Poland Unimagined
(unedited version)
This article appeared in State Magazine in February 2006

As the date of departure neared, I didn't want to leave Florida sunshine for babushkas wearing aprons, disheveled old men, pet bears meandering through the streets, Siberian freezes prohibiting movement beyond a sorry approximation of a dimly lit hotel room, and vodka and communist drab everywhere. I was prepared to coat the few square inches of skin exposed outside my parka and ski mask with some kind of whale blubber emulsion for protection from the arctic chill. Duty called, and I mindlessly made my way to the airport, not wanting to consider the twenty-hours of travel and what lay beyond. I expected the worst, but I was in for a surprise.

My prejudices shattered like glass. The week and a half I spent in Poland went far too quickly. As part of the American Embassy's Black History Month cultural outreach program, I was scheduled to lecture around the country about The Highwaymen, a group of African-American landscape painters. In between presentations, the Embassy's cultural affairs office arranged meetings for me with university educators and museum curators, while introducing me to Polish cultural life, from flea markets to restored palaces, and to the finest restaurants, which they treated as everyday fare.

The little downtime that my itinerary permitted was used to walk. That's what I like doing best, be it in India, Haiti, or Brazil. Just me and my Leica finding our way as we wander aimlessly, to soak up the place. I'd long wanted to see Eastern Europe personally. When I finished graduate school, I chose to return home to Miami Beach to spend a decade documenting the inevitable demise of the old world community which elderly Jewish men and women had established there for themselves. They created a rich lifestyle that was referred to as "the last resort." Many of these people had numbers tattooed on their forearms and most had stories to tell, often referring to Eastern Europe. Finally arriving, Poland intrigued me instantly.

First the Nazis, and the communists after them, made sure that barely traces remain of Warsaw's Jewish ghetto. Adjacent to a resident's apartment garden between the drab concrete high-rise apartment buildings that characterize the communists' workers' paradise, a section of the wall that once bounded the ghetto remains. A small plaque, and stones left by the regular stream of visitors to this unlikely corner of Europe distinguish this otherwise ordinary wall from the many standing around it. Modern monuments stand in tribute to the Ghetto Uprising heroes and the Umschlagplatz, the point of departure to the Treblinka death camp from the northern ghetto wall. Maybe these are enough. They stand symbolically in a strange kind of inverse proportion to the atrocity. There was little sense of Judaic history, not unlike the lack of attention paid to the now-gone old world Jews who had characterized my home, Miami Beach. Perhaps I should not have expected anything more. But I did because I've long felt that the presence of the South Beach Jews, a trek that began in Eastern Europe, was slighted there in favor of the relatively vacuous pop culture that today receives so much disproportionate attention.

I was moved by everything in Poland, and more often than not, profoundly. I admit to being under the sway of the charm and diligence of the Embassy's Cultural Affairs Specialist Izabella Szarek. Iza remembers the communist days soberly, but with an appropriate sense of disdain and ridicule. Today she is much more focused on the renaissance of art and culture in Warsaw and beyond.

Especially moving were the audiences responses to my slide-lectures. They weren't reacting to me, but to the Highwaymen story itself: how, with the odds stacked squarely against them, these disenfranchised young Blacks nonetheless realized the American dream, and in the process left the visual legacy of modern Florida, the Sunshine State, as the place to realize their hopes and aspirations. The phenomenon of the Highwaymen is as much a lesson in sociology than in art. It is a story of transcendence that typifies the best of American values.

The reactions of the six audiences to which I presented were terrific. Young Poles were quick to recognize the significance of the human achievement, and the way American society hindered it (the reality of racial discrimination) at the same time that it facilitated it (the myth of boundless opportunity). They grasped the social / cultural milieu and considered issues of the artwork. The college students as well as museum audiences were notably attentive and inquisitive. From aspiring visual artists to professors of the social sciences and their students, questions were many and meaningful. Most enthusiastic was noted scholar Prof. Bonena Chylinska, the director of Ethnic Studies at Warsaw University, who has spent time in the US, researching Black culture. She and her standing-room-only classes of students remained well into their lunch hour asking me questions.

