Wojciech Karliński: Odes to the Ordinary

© Wojciech Karliński ‘Kamieńsk’ [detail] 2021 from the series ‘Train Stations in Poland’

A picture is a poem without words



The rhythms of architecture are different from the pulse of communities. Looking at an old photograph of a familiar street in a European city, one is struck not by the age of the buildings but the strangeness of the clothes and vehicles, the advertising and signage. The buildings seem familiar while the life within it distant. Elsewhere, say in the towns and cities that burgeoned during the Australian goldrush, many formerly magnificent buildings have fallen into seedy decay. Meanwhile, in dockland and industrial areas of the city, warehouses and factories have been resurrected to expensive new life in the thrall of gentrification. Architecture speaks to us of people and communities, but it does so indirectly through a kind of counterpoint.

For Wojciech Karliński it is this contrapuntal reading of the life of people in the built environment that informs his photographs. The social, political, and economic landscape of his native Poland has changed radically since the end of the Second World War. Following more than forty years of communist rule that ended with the disintegration of the former Soviet Bloc, the Third Polish Republic established a radical shift from a centrally planned economy to the free market with all the material equity and human inequity of rampant capitalism. Wojciech Karliński reflects these and other changes indirectly, through a documentation of the transport and housing systems of Poland and the stories they reveal about past aspiration and present adaptation. Gathered together, his photographs present a lyrical reminder of the histories of the ordinary reflected in architecture made all the more poignant by the absence of people during the Covid-19 lockdown.

Alasdair Foster

© Wojciech Karliński ‘Rawicz: 19,624 inhabitants’ [data from 2019] 2022 from the series ‘The Big Dream of Small Towns’


What drew you to make photographs?

I generally think in pictures. For me, it’s easier to show something visually than to talk about it. I am a poet who never published a poem. I found another way to express myself: photography. When I write or read a poem, I see it in pictures, like a series of photographs. For me poetry and photography are almost the same.

You have lived through some remarkable times in your country. How has this affected you as an artist.

I don’t think that martial law, the communist decline, and the subsequent transformation directly influenced the way I photograph. I’m sure it formed me as a human being and I perceive the world through the flow of events, but I don’t think it had a direct impact on my image-making. Back then, I didn’t really pay attention to what I was doing. I instinctively photographed with bad cameras on poor quality film. I gave bad prints to friends, and I use strips of negatives as bookmarks.

[Left] © Wojciech Karliński ‘St. Katarzyna, the patron saint of railwaymen, on platform 2, Opole.’ March 2021 from the series ‘Long-lasting Transition State’
[Right] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Opened in 1874, the Kłodzko Główna railway station is the most important transfer station in the Kłodzko Valley, but steadily losing its importance.’ July 2021 from the series ‘Long-lasting Transition State’

A few years ago, one of my old colleagues asked me for photographs of the underground in Lodz. It turned out that I had kept almost nothing from that time. What I did then was only important to me when I pressed the shutter. I didn’t have any particular ambitions for photography, so events around me had very little direct impact on it. I only began seriously take photographs in the 1990s, but by then Poland had many of its problems behind it.

That seems to imply a contradiction…

The apparent connection between my historical background and my way of thinking in photography is just coincidental. Events didn’t have direct impact on my photography, but they shaped me as a human being. I am who I am in myself because of what happened when I was young. The militia broke my ribs and fingers. I couldn’t study and for the two years I was in the army. My squad were organised like labour camp. During the final years of the Polish People’s Republic and the first years of the transformation [1988–1993], I lived and worked in mountain cabins. The sense of danger and instability made me ‘see’ instability around me. That feeling was something inside me, not something I decided to show in my work. The time I was born – 1964 – where I lived, and where I came from made me who I am as a person. Of course, that has had an impact on my photos because what comes to us in our life changes us and can make us see everything differently. That’s why, after 1990, I redefined myself. But the political and historical events did not change me much at that time. By then I was a grown man, so I was just very different from when I was young.

[Left] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Waiting Room, Grodków, Opolskie Voivodeship.’ March 2021 from the series ‘Long-lasting Transition State’
[Right] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Długopole-Zdrój’ 2020 from the series ‘Train Stations in Poland’

How did your series on railway stations begin?

The idea came to me while I was working on another project called ‘Long-lasting Transition State’. It documented one hundred bus stops and train stations in regional Poland. Away from the economically privileged urban areas, public transport was still the main way of getting about for the ordinary people who could not afford a car. These places were unnoticed just because they were so ordinary. And during the pandemic, services were cut back to such an extent that many of these stops and stations closed up. I had originally planned to make that project in black-and-white. But doing this lost something of the atmosphere of these places. So, I changed to photograph in subdued colour, which better captured the mood I felt there.

But I continued also to photograph in black-and-white, and ‘Train Stations in Poland’ was in effect the child of ‘Long-lasting Transition State’. That said, it is not simply a selection of photographs from a larger body of work. At some point it took on a life of its own. From then on, I was working on two distinct projects: one is a social documentary, the other is more aesthetic, nostalgic. Yes, it is also a document in its way, but through it I wanted to reflect the atmosphere and beauty of these places. Places that are so ordinary you hardly notice them.

