Polish photo-reportage of the 1950s and 1960s was crucially shaped by the weekly magazine Świat (The World, 1951–1969), which published high-quality photo-reportages and, occasionally, key texts by both Eastern European and Western writers including Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell (excerpts of Orwell’s novel 1984 appeared in No. 47/1956). The magazine’s co-founder Władysław Sławny had moved to Paris in 1931, where he worked as a press photographer for magazines like Vu or Regards and met Henri Cartier-Bresson. In the Second World War, he became a war reporter for the Polish Armed Forces in the West during the Battle of Narvik,1 and from 1945 he was a photo editor at the newly founded Paris newspaper Gazeta Polska.2 When offered the lead position in the photo department of a new Warsaw illustrated magazine in 1950, Sławny accepted the challenge in order to capture the reconstruction of the city on film, amongst other things. As Świat was founded in the heyday of Stalinism and the socialist realist doctrine, it had to stand up to the test of the Party apparatus’ ideological and political pressures.

It was precisely in this period that Sławny established Świat’s photo editorial office and advocated multiple-page photo-reportages as a journalistic format. He was inspired by his Western colleagues’ works for the world’s leading magazines, and especially for the Paris Magnum agency. Sławny succeeded in assigning this Magnum style – characterized by a subjective perspective, the photographer’s status,3 the symbiotic relationship between art and reportage and social commitment – to a large extent to Stalinist Poland in Świat, making it a landmark for Polish photo-reportage during the ‘thaw’ of 1956, which followed the Polish October.4 His professional expertise and experience in the field of international press photography, which he had acquired in exile, turned out to be crucial assets. He set the benchmark for photo-reportages and cover designs which were to compete with pictures by Western photographic agencies and renowned Western photographers’ reportages also printed in Świat. The professional equipment that Sławny had brought with him from France provided a technological basis for top-quality pictures. Moreover, due to his close ties to the Magnum group and well-known photographers’ willingness to cooperate, their works were either published exclusively or their sensational reports were reprinted in Świat.

The fact that Władysław Sławny had been trained in Paris and that he was part of Western – rather than East European – networks explains why it was Regards and Life, rather than the Russian illustrated magazine Ogonyok, that set the standards for his editorial work. While it would certainly be worthwile to investigate the magazine’s relations to photojournalism in the Soviet Union and Poland’s neighbouring countries in Eastern Europe, this article focuses on relations with those Western magazines that – in Sławny’s view – set the standards for quality photojournalism after the Second World War. The result, in any case, was a kind of cultural transfer that visually transcended the Iron Curtain by importing a view on the world that was simultaneously being criticized in the western hemisphere as ‘bourgeois’.

Out of the Experience of Exile

Already as a child, Władysław (Wolf) Sławny (1907–1991), son of a wine importer from Łódź, was fascinated by painting and photography as much as by political matters. At school, as a member of Zwia˛zek Młodzieży Kommunistycznej (Youth Union of the Communists), he was arrested and detained for political protest. In 1926 he left for Paris in order to study fine arts, yet returned to Łódź in 1927, broke and from then onwards was under police supervision. In 1931 he returned to Paris, joined the fine arts section of the Association des Écrivains et Artistes Révolutionnaires and later the newly established section for photography. Between 1935 and 1938, he worked as a photojournalist for the Polish and French press, including Dziennik Ludowy, Wolna Myśl, Trybuna Robotnicza or L’Humanité, Regards and La Défense. He met exceptional photographers like Robert Capa, David Seymour, Izis (Israëlis Bidermanas), Brasssaï (Gyula Halász) and Ylla (Camilla Koffler), who had developed a new approach to photography and its social responsibility, as well as sharing Sławny’s experience of exile.5 He was soon considered to be a representative of ‘humanistic photography’ and showed his sympathy for left-wing movements, without ever joining the Polish Communist Party.

After the Polish Armed Forces in France demobilized in 1940, Sławny settled in Lyon, where he worked as a photographic laboratory assistant until the liberation of France in 1944. During the war in France, he also met Adam Rajski, head of Robotnicza Spółdzielnia Wydawnicza ‘Prasa’ (Workers’ Publishing Cooperative ‘Press’), who in 1950 offered him the opportunity to co-found a magazine in Poland with a distinct genre of photography and photo-reportage. For Sławny, having a leading position in a magazine meant the unique opportunity to implement his own ideas concerning photo-reportage. To his contracting authorities, the experienced photo journalist from France might have appeared to be a guarantor of the newly founded Świat magazine’s ability to compete with its Western counterparts and to establish itself as a showpiece in the Cold War.

Sławny’s colleague and successor Jan Kosidowski (1922–1992), the magazine’s deputy photo editor from 1957 until its liquidation in 1969, also applied the knowledge and experience he acquired in exile. He grew up in Poznań and Warsaw, his father being a radio journalist and his mother a history teacher. Because his father worked for Polskie Radio (Polish Radio), the family was evacuated to Romania in September 1939. With the progression of German expansion in Europe, the family then escaped to France, Spain and Portugal, and finally arrived in the United States in April 1941. In June 1941, Kosidowski joined the Polish forces in Canada and participated in battles in the Netherlands from 1944 to 1945. After leaving the army in April 1946, he moved to Los Angeles and in 1949 to New York in order to study photography at the New York Institute of Photography. Having graduated in Professional Photography he returned to Poland in May 1951 and was hired by the newly founded weekly Świat. However, because of his military service in the Polish Armed Forces in the West, Kosidowski was banned from employment in the press in July 1951. With the consent of the chief editor, Stefan Arski, he continued to work for the magazine as a photojournalist, and his pictures were published in spite of the ban. From Issue No. 14 of 28 October 1951 onwards, his photographs were published under his name and on the basis of a statement of employment that needed to be approved every three months. In March 1953 he became a permanent photo editor under Władysław Sławny.6

