Stunning photos of Gdańsk reveal fascinating glimpse into long-forgotten world
Offering an intriguing insight into a long-forgotten world, a stunning photo album published by The National Museum in Gdańsk has cast a new light on the city’s past, and in the process captivated a new generation of historical enthusiasts.
Titled ‘Images of Gdańsk on Glass Plate Negatives from the Collections of Stadtmuseum Danzig’, the hefty bi-lingual tome was authored by the museum’s Małgorzata Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka, and presents nearly 200 images taken from the institute’s collection of almost 2,700 glass plates.
Divided into four thematic parts (urban landscapes, public spaces, churches and inhabitants), Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka says the book was born from a strong need to celebrate and remember these portraits of the city: its architectural fabric, its people and its rich peculiarities.
“Moreover, the book reveals much about the technology of photography,” Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka tells TFN, “as well as the usefulness of the first picture carrier – the negative.
“The photographs presented in this book are a testimony to the history of Gdańsk; the glass plate negatives were made to immortalise the historic gems and views of the old city, and out of the museum’s desire to create a visual library for research as well as to preserve the times and atmosphere of old Gdańsk.
“Owing to their presence in the museum resources, they have managed to survive the storms of history and testify to our complex past. In this book, photographs of negatives are presented in the form of positives.”
Featuring images from as way back as 1860, and running up until 1942, the book’s primary focus is, nonetheless, the inter-bellum period, and in particular, the 19-year period between 1920 and 1939 when Gdańsk functioned as a Free City.
Named Freie Stadt Danzig, and controlled by the League of Nations, it was to prove a defining time for the city.
“Created in a period of bitter conflicts, the photographic images from this era do not display any clear signs of propaganda, even though they were made at a time when the popularised image of the city – both in the representational arts and in architecture – was to build a sense of its German identity,” says Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka. “Today, most of these elements are part of our Polish identity.”
Strikingly clear in their clarity and definition, the negatives were digitised over the space of four years by the museum with the process, says Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka, facilitating her gradual discovery of the collection’s richness and potential.
“Many negatives had lacunae in their corners, or cracks,” says Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka. “The surfaces of some had also matted. Due to the fragility of the silver gelatine emulsion that had been used, the negatives were photographed but not scanned, yet even so the quality of the digitalised negatives was so amazing that they were really easy to use when working on this book.”
This much becomes apparent viewing the photographs. Fascinating to look at, for those well-acquainted with Gdańsk these images will feel oddly familiar yet also utterly alien.
Much like now, a tourist pleasure boat sits moored in the shadow of the Green Gate; in another image, the spindly turrets of the gargantuan St. Mary’s Church soar into the sky, dominating the panorama in exactly the same way as they do to this day; and then, there is the iconic view so beloved by all tourists: the quayside complete with its signature feature – a wood-encased crane.
Despite the punishing destruction wreaked on the city by the Red Army, it says much for the Herculean rebuilding project that so many people will feel an instant pang of recognition when viewing these photos – were it not for the German signage, vintage cars, creaking fishing vessels and eerie lack of pedestrians, there are several that could pass as contemporary works snapped with a retro filter.
But although this collection overtly lacks the throngs and crowds we associate with the historic centre today, the photographs are not entirely devoid of human content, and it is arguably these images that give us most pause for thought.
“For me it is these pictures with people that are the most interesting portraits of the city,” says Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka. “We might no longer wear the kind of hats and dresses they wore back then, but there’s something about our expressions that haven’t changed a bit. Like then, we are still curious when appearing in someone else’s lens, so I think that these kind of pictures bridge the past with the present.”
Continuing, Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka adds that in this regard, one image has particularly resonated with her. “I like the picture that captures a group of young men; students posing in two rows in front of the museum building. They are young, possibly a little arrogant. I find myself asking, what happened next? Did they later become soldiers and contribute to this city’s ruin? How many of them were left alive by the time WWII ended?”
And these are not the only mysteries and questions that these images seem to ask.
“One of the most important tasks for us was unravelling the authors of the negatives,” says Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka. “This proved very difficult because most were marked only with a number rather than with a label denoting the photographer’s name.”
Regardless, the lion’s share have been deduced to be the work of Gottheil & Sohn, a family-run atelier established in 1830 by the lithographer Julius Gottheil. “It offered daguerreotype services as early as in 1843,” says Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka.
Passed from generation-to-generation, the business grew into one of the most dynamic photographic ateliers of turn-of-the-century Gdańsk, only to find itself vanishing forever in 1943 – owned by Georg Emil Gottheil until then, from there the trail runs cold.
Whether he survived the maelstrom that was to engulf the city remains open to speculation. What is undisputed, however, is the extraordinary testament that he and his family have left behind.