[Left] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Lublin’ 2021 from the series ‘Train Stations in Poland’
[Right] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Nowa Ruda’ 2021 from the series ‘Train Stations in Poland’

How have the stations changed over the years?

After the fall of communism in Poland in 1989, the railway system has been in constant transformation. Some of the stations fell into disrepair, some were renovated or completely rebuilt. The first train station opened in 1842. (Today, it is a clinic.) According to the official data, in 2017 there were 2,655 stations and stops in Poland. Of these, only 268 service a thousand or more passengers daily. In this project I wanted to show both the big city stations and the small country stops which are used by only a few people each day.

All these photographs were made during the pandemic. This adds to the sense of loneliness and alienation which is a part of the aesthetic. I found that aspect a big emotional challenge while making the work. When you are in places which you have always known full of people, and then you see them empty, there is a dreadful eeriness. In Poland, the movement of people was stopped for just a short time, but traveling was almost impossible. And I was in very bad physical condition at that time. The restrictions had left me tired and depressed.

© Wojciech Karliński ‘Żmigród’ 2022 from the series ‘Here’

How did the series called ‘Here’ begin?

For me, ‘Here’ is also like a poem. I made these photographs when I was travelling in regional Poland. I travel a lot and I spend lot of time in small towns. I had many images that I were loosely connected with each other. I wanted sort them out.

Horace said: “a picture is a poem without words”. It’s difficult to explain but, for me, the emotional part of creation is the same in both. When I press the shutter, I feel the same rhythm and rhyme. I feel nostalgia and completeness. I see a story, which on one level belongs to the place and on another is more abstract, composed. That’s why for me a poem is like a photograph. A poet uses words to make something new from them, to write a poem. I see a space and try to show it in a different way, to make an image. For me the creative process is the same.

[Left] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Kluczbork’ 2022 from the series ‘Here’
[Right] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Lublin’ 2022 from the series ‘Here’

You have said that you love the ordinary places that people pass every day. What is it about these places that attracts you?

I like ordinary places because they remind me of things that have happened in my life. I see something quite ordinary and yet I feel like I know it already… or perhaps it reminds me of something… For example, when I was climbing on Turbacz peak in the Gorce mountains I came to a bothy used by tourists and saw a concrete slab, a few metres square. About twenty years before, in exactly that place, there was a bar. It was painted green, and it served only beer. I remembered drinking there with three of my friends. Now, when I returned, they were gone, and the bar was no more – only that slab of concrete remained. That’s why I like ordinary places.

Our lives are made up of that kind of prosaic situation. Most of the time there are no fireworks. We see History in monumental works of art, but the ordinary people are not there. Who will remember the vegetable shop near their house, even if it was more important to them than Notre Dame cathedral?

[Left] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Żmigród’ 2022 from the series ‘Here’
[Right] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Chojnice’ 2022 from the series ‘Here’

The images seem quite melancholy: dark, subdued colour. Lonely.

That’s how I see these places. Without the subdued colours, the photographs would not tell the story I am trying to recount for the viewer. Of course, that story will also depend on the sensitivity of the viewer and their own personal experiences. Everyone must use their own imagination when looking at pictures – seeing is a creative act. I just see the beginning. It’s the same with poetry. The poet gives words, but the reader must discover the meaning behind them. I give a photograph, but the viewer must seek out the story within.

But we don’t need to analyse this. We just need to look.

And there are no people.

That’s because they are in the background, an impression ‘behind’ the picture. I try to photograph in such a way that the viewer can feel their presence and the tension that goes with it. You expect people to be there, that at any moment someone will come into the frame. You have the impression of what might happen – what could happen – in the photograph. And that creates a kind of tension.

© Wojciech Karliński ‘Darłowo’ 2022 from the series ‘Here’

It is the architecture that tells their story. It is a subtle thing. If I were to include a person, they would create too strong an accent. They would draw attention away from the place, the architecture, and that subtler story would be lost.

What are the challenges of photographing places that are so familiar to you but may be quite unfamiliar to the viewer who sees them later in a different context?

I don’t feel like its challenge. When I’m working, I do not think about who will see my pictures. That is not my priority. I do not believe that art should bend to the audience because that would limit it. While I am working on these projects, I focus on my own feelings. It’s not that I don’t care about the viewer (without them I do not exist as an artist), but I don’t try to lead them in how they might perceive the work.

© Wojciech Karliński ‘Apartment Block Built During the Polish People’s Republic, Iława: 33,128 inhabitants’ [data from 2018] 2022 from the series ‘The Big Dream of Small Towns’

Tell me about ‘The Big Dream of Small Towns’.

I had been thinking about this project for a long time. And I have to admit that while I was fascinated by the subject, I was also very afraid of it. In Poland, many photographs have been taken of these multistorey housing estates. However, most focused on the big cities where the settlements consist of huge concrete high-rise blocks. I wanted to show how this idea of the modern world had arisen in small towns. Towns that, before the war, had mostly consisted of rotting wooden huts. When the new housing blocks were created it was understood as a big step forward, a touch of big city here in the provinces.