Like Kosidowski, Stefan Arski, the chief editor of Świat (1910–1993), acquired his journalistic skills in exile in the United States. Arski owed his executive position to an exemplary Party career that took off in the early 1930s. After escaping to the United States via Vilnius in September 1939 and Stockholm in 1940, he held the highest Party offices of the Polish Socialist Party (Polska Partia Socjalistyczna, or PPS) in American exile and filled leading positions at left-wing exile journals Robotnik Polski (Polish Worker), W przededniu (On the Eve) and Poland of Today. He worked in the Polish section of the American Office of War Information and, together with Józef Winiewicz, founded the Polish Information Service in the United States. From 1946 to 1947 Arski was correspondent of the Polish newspaper Robotnik (Worker), the PPS’s organ in the United States. Back in Poland, he became chief editor of Robotnik in 1947/8 and was also appointed deputy chief editor of Trybuna Ludu (The People’s Tribune), the Polish United Workers’ Party’s (Polska Zjednoczona Partia Robotnicza, or PZPR) official organ, in 1949, before finally taking over Świat. It is striking, in any case, that at least three of its leading staff had been trained in France and the United States, leading to a deliberately Western orientation of the new illustrated flagship magazine.

Image Transfer I: A Magazine Designed According to Western Magazines

The first issue of Świat was published on 29 July 1951. Sławny’s cover picture ‘Na wczasach’ (‘On Holiday’) showed a smiling young woman in bourgeois clothes shot from below. The photograph met the conventions of socialist realism (a glorifying or elevating worm’s eye view, verisimilitude, optimism), but at the same time stayed apolitical and neutral concerning theme and message. In its appearance, Świat emulated the American magazine Life: it had black-and-white photographs and a red vignette on the top left with the magazine’s name in white capital letters. At the bottom there was a bandereole containing bibliographical information and a reference to the corresponding issue’s main reportage. In an interview for the magazine itd thirty years later, chief editor Stefan Arski remembered how Świat was designed according to a previously unexplored formula:

The concept of the magazine followed the example of the American Life and the London Picture Post… A contemporary Warsaw joke claimed that a Lajfonjok had been created − a crossover between Life and the Soviet Ogonjok magazine − which was not true, though. We wanted our magazine to combine text and pictures into a coherent whole.7

According to Grzegorz Klatka, Sławny, who developed the magazine’s graphic concept, had ‘closely watched the international development of photo-reportage and the birth of the Magnum agency. He made use of this know-how after returning to his home country and becoming editor at Świat.’8 The first attempts to catch up with the trends set by Life and other illustrated magazines in Poland had been the weekly Stolica (Capital, founded in 1946) and Nowa Wieś (New Village, founded in 1948). However, these magazines merely served socialist propaganda by glorifying the labouring classes and by praising the merits of village life in socialist times. The photographs had an illustrative rather than narrative function, and the name of the author was hardly ever published with the photograph. In contrast, the founders of Świat intended to establish photo-reportage as a more critical and independent medium. Arski insisted that the first issue should avoid spreading socialist propaganda: ‘For three months we produced test issues…We were expected to publish the first issue of Świat on 22 June. We were most positively opposed to that, because unavoidably it would have to be a celebration issue and we would be discredited in our readers’ eyes right from the start.’9

Nevertheless, preventive censorship, a trend towards the nationalization of the Polish press after the Second World War, and the establishment of supervisory authorities marked the conditions under which Świat was produced in the following years. In the new political system, the social role of photography was to agitate on the basis of visual evidence, as photo-critic and historian Ignacy Płażewski explained in 1953: ‘Today, we cannot imagine either political or social or economic life without the involvement of photography…as a means for mobilizing the nation to realize the gigantic socialist construction goals set by the Party and the government. Photography became a political agitator, and [to us] this is its meaning and its role in society.’10

Stalinist Poland and the World through the Camera Lens of świat

Naturally, Świat’s staff had to meet the propagandistic standards set by the Polish Communist Party. This was particularly relevant for the photo department headed by Władysław Sławny and consisting of photojournalists Konstanty Jarochowski, Jan Kosidowski and Wiesław Prażuch, as well as laboratory assistants Paulina Kornecka and Zdzisław Małek. In the early stages, information was provided by East European as well as Western foreign agencies or taken from foreign magazines, while photographs were programmatically imposed upon the editors by the Centralna Agencja Fotograficzna (Central Agency of Photography). Until 1954, in-house photographers were allowed to deal only with domestic topics. Their first (programmatic) photo-reportages were on ‘modern housing’ (No. 8/1951), ‘Self-Sacrificing Builders of the Passenger Automobile Factory in Żerań’ (No. 10/1951) and the construction of the Youth Palace in Katowice (No. 22–23/1951: ‘A Reality that has Exceeded Dreams’). Initially, Sławny was in charge of the cover. He used the cameras he had brought from France: Primaflex, Speed Graphic (4×5 in.), Rolleiflex (6×6 in.) and the 35 mm camera Leica IIIa. Using this equipment, he took impressive architectural photos, including panorama pictures of the Palace of Culture and Science construction site in the heart of Warsaw, which seemed monumental in those days (Nos. 5 and 39/1953), and pictures of production plants (Nos. 2, 17, 18/1951, No. 26/1953, No. 29/1955), which structurally and aesthetically recalled the Düsseldorf School of Photography. It is striking how many covers, with Sławny’s photos, depict impressions from urban everyday life (No. 7/1951, No. 45/1954, Nos. 14, 40/1955, No. 9/1956), carefree moments and joy, including shots of children (Nos. 6, 8/1951, No. 35/1952; No. 22/1956 by W. Prażuch) and leisure activities like sailing in summer (No. 28/1955; No. 34/1957 by W. Prażuch), swimming on holiday (No. 33/1954 or No. 39/1955 with submarine shots by W. Prażuch), skating (No. 50/1953), sledding (No. 50–51/1955) and skiing (No. 5/1954 by K. Jarochowski). Later, Kosidowski recounted these pioneering days:

