Nostalgic photos from 1990’s Warsaw reveal fascinating portrait of a city going through change
Opened yesterday to great curiosity, the Museum of Warsaw’s retrospective look at the capital in the 1990s stands to be remembered as one of the most compelling Polish photographic exhibitions in recent memory.
Enthralling on every level, the ‘Gloss, Matte, Colour’ exhibition takes its name from the common question faced in that era by those developing camera film.
Having been largely limited to black and white options over the course of the previous decades, this mass transition into colour was a mirror of the city’s own fantastical explosion that accompanied the sudden transition to the free market world.
“Colour became omnipresent in the public sphere, reflecting the city’s ambition to turn into a metropolis modelled on the Western capital cities,” says curator Karolina Puchała-Rojek.
“It featured on the blue-and-green facades of glazed skyscrapers, on the yellow sign of the metro which had finally opened and also on the first McDonald’s restaurant in Poland. It stood out on trams covered with ads and, above all else, on the chaotic and motley trade carried out from foldable beds and metal stalls that were known as ‘jaws’.”
Moreover, colour photography typified the period. “A boom in intense, colour-saturated photography began among both professionals and amateurs – just like the red braces worn by the first stockbrokers, it became symbolic of the possibilities that emerged during the transformation,” says Puchała-Rojek.
Composed of over 1,000 photographs, this exhibition drives these points home in the most captivating of manners.
Entering, it is hard not to be hit by anything other than a warm wave of nostalgia as one views a rush of pictures that encapsulate the decade: considered by many to be gaudy in critical hindsight, we see the erection of architectural landmarks such as the now demolished Mercure Hotel, giant billboards for once exotic brands like Marlboro and Levi’s, as well as a giant inflatable Ronald McDonald grinning outside SMYK.
Of course, there is Cricoland as well, a huge theme park that temporarily stood in the shadow of the Palace of Culture – almost grotesque in its glittering vulgarity, it was here that visitors could play ‘Crazy Cranes’ or watch a woman swimming with a shark…
Bizarre to say the least, visitors are even treated to a photograph of one whirlpool tub on sale at a household goods store complete with a (presumably dead) alligator holding a flower in its mouth.
Almost cringeworthy, a trio of stockbrokers attired in Gordon Gecko fashion pose for another shot, whilst in another, a duo of amusingly ill-suited male models stand by a desolately empty riverfront to advertise a brick-like mobile phone.
The voracious appetite to make a fast buck was endemic, and this much is demonstrated by extensive captures from the street markets that sprung up on every pavement. Almost invariably, one can spot seedy signs in the background for the sex shops that flourished.
In particular, focus is awarded to the bazaars outside Pl. Defilad as well as what later commonly became known as ‘the Russian Market’.
Despite this moniker, it was mainly Vietnamese hawkers that manned the stands at Europe’s largest outdoor market, and the exhibition does a fine job of capturing the sheer diversity of the characters that vended: in one picture, we see a Vietnamese gentleman with a smart hat, tie, and a briefcase perched on his lap; in another, a trader seemingly sways bleary-eyed as he nurses a can of Żywiec.
It would have been easy for the exhibition to maintain this course and simply recall the quirkier moments. Instead, it seeks to challenge those who visit by way of thematic rooms that grapple with occasionally uncomfortable subjects.
Titled ‘Kontrast’, one such chamber presents a picture of sad desperation by aiming its narrative at those left behind by the meteoric changes – at the intersection of Złota and Marszałkowska, a beggar lies on the pavement ignored by a passing wave of pedestrians; we see, also, grim-faced housewives attempting to sell meagre possessions that no-one could possibly want.
Litter and filth are copious, and there is the depressing sight of a funfair planted on a bleak and muddy plot.
For all of Poland’s newfound prosperity, poverty was also rife and the next section, ‘Narracje’, perhaps hits the hardest.
Starting off with a picture of a pistol pictured on what appears to be a tram, the turmoil of the era is laid bare through images of violent miners’ strikes, haunting pictures of hunched addicts, and heart-breaking photos of families packing their belongings ahead of eviction.
Wonderfully, we are even treated to a small homage to the ‘Blockers’ of the period – those track-suited thugs that could frequently be found drinking and cursing around the benches by their housing estate.
Often beautifully captured by such notable photographers as Edward Hartwig, Tadeusz Rolke, Chris Niedenthal, Anna Beata Bohdziewicz and Anna Musiałówna, these are images that draw you inside the gritty reality of 90s Warsaw.
These luminaries aside, the 1990s catapulted a new generation of photographers to the fore, and it is arguably Maria Zbąska’s 1997 series ‘bad boys from my street’ that carries the biggest impact.
Not shirking issues relating to drug addiction, HIV and alcoholism, there is a power to them that causes one to pause.
Balance, though, is key to the success of this exhibition and these tales of micro- and macro-tragedy are offset by further collections that explore, for instance, the typography and visual identity of the decade.
Who can forget, for example, the fleet of caravans pressganged into serving as food outlets, or the K67 booths that would act as burger bars, kiosks or cigarette agents. An entrenched part of Warsaw’s landscape, today they have all but vanished.
Finishing on a high, this spellbinding journey into the past concludes with snaps sent in by amateurs – though of understandably lesser quality than the professional submissions, they too offer a fantastic story.
Sometimes tender, and other times wacky, we see Michael Jackson visiting Warsaw on a business trip (reputedly to discuss the opening of a theme park), a relaxed male sunbathing on a sandy construction site, an elephant wondering around Pl. Zamkowy, and – memorably – a 15-foot inflatable ape (sewn in Białystok, we are told), hanging off the Palace of Culture.
Illuminating in its content, this exhibition is more than a stroll down memory lane – provocative, humorous, touching and sentimental, it is a work of passion that brings the past alive in all of its glorious (and not so glorious) colour.
Gloss, Matte, Colour runs until February 2023 at the Museum of Warsaw.