People living in a block of flats experienced an elevated social status, especially when compared with those who continued to live in wooden shacks or dilapidated tenements. In the Polish People’s Republic, the Communists built many new housing blocks, but they renovated little. So, if someone did not get a flat in a housing block (or did not build their own house), they were condemned to live in shacks that continued their slow deterioration.

[Left] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Apartment Block Built Following the Transformation, Kielce: 195,942 inhabitants’ [data from 2016] 2022
[Right] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Apartment Block Built During the Polish People’s Republic, Działdowo: 21,370 inhabitants’ [data from 2018] 2022 from the series ‘The Big Dream of Small Towns’

To live in an apartment block was the dream of the masses. Then came 1989, and capitalism. Television commercials, and TV soap operas showed people living in palace-like mansions. All of a sudden, to live in a block of flats became something shameful. This was all the more so as the housing cooperatives to which these blocks belonged ran into financial difficulties and the small provincial businesses built by the workers during the transformation were ruined. The solution was to sell the apartments to their previous tenants. Suddenly, on a massive scale, renters became owners. In the big cities, the new apartment buildings were built in new estates, separate from the older housing blocks. But, in small towns, the old and the new are mixed together.

There is an interesting unfolding of ideas in this work from the disillusionment with the modernist dream and the subtle way in which people put their mark on a place, make it their own.

When we look at some of these photographs, we can see that the building and its environment are not in very good condition. But we also see the ways in which people have tried to make life easier there, attempting to fix things, or adapt them, and just to clean up their space. For me, this is very nostalgic, lyrical, because it reminds me of my childhood.

[Left] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Sędziszów: 6,564 inhabitants’ [data from 2016] 2022 from the series ‘The Big Dream of Small Towns’
[Right] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Kłodzko: 26,742 inhabitants’ [data from 2019] 2022 from the series ‘The Big Dream of Small Towns’

On the other hand, the new buildings show a different kind of thinking. The environment looks different and, on some level, the people who live there think differently. Sometimes people from the older buildings dream about living in a new apartment block. But it comes down to money – the new housing is much more expensive. In terms of cost, the gap between the two types of housing is wide.

How did the people living here feel about you making these photographs?

Even though I grew up in a small town, when I started the project, these places felt for me terra incognita. During the project I explored them like the landscape of a foreign country. I tried to be as objective as possible. I do not seek to pose questions or suggest answers. Although I have to admit, I was expecting a mix of neglect and despair. To my surprise, this was not the case.

[Left] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Złotów: 18,441 inhabitants’ [data from 2017] 2022 from the series ‘The Big Dream of Small Towns’
[Right] © Wojciech Karliński ‘Namysłów: 16,622 inhabitants’ [data from 2020] 2022 from the series ‘The Big Dream of Small Towns’

Although they are open areas, they are also very private. Normally, no one from outside comes in without a specific reason. The smaller the town, the stronger this impression of violating the privacy of others. I was concerned about how the residents would react to me taking photographs. I was using a Fujifilm X-T4 with a 16–55 zoom lens. That’s not a big piece of equipment, but it is clearly noticeable. But, while I was afraid of aggression, it happened only once. For the most part I was met with curiosity and kindness.

What have you learned in the process of making these series?

They redefined me as an artist.

Until recently, my work was like a scattered collection of random postcards. The photos I took were taken only for commercial clients or to record fragmentary, disconnected things – each story confined to a single image. But when I started thinking about that first project [‘Long-lasting Transition State’], I saw how important it is to think in terms of series. You begin to see much more: context, history, narrative, concept. As a whole, a series can show things that go far beyond what any individual image can capture.

© Wojciech Karliński ‘Szczytno: 23,166 inhabitants’ [data from 2019] 2022 from the series ‘The Big Dream of Small Towns’

Biographical Notes

Wojciech Karliński was born in Dobre Miasto, Poland, in 1964. His education was interrupted by two years’ national service. As a young man, he was involved in the punk and anarchist movements. Since then, he has had a varied career undertaking a dozen different types of work. He began taking photographs in the mid-1980s. As a commercial photographer he has produced book covers for many of the top publishing houses in Poland, and his photographs have been published widely in the media including Newsweek and The Times of Israel. He has exhibited his photographs in various venues in Poland including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow, BWA Gallery in Kielce, and the Center for Contemporary Art in Toruń. His images have featured in art magazines including Dodho (Spain), Kwartalnik Fotografia (Poland), Exit (Spain), Monovisions (United Kingdom), Hamburger Eyes (USA), L’Oeil de la Photographie (France), and Tagree (Germany). In 2022, he received a scholarship from the ZAIKS Creative Support Fund, and the Mayor of Kielce’s Grand Prix at the 45th Interdisciplinary Art Competition, Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship. He is currently based in Kielce and works throughout Poland.

photo: Izabela Karlińska

This interview is a Talking Pictures original.