Sławny is everywhere…He implements new techniques; he is the first photographer in Poland to use professional press cameras…his silver transparent prints are unrivalled. Sławny discusses whole piles of contact prints, his own and other people’s…He cares about each picture, whether it was shot during major political events or during a presentation of bottling tomato products.11

From other socialist countries, the editorial office received rather schematic shots of the Chinese revolutionary buildup, the construction of dams, factories in the Soviet Union, World Youth mass events, and other solemn manifestations and demonstrative evocations of ‘friendship of the peoples’. Often they showed collectives using wide-angle shots that made individuals disappear behind colossal machines and monumental architecture. Mostly, they were not printed on the cover but on the following pages. The pictures were provided by photographic agencies like China Photo Service (CAF), Hsinhua, TASS, Zentralbild, Magyar Foto and ČTK and by weekly magazines like Sveět v Obrezach (ČSSR), Ogonjok and Nasha Rodina (USSR).12 Generally, pictures provided by the Western agencies Planet News, Keystone, United Press, The Sphere, Photo Pic and Agenzia Ruggieri, the magazines Paris Match, Life, Frankfurter Illustrierte and Schweizer Illustrierte, or institutions such as the United Nations were considered to be more dynamic and differentiated with regard to their perspectives. They provided the material for photo-reportages dealing, for instance, with poverty in Sicily, starvation in India, anti-colonialist liberation struggles in Africa or drug epidemics and race discrimination in the United States. Compiled from various unsigned pictures, these reportages for Świat showed no indication of an author’s individual style. This becomes especially evident in a two-page photo-reportage from issue No. 46/1956, which shows the Hungarian Uprising in Budapest. The footage shot between 25 and 30 October 1956 was provided by both Western and Polish sources: by United Press, Polska Kronika Filmowa (PKF, the Polish weekly newsreel) and Świat.13 Considering the politically explosive nature of the topic, it is noticeable, however, that one photo by United Press is significantly more daring in the depiction of violence than those provided by East European photojournalists: it shows two dead men in front of an armoured vehicle. On the other hand, it is surprising that Świat was able to send its own photojournalists to Budapest and print the shots by United Press without commenting on them. The reportage was published in October 1956, after the change of government in Poland as a consequence of de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union and after the solidarity movement with Hungarian protestors that heralded the ‘thaw’.14 Given the risk that photojournalists could have been accused of anti-Soviet propaganda, it is likely that Świat protected its own photojournalists through anonymity by referring only to the media source of several pictures.

From the start, the magazine also published signed reportages by foreign photo journalists from France, Italy and Spain. These were arranged as dynamic visual narratives, complemented by standardized agency photographs. The accompanying texts were written by authors who were introduced as the magazine’s own correspondents. Already in 1952, Francis Cremieux visited Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie in their Breton dwelling (No. 38/1952) as a special correspondent for Świat. French photographer Pierre Bertrand shot the cover image and a photo-reportage showing the French colony of Tunisia and the dock workers’ strike in Genoa (No. 18/1955). The magazine also claimed to have commissioned the reportage on rehearsals of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (starring Yves Montand and Simone Signoret) in Paris with photos by Boris Lipnitsky and Jean Loup Sieff (No. 15/1955). Furthermore, Sergio Perucchi, Franco Pinna and Georges Reymond, among others, delivered exclusive reports from Italy and Spain. Starting in the second half of the 1950s, Antonio Sansone, Giorgio Sartarelli, Philippe Tagris, Franco Fedeli and Francesco Nigro were also featured. In two subsequent issues, Nigro published ‘Parade in Madrid’ (No. 21/1957) and ‘Everything about Brigitte Bardot’ (No. 22/1957) – two thematically different reportages about Franco’s Spain and the emerging world star. With the increasing fame of the authors and their subjects’ growing emancipation from ideological requirements, the principle of the foreign reportages’ exclusiveness became increasingly relevant for Świat.

Image Transfer II: Reception of the Photographic Exhibition The Family of Man in Poland

The year 1955 was a turning point for photographic reportage in Poland when the press-regulating authorities approved a review of the photographic exhibition The Family of Man, which Edward Steichen had curated at the New York Museum of Modern Art. In issue No. 15/1956 Świat published an exclusive report titled ‘Man’, while the exhibition was on display in the Museum of Modern Art in Paris one year later. Świat, however, printed four pages of photographs without captions, complemented by a faked letter of recommendation from Paris, which was signed only with initials and addressed to the magazine’s editorial staff. Between direct speech and report, the letter gives the impression of being directly involved, and provides the most important information on the exhibition. This distancing procedure implied that the editors played with their readers, attempting to fend off possible censorship measures. In order to explain the editors’ reluctance to comment on the exhibit, it is necessary to reconsider the international debates it caused – both in the East and in the West.