From the university, Prof. Chylinska, Iza, and I drove through Warsaw to the riverside Boathouse Restaurant for lunch. Sans the snow, it could have been in Malibu. I was beginning to realize that Poland, Warsaw at least, is cosmopolitan, but I was just on the verge of recognizing how far the country had come during the past fifteen years since shedding its communist past. I look outside during a lull in our in conversation and take in the snow-covered landscape. People are out and about despite the cold. There, and as we drive to Fabryka Trzciny, our next stop, the surrounding beauty hits me.

Oddly, despite the temperatures that would be painfully frigid by Florida standards I wasn't uncomfortable then, or during the subsequent days of the trip. I'm cold at home when the mercury drops to 65-degrees outdoors. Little by little I recognized how the excitement of discovery of something new and fascinating and beautiful wards off even the harsh weather.

I am also taken by how beautiful every young woman is. Even clad in layers of clothes, each one looks like a runway model. It is another indicator of how far the days of communism are behind them here. Stylish clothes that would have been completely unavailable fifteen years ago, and would have attracted the decidedly negative attention of communist authorities, are now the norm. This impression amazes me throughout the trip.

In profound contrast, we next visited the old industrial side of town, known as Praga. The buildings' walls, pock-marked by bullet holes, and the occasional bricked-in starburst pattern of an exploding artillery shell are living reminders of the ferocity of the Soviet-Nazi battle for Praga sixty years ago. It is today becoming Warsaw's Soho. Space is affordable if not in pristine condition or surroundings, yet the area is rapidly gentrifying. Inside, the spaces might as well be in Manhattan. Once "a desolate and ruined factory," the Fabryka Trzciny now houses the avant-garde Klementyna Bochenska gallery along with theaters and clubs that are among the trendiest in Poland. At Bochenska we viewed an exhibition by Lodz Kaliska. These post-conceptual artists use "staged photography" from pastiche versions of famous paintings by Polish masters to recent photographs critiquing and parodying modern art as they explore the possibilities of new media and readdress media advertisements. At the intimate Nizio Gallery nearby, photographs of elderly women seductively dressed like ballerinas appear haunting and striking in their life-sized glares.

That evening, at Atelier Foksal, I was to share my own photography, images mostly of America. Teresa Starzec and Andrzej Bielawski opened Atelier Foksal in 1991. The painters and teachers strove to establish an open environment for those searching for new forms of expression and wishing to develop their talents, regardless of age or station: "We do not require any previous experience; we offer you all necessary materials, high quality teaching methods, and a pleasant atmosphere for your artistic explorations." Again, I was impressed by the interest of the students and teachers, and their warmth, which, although warned that Poles are not demonstrative especially with their emotions, I was sensing was a staple among them.

An embassy car picked me up in the morning at the Europejski Hotel, where I had been staying since arriving and which I was now used to. Patrick Lahey, the Embassy's Cultural Attach assumed that I'd prefer one of Warsaw's historic hotels rather than one of the modern chain hotels that are popping up all over town. Photos in the hotel lobby show that it was little more than a pile of rubble in 1945. It is now a strange image of 19th century elegance, Stalinist trappings, and ornate failed attempts to emerge from them in the post-communist age. Patrick knows a little something of my tastes in travel. He and I first met in Haiti in 1989 when he was working at our Embassy there, and I was on my second Fulbright fellowship, photographing all over that atrophying country.

