Album 'Śląsk'

Book "Silesia and Galicja"
published by Museum of History of Photography


Michał Cała is one of the few eminent photographers of Silesia. His tremendous achievements, which span four decades, can be compared with the works of Max Steckel, or Wojciech Wilczyk, a photographer one generation younger, who has been inspired by Michał Cała. At the same time, the photographs by Michał Cała are distinct in the way they depict the industrial district. Unlike Steckel, Mr Cała is not interested in the gloomy and claustrophobic spaces of mine shafts illuminated by artificial light. While embarking on his lifetime adventure with Silesia, he paid no attention to the spectacular investments of Comrade Edward Gierek, such as the Katowice Steelworks, which were enthusiastically documented by such artists as Edward Poloczek. Mr Cała gets away from the propaganda of success and seemingly approaches the “black” photojournalism popular in the second half of the 1970’s; apparently so, though, because he does not focus on the simple anecdote, so typical of photojournalism, but rather gives precedence to a somewhat apocalyptic landscape. The photographs often depict no people. Even if they appear, they play the role of a staffage, highlighting the scale of industrial production and the consequent landscape transformations. The best of Michał Cała’s photographs are inhuman, in a sense, and border on the abstract. Silesia is an area of protracted modernisation which seems to be leading to an inevitable disaster. It is not so much the beauty, but rather the grandeur of this historical process that Michał Cała explores. At the same time, his landscape is not idealised at all. On the contrary, it constitutes – in its own way – a dialectical image of the nature-culture, human-industry, decline-progress conflicts which have been inscribed in modernity and translated into his black-and-white, contrast photography. Michał Cała makes an impression through the enormity of his project and his focus on the long-term recording of the changing image of Silesia. This approach resembles that of the creators of the legendary exhibition entitled Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, which was held for the first time in 1975 at George Eastman House in Rochester. Michał Cała also takes a keen interest in topography. Not only does he seek out man-altered landscapes but also does not hesitate to incorporate existential themes into individual photographs.

It is no coincidence, then, that the author often uses long lenses which characteristically flatten the individual planes of the image. This is how Michał Cała succeeds in creating, like the paintings of great masters, a metaphor of a human fate. Unlike Brueghel in his winter landscapes, Michał Cała replaces generic groups with isolated passers-by drifting past as well as with the last people. His peculiarly epic approach stands out not only among the contemporary Polish photographers; the Silesian work can also be read as a story about the Anthropocene. Michał Cała’s photographs can be compared with those by artists from earlier eras and generations, as well as with the Silesian paintings by Jan Bułhak, Henryk Poddębski or the young photographers of today such as Rafał Milach and Michał Łuczak. The most interesting, however, is the comparison of Michał Cała’s own photographs from the various periods and areas documented by the artist. Seen from this perspective – be it an exhibition or an album – one can discern the transformations and development of both the author’s vision and Silesia itself. Comparisons with the slightly later photographs of Galicia more clearly show the clash between the catastrophic vision of Silesia and the quite idyllic picture of the Galician village. The Galician landscapes bring to mind the masters of the Kielce landscape school focused around Paweł Pierściński or the beauty of Mazovia in the photographs by Edward Hartwig. They are depictions of a pre-modern, unrealistically beautiful and harmonious world that welcomes both humans and animals; it looks like the brighter side of Silesia. However, the pictures, full of tenderness and nostalgia, are not as convincing as the Silesian photographs demonstrating the breakdown of ties between people as well as between man and nature. They seem to convey that the human fate is to gain control over the world. During his subsequent trips to Silesia, Michał Cała has begun to perceive something more than just destruction overwhelmed by coal-mining waste dumps, degraded nature and lone figures scurrying along the dirty, mud-covered streets of workers’ housing estates. In his later photographs, created already after the political system transformations, it is nature that seems to prevail. The human work is subject to the processes of entropy. Michał Cała visits the places he is very familiar with and photographs them again. The twilight of real socialism and the late-capitalist dawn of a new political system saw the collapse of factories, the demolition of monstrous structures and the emergence of colour in the black-and-white world. Michał Cała’s photographs begin to incorporate strong, colourful spots of signboards, advertisements or new car models. The grey background contrasts with the redness of bricks and the greenness of trees and grass. The colour photographs may elicit a feeling of consternation in the lovers of noble, black-and-white photography but Michał Cała’s style does not offer a dazzling show of colours like Tomasz Tomaszewski, who was accused of distorting the image of Silesia. The colour in these photographs signifies normality and daily life, as though the period of storm and stress has come to an end. It is as though the inhuman period reached its end along with the fall of communism. This ordinariness is intriguing but not as riveting as the black-and-white landscapes of the end of the world. The world is a little bit cleaner and slightly more beautiful. It is normal, just like in contemporary Poland. It is only the plant-covered waste dumps and mining damage, the artificial lakes and reservoirs, as well as the cracked and dilapidated buildings that still bring back memories of the not-so-distant past which has only been immortalised in the photographs. In this landscape, both close and distant at the same time, among objects resembling pyramids or buildings of long-lost civilisation, there drifts the photographer.

Adam Mazur