In an exploration of some of the possible relations between words and images, writers are asked to react to photos whose origins are obscure to them. The only guideline is that the text be somehow related to the images

Words by Francesco Pacifico – Images by Jerzy Lewczyński

One day toward the end of the 90s, a friend of mine, a music academy student listening to I don’t know who, Dvorak, maybe, said to another friend, a philosophy student: “Hear that? That’s a baroque parody.” The philosophy student and I could understand when Damon Albarn parodied Bowie (“He thought of cars,” “Strange news from another star”), but when it came to the ironies and dissimulations of classical music, we were clueless. Which prompted my friend to ask me the following question while writing his doctoral dissertation: “You know when philosophers use Wagner to explain aesthetic problems? You think I can use the Specials?”

Jerzy Lewczyński, Untitled, 1958; courtesy Galeria Asymetria, Warsaw
That’s called cultural unease, and it comes in various guises, and I experienced a number of them. Just as I find it unbearable that the shoddiness of the style and the world and every paragraph of The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie: Three Novels isn’t universally recognized (I have proof, I just have to put it in writing), inversely I find it unbearable to go to a photography show and not understand whether I should abandon myself to feeling and admit to being involved in what I’m seeing, or whether I should just ask my photography critic friend if it makes sense to invest my feelings like that.
You become frigid. You lose the ability to love.
The last time I felt exhilarated at a photography show, it was over some Porsches parked in front of white houses in Belgravia, photographed at night, the exposure turning their shells so bright you could see flecks of dust and tiny scratches (that’s what I remember, at any rate). I abandoned myself to the Porsches and solitary sidewalks of Belgravia because they reminded me of line-drawing cars in elementary school, and the reason I could do that was because my critic friend authorized me, he explained what it was the photos had that wasn’t so obvious, so smartass. Clinging to my expert friend, I allowed myself to be sentimental. (A really difficult moment arose with Crewdson’s show in Rome: those abandoned cars, those violet, blue, claret tones, that freezing cold, those pitiful pantry scenes, those desolate intersections – I let myself go, but I kept expecting some more judicious person to show up any second and beat me for my love of the obvious.)

Now the expert friend is in Australia, and I’m looking at some barbed wire, a rusty lamppost, a few chimney stacks; a plucked chicken hanging upside down, an old woman with a foulard; some flower-insects resting on the rim of a glass of water, a bottle; some hands or gloves; the back of striped hospital pajamas, an eastern hospital, a mid-twentieth century hospital, a dangerous hospital, and the window-frames reflected onto the fabric.

Jerzy Lewczyński, Korea, 1956; courtesy Galeria Asymetria, Warsaw
My first reaction is frigid: there’s too much sentiment for me to offer mine as well: pajamas and hospital beds; glass bottle, dark, against a piece of cloth; the chicken and the old lady, and another reference to horror: the proverbial barbed wire. It’s the feeling of not wanting to say anything without your lawyer present, of not wanting to take a stance.

Jerzy Lewczyński, Auschwitz, 1959; courtesy Galeria Asymetria, Warsaw
The second reaction comes from the light above the four gloves. I won’t comment on the gloves themselves: they don’t open me up to anything, all I can think about is that the tip of each finger is like a breast, and any effort to give symbolic value to their dumb pose would make me feel like I was in bad faith, and conniving. The light, instead, strikes me because it distinctly recalls the way Ferriss drew the night sky in New York; the aura, covering the stars, artificial light that evaporates in the darkness without being dispersed. Ferriss was an expert drawer of skyscrapers at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Manhattan turned into an abstract project of vertical urbanization and launched itself toward the sky. Ferriss sketches the volumes of the skyscrapers in charcoal and he’s good at dreaming the enormity of that indoor space suspended in midair, and the many things that can happen in it. The rest, that which doesn’t happen indoors, consists in three things: the traffic at the bottom of the canyon of Avenues; the light that separates the buildings like a dental floss of energy; the light condensing above the city. The light he draws resembles the light wavering above the glove-skyscrapers.
And that is the only contact my memory and my formal capacity establish with these five photographs.

Jerzy Lewczyński, To my beloved wife, 1956; courtesy Galeria Asymetria, Warsaw
The rest is scandalous: why the barbed wire?, and what does that pink just barely animating the sky above the chimneys mean? And above all, why the plucked chicken? And why does the man in pajamas suddenly grip the bedpost, creating the first and only sensation of contact in the whole thing? Why does every photo seem like a different exercise in color, why do only the third and fourth look like they belong to the same artist? Why doesn’t the light in the fifth, the one with the man in pajamas, have anything to do with the others?
And, now that I’ve stretched the photographs across the computer screen and noticed that they’re scanned, that the edges of the paper are frayed, I realize that, in my desperate incompetence, I still haven’t asked myself who took these pictures. I’d taken it for granted that they were contemporary. But what if they’re not? What if they come from a time when chicken, woman, bottle, bent flower, glove, pajama, hospital bed, still meant something?

Jerzy Lewczyński (1924) is one of Poland’s greatest photographers. Together with Zdzisław Beksiński and Bronisław Schlabs, he co-founded the school known as “anti-photography.” Their photos, presented at a “closed showing” in 1959, were deemed to be brutal and anti-aesthetic. He fathered the concept "archeology of photography," which made it possible to use the works of other artists, in a completely innovative way that still inspires numerous young artists. In his work, Lewczyński developed a unique and individual style, characterized by a deeply humanistic approach.

Francesco Pacifico (1977), is the author of the novels Il caso Vittorio (2003) and Storia della mia purezza (2010; English translation, The Story of My Purity, 2013). He has translated the work of numerous writers, including Kurt Vonnegut, Will Eisner, Dave Eggers, Rick Moody and Henry Miller. He is a regular contributor to Repubblica, Rolling Stone and Studio. He lives in Rome.