Patrick's about the most intrepid traveler there is, an Indiana Jones, of sorts. We hooked up in Port-au-Prince to charge to uncharted places that most of the world would classify as completely inaccessible. When we drove deep into the bush, well past any semblance of anything that resembled a road, Patrick would nonchalantly pull a machete from behind the truck's seat and begin whacking away the tangles Patrick's seen more than anyone, I suspect, of Haiti during these modern times, and he was motivated by a love of the people and culture (not to mention by his spirit of adventure). He's fallen for Poland too, and a Polish woman, his wife Beata, with whom he has a beautiful family.

It's a far cry from when we slept in places that cost about a dollar a night, often with spiders and lizards crawling across the walls and mosquitoes dive-bombing throughout the night. There was no glass in those windows, and the bathroom facilities were stale and dark closets at the end of the hall where hot water was a foreign myth. In fact, this trip to Poland was luxurious and serendipitous; over the years we had lost track of each other (although he was never far from my thoughts), and Patrick was looking for me through google to ask me a photography-related question. What he found was pages and pages about my book, The Highwaymen, on the web. He saw an opportunity knocking, as he realized the story would be prime material for the Embassy's outreach during Black History Month.

Iza next escorted Patrick and me to Lodz, once a capital of the textile industry, where wealthy factory owners built palaces for themselves in front of barracks-style workers' residences like barons overseeing their land. Technically, Patrick is Iza's boss, but they refer to each other as colleagues, and as I watched Iza walk Patrick through his official duties as attaché it wasn't clear who was who's boss. Anyone who watched them in action would quickly conclude that they were best of friends thoroughly enjoying the mutual adventure of working together. Although in great company and a fine company car, I loose myself watching the surroundings whiz by villages, farms, snow-covered landscapes; a certain frustration about temporalness grabs me, so I begin photographing life passing by through the car window-frost and all.

Curators of the Lodz Cinematography Museum took us for a tour of their facilities. The palace converted into a museum featured ornate staterooms where the original owners entertained the cream of Lodz society, and, still functioning, Poland's first elevator. But it included such exhibits as room after room of a miniature puppeteers diorama, and props from recent well-known movies. The setting elevated even the tools of the trade and publicity posters to high art. A poster that Steven Spielberg signed when he was in Poland to film Schindler's List was cast among scores signed by other film notables who had visited the facility.

At the "American Corner" the Embassy's satellite cultural office in Lodz, my presentation of the Highwaymen was an intimate gathering, and as always this Cinderella tale was well received. Afterwards Patrick, Iza, and I met Jaroslaw Nowak, the Director of Promotions for the City of Lodz for lunch at Piotrkowska Klub. I was encountering taken-for-granted elegance and old-world civility everyday and everywhere in Poland, and it took particular hold of me here. After the usual cycle of abandonment and renovation, the club's pre-war elegance was more parodied than restored, but it was a pointed example of what the past can always expect the future to make of it. Like many Poles, Jarek had had the opportunity to spend several years in the US. He was equally at home in Lodz or New York, and in both places had developed a fascination for Judaica that was leading him to look for an opportunity to spend a few years in Israel.

Time and time again, the environment impressed me. The cold was pervasive, but it never bothered me. And this from a photographer who prefers to work in shorts and T-shirts, in tropical settings. It was rather odd to me that I was always comfortable. I am convinced that it was more than proper clothing, that it somehow had to do with simple pleasantry and sheer beauty of the people and places that I encountered wherever I went. Snow fell intermittently, occasionally allowing for a few hours of blue skies. In Poland in February, the sun is always low on the horizon even at its zenith. But to my own surprise and immediate delight, I loved photographing in the dull light, enlivened by the vivacity of the place and people.