Steichen and his colleague Wayne Miller had selected 503 photographs by 273 photographers, amongst others, by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Werner Bischof, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, August Sander and Margaret Bourke-White. Between 1955 and 1962, the exhibition travelled to thirty-eight countries on four continents (America, Europe, Asia and Africa) and captivated nine million visitors across the fronts of the Cold War with its utopia of a common ‘family of man’.15

Based on thirty-seven motifs, The Family of Man composed a comprehensive portrait of humanity based on love, belief, birth, work, family, children, war and peace. The subjects were to demonstrate that every human being should be treated with dignity, independent from class, race, culture, religion, age or gender, and that humankind has a unifying nature. Photography was to be seen as a universal language, communicating to everybody. This photographic construction of a global ‘family of man’ aimed to promote peace, compassion and awareness for social injustice,16 which might explain why it was also endorsed in socialist states. However, this humanistic idea of mankind soon came under criticism. Roland Barthes described the exhibition as moralizing and charged with emotions, pointing out that the idea of a unique human nature was ahistoric and, moreover, disregarded the historical contexts of photography.17 In the same manner, Susan Sontag addressed her criticism at the exhibition’s programmatic naiveté that eclipsed politics and history in favour of a shallow depiction of a joyous conditio humana, as well as the patriarchal angle with which the exhibition represented family and gender.18 Allan Sekula even regarded the exhibition as a manifestation of American Cold War liberalism constructing a bourgeois-capitalist social order with a Catholic ideological spin.19 These voices were part of a broad debate starting in the 1970s about validity and truth of photographs, asking whether photography could be considered a universal language of global communication.

The substantial interest in the exhibition gained political importance in places where it contributed to more translucence of the Iron Curtain and the exposure of certain aspects of contemporary culture in the West. This was the case in the summer of 1959 in Moscow. Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, born in 1932, commented on the exhibition in the following way:

So many Muscovites lined up for that exhibition — thousands, every day. Maybe especially those from our generation, my generation. My friends and I were all dreaming of Russia again being part of the common civilization. We didn’t feel completely lost or culturally isolated; we had some great Western books, French, American, English books in translation. And we were brought up to understand Russian culture as a part of European culture. But we wanted some sense of physical connection with the rest of the world, some feeling of contact. This great show gave us that. It was a revelation.20

The effect was similar when, at the initiative of the Association of Polish Art Photographers (Zwia˛zek Polskich Artystów Fotografików, or ZPAF) and with authorisation from the Ministry of Culture and Art, The Family of Man came to Warsaw and was displayed at the National Theatre in the autumn of 1959.21

However, widespread comments on the exhibition by contemporaries had started already in the spring of 1959, when, almost simultaneously, Świat published a report (in addition to that of 1956) and the professional journal Fotografia published a review by Stefania Wojtkiewicz on the show in Prague.22 Against this backdrop, ideas of the Paris Magnum group, which was amply represented at the exhibition, gained increasing currency in the Polish press. Thanks to Świat and Władysław Sławny, the Polish version of high-quality photo-reportage, as a formula that did not only require a truthful reproduction of reality but also its interpretation, was created and helped overcome the post-Stalinist vacuum.

At the same time, the members of ZPAF and the monthly journal Fotografia presented Magnum photojournalists’ achievements as game-changing for photography and found perfect examples for Magnum’s pioneering work at the Family of Man exhibition. From a historical distance, Adam Mazur observed in his history of Polish photography:

Although the modernization of photography and language [in the Polish People’s Republic] had been prepared by compromising socialist realism, the ideal for professionals became humanist photography that was popularized by publications of the weekly magazine Świat and the exhibition Family of Man shown in 1959. This curatorial machinery was arranged by Edward Steichen and, having travelled almost the entire world…already according to contemporary commentators, raised photo-reportage to a level that previously had been reserved to art photography only.23

Accordingly, in the Polish history of the reception, the crucial impact of the exhibition was seen not only in the transition to more flexibility regarding the formula of socialist realism, but, above all, in inspiration for documentary photography. Polish photo-historians such as Adam Sobota have attributed two fields of discourse to The Family of Man: the experience with socialist realism and a new concept of documentary practices, especially photo-reportage.24 Concerning the appeal of Steichen’s model, Sobota adds:

The conception of The Family of Man encompassed…a lot that had nurtured socialist realism. Yet, unlike socialist realism it avoided politicization and was more flexible. It tried to show different aspects of human life and to give a universal dimension to it that would overcome barriers of class, race and geography. In contrast to atheistic socialist realism, much attention was paid to the meaning of religion in the life of individuals, and the category of progress was not made into an absolute. Thus, it is no wonder that in Poland, after experiencing socialist realism, The Family of Man made the impression of being the ideal approach to social issues.25

Inherent in Steichen’s vision was the proposal for a realistic and socially committed photography, which professionals in Poland claimed for press and art photography alike. This expectation had to do with the former dominance of socialist realism and addressed the resulting necessity to develop new, undogmatic models for up-to-date photographic practice. On the other hand, these expectations followed the promise of the exhibition concerning the medium itself: after the trauma of Stalinism, photography in its context now seemed to be a universal tool for accurately capturing an individual truth about mankind. Thus, the show’s reception in Poland corresponded to its creator’s intention. At the heart of the matter was the humanist message promoting social empathy, the emotions triggered by photography, and the documentary approach to reality that seemed to be ideologically unproblematic − all the more so because the majority of the Magnum photographers came from France and, like many French artists of those days, were politically left-leaning. At the same time, photography’s potential to manipulate, which made it a perfect instrument for propaganda, was given no attention at all. In his critical volume of poems Komentarze do fotografii: The Family of Man (Comments on Photography: The Family of Man), published in 1962, Witold Wirpsza argued that humanist messages and dogmatic simplifications can go hand in hand. The conception of the show with its conservative image of family and gender roles was ideally suited for (Western) propaganda during the Cold War. After all, The Family of Man was supported not only by the United Nations and UNESCO, but also funded by Coca-Cola and the Rockefeller Brother’s Fund, and it was globally marketed by the United States Information Agency.26

