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
The pictures on these pages are by Witold Krassowski, a contributor to The Independent for nearly a decade. Many are from British Pastimes, an exhibition which recently toured Poland - Krassowski's homeland - with the aim of "promoting British-Polish friendship and understanding".

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

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