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Marian Stefanowski's Gum Prints

Marian Stefanowski belongs to a long line of artists who have turned the business of making pictures into their very own artistic cause célébre. As is evident from his biography, Marian Stefanowski is a photographer. He is also, therefore, a creator of pictures, a chronicler and a portrayer of reality who even as a professional, has always wanted to share with others his version of reality. And yet he doesn't just take photographs, beautiful black-and-white images with plenty of grayish tones, oh no, his approach involves design. He does away with all extraneous aspects and all the shades of grey which make a photograph uninteresting. For a long time this was the method adopted in many of his photographic works. This technique necessarily brought him into contact with graphic art, an encounter which was not in the least awkward, on the contrary, any form of emphasis that involves less tonality is a tried and trusted form of design.

And then Marian Stefanowski began to work with gum printing. Printing is indeed the name of the process; however, gum printing is not exactly a form of printing but a way of creating positive prints, based on the principles of photography. It is a complex and tedious method of producing photographs which entails the creation of one's own printing surface. This surface is made of gum Arabic - hence the name. At the turn of the century, gum printing was the method used by all creative or art photographers, as they were known. The late nineteenth century saw the first attempts to introduce stylistic elements into the art of photography; during this time proponents began to experiment with the creative possibilities of photography as a contemporary a form. Old hat, one might say. If it's ninety years old then why bother with it today? And why go to the trouble of creating photographs using such a complicated printing process?

What we have here are portraits - of filmmakers, directors, actors and cinematographers. Marian Stefanowski has worked with them all during the course of his profession; as a photographer he can't help taking pictures. He has set his own creative parameters: his photographs are large format, never smaller than 40 x 50 cm; they are big close-ups, without any background. They are more like excerpts, fascinating partial portraits. Often a hand is included in the image; but then there's the face and the expression. These close-ups have an unfinished appearance, the brush strokes of the numerous layers applied one after another appear to end in nothing at all, leaving the head on its own, isolated from its environment. This has the effect of concentrating our gaze on the head itself. The brush strokes could, if you like, be regarded as a typical feature of his work; one can even count them and isolate each colour. What we see is not just a single portrait copied in one layer and in one colour, instead, the colours in the picture all form a mélange, added to each other in varnished layers. The result is a world apart from the printed images we are used to seeing, in which the four primary colours red, blue, yellow and black are broken down into separate fine dots and put back together by the human eye. In Stefanowski's pictures, the colour is actually present as a varnish. On close inspection of the images, this can have a rather disconcerting effect at first; moreover, some of the colours chosen are not at all what one might expect. But then again, the continual search for new harmonies and contrasts of colour is one of Marian Stefanowski's idiosyncrasies.

We are all familiar with photographic portraits and so we can see at a glance that these well-observed photographs, mainly snapshots, were certainly not the result of portrait sittings. They have been committed to paper using a highly complex process. Well spotted? Yes. I'll take a quick look, if I may, at the history of portrait photography. It all started in Munich in the middle of the last century with some wonderful portraits of a huge stem of hemp by a lithographer, preceded by Hill's early photographs taken in England in the 1840s. Even back then, photography was destined to become more than a mere form of documentation. These pioneers were followed by some of the big names in photography: Nadar, Albert, Kuhn, Duhrkoop, Lendvai-Dircksen and in particular Hugo Erfurth. Their names immediately spring to mind when I look at Marian Stefanowsksi's coloured gum prints. I'm also reminded of Swiridoff and Karsch. Can one add Marian Stefanowski to the names of the great exponents of creative photography? He is certainly well on the way to being included in such illustrious company. Marian Stefanowski's photography does not look back on a bygone age, it is not nostalgic; he has not revived a forgotten photographic process just because it is so impressive. This is good photography, enhanced by the way it has been printed. These pictures are made to be hung on a wall - and who can say that about photography these days? The way these photographs have been created using the gum printing method has transformed them into works of art. The eye is drawn towards the soft middle shades, the flat shades of the depths and, in front, the warm tones - this is pure artistic design. We are not looking at pointless experimentation but at art, using the technique of gum printing, a method in which Marian Stefanowski is undoubtedly a master. I like these pictures a great deal. I will hang one of them on a wall at home and I am sure that I will spend a lot of time gazing at it.

Berlin, October 1994                                                                                                                       Prof. Dr. Frank Heidtmann


Berliner Mauer