Magnum Photography and the Emancipation of Photo-Reportage in the Polish Context

When exploring the reasons why ‘humanist photography’ found fertile ground in the Polish People’s Republic, it should be pointed out that the social commitment of The Family of Man overlapped with particular elements of communist ideology during the ‘thaw’. Since 1956 the ‘thaw’ had brought about political liberalization that unleashed an enormous backlogged demand for information on cultural development in the West.27 Therefore, in 1959 the exhibition was not perceived against the background of its political connotations or implications, but predominantly as a cultural or even social event.28 The model of ‘humanist photography’ propagated by the exhibition additionally offered a solution to the ideological dilemma between ‘content’ and ‘form’. During the period of socialist realism, when questions concerning the social mission of photography, its realism, the topics and the content were in the foreground, and the focus on the artistic dimension, form and style was denounced as formalism, the absolute primacy of ideological content prevailed.29 Hence, ‘humanist photography’ implied the option to emphasize the formal side of the photographic image while simultaneously retaining its social focus, in accordance with the example set by the Magnum group.30 Furthermore, in Steichen’s artistic conception, documentary photography shifted towards art, which made the search for adequate formal solutions appear more legitimate. The monthly journal Fotografia, whose critics coined the term ‘artistic reportage’,31 also featured photojournalists from Świat who published their pictures as artworks.32 These photojournalists played a key role in the ongoing change of aesthetic parameters for photo-reportage during the ‘thaw’. In addition, the ennoblement of photo-reportage as an artistic genre was enforced by the newly acquired prestige of documentary photography related to the work of the later Magnum founders during the Second World War. According to American photo-editor John G. Morris’s first-hand account Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism, this was the time when the myth of photojournalists as romantic heroes, linked particularly to the figure of Robert Capa, emerged.33 In the case of The Family of Man, Steichen made use of both the popularity of Life magazine and the romantic myth associated with the Magnum photographs.

The leading figure at Fotografia since 1956 was the new editor Urszula Czartoryska who, until the closing down of the magazine in 1972, dedicated her articles to photo-reportage and the relationship between photography and the artistic avantgarde. Her book Przygody plastyczne fotografii (Art Adventures of Photography), published in 1965, explored the relation between art and photography and had an enormous influence on an entire generation of artists; it built a base for critical reflection on photography as a modern and current art form in Poland. The author’s fascination with photography originated from photo-reportage, especially from the tradition of documentary photography as represented by the Magnum group. Fotografia also published on the prematurely deceased Magnum photographer Werner Bischof (No. 6/1958), on an exhibition of the English street photographer Roger Mayne (No. 12/1959) who was featured in Świat with three photographs on the cover (Nos. 22, 27, 33/1959) and with the reportage ‘Teddy Boys’ (No. 26/1959) about the youth subculture of the same name. In the spring and summer of 1948, Bischof had made an interesting photo series in Poland for the Swiss monthly Du, which addressed life in the ruins of Warsaw, the reconstruction of the capital, the orphans of Warsaw in a recreation home in Otwock, and Polish folk art. On the occasion of a Magnum exhibition organized by ZPAF in the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science in 1966, also shown in Łódź and Cracow, Urszula Czartoryska described the reception of Magnum photography in Poland and its significance for the development of the Polish photo-reportage:

Many years have passed since Władysław Sławny told his colleagues about Magnum for the first time, when Fotografia published comprehensive material about the group in 1957, when Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Warsaw…I allow myself to say that Magnum has traversed Poland two times and that our first contact with its work − on the basis of accounts and publications accessible in our country − was of immeasurable importance to our photography. Today, Magnum has returned in order to stand up to verification, in order to give the Polish observer the possibility to reflect upon what we owe to Magnum. We owe it incredibly much, and this is what caught our eye when we entered the Palace of Culture in Warsaw.34

The first representative Magnum group exhibition had been curated by L. Fritz Gruber for the Photokina fair in Cologne in September 1956. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Polish-born David Seymour were present. In 1957 Fotografia covered Magnum at length in three successive issues.35 In 1966, Czartoryska again praised Magnum’s achievements:

This is how all photos by the Magnum Agency members that we had the opportunity to see in some Polish cities are: attentive, shrewd and humane. I do not need to add how well they are taken. In this respect, Magnum traversed Poland for the second time in order to face the confrontation between legend and reality. The lesson to be learnt from this exhibition never ceases to be topical, the most topical.36

In sum, the reception of Magnum photography in Poland, both during the touring exhibition The Family of Man and after the Magnum exhibition at Photokina, substantially contributed to the emancipation of photojournalism from the ideological guidelines of socialist realism and simultaneously helped to establish the status of documentary photography and photo-reportage, which was considered to be an art form by many Polish photographers.37

Image Transfer III: Western Reporters’ Contributions to Świat during the ‘Thaw’

In the course of the political upheavals of 1956, a new generation of photojournalists debuted at Świat and, along with the four editors, addressed previously neglected or taboo subjects.38 In her study on photo-criticism in the Polish People’s Republic, art historian Karolina Zie˛bińska-Lewandowska states that among the photos published in Świat ‘a new motif appeared: simple everyday life, strongly expanding the subject matter compared to the photos published in the first half of the 1950s. Besides previous themes like portraits of children and people with occupations beneficial for the state, or reports about politically and socially important events, now street photography or photos documenting everyday life were also published.’39

