Nov. 18, 2020 | Lena Wicherkiewicz

Photography and the geometry of form

The Modernist Warsaw in Edward Hartwig’s Photography

Unconventional, unexpected images of Śródmiejski Mall, the Łazienkowski Bridge, Hotel Forum, or the Inflancka housing estate – stripped of their titles, the photographs would appear nearly abstract. By exploring the realm of photographic possibilities, Edward Hartwig provides an extraordinary form of the visual experience of the city.

Warsaw through the Prism of Geometry
This particular group of photographs, mainly from the 1970s, is remarkably form-centered. The images are intended to elicit “the geometry of the city”: the rhythm of forms, the patterns of surfaces, and the arrangements of lines. Hartwig achieves his visual objectives by applying particular photographic angles to architectural and infrastructural components of the city: bridges, viaducts, tram tracks, or streets.

Using mostly wide-angle lenses, the artist invents bold foreshortenings. For a while, he experimented with ultra-wide angles such as those generated by fisheye lenses. Using those, he produced a series of photographs of Śródmiejski Mall (currently Wiecha Mall). He would combine the images to create the impression of multiplication and dynamism (AN 4155/9/H). The geometric vision of the city is further reinforced by the graphic effects Hartwig accomplishes by highlighting intense contrasts between light and dark, and minimizing the gradation of grey: resulting in modern, sharp, and dynamic images.

Balconies, Supports, and Viaducts
Hartwig eagerly captured modernist architecture in the making. He repeatedly aimed his lens toward the Marszałkowska Street East Wall: Śródmiejski Mall, Café Zodiak, Centrum Department Stores, the high-rises, as well as Hotel Forum, Dormitory Riviera, Medical Academy Teaching Hospital, and the Torwar and Inflacka housing estates. The artist did not focus on the functional nor representative aspects of modernist architecture. Instead, he would opt for the most structural elements: supports, balcony and bridge structures, along with wide planes made up of glass, which allowed him to bring out what he considered most compelling: geometric results.

Rhythm is a significant factor in Hartwig’s photographic compositions. He accentuated it by setting the lens to register recurrent architectural features. He would give prominence to sequencing and modularity exemplified by images of the distinctive balconies of the Inflancka or Służew nad Dolinką housing estates (AN 4863/H, AN 4865/H). Hartwig pictured the apartment block’s characteristic balconies by articulating their skeleton construction. The rows of balconies and windows combine into an almost abstract structure, a net of rhythmically recurrent, pulsating forms. When analyzing Hartwig’s geometricizing photographs, Weronika Kobylińska-Bunsch wrote, “He was quite meticulous about his frames in the way he would search for appealing geometric forms or register rhythmical sequences and the captivating dynamics of diagonals.” 

A Modernist Vision
Through his photography, Edward Hartwig emphasized the modernity and dynamism of the developing socialist city. His approach yields analogies to trends in modernist photography:  the experiments of the Constructivists and the American New Vision movement. The Polish artist seems to be connecting with those trends ideologically when he firmly breaks old habits of visual representation and focuses on visual qualities. The chief task of modern photography was to present the new world and society as they transformed into modernity; a process that also occurred in aesthetical terms through the shaping of sensitivity to new forms and new ways of visual representation. 

Author: Lena Wicherkiewicz 

Hartwig, E. (1960). Fotografika. Arkady.
Kobylińska-Bunsch, W. (2020). Fotografika Edwarda Hartwiga. Zachęta.
Łuczak, D. (2017). Nowe widzenie – astrologiczny i astronomiczny wymiar wizji fotograficznej. Artium Questiones, 28. 33–64.