Juliusz Garztecki, from the cycle "Człowiek z kamerą: Zofia Rydet, czyli serce,” "Fotografia", September 1967, no 9, pp. 203-204.
I’m interested in biology. I’m interested in parapsychology. I’m interested in architecture. I’m interested in photography for advertising… for theatre… for industry – it is just a small slice of what you can hear from herself about her interests. And in her everyday life she will always find someone to take care of, to feed, to clothe. And if the Gliwice photographic community is visited by a guest from another town, Zofia Rydet is waiting at the railway station. We will eat breakfast at Zosia’s. We will meet at Zosia’s. Her house is open to everyone.
She has been involved in artistic photography since 1956. In 1965 the Arkady publishing house issued her album Mały człowiek [Little Man], an innovative work in our region: Zofia Rydet’s photographs of children supplemented with fragments of texts by Janusz Korczak. Combining photography with literary texts obviously is not new (although it remains rare); we could name here Eugène Atget’s wonderful album with fragments from Proust, or the American publication Poet’s Camera, whose author juxtaposed great photographic works with poetry from across the ages. The album Little Man was something more: it was a coherent essayistic statement, were the image and the word mutually complemented and reinforced each other, forming an organic whole. The publication was preceded by three years with an exhibition in Warsaw under the same title, and almost coincided with another exhibition, Czas przemijania [Time of Evanescence].
– Ninety percent of what I did I owe to the Photographic Society – says the author. - A group, contacts with other members, this is most important for your work, without it you are not moving forward. Perhaps for someone who has already “climbed the ladder” working in a group seems boring, but the result of isolation is that although you make very nice „little pictures”, very nice photos, you don’t really know what they are for – they have no soul. It is quite different in a group. In the Gliwice Photographic Society (GFS) six persons remain from the old times, but the young keep coming, with ambitions going beyond making pretty pictures. Why the FIAP [Fédération Internationale de l'Art Photographique] is essentially a sterile organisation? Because they are excited about making “cute” exhibitions…
– Don’t you think that ambitions are quite natural in young people? ZPAF [Association of Polish Art Photographers] has been recently joined by valuable and interesting recruits from recent student groups, such as “Zero-61” or “Stodola”. Is there anything like that in your area?
– Truth to tell, in my surroundings – I work at the Gliwice Polytechnic, I am supposed to and try to teach photography there – there is no such thing. I was hoping that the emergence of a student group would bring a lot also to me. I don’t know why the students show some interest only for a brief time and then they drop out. It is very hard going, although such things as lectures at the GTP are attended by many undergraduates.
– And who taught you?
– It probably started from my love of the picture, as a child I collected illustrations cut out from magazines and I wanted to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. Many circumstances prevented me from taking that course, until finally, years later - in 1956 to be precise - one of my friends convinced me to buy a camera. So I bought an Exakta, a light meter, and once the camera was charged, I went out – and a whole new world opened before me. It was no longer collecting illustrations which moved me – I could myself create „little pictures” which could move others. For the power of photography is that it opens new opportunities before you, that when walking near mud you can see a photograph which you can make, you can see thousand things others don’t notice. For you photograph not with the camera, but with your eyes. The saying that if you make photographs you have a multiple life is absolutely true. On that first day I went through two rolls of film, so I acquired my own „little pictures” and it was almost a shock for me. I immediately organised a darkroom in my house, I bought a whole bunch of books and photographed day in, day out. Of course, I was delighted if anything at all came out of it. Six months later I heard in the radio about a competition announced by the Polish Photographic Society (PTF) and I brought six 30 x 40 prints to the Gliwice branch and three of them were accepted. I immediately signed up for the PTF and I found all possible help there, especially in technical matters I had been desperately struggling with. For example, in literature I had read a lot about the temperature of the re-agents, but nothing about the temperature in the darkroom, and because it was almost freezing at my place, the prints came out grey and lacklustre. It was the same with the proper condensing of the enlarger, about which I also learned from my mentors. So I was taught by the society, by a group. Then came the madness of sending works for exhibitions, I received many awards for them, but by that time „little pictures” were no longer enough for me. And I am happy about that, for the most important thing in photography is never to be fully satisfied with yourself.
– We shall put that in bold print as the first commandment of the artist. And what does satisfy you?
– Rather what interests me. From the first developed film I became interested in people, especially children. When I was composing Little Man, I selected the photos in such a way as to show that a child is a full-fledged human experiencing no less profound tragedies than an adult, often even deeper, for a child is so helpless and dependent. To show that you cannot constrain a child with your adulthood, that you have to leave him the liberty of a free human.
