Photographic archives, as Allan Sekula has noted in his fantastic essay, “Reading an Archive,” are notoriously slippery constructions. Disconnected from their context, their authorship is constantly in question. For whom and why were these pictures made? Everyone who looks through the images becomes an author, reframing the way we see the images contained and making decisions the original photographer would not have made. The process of winnowing an archive of this size down to twenty or thirty images very definitely creates a new authorship, and we can only guess at what Zofia Rydet would have thought.
Reading through the published interviews and letters, there is no indication that my selections are anything she would have pursued; yet one can’t help but think, given today’s perspective, that what I’m about to argue would resonate with her. It seems quite clear that Zofia Rydet was enamored of the people she photographed, and loved the interactions she had with her subjects. She found the Polish countryside charming in its traditionalism, both architecturally and socially. In her letters she talks about presenting these images to the Pope to show him how the people loved him. However, from the little information that is available in English, it appears that Rydet was far from traditional herself. She describes doing the housework in the morning before she sets out on a photographic journey, or spending the day in the darkroom, breaking only to eat. Mostly, her letters describe her passion for her work, and the almost frenzied pace at which she worked in order to accomplish the goals of her project. In short, although she doesn’t mention it in the writings I’ve read, she appears to be a strong woman who must have been aware of the feminist movement and had an interest in the lives of women.
This is not to say that it is her sole interest or even a predominant one, but there seems to be an effort to look at the lives of women: how they would like to be represented and how they represent themselves. From young girls to very elderly women, Rydet’s female subjects appear resolute and determined—in some cases, even joyful. Naturally, a good portion of this rhetoric is created by the specifics of the images themselves. Although she wasn’t formally trained as a semiotician, she had a keen eye for all the little details that provide a context for the person depicted, as well as a deep awareness of the way photographs function in a culture of information exchange. Her compositions seem at once extremely casual yet absolutely sophisticated. All this seems particularly important in thinking about how she’s framing women, both figuratively and literally. She is aware of their role in creating the space that contextualizes them, and she appears to be thinking about the composition and pose in relationship to the image’s meaning.
In the collection of women on doorsteps, for instance, there are so many ways she could have gone about making the images. As typology, she might have framed each one similarly so as to draw a comparison from one site to the next. Instead, each image includes only enough of the architecture to give the woman an appropriate presence. Some of the women stand just inside the doorway as if to say, “This is where I feel comfortable.” Others stand on the step just beyond the threshold, as if the whole composition is a display. In one of the more urban images, a woman stands on the steps leading into a courtyard. The tidy arrangement of plants, bench, table, and washbasin leads one to believe that this is her space, the courtyard being an intimate site of daily chores as opposed to the public face of the building.
The personal is an obvious text of the interior portraits Rydet made. These are slightly more programmatic in their construction, with the subject almost always against the back wall of the room, a rug or pictures customarily hanging behind them. In most cases, these rooms are dark, requiring the use of a flash that fades to the edges of her wide-angle lens, giving them a cave-like yet clinical feeling. In this strange light, the personal objects in these photographs appear more like text. Their odd juxtapositions tell a story that is both haphazard and well defined. A vase of flowers on an embroidered tablecloth, bespeaking an upbringing steeped in domestic life, might be oddly lit from both the flash and available light slanting in through the window, lending it a surreal quality. A ball of yarn, rolling out onto the plane of a carpet, anchors the knitter sitting on a couch as if she would float away without it.
It is not just domestic life and the home that frames the lives of Rydet’s women. They also find their place in the collection entitled “Professions.” Clearly, she sought out women for this series so as not to cede the workplace to men or to suggest that women’s work is limited to household work. As a professional herself, Rydet must have faced the challenges that women have always faced in a gendered society. Here, the categories of the archive start to frame the world she is depicting. Where does work end? It would be easy to make the argument that her self-portrait in a mirror should be classified as “Professions” rather than as “People in Interiors,” and that the woman feeding her chickens in Ostropa may be on her doorstep, but is clearly engaging in some kind of labor. From the perspective of an outsider—foreign to both the place and the time—it’s difficult to know if these are intentional omissions or the unintentional consequences of a project that was deeply personal and obsessive in its desire to be inclusive.View author's photo selection.