealing ostensibly with an object from the ‘vernacular’ (domestic, private) sphere.
MH: What research goals did you set at the planning phase?
WK-B: The first stage of the research was dedicated to preparing a catalogue of all photographs which are present in the albums. From the very beginning I noticed that those prints break the boundaries of so called ‘vernacular’ snapshots. Things were even more complicated, because in her albums Boros often used the very first contact prints of Brandt’s works, which were just about to become his most famous, iconic pieces (presented in the newspapers or galleries). As a result, in those few publications, which mention the albums, they are described just as a pure compilation (the word “compilation”, used instead of “creation” is very meaningful in this context) of Brandt’s photographs. Therefore, I have decided that the second part of my project would be devoted to Brandt’s photographs from the same period. I wanted to check how many pieces are truly Brandt’s work. I suspected that in this case, the female input has been heavily underestimated
MH: Was it challenging to confront with the material which combines different genres and types of photographs (professional with amateur, official with private)?
WK-B: The confrontation with these objects, which represent quite a new type of material for me, was very demanding and ‘refreshing’ at the same time. Usually I analyse prints which were prepared with intention to present them on an exhibition or at least I am dealing with the stages preceding the final result (which had its later premier in a gallery). In this particular case, I had to step out of my comfort zone. What is so striking, while considering Boros’s albums, is that in this case, the traditional binary oppositions are all called into question.
It appeared that I needed to face pieces which were usually excluded from art history or at least that they were situated at the very margins of our discipline. Our field of study has, for a long time, not appreciated unknown objects or cases in which the dating is uncertain. We are still strongly attached to those defining categories, which allow us to evaluate and define an artefact. This problem is still visible, for example, in the sphere of museology. We prefer to astonish the viewer with the final, masterly completed products, instead of drawing his attention to the sketches, contact sheets or studies presenting few versions of the same motif. Due to the fact that the aforementioned materials preluded the final work, we conventionally consider them to be inferior. The albums by Boros – which have not been appreciated as independent objects – perfectly present this case.
MH: Based on your research, what new can we learn about Brandt’s photographs?
WK-B: The results of my analysis have not yet been published, but at this stage I think I can underline, that we still need to re-read the art history and the masculine perspective that is strongly rooted in our discipline. In the light of my research, Boros (who is now completely forgotten) appears to be of crucial importance as Brandt’s companion. She is strongly present at the very first stage of creation of his most famous pieces. Moreover, I would like to emphasize how creative and alluring her visual sets are. I think that most valuable aspect of my work will be not a set of new data about famous Brandt, but rather re-enacting the role of a forgotten and marginalized author.
MH: What is your interpretation of these albums? Do you perceive them as Boros’s interpretation of Brandt’s pictures, or rather her own strategy which was re-using her husband’s photographs? Or maybe a combination of both?
WK-B: It appears that the photographs taken by Brandt constitute only a small percentage of the prints included in the albums. Among works by Brandt and most probably Boros herself, we can also find many portraits of them created by anonymous, random people, who were accidentally present during certain events, and were thus fortuitously responsible for releasing the shutter. From my standpoint, every page from the album can be defined as an independent collage. Seen as such, it should not be interpreted only in relation/or opposition to Brandt’s oeuvre, but as an individual piece. Boros’s strategy – which was based on creating visual constellations from different photographic materials – can be seen as a method associated with the beginnings of modernism. Collage would eventually become a distinctive part of modern art.
MH: Did your research on Boros’s albums has helped you to reconsider some aspects of the Polish avant-garde photography?
WK-B: The re-evaluation of those albums certainly encouraged me to become far more critical and open-minded observer of visual culture. I am strongly convinced that this case study will have a great impact on my future work, not only my PhD. After this experience I would like to include a larger chapter about the position of women in the inter-war Polish photographic milieu in my doctoral dissertation.
MH: What made the realization of this project possible?
WK-B: I am very thankful to The De Brzezie Lanckoronski Foundation, through whose generosity my project and my stay in London was possible. This Foundation was established by Karolina Lanckorońska in 1973 and its main purpose is to finance scholarships for academics conducting research into the humanities in the UK.
MH: What are your plans for the future?
WK-B: The results of my project will be presented in June 2018 at the Institute of History Polish Academy of Sciences in a form of a public lecture, where representatives of different disciplines will attend as listeners: art historians, specialist in visual and cultural studies, anthropologists, ethnologists, historians. I also plan to publish an article about this material, but firstly I need to finish my book about photographic group exhibitions organized by Association of Polish Art Photographers between 1950s and 1960s at the Zachęta Gallery. This volume will be the result of my participation in Professor Gabriela Świtek’s project entitled History of Exhibitions at the Zachęta – Central Bureau of Artistic Exhibitions 1949-1970, which was financed by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education’s National Programme for the Development of Humanities.
Study Room in the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2018, fot. Weronika Kobylińska-Bunsch