Zofia Rydet in: Krystyna Łyczywek, Conversations on Photography 1970–1990, Voivodeship Council in Szczecin and the Association of Polish Art Photographers (ZPAF) in Warsaw, Szczecin 1990, pp. 33–37
Krystyna Łyczywek: Zofia, in 1967 you wrote to me of your fascination for the huts in Zalipie and those in Yugoslavia and Romania, that you always walked out of those houses feeling richer for having seen part of someone’s life. At the same time you asked if photography can render—even in part—those beautiful and moving stories that you witnessed. When did you first have the idea of making the Sociological Record? Because you were always interested in people—all your exhibitions have been devoted to them, from Mały Człowiek [Little Man] to Świat [uczuć i] wyobraźni [The World of Feelings and Imagination] and Czas przemijania [The Passing of Time].
Zofia Rydet: Once, some friends and I traveled to Jelcz, and there was a hall that had been transformed into office cubicles. Although they were identical, they differed a great deal, because the people working there decorated them with what they liked to look at. The things I saw! Beautiful girls and holy icons. Jazz stars and photos of children. Hunting trophies and rosaries. Each person marked his space with his personality. And that’s how it began.
Tell me, what is your method when you enter a private home? I had the chance to see you work when I walked around with you, but I would like you to share your experiences.
I knock on the door, I say “hello,” and I shake hands.
I enter the home, look around carefully, and I immediately see something beautiful, something unusual, and I compliment it. The owner is pleased that I like it, and then I take the first photograph. Everyone has something in his house that is most precious to him. If I manage to notice this, then this person submits at once. I take advantage of this moment. I ask them to have a seat (this is very often a married couple) in front of the main wall, the most interesting one, the one most decorated with pictures and tapestries, and I take the photograph. The focal point in the village hut is the television set, which is on all day. There are generally few books. What is most precious (most often a portrait of Pope John Paul II) goes on top of the television. By now I have thousands of photographs of pictures of the pope in various settings.
Zofia, you not only always see something beautiful in these living spaces, but also in every person. You say that even the most weather-beaten and ugly old man is beautiful.
I know that some people think I am delusional or conniving when I tell these people that they are beautiful. But I really do see something interesting and beautiful in everyone, I am charmed by something in each individual that is worth salvaging—particularly those wonderful human tales that I hear during those visits. Every person is a separate story; some are fascinating, some instructive, sometimes they are deeply touching.
It’s a shame you haven’t recorded them, your documentation would be more complete.
A tape recorder makes people freeze up. Once I was in Podhale and I saw a picture of the Holy Mother in a hut, alongside of which were portraits of Gierek and Brezhnev. I asked how these could be hanging next to the holy picture. Then the highlander [whose hut I was in] told me: “I believe in the Holy Mother and I praise her. Gierek and Brezhnev can lick my ass, but they protect me when someone important drops by.” Because she kept telling me very interesting stories, I dropped by the next day with a friend who had a recorder. Nothing came out of it—she was stiff and barely spoke.
Only those who inspire a great deal of confidence in people can photograph them like you do. Do you have as much luck in the cities?
In the cities I only enter those homes whose inhabitants invite me. This is much more complicated because both they and I are specially prepared for it. Those homes are utterly different. If they are families with some tradition, then the objects found there have their own style and tradition, their history and value. The photographing is much more labor intensive, it takes more time, I have to adjust to the pace of the inhabitants’ lives, and, above all, I have to supply them with printed pictures, which I generally don’t do in the villages. That slows the rhythm of my work. I don’t have the strength to make so many enlargements, and I have thousands of negatives. At the moment, fifty rolls of film are waiting to be developed.
And do you keep exact records with names, locations, and dates, or maybe descriptions of the stories you have heard? I know, after all, that these people don’t let you leave their homes so easily, that you have to hear their confessions, especially since these are often elderly, sick, and lonely people who are happy that someone takes an interest in them. Such descriptive commentaries would add life to the pictures.
Unfortunately, I have no time for that, but every picture has its data: year, full name, location.
Do you always photograph inside and with a flash?
Not only; I also take pictures in open doorways, of women on thresholds. I already have a whole series of Polish matrons. They are seemingly similar in their poses and gestures—and yet they’re different. Think about it: Without their clothes you can’t tell a scholar from a peasant, a doctor from a beggar. You can tell the women photographed in doorways apart by their clothes, but also by the frames of their doors, which change depending on the region. Moreover, Silesian women are generally very fat, while those around Białystok are tall and slim.
Do you also take photographs in the urban housing estates?
Seldom. In those new apartments you can’t really see the personalities of the inhabitants. Generally there’s a wall unit, two crystal vases, and three books, and the people have dull faces.
Have you decided to photograph only Polish homes?
The Bulgarians, Germans, and even the French have been interested in my work, but I have only been in eighteen [Polish] voivodeships to date. In a dozen or so years these huts will all be gone. Right now, after three or four years, I can already see the difference—the huts are vanishing or being rebuilt. I don’t have any homes from the outskirts of Warsaw, but I’m afraid of going there.
Well, if you’ve taken on such a massive job as documenting houses in all of Poland, then you’ve got your work cut out for you for the next twenty years.
What I am doing right now is the result of my experience. I know what I want to do. Some time ago I noted down my feelings and concerns. Today I just try to create ordinary documentary photographs. This work, created with great consistency, brings me satisfaction and strength, as well as the certainty that I will leave something behind, assuming the world doesn’t cease to exist. Just to be safe, I send my work to various places—here I do not scrimp. If the bomb falls here, maybe it won’t in Moscow or in Rome.
There are those who claim that real art comes from rational contemplation, to calculate an effect.
I will never agree with that. To my mind, photography is not only a visual image but, above all, a language with which I would like to speak to ordinary people, and not to great artists. The greatest value of photography is its role as information, its content, and not the artistic statement, which is only transitory. The more my Record grows, the more I believe that it will be timeless. I’m convinced that I am on the right track. I still have so many plans, and not quite enough living left to do.
I imagine that you are never bored.
I have never been bored, but the closer I get to my own death, the more I would like to overcome it, to be constantly photographing. I would like to salvage and be able to hold onto so many interesting moments and faces. A day when I don’t photograph seems wasted to me.
Do you have a prescription for old age?
The older I get, the more I value my passion I call photography. I couldn’t imagine an idle sort of old age. I don’t understand people who only think about their aches and pains or the dangers they face. I’m lucky I can take pictures. Photography gives me the chance to stop time and overcome the specter of death. The simplest, most ordinary documentary picture becomes a great truth about human fate, and this is my constant struggle with death, with the passing of time.