Photography: Treasured Island
Grown men engage in a frantic pillow fight. A woman at a fair glances knowingly at the camera. Robin Muir celebrates the work of Polish photographer Witold Krassowski - an affectionate and bemused witness of British life since the late Eighties
Saturday 03 April 1999
Friendship, certainly: these are heroic pictures, idiosyncratically English and bucolic in the neo-Romantic tradition, the product of an eye that regards our pastoral pleasures with affection and more than a little bemused detachment. Who could resist the overtures of a nation which sends out, in the name of friendship, such signals of self-deprecation?
But understanding? You may get to know a community better by considering its recreational habits but there's a lot here the Poles will surely never understand. The photographer barely does. "You know, it is odd," says Krassowski, "people putting their faces in porridge and calling it fun." But Krassowski is a serious documentarist, whose assignments have taken him from Tanzania to Kazakhstan, and though he may find enchanting these vignettes of British life, both urban and rural, he values above all the authenticity of what he sees.
"It is honest," he says gravely, "and they do it only for themselves. I am interested in the reality of daily life but that can be quite boring. Being a foreigner, I don't have to make a political statement - I'm not expected to - but Britain for me is at a crossroads. It loves its customs and its traditions, but in some ways this prevents it from competing at an international level. This hesitation I find interesting and I choose to photograph the traditional side of British life."
There is much in Krassowski's work that reminds us of Bill Brandt's evocation of Britain during wartime and the pastoral idylls of Edwin Smith. Like all great documentary photography, there is an exuberance to his pictures that belies his considerable technical skills. The eye is all and, in this case, it is both affectionate and mocking. Perhaps, above all, his pictures relive the glorious days of Picture Post or Illustrated, which tend to be overlooked in accounts of British photographic history because of their simple, populist approach to the genre. Krassowski likes to caption his pictures himself. At times, they are pure Picture Post. "Who is the kid here?" is his comment on a photograph of two men at Knucklas village day, playfully trying to knock each other to the ground with pillows, to the bemusement of a small boy, who simply scratches his head as he watches them.
Arriving in London in the late Eighties, Krassowski worked illegally in the building trade, as a painter and decorator in the Ealing area. Why? "Because Polish people do this," he observes.
One evening, he came to show his work to The Independent Magazine's first picture editor, Colin Jacobson. "He produced a small, rather unimpressive-looking portfolio, full of modest- sized prints," Jacobson recalls. "The images were all about life in Poland - many of them dark and brooding, others very witty indeed. Every picture I looked at was immediately interesting, revealing and, beyond all that, clearly the product of a consistent creative eye."
As luck would have it, Margaret Thatcher, who was then Prime Minister, was travelling imminently to Poland, so the pictures were published on the eve of her visit to give British readers a flavour of Polish life.
More commissions followed, including now legendary sets on the English Fens and the Cambridge May Balls. He returned from the latter, it was reported, mouthing words of disapproval but with a brightness in his eyes.
Krassowski is very tall and sports a moustache which makes him look like a Polish cavalry officer. His demeanour, too, would suit a man of such rank - taciturn, impassive and unflappable.
"In our eight-year friendship," Jacobson notes with affection, "I don't remember him ever expressing anything which you might mistake for excitement."
Now living in Warsaw, Krassowski is certainly among the best photo-essayists of his generation and our times - and perhaps the most accomplished of all at conveying a particular vision of Britain
Life & Style blogs
Who is Teresa Fidalgo? Debunking the fake ghost story that's got Instagram spooked
Penis size study: what's 'normal' anyway?
What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
International Space Station’s huge size shown in spacewalk image
Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
'Jihadi John': CAGE representative storms off Sky News accusing Kay Burley of Islamophobia
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'
- 1 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 2 Japanese island overrun with cats after population explodes
- 3 Delhi bus rapist blames dead victim for attack because 'girls are responsible for rape'
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 Average penis size revealed: Scientists attempt to find what is 'normal' to reassure concerned men
£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company is the UK's leading...
£40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a critical role within the secur...
£20000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The company is an established, ...
£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...