– You photograph children and you photograph old people. Why the two extreme poles in choosing your theme? Why not the younger, stronger and healthy?
– It is not a contradiction, but the same thing. Old age is neither peaceful nor dignified. It is heavy, ugly, lonely, helpless. When I was choosing the subject “old age”, it was not just about showing it, but also about making an impact on the viewers, on other people. About showing that a young person should not indifferently pass by old age, for it is and will be terrible for everyone, as it was terrible both for Hemingway, and for the protagonist of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. So I thought that if I showed old age, perhaps it would move someone, perhaps a young person would start looking at the matter in a different way. And at the same time he or she would start to appreciate what they have: youth.
– Are you working on another album now?
– I started making two mock-ups, it is probably the most exciting experience for a photographer: an album is the highest form of photographic expression – unless you can make such an exhibition as you wish, like Dłubak made his Iconosphere. Photographic exhibitions should excite with the visual side only, but if I found sponsors I would do what is my greatest dream: a show where the image would form a comprehensive whole with the sound accompanying it. So what remains are emotions typical for albums. At the moment I am working on a mock-up of a book on a vanishing world – for example, the countryside, which almost does not exist in its old shape, about ancient, crumbling cottages and old people living in them. There is a little bit of lyricism and charm in it, although in fact it was poverty; you have to preserve some trace of what once was. For photography is a struggle against death, against disappearance, only the camera can stop time. Photography is also a means of communicating your experiences to others, so it is an excellent language, both essayistic and poetic.
It should be added here that during her several-months-long stay in Goczałkowice Zofia Rydet photographed patients of sanatoriums and recorded their comments and conversations. Their commonplace, sometimes even trivial words acquired a new dimension when juxtaposed with a series of photos showing helpless people often completely overpowered by their disease.
– What other subjects do you explore?
– Photographing the town of Nowy Targ is very important for me. You can see everything there, from elegant “broads” to specimens you will not find anywhere else in Poland. I don’t know if it can be classified as “folklore” or not, but it is a great richness of themes, especially at the marketplace on Thursdays. By the way, shooting it all is by no means easy, not because people do not like to be photographed, but on the contrary, they like it very much, everybody wants to be “somebody”. Sometimes photography demands courage, although it is not always wise to be that courageous. Photographing is easiest in places with developed tourism, for example in Budapest. In such places you can walk down the street, stand in front of anyone and be certain that he or she will not change on seeing a camera. During foreign trips I always acquired a huge material and my first individual exhibition was based on my first journey abroad. It is best to photograph people during such occasions as 1st of May or 22nd of July [anniversary of the instalment of the Soviet-sponsored Communist regime in Poland in 1945] – they are preoccupied with what is happening around them, which gives you freedom to shoot and the possibility of freely selecting your subjects. It is very important, for every creator has the right to present the world as they see it, so both Steichen, and Pawek are right.
– And what about exhibitions? After all, if you gathered together the catalogues of your individual and collective exhibitions, it would be quite a bundle.
– Once I used to send my works to all international exhibitions and every medal I received was exciting for me. For young people it is a strong encouragement. Today work interests me more than exhibitions.
– There are rumours about how you photographed people through shop windows or that you make a hundred negatives for one print which you find satisfying.
– The first one is true. I stood inside a shop and shoot people peering into window displays with a hidden camera. Three types of shops provided most interesting results: second-hand shops, flower shops and toyshops. The people were at their most genuine there. And there is some truth also in the second story: indeed, I am something of a “wholesaler”, which means that photography is very costly for me, especially that I make 18 x 24 index prints.
– It comes cheaper with a 35mm camera.
– Yes, but someone who discovered the delights of working in the medium format will never return to the small size. I am currently using a Praktisiks, besides I don’t know much about cameras and I am not excited about them. I only know that the camera should be light, that the size of the negative should be 6 x 6 and that it should have a 300 mm zoom lens. I hate chemistry, testing new things, new developing fluids. I work with negatives 18 and 22 DIN, I develop in Final and Rodinal. The laboratory is a complete waste of time. In Poland there is a superstition, almost amounting to a law, that a photographer has to do all laboratory work himself. Such a Cartier-Bresson and the whole Magnum would be done for if they wasted their time in the darkroom! I believe that a photographer should have a good laboratory assistant and that it should be his right.
– What do you aim for in photography?
– I’m not after some “great artistic expression”, I want to move people a bit, to make them reflect. You can show the beauty of an object others pass by indifferently, but I am opposed to creating only trivial images, using sophisticated techniques to conceal emptiness.
Interviewer: Juliusz Garztecki