The upcoming changes were heralded by a photo-reportage that set off a political avalanche: in ‘Three Days That Shook Poland’ (No. 44/1956) Wiesław Prażuch documented a demonstration at the Warsaw University of Technology and Władysław Gomulka’s speech on 24 October 1956 addressing several hundred thousand people on the square in front of the Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science – both were key events of the Polish October. His photo-reportage in Lviv, which had been part of Polish state territory until 1939, turned out to be particularly sensational: in ‘In Lwów With a Camera’ (No. 13/1957) Prażuch set out to search for clues to the Polish past and captured scenes at a school for Polish children where educational instructions in Polish written down on the blackboard contrasted with the Soviet indoctrination on a poster in Russian. Socio-cultural phenomena that were ostracized until that time, like officially banned underground jazz music or emerging youth and popular cultures, came into focus, e.g. in reportages by Irena Jarosińska about the jazz festival in Sopot (No. 35/1956), by Prażuch about night life in the legendary Warsaw student club Stodoła (No. 16/1959) and four years later by Jarochowski about twist parties in Stodoła (No. 7/1963).

The evolution of the journal in the second half of the 1950s did not occur in a vacuum: describing reality, or rather its idealized interpretation, dictated and supervised by government authorities, was still incumbent on the photographic agencies CAF and the Military Photographic Agency (Wojskowa Agencja Fotograficzna, or WAF). Photographic historian Lech Lechowicz concludes that there were only few exceptions to the rule:

Photos that do not come from official agencies but are provided by in-house photographers are used on a grand scale only in a few magazines. The most interesting and original amongst those, at the same time, coming very close to global trends in contemporary photo reportage, is the weekly magazine Świat. Its photographers and editors managed to deviate from the official idealized image of reality created by agency photos. The second half of the 1950s and the 1960s were particularly interesting in the magazine’s history.40

The kick-off to the evolution of Świat was marked by Sławny’s photo-reportage ‘Ball of the Millionaires’ (No. 8/1955) about a production cooperative’s ‘business party’ in Marszowice celebrating its turnover of the first million zlotys. He followed up with very unconventional reportages about the capital’s population in ‘They Call Them the Warsawians’ (No. 29/1955), about everyday life in the industrial city Nowa Huta constructed off the drawing board with a young woman in rubber boots on the magazine cover (No. 42/1955). In 1956 he published a reportage about a mosque in Bohoniki and the Muslim minority in northeast Poland (No. 20/1956). On a visual level, the magazine came to be synonymous with participatory observation and cosmopolitanism. Moreover, the photographers now were allowed to travel to remote countries and shared their impressions in photo-reportages from China, India, London, Paris, Norway, Holland, Italy, the Soviet Union, Sudan, South America, Egypt, Yugoslavia and Japan. Sławny completed reportages with cover pictures from the Netherlands in ‘Europe’s Front Yard’ about Amsterdam Schiphol Airport (No. 19/1957) and ‘Holland’ (No. 23/1957), everyday life of the GDR, ‘Neighbours from the West’ (No. 51/1956), Tito’s young Yugoslavia (No. 37/1957) and Moscow (No. 46/1957), which was inspired by a popular reportage by Cartier-Bresson from 1954 published in Świat in Issue No. 7/1955. Kosidowski, too, visited the Soviet capital and reported at length about his ‘Encounter with 7,090,000’ inhabitants (No. 32/1957), and he took street photographs of ‘Everyday Life in Moscow’ (No. 45/1957). Amongst his most remarkable works are thought-provoking pictures from China during Mao Zedong’s ‘Great Leap Forward’ (No. 1/1959) and dynamic snapshots from Brazil’s metropolises (‘Snakes, Knives and Bananas’, No. 50/1956).

Renowned photographer Tadeusz Rolke, who worked for Świat and in the 1970s for Stern and Spiegel in Hamburg, wrote about the editors’ approach:

They hardly used other people’s photographs; [they] were autarkic and very critical; the bar was set high. For them, a photo-reportage had to have a beginning, an end, there had to be action…Świat belonged to the photographic school of the Magnum group, here the photography of the moment ruled.41

Sławny openly promoted the development of photo-reportage according to the example of the photographes humanistes by intensifying his connection to Paris. Members of the editorial board, which was based at 58 Nowy Świat Street in Warsaw, visited Henri Cartier-Bresson twice and collaborated with the journal’s staff photographers.42 In his book Zawód: fotoreporterzy (Profession: Photo Journalist), Kosidowski remembers Cartier-Bresson’s longer visit to Poland in 1956 on assignments for Life and Paris Match:

When, after a few days, I came back to the basement with Świat’s photo laboratory, I came upon our boss Władysław Sławny in the midst of a vivid discussion with a lanky blonde man. The stranger introduced himself as Cartier-Bresson…On many of the following days we welcomed Cartier-Bresson at our office, helped him to organize his reportages and, most importantly, learned from his methods of working and surveyed his equipment. He was easygoing and modest, happy to answer our questions, showed us a special Leica camera that was completely covered with black oxide…also films, lenses etc. He told me about his plans concerning photography, about his war experience….But first and foremost, we were interested in his methods of working. While assisting as guides we simply looked over his shoulder unconscionably…Examining his little black camera and thinking of the famous pictures that were taken with this device made us very pensive…Only a few days later the entire photography department was hurriedly fitted with 35 mm cameras.43

