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
Dame Vivienne Westwood: The former Queen of Punk may now be an establishment pillar, but her work is still controversial – and much copied
Regin: Newly uncovered malicious software snooping since 2008 'was developed by a nation state'
Kim Kardashian recreates iconic Jean-Paul Goude naked 'Champagne Incident' photo
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec: Google celebrates 150th anniversary of French artist's birth
Rochester by-election: Ukip gains second MP as Tory defector Mark Reckless holds seat
'Beast of Bolsover' Dennis Skinner takes Ukip MP Mark Reckless to task moments after he is sworn in
Rochester by-election: Labour MP Emily Thornberry resigns after posting white van and England flags tweet
France 'blocks' Russian sailors from boarding a warship
The young are the new poor: Sharp increase in number of under-25s living in poverty, while over-65s are better off than ever
Exclusive: UK approved £7m Israeli arms sales in six months before Gaza conflict
- 1 Lego letter from the 1970s still offers a powerful message to parents 40 years later
- 2 To help fuel their propaganda machine against the poor, our government has now decided to redefine the word 'welfare'
- 3 Green Party Caroline Lucas interview: 'We could be on the edge of something very big'
- 4 Woman opens professional cuddling shop – gets 10,000 customers in first week
- 5 Grayson Perry: London needs affordable housing because 'rich people don't create culture'
£50000 - £55000 per annum: Investigo: A growing group of top end restaurants l...
£200 per day: Ashdown Group: Working within a business that has a high number ...
Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...
£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well-established and growi...