Nov. 10, 2021 | Blanka Melania Ciężka

The City and Its Residents: Urban Connections in Edward Hartwig’s Photography

Outdoor event for children in Zwycięstwa [Victory] Square (currently Piłsudski Square)

Photographs of cities are a large, albeit unexplored, portion of Hartwig’s body of work. Other than Lublin, Warsaw was particularly present in the artist’s life. To look at the photographs from an anthropological and sociological standpoint is to notice the many ways in which the urban space functions, and above all, the connections with its users: the city residents. During our interpretive workshops, we realized that even those who look at the photographs for the first time tend to experience the city of Warsaw as a heterogeneous space that unlocks conflicting responses. It can be simultaneously perceived as sentimental and modern, calm and loud, and friendly and dangerous. 

A Take on the City
Edward Hartwig moved to Warsaw in 1951. Having settled down, he found his sense of belonging there. He was never an objective documentalist. On the contrary, showcasing the many faces of the city revealed his fascination and intimate connection with the metropolis. When interviewed, Hartwig would highlight how deeply subjective his photographs were. Commissioned with documenting the Royal Baths, he found the job almost entirely precluded creative expression.  

Capturing the city as if it were a complex organism, to represent the ground tissue, the artist used close ups of urban architecture, both modern and historic. His bird’s eye view vistas, urban layout shots, and vast transport hubs seen from a great distance evoke a skeletal system. Hartwig’s work displays vacant urban spaces, in daytime or at night, as well as streets and squares astir with people in various interactions, throbbing with city life. Both serve to reveal its rhythm and cyclical nature. As a photographer-author, Hartwig used an extensive visual rhetoric to create the urban space in his photographs. He composed original frames selecting subjects at his own discretion to elicit the same experience as if perceiving the city with all the senses, reliant on the moment or the viewing angle. 

Between Swarming and Spacious
The distance between a person’s body and other objects within the physical space of the city, its architecture, small or large scale infrastructure, green space and other residents, all factor in city perception. A wide artery, a vast city square, and a viewing point share a common feature: open space. It allows the city to breathe, and the air to flow better. It fills the city with daylight. Its expansive framework free from visual obstacles often founds monumental scenic axes of urban traffic. At the same time, such spaces limit our sensory cognition. Beyond 100 meters the human eye cannot distinguish details. It does not recognize people, identify faces nor discern their emotions. Hartwig’s photographs offer both aspects of this type of space. In the pictures of the Stegny estate built in the early 1970s, we find monumental and “aerated” but impersonal space allowing us to discern no details and no textures. Hartwig manages light in ways that combine the fronts of buildings. The horizontal composition of zoomed out photographs emphasizes the structure’s grandeur. Looking at the photograph, we appeal to our own experience of being in open spaces. Such places may appear elusive since they are beyond the perception of our near senses: smell and touch.

The type of urban space present in the Stegny estate photograph is a far cry from Hartwig’s take on Kamienne Schodki Street in the Old Town. There he focused on the cramped downtown alleyway, where the buildings and the wall on both sides of the frame seem to be pressing against one another. Realistic light engages grayscale to expose façade details, damages, cracks, or even dirt on the stone slabs, evidencing the passing of time. The photographed urban space we see is tactile. It is easy to imagine particular textures, or even the temperature and the smell of the place. Ivy branches squeeze into the narrow vertical frame as if to seize the wrought metal wall lantern.

Compact, tightly knit narrow street networks of historical cities constitute the type of urban space we find more personal and intimate. The municipal infrastructure of such areas may carry certain functional drawbacks, but offer a greater user experience in terms of how we perceive the city. The architecture within our reach, invigorated by plants and animals combined with traces of aging and persistency of the city, render those areas more alive and resembling of a human being.

Urban Space at Work
Meeting the everyday needs of residents is a factor on the user-friendly scale of urban space. A great design allows us to benefit from it in an intuitive, safe, and unrestrained way. City connections and urban mobility are crucial. The distances we can cover on foot and the quality of pedestrian traffic routes contribute to the user experience. The more there are, the better the experience.