Besides exchanging ideas, Cartier-Bresson also provided for technological transfer: by means of his Leica equipment he familiarized the Świat staff with the advantages of short exposure time and snapshot photography. Since 1955, the magazine’s photojournalists moved from the static composition of the frame to dynamic and spontaneous snapshots, using the Soviet Zorka IV 35 mm camera with 35 mm and 80 mm optics, and later with Leica cameras they bought during their business trips abroad. This coincided with the political upheavals in the country, in the run-up to and the aftermath of the Polish October, when the change of Party leadership and liberalization of censorship in 1956 also led to openness for cultural influences from the West. Their photos were black and white, and, according to Sławny’s maxim, had to ‘grab attention, give food for thought; its dynamics, its originality had to “jump out” at the viewer.’44 The characterization of Sławny’s style by art historian Janusz Bogucki could also be applied to Cartier-Bresson’s style:

Besides refined observation, his photography is characterized by the simplicity of construction, the irony of presenting reality, and humanism. Sławny, an uncompromising believer in the authentic, does not accept either stylized or technically edited photos. The result is determined by the intensity of attention and decisions made in the right split second.45

Very quickly, Świat became a meeting point and base for renowned photographers from the West. The magazine published work by foreign colleagues such as Robert Doisneau, Roger Mayne, Dirk Alvermann, Caio Maria Garrubba, Lisa Larsen and Nelly Niebuhr, and by some well-known Magnum members, including Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour, Bruce Davidson, Werner Bischof, Kryn Taconis and Willy Ronis. Already in 1955, Świat published in three subsequent issues photos by Ronis telling the story of unemployed youngsters forming gangs in the suburbs of Paris (Nos. 12, 13, 14/1955). His five-page photo-reportage about the trendy and intellectual neighbourhood Saint-Germain-des-Prés (No. 29/1956) and a two-page exclusive report from the French parliamentary election (Nos. 2, 3/1957) followed. Also in 1955, Viennese Elly Niebuhr had covered remote, bitterly poor regions in Sicily (No. 34/1955), seizing subject matters preferred in left-wing photo-reportage. On the occasion of the French national holiday on 14 July 1957, Świat published a four-page reportage by Robert Doisneau titled: ‘This is What Paris is Like’ (No. 28/1957). Besides the photo-reportage from Moscow, time and again, photos by Cartier-Bresson adorned the cover, starting with a street shot taken in Marseille in 1932. Werner Bischof provided an exclusive reportage and a cover picture from Japan (No. 17/1956), and Kryn Takonis a photo-essay about the ‘Children’s Republic’ of Montmartre (No. 23/1956). David Seymour contributed a two-page photo-reportage about a village school in Sicily (No. 20/1956). In the autumn of 1956, Life reporter Lisa Larsen travelled the country and documented the Polish October for a photo-reportage. The editorial office titled the reportage ‘Poland through the Lens of an American’ (No. 5/1957) and introduced the author with a portrait and a short note. This publication was a remarkably unique case of shifting perspective, showing the course of political events and their consequences on Polish society from a Western point of view. The second large photo-reportage by Larsen, this time from Mongolia, was published under the title ‘A Treasure Box’ (No. 27/1957). After receiving the American National Press Photographers Association award as Magazine Photographer of the Year in 1958, the first female photographer to receive the award, her works from Poland and Mongolia were presented in a solo exhibition at the Overseas Press Club in New York.46 At approximately the same time, the West German Dirk Alvermann delivered a reportage on Francoist Spain (No. 19/1958).

Another editorial practice at Świat was to complement submitted texts with photographic material provided by the authors or by photo agencies; examples are contributions by the Polish in-house author Lucjan Wolanowski and by Western authors like the Australian W. G. Burchett and the Briton Sam Russell. For instance, Burchett reported from Vietnam after the withdrawal of the French army (No. 31/1955) and from Laos (No. 9/1956). A report from London by Russel deals with a major railway strike (No. 23/1955), illustrated with photos from Planet News. Also, high-profile professionals, such as the British Labour Party politician and diplomat John Freeman, who would in the 1960s come to prominence as interviewer in the BBC television programme Face to Face, were featured in Świat in the 1950s. In his ‘Letter from London’ in Issue No. 36/1956, for example, he portrayed two competing gangsters from Soho. A further dimension of the image transfer were two-page photo-reports compiled from institutional Western press material, such as a report about modern American architecture, ‘This is How They Build America’ (No. 18/1957), using the example of an exhibition in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, or a photo-reportage about the 1958 Expo in Brussels (Nos. 18, 20/1958) with shots of futuristic-looking American architecture or interior and furniture design in the pavilion of the Federal Republic of Germany. The reports gave viewers the impression of being current and participating in pioneering global developments; and, in their own way, they met the general demand for Western modernity in quotidian culture, design, fashion or interior decoration that was widely spread in Poland during the ‘thaw’. From today’s globalization perspective, it was part of a broader process of homogenization of aesthetic tastes and desires in consumption.47

The Last East-West Transfer

In 1957 Sławny returned to France for family reasons. Jan Kosidowski took the lead at the photo-editorial office and maintained its orientation until the end of the magazine’s existence following the events of March 1968.48 At its peak, between 1955 and 1958/9, the journal had twenty-four pages and a print run of 300,000 copies. In the course of one of many ‘paper crises’ in 1961, the number of pages was reduced to sixteen and the print run to 100,000 copies.49 Restricting printing paper distribution was one of the most effective non-judicial methods of regulating the press in the Polish People’s Republic. Through exercising control over the allocation of paper, the circulation and size of journals could be reduced.50 The intensification of censorship in 1961 was connected to a gradual revision of the political and cultural liberalization after 1956. In the early 1960s, state authorities eliminated those freedoms that had evolved from the Polish October step by step. Besides restricting writers, insubordinate journals, including Nowa Kultura (New Culture) and Przeglad Kulturalny (Cultural Overview), were closed down. Paper distribution and censorship were the main subjects of a protest letter signed by thirty-four leading Polish intellectuals titled ‘List 34’ (‘Letter 34’) and addressed to the premier Józef Cyrankiewicz on 14 March 1964. The letter triggered a wave of solidarity amongst Western intellectuals, including Arthur Koestler, Susan Sontag and Hannah Arendt.51 It was written by the well-established poet Antoni Słonimski:

