Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Gerald Howson: A Very Polish Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 27th May, 2014

Gerald Howson PolandGerald HowsonIn 1959, at the height of the Cold War, the British photographer Gerald Howson was sent to Poland to take pictures for Queen magazine, in principle to illustrate an article that would be written by a friend of mine (long since deceased), the writer Frank Tuohy, who was then working for the British Council in Warsaw. What Gerald found was a country trying to recover from being marched over, occupied, divided up for centuries and latterly dominated by Soviet Russia. He took his cameras into the streets of Warsaw, Krakow and other towns and cities, photographing ordinary people and everyday scenes, deliberately not artfully constructed, almost surreptitiously, though many people realised he was snapping away and were quite unconcerned about it. Frank never wrote his article, as he worried that identifiable people might suffer because of it, and Gerald did not find it easy to place many of his pictures on his return home, as they did not fit into the then popular genres of fashion or glamour. The Polish authorities weren’t too happy, either, asking him where were the pictures of people dancing and being happy (as Gerald says openly now, “there weren’t any!”). Many years later, a former BBC World Service colleague of mine, Bogdan Frymorgen, who was searching for images for a museum of 20th century Polish history, from the layperson’s point of view, went to see Gerald and discovered the treasure trove of black and white images that he had stored in a chest of drawers. The net result is a fascinating exhibition, which has already been shown in Poland but is now in the 12 Star Gallery at Europe House in Smith Square, London (the HQ of the European Commission and European Parliament’s offices in London) until 13 June. There are some stunning images, several of them drawing their power from their very banality, but often with an unspoken deeper message behind, such as the almost deserted but rubble-strewn streets of the Jewish quarter in Krakow or two little boys with cows in a field, with the menacing fence of Auschwitz in the background. Gerald — now in his 90s, but scintillating in conversation, as well as in the historical writings that have occupied his later years — captivated the people present at the exhibition’s London vernissage this evening when he declared that people in Poland in 1959 were just so bored of the Soviets being there. The same cannot be said of him or his work; one can get a good flavour from the following video clip on YouTube: 

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