After lunch I dragged Iza to the streets so I could photograph (she wouldn't let me go alone, actually). It was so cold that she had to stop to buy a knitted cap. But I remained unfazed, taken by the discovery of place. Patrick, meantime, had to work. The Embassy was sponsoring the opening of the American Friendship: Herbert Hoover and Poland exhibition at Lodz History Museum in the Poznanski Palace. It's the story of another of those fascinating but little-known connections between the US and Poland. When World War I ended for the US in November of 1918, the Poles had to continue fighting for two more years to secure their independence from the emerging Soviet Union. American volunteers fought along with the Poles against the communists, and Herbert Hoover headed up the world's largest ever famine relief program to save Polish citizenry from starvation after the ravages of years of warfare. Although I stayed politely for Patrick's opening remarks, I slipped out afterwards to walk the snowy streets of Lodz, fascinated with the bustle of life, which is the photographer's stock in trade.

The next morning back in Warsaw I was privileged to be received by Ambassador Victor Ashe. Amb. Ashe served for sixteen years as the Mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, receiving the Distinguished Public Service Award of the U.S. Conference of Mayors prior to his appointment to be ambassador to Poland in 2004. His southern accent and sense of hospitality bring a welcome feeling of country charm which, in contrast to the pictures of himself with world leaders adorning the walls of his offices, seems highly appropriate to an American ambassador. Small world: it turns out that in his capacity as Mayor he officiated at the wedding of good friends of mine back in Knoxville many years ago.

There are few art exhibitions that I'd travel to another state to see, but Warsaw's CSW Zamek Ujazdowski had one installed at the time of my visit. It was Henry Darger's "Disasters of War" exhibit. Patrick and Iza realized my penchant for outsider art, and arranged for me to have lunch with curator Pawel Polit at the museum's restaurant high on a bluff overlooking a three hundred yard reflecting pond (frozen over for my visit) and the Vistula River beyond. Indeed, the imagery created by self-taught artists such as Darger has long influenced my ideas and taste in art, including my own work. Briefly put, this art is unaffected by academia, the artist working in absentia from the art world and market to produce works that are raw and pure in spirit. And it doesn't get any better than Darger; so politically incorrect that many museums would shy away from bringing this work to the public, but it is as equally a significant contribution.

Afterwards Iza took me Warsaw's premier gallery, Zacheta, to see Fucien Rops and William Degouve de Nuncques exquisite works characterized together as "The Struggle Between Carnival and Lent." And then it was a walk through the snow-covered park, its evening lights creating a fairy-tale effect as they illuminated the misty space, to the National Ethnography Museum. After a curator's tour of Polish folk art, including ceremonial costumes that seeing was like turning the pages of a storybook as I went from one to the next, I presented the Highwaymen to another highly receptive audience. There I discovered Poland's premiere contemporary self-taught artist, Nikifor (1895-1968). Illiterate and with a speech impediment, Nikifor found refuge in painting images of his country that perhaps countered his own alienation from these surroundings. He resorted to begging when he couldn't sell his watercolors, and he may have produced more than 10,000 of them on scrap paper.

We toured the Poster Museum Thursday morning, and, as usual, getting there was half the fun. The museum is located in Wilanow Park, which was covered in snow that continued falling gently. In a few minutes Iza relates to me centuries of the history made there. Once again, a depth of culture that is overwhelming to the first-time visitor is a fact of life to the initiated Pole. Inside, the museum is sedate because of its out-of-place austere sixties-architecture, but the exhibit of hundreds of new calendars from around the world offered a non-stop adventure in looking. I was moved again by the myriad offerings of Poland's museums. It occurred to me that I was seeing more art here than I might see at home.

Iza took me to lunch at the Jazz Cafe another staple of Warsaw life that would have been inconceivable Western decadence fifteen years ago, and then to the Embassy for my afternoon presentation at their monthly American Thursday program. Once again, both the Embassy community and their guests from outside were taken by this quintessential American tale. There was one African American gentleman in the audience, one of the Embassy officers. I worried how he would react to hearing this White man tell the story of his people. But he paid me the supreme compliment by simply thanking me for writing this unique story of one of his people's triumphs and helping to spread the word even in far-off Poland.