The restrictions in paper allocations for printing books and journals as well as the strengthening of the censorship of the press pose a threat to Poland’s cultural development. The signatories demand…motivated by their civic duty, change in the cultural policy in the spirit of the constitutional rights and the national welfare.52

After these cuts, Świat’s conception of multiple-page photo-reportages could not be maintained at the previous level of quality. Nevertheless, several top-class worldwide travelogues were published in the 1960s: by Kosidowski from Mongolia (‘Sacred Caves’, No. 45/1962) and India (‘Gateway of India’, No. 1/1963) and by Prażuch from Egypt (‘Wedding in El-Gorna’, No. 26/1962). After Sławny left, some of the magazine’s best photo-reportages about Polish everyday life were created: Jarochowski’s reportage about movable wall elements and space dividers as the epitome of functional living culture (‘Moving Walls’, No. 32/1959), Prażuch’s work about modern architecture in reconstructed Warsaw (‘And Yet!’, No. 36/1961) and Kosidowski’s publication about youths in the early 1960s (‘What Are Young People Like?’, No. 42/1963) and a mannequin factory in Łódź (‘Mister, buy Iwona’, No. 8/1967). To this day, Świat is considered a legendary domain for numerous representatives of Polish photo-reportage, including Erazm Ciołek, Edward Hartwig, Marek Holzman, Aleksander Jałosiński, Bogdan Łopieński, Danuta Rago, Tadeusz Rolke and Zbigniew Siemaszko. From the start, renowned authors and graphic artists contributed to the journal’s high profile.

The journal’s decline started in the mid-1960s. In the course of this decade, the era of big journals was nearing its end, because a new form of mass media, television, was gaining ground. In socialist countries, however, declining circulation was not decisive for the management policy of a journal, for decisions about the future of state-funded publications were motivated politically, not economically. As one of the Świat editors Aleksander Ziemny remembers:

In the mid-1960s Świat’s expectations fell drastically. Shortly after that, one year later, the magazine resigned itself to its fate. It could hardly be accused of oppositional tendencies, yet in the eyes of the rulers there was something ‘chillingly neutral’ (Central Committee Secretary Jan Szydlak) to it. It was not merely an accumulation of interconnected coincidences that the journal and some of its staff members subsequently had to take hammerings.53

A further form of indirect censorship was the so-called ‘cadre policy’ at the editorial offices. Filling executive positions required the Party’s consent: the higher the position, the stricter the requirements. For appointing chief editors of national newspapers, the Party’s Central Committee was the decision-making body. In a candidate’s nomination, their benefit for the Party apparatus was far more important than their qualification.54

Since the mid-1960s, tensions within the Central Committee of the Party increased, coming from Gomulka’s Party rival, Minister of the Interior, General Mieczysław Moczar. The so-called ‘Partisan’55 faction gathered around him, campaigning for a national anti-Semitic agenda. At this point, Janusz Kolczyński, a member of the Partisan faction, was assigned to Stefan Arski as Świat’s deputy chief editor. When Arski, himself a Jew, refused to publish anti-Semitic texts and to accept the biased selection of photographs during the Party apparatus’ anti-Semitic witch-hunt in 1967/8,56Świat’s days were numbered. In 1969 it was replaced by the hard-line and glossy weekly Perspektywy (Perspectives). Świat’s last issue went into circulation on 27 July 1969. Its photo stock has been missing since then. Purportedly, trucks carted it away, and it was discarded in a landfill.57 Former editor Ryszard Bańkowicz interpreted this as a sanction for the journal’s insubordination:

Świat was shut down because it had acted decently in March 1968. While all the other journals − some with enthusiasm, some under pressure − participated in the anti-Semitic, nationalist campaign, Świat, not capable of defying it under the existing censorship ostentatiously ignored it…This was the reason for eliminating Świat’s outstanding archive, for discarding its collection of magazine volumes as waste paper.58

A small share of the original photo material has been preserved in private archives of the reporters Kosidowski, Jarochowski and Prażuch and was given to the National Museum (Muzeum Narodowe) in Warsaw. Władysław Sławny brought two thousand negatives from his days at Świat to Paris, particularly from the years 1955 to 1957. The other negatives and prints remained as part of the journal’s stock until its liquidation. Preserved volumes of Świat are the last sources for these historical testimonies.


The development of the weekly pictorial magazine Świat gave direction to the evolution of high-quality photo-reportage in the Polish People’s Republic towards an art form and was implemented with the aid of personal contacts and editorial practice that promoted image transfer from the West. This transfer took place in three steps: first, the Western Life Magazine served as a conceptual role model for founding the magazine; second, the reception of the touring exhibition The Family of Man and the Magnum group exhibition at the Photokina in Cologne set new standards for documentary photography; and, third, the temporary liberalization of censorship and travel regulations, as well as the more relaxed political climate during the ‘thaw’, fed Polish society’s demand for cultural and consumer goods of Western origin and provoked Western photoreporters’ curiosity for the changes behind the Iron Curtain. It may be concluded that there was a massive multidirectional transfer of knowledge, human resources and photography, particularly between Poland and France, but also with other Western countries. This transfer thrived in the 1950s and was severely restricted through state intervention in 1968 and the following years. In other words, the brief image transfer corresponded with the atmosphere of the ‘thaw’ after Stalin’s death, but passed with its end.