Looking at her self-portrait I can’t stop smiling. If she was my neighbour I would come by for a cup of tea and chat about her new projects, exchange views about people’s peculiar behavior or the price of parsley on the nearby market. We would laugh or sit silent as good friends, because this is how I think of her. The seven broken antique clocks in her bedroom would stop the time that she hid in so many boxes with film rolls.
Editor’s note: This is a print-only feature, originally published in Thisispaper Issue Two. To read the interview in its entirety, pick up the print magazine in our online shop.
Alone with a camera
She was born 76 years before me but despite the age difference I feel connected to her way of looking for truth and beauty in human faces through portraits and reportage. It’s hard to believe that Zofia worked at a local travel agency and a tiny stationery shop in a small Eastern Polish town, and did not carry a camera until her late 30s. She used to add colorful drawings or collages to her brother’s photos, and it was he who first introduced her to 35mm frame. From that moment on, she and the camera were inseparable. Nearing the end of her life, she couldn’t see numbers or image sharpness well. Still, she was thirsty to capture everything around her, each barn, wayside shrine, peculiar furniture detail at home, tiny houses from the outside and inside, tables, rooms, shops, buses, drivers and faces, thousands of them. Her goal was to trick the passing time.
She didn’t have her own children, but often spent time with her nephews, who she loved deeply. She was far from a spinster, though. A lively woman enjoying a life in constant motion, she was a pilgrim, always ready to capture something new around the corner. The lack of her own family was the price she paid for her love of photography. She used to say that she could no longer live without it. When she was unwell, one visit to the darkroom worked better than all other treatments.
After years without recognition, Zofia Rydet is finally given credit as one of Poland’s greatest female photographers. Her photographic series range from children’s portraits to the Sociological Record, a monumental record of man and society taken individually across a number of regions in Poland and abroad, such as Douchy in France and New York. Her last important series was A Silesian Suit, shot throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It consists of collages and photomontages containing references to her earlier photographs, which she composed using the style of traditional folk expression, with wild flowers and newspaper cut-outs. Her work can be found in Poland’s most important art collections, as well as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museum of Modern Art in Kioto, and the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford. As I look at her self-portrait I see a serene lady in her 40s, who grabbed a camera and portrayed life just as it was, or rather as she saw it with her own gleaming eyes. This kind of natural artistic approach wasn’t popular in the time of Poland’s harsh political and social situation.
Her first major exhibition took place in 1961, with the Little Man series of portraits of middle-class children in Poland and other socialist nations. The series was published as an album of over 140 photographs in 1965, and the book is considered one of the most important albums of 20th-century Polish photography. Rydet described her approach to the series by saying she, "wanted to move away from the stereotype of a care-free angelic childhood and show the multifaceted complexity of childhood experiences and reactions." In her study of the child’s mind, which aesthetically immitates the best works of Cartier-Bresson1 or Boubat2, she depicted the richness of juvenile experience and personality, very often marred by real poverty. In the early 1960s, when she started the project, looking at a child as a small human rather than an innocent toddler was nothing short of revolutionary.
You open a heart with a heart, Zofia Rydet said, when asked about her method of capturing souls in her photography. Her words mean a lot, because unlike many photographers, she evoked a sense of intimacy, familiarity and security in the subject she photographed. In her collection entitled, Little Man, she diverged from the idea of classic studio snapshots of plump, smiling babies. She sought to portray just the opposite.
“There are no children, only people." Zofia found great inspiration in this quote from Janusz Korczak3, a Polish-Jewish children´s writer and teacher. Dedicated to serving and defending children’s affairs, he died at a concentration camp, along with the orphans he so dearly cared for. In Poland, Korczak is seen as a role model of an intellectual who gave everything to pursue the ideals of freedom, accessible education and human rights. The appreciation of children’s inner worth is reflected in Zofia's demonstration of their spontaneous gaiety, sorrow, reflection or unconscious coquetry. The power of her pictures is enhanced by her handling of the camera and her portrayal of people in common situations. The unconcious nature of these photographs makes the viewer realize how little we truly value these moments as they pass. She considered children to be poets and philosophers, pure and sincere, emotional and sympathetic. They revel in the moment, in the grace of simplicity around them. A child forges its own philosophy by thinking differently than an adult. Devoid of the cynicism that accompanies adulthood, a child thinks with feelings. Fragile and emotional herself, Zofia embraced their fears and insecurities with care and tenderness, and let herself be captivated and enriched by these encounters.—