Then I was off to magical Krakow, its thousand years of history punctuated through the centuries by a regular stream of attacking hoards, but not devastated by the Nazi and Soviet invasions the way Warsaw and Lodz were. In fact, at least 80% of Warsaw was leveled during WWII, but the city was reconstructed to look as it had hundreds of years before the devastation. Maria Brzostek, Public Affairs Specialist at the American Consulate in Krakow, met me at the train station, and continued the remarkable hospitality that I had been shown since landing in Poland. She took me to the Hotel Senackicentrally located in old town. Although well into middle age, I remain very fond of my younger days when I stayed in a-few-dollars-a-night hotels in third-world countries. But I wouldn't trade this place for the world. I will never forget my view out the window from my room: lying in bed, the window, with its gauze-like drape, perfectly framed the top of the church of Sts. Peter and Paul across the street, enshrouded in misty snow-light. Like a fairy tale.

In the morning I was off to nearby Tarnow for a presentation to local artists, high school students of the School of Arts, and other persons interested in arts at the Regional Museum located in the beautiful Tarnow Town Hall. And again, I was struck how this small regional city, virtually unknown outside of Poland, and not distinguished within Poland, has such a rich history of culture that is so obvious in a casual glance at the town's architecture. Local residents do themselves and their town a disservice by taking this wealth of culture for granted. Receptive as always; I count my blessings as the Highwaymen story tells itself; Can't miss. But I'm especially edified by the receptiveness of the youngsters attention. Afterwards I slip away again to walk the streets, stealing a few minutes to photograph before leaving town.

One more presentation and two days alone now to photograph before departing for home. Introduced by William Bellis, our Public Affairs Officer stationed in Krakow, to an audience who seemed more like college students from Berkley than anywhere else and of a time when social change focused there. Massolit Bookshop is an English-language used bookstore and cafe that attracts young intellectuals and others interested in America and ideas. The store seems an interesting metaphor for Poland at the crossroads, where fifteen years after shedding communism, new signs beckon openly.

But what also beckons are the logos that are quintessentially America and generic, including Nike swooshes and fast-food restaurants. At least I didn't see any "I Love Poland" T-shirts. Our pop culture is not overt there, yet. A feeling in the gut says it is on its way. So, no wonder I relish the little things I experience on this magical mystery tour: When it was too warm in the small hotel room in Warsaw and I couldn't locate the thermostat, the desk receptionist matter-of-factly told me to open the window. Since heat is generated by hot water pipes that run through the city to warm the buildings and there are no thermostats, an open window serves to regulate interior temperatures. Charming, and delightful.

I was stunned and perversely amused by every car coming to a dead stop for pedestrians. It was like I cosmic power. It felt Skinner-istic. This power seemed, ironically, almost ludicrous, akin to walking in a cartoon. It was Wiley Coyote about to be trumped by Roadrunner, and I felt like the invincible Roadrunner as I set my foot out, off from the sidewalk to bring traffic to a halt. Most sobering though were the bullet holes that were patched to the few old buildings in Warsaw that somehow weren't destroyed during the war. They were not patched with the greatest care, which added a chill, especially at the non descript building that serves as a barracks for the few uniformed soldiers who march from it to the adjacent downtown park to guard the flame that commemorates the graves of their unknown brethren.

By this time I could find my way to a pub's basement and order pierogi any way I wanted them. Krakow's a perfect place for me to wander alone. But more to the point, I could do nothing but photograph, and so I did. I explored the streets, the old town center, churches, shops, Royal Castle, market, trolley stations, parks, noticing with intrigue people whose lives I could only glimpse at and wonder about. And make photographs in response to my intuitions, the challenge being to give form to these perceptions. Fine photographs are as difficult to realize as they seem easy to make. Their real finesse lies in the discovery that was felt, or sensed, at the moment of exposure, a faint possibility that there may be a connection. And in Poland that possibility was as plentiful as the rapid clicking of my cameras shutter, which was as often and as involuntary as the blinking of my eyes.

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