Leica Gallery Prague, Školská 28, Prague,, April 21 – May 17, 2009
Open daily, 11 am – 9 pm, www.lgp.cz - Old Gallery ZPAF, pl. Zamkowy 8, Warsaw, May 21 – June 7, 2009
It is difficult to accept the challenge of writing an article about the photographs of Vladimír Birgus, simply because they defy classification. That also leads to a frequently occurring problem with their reception. They draw our attention, yet we are often unable to say exactly why. Therein lies their tremendous power.
Birgus has been making his principal series, Something Unspeakable, without a break since 1973, annually adding new works to it. The title aptly refers to a special way of looking at the world, superbly avoiding the recording of social situations or political events or commenting on the depicted facts, which is otherwise so frequent in documentary photography today. The many reviews of Birgus’s works often employ the term ‘subjective documentary’, which suggests that we are dealing with a highly individual figure, perhaps even a lone one.
‘At first sight,’ writes Václav Podestát, ‘the photographs of Vladimír Birgus tell of miniature events occurring in the oddest places of our planet. Upon closer examination, however, they tell mainly of contemporary globalized society, of always being in a hurry, of loneliness in the crowd, contrasts between dream and reality, what is unexpressed, left to be guessed at only with difficulty. That means they tell of the inner states which we carry in our souls with various degrees of tension.’
These words underscore a certain universality of the photographs, because while sojourning in various geographic latitudes Birgus has managed to find ever-similar, strikingly banal situations of everyday life, and in this distinctive way he distances himself from the pictorial identifiably of the specific places. His works, however, always have precise titles, which describe when and where the photographs were made. The viewer thus obtains the crucial key to reading this set as a special universal picture of the spiritual state of contemporary man. His life in various corners of our world is subject to similar principles. We are incapable, however, of guessing the principles of how these photographs were made. Instead of attempting to explain them, the photographer tends to make reference to other indefinite motives. We learn that man, even in a group, remains an individual, building his own world, which, however, must co-exist with his surroundings.
Apart from real figures, shadows also frequently appear in Birgus’s photographs. Though they are cast by real figures, these shadows strangely suggest the presence of a parallel world, as was pointed out by Elżbieta Łubowicz in the introduction to the catalogue to the exhibition at, among other places, the Moscow Photo Biennale, and the Galerie Camelot, Krakow, as part of Photography Month, 2004.
The figures in the photographs are always captured in unusual situations, often highly abstract ones, as for example the photograph of the man with eyes closed sitting on a bench (Sitges, 2005), surrounded by shadows that seem to come straight out of his dreams. These two worlds overlap with each other, much as human nature tends to be ambiguous.
The restrained expression, with pure but rich shades of colour, which substantially predominate in the aesthetic of the pictures, introduces a certain order. Mainly, however, it creates a quite unreal background for the scenes that have begun to unfold – the ‘deepness’ of these shades (recalling a palette of primary colours) and their dominant presence seem to shift the photographs somewhere beyond the boundary of real vision. The long shadows in the photographs and the shades of mostly warm colours, characteristic of the late afternoon, clearly define for us the time of day when another moment of great change is approaching – the last rays of the setting sun are momentarily superseded by twilight, taking us back to the edge of the world of the imagination and dreams.
Often the figures in Birgus’s photographs have been captured at the moment of ‘watching’ or ‘observing’, and also at the moment of photographing. This double game brings us closer to the essence of the photographic medium – Birgus seeks to convey something to us not only of ourselves, our complicated natures, but also of what photography actually is, reflecting the world, not commenting on it or even creating a new reality. This question is, I believe, highly relevant in times when photography has become somewhat trite, banally simple. In the great flood of pictures photography is losing its true, elementary function, and sincerity of communication is in short supply. Birgus’s photographs, however, preserve its purest form.
Ireneusz Zjeżdżałka (1972–2008) – photographer, curator, former editor-in-chief of Kwartalnik Fotografia.