Nov. 20, 2020 | Blanka Melania Ciężka
Building Marszałkowska Dzielnica Mieszkaniowa, workers at work on a crane, 1950s
Construction works in Edward Hartwig’s photography. The power of the collective as a component in city development
Part of the body of Edward Hartwig’s work is a relatively large and stylistically cohesive set of photographs featuring workers at their miscellaneous construction tasks that conceives the realm of Warsaw as a dynamic and industrialized construct. These artworks are in conspicuous contrast to the photographs of machinery and technical infrastructure elements, both in terms of their theme and the formal devices employed. Visually, the works are less technical in form: such reduction allowing for more artistry. Instead of foreshortenings displaying the grandeur of the construction works, Hartwig would seek to position the camera in a way that captured the tangibility of the portrayed representation. As well, the presence of people in the photographs highlights the significance of not just the machines’ efficiency, but also the collective capacity of men’s physical exertion in the urban development.
The post-war reconstruction of Warsaw attracted the attention of many photographers. Among them were Władysław Sławny, Edmund Kupiecki, Aleksander Leszczyński, and Zbyszek Siemaszko. Other than to document, the photographs would often acquire a naturalistic, social, or sometimes humorous dimension. Many a time they would create panoramic compositions with a strong focus on the spatial. Other times, the tendency to apply a propaganda tint would prevail when capturing images such as: the new residents of the Marszałkowska Residential District and their “spontaneous” reactions; the teams of construction workers and the competition among them; and the udarniks or shock workers. Some artists documented construction works in a journalistic and meticulous fashion. Others would accentuate the humanistic dimension of their representations by pointing the lens in a way that displayed the emotions of the portrayed individuals and elicited the social aspect. Others still, Edward Hartwig in particular, manipulated the visual form by transcending the simple act of copying reality. The photographs would render the idea of the city as an industrial organism.
In Hartwig’s case, it was undoubtedly the formal language he employed that created the effect. The artist conceptually constructed frames displaying workers pouring underlayment or spreading millings. Each artwork he assembled that way became more than a mere capture of a moment. Those images embodied abstract notions associated with urban development: progress, dynamism, the power of the collective, or expansion.
We repeatedly see the workers’ shapes sideways or from behind, rarely do we see their faces, but the contour of their silhouettes remains pronounced, even emphasized in a sculptural manner. The workers seem frozen in motion, statues of muscular bodies, often arranged into geometric formations. By homogenizing their silhouettes this way, Hartwig emphasized the workers’ unification. They are one force to exist as a collective.
As the watchword of the city as an industrial organism that would occur with reference to the industrial boom of the early 1900s, we can analyze it from different perspectives. The word “organism” indicates a living entity liable to processes and transformations. It stresses the significance of efficient physical work (muscles) under the eye of a supervisor (mind). It identifies the evolution of the city as a process founded not just on a worthwhile urban scheme, but also on its physical implementation.
Hartwig cloaks workers in steam and construction fumes, a technique that softens images and gives them a more organic feel. It reaches back to the onset of Hartwig’s career, echoing his first encounter with Jan Bułhak’s pictorialism and the photographic fascination with foggy landscapes. The smoke and steam enrich the images of construction works with an impressionistic flavor. Weaving those substances into his photography injects it with a new quality. By exciting our imagination, the artist evokes olfactory and tactile associations. Contrastingly, Hartwig’s landscapes become more sentimental and mysterious through the presence of mist, while steam and smoke make his construction work images more tangible by their implications of high temperature, tightness of space, and the energy of work.
Author: Blanka Melania Ciężka
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Jankowski, S. (Ed.). (1955) MDM Marszałkowska 1730–1954. Czytelnik.
Sekula, A. (2014, spring). An Eternal Esthetics of Laborious Gestures. Grey Room, 55, 16-27.