Hartwig took lots of photographs showing street traffic and elements of Warsaw urban links. His diversified compositions range from a monumental perspective of spiral interchanges on the Łazienkowska thoroughfare, or a main road connecting the center of Warsaw with the east-bank of Warsaw; photos of downtown arteries lined with buses, trams, cars, and pedestrians; as well as images of underground passages and bus or tram stop islets. The artist’s focus is rarely on people. Instead, he frequently homes in on the functioning of the urban mechanism. The photograph “Jerozolimskie Avenue” highlights the zones and rhythm of the urban infrastructure: speeding cars, a stop, a moving tram, a street, and a sidewalk. A group of passersby seems almost trapped on a stop islet by the traffic speeding on both sides. When Hartwig descends into underground passages, he reflects on their impersonality. “Pedestrians in an Underground Passage” brings out the structure of the passage ceiling from below. The verticality of the frame reinforces the linearity typical of passages indicating the prerequisite to move forward. The shadow homogenizes people into anonymity. 

Somewhat surprisingly, Hartwig would aim his lens at downtown parking lots. The teeming images dominated by buildings or concrete spans of openwork roofs, foreground architectural facts and technical infrastructure. “The rear of Hotel Forum” is a fairly wide image showcasing a large parking area with a dense architecture closing the frame. Humans are wedged between inanimate elements of the cityscape, and their space potential for free mobility has been significantly reduced. 

A Space That Inspires to Pause
A well-organized city space is committed to facilitate people’s movement as well as people’s need to stop to interact, pass their leisure time, or engage in urban activity. A vacant city deprived of residents has no positive image. Looking for a model space adjustable to the human presence, we turn to certain downtown squares. Since they were established in the pre-industrial times, they are tailored to pedestrian traffic. Moderate in size, they ease visual penetration, and at the same time allow for undertaking various activities. 

Hartwig manifests the amicable aspect of Warsaw city space by photographing the Old Town and Warsaw parks throughout the warmer months of the year. Images of the Old Town Market Square, taken at an eye level camera angle, yield city space at a human scale of up to the top of the ground floor. The frames are neither too wide nor too narrow. “Painting display on the Kleinpoldt Tenement House” offers a glimpse into how injecting artistic activity into urban space can pause the actors of that space for a moment. The people in the photograph are acting at leisure. Some are looking at the art, others are resting on the concrete bench. A figure of a cyclist is cut off at the right edge of the photo.

Another image, “Part of the Palace on the Isle terrace in the Royal Baths Park” partially showing a pond from above, features a city green park. Here, people are strolling, others are likely spotting water birds beyond the image’s edge gathering by the terrace overlooking the pond. The zoomed out aerial view exposes a social tendency to keep distance between strangers to an arm’s length. The onlookers by the pond standing closer together most likely know one another. The park in the photograph is user-friendly in how it encourages free activity and interaction. Separated from the city buzz, it offers a refuge and access to greenery. The historic ensemble of the palace and its park creates an additional spatial value. Through beauty and symmetry, this urban space becomes imbued with a harmony sensed by people.

A Space That Inspires Spontaneity
Visually pleasing, well-designed public spaces available for exploration at any time, including after dusk, ready to be wandered around or rested in, allowing for ergonomic transfers from one spot to another, are a key instrument to urban success. The success becomes even more complete when the residents use the available space creatively and spontaneously for a pastime, leisure, or fun. 

Hartwig’s “Painting display in the Old City Market Square” shows a young boy on a bike riding inside an openwork exhibition pavilion constructed from metal pipes. Quite likely, he cruised in between the scaffoldings by chance, and the photographer captured his small silhouette in the focal point of the image. 

The children drawing in chalk on the sidewalk in “Outdoor event for children in Zwycięstwa Square” do not appear to notice the artist whose visual angle seems to significantly reduce the size of the tenements. Urban physiognomy serves as a backdrop for human activity. Creative exercise draws upon a typically presentable urban space. 

Tekst: Blanka Melania Ciężka

Gehl, J. (2014). Miasta dla ludzi. RAM.
Gehl, J. (2013). Życie między budynkami. RAM.
Hall, E. T. (1978). Ukryty wymiar. PIW. 
Psy czy koty? Fotografia czy fotografika? Kolor czy...? Edward Hartwig odpowiada na pytania Anny Beaty Bohdziewicz [A dog or a cat? Photography or Photograpics? Color or… ? Edward Hartwig in an interview with Anna Beata Bohdziewicz] (1996 April, May). Fototapeta., accessed on 29.12.2021.
Rose, J. F.P. (2019). Dobrze nastrojone miasto. Karakter.
Wywiad z bratem. Julia Hartwig rozmawia z Edwardem Hartwigiem [An Interview with My Brother. Julia Hartwig speaks with Edward Hartwig.] Wariacje fotograficzne. Warszawa 1978.