Occasionally, just occasionally, an item will pass through my hands as part of my work that really makes me stop and think how fortunate i am to be a photographer. Sometimes I get to handle history, items that have managed to survive all the slings and arrows of misfortune that history can throw at them.
Very recently a client, who wanted some images copying and repairing, delivered a beautiful old family photograph album that just oozed history. The stories that this photo album could tell as it moved through time and changed hands would probably make a great film or book. When you think of the European history, and especially Polish history during the 20th century, it's just amazing that this photo album made it through - how many Polish family albums did not! Sadly the album will likely keep its story and secrets safe, however the images within the album remain extremely beautiful and in excellent condition considering their age.
The album appears to dated from the 1880's (although some images may be older) and include photographs by a number of Polish photographers. Among the names mentioned on the back of one photograph is Jan Mieczkowski, a photographer whose life story is as amazing as his photographs. Mieczkowski managed to build up a decent sized photography business empire in Warsaw providing photographic portraits to society, after studying daguerreotype and collodion processes of image making. He went on to own several shops and was an established part of the photographic community before bad investments in other businesses led to his second eventual bankruptcy in 1880 ( he'd gone bankrupt before in 1857 due to poor investing, worked around Poland as a photographer and then returned to Warsaw to start again).
This second meltdown of his finances in Poland didn't seem to put Mieczkowski off photography though. In 1880 he decided to make a bold move and transfer his entire family to Paris. They would relocate, he would build up a new photography business and work as a photographer in the French capital. The photographer had attended the Exposition Universaille à Paris in 1862 and also in 1878 when he won a Médaille D'or award for excellence, a fact that is proudly displayed on the back of the photographic prints he produced - he could make it work in Paris. The idea probably sounded good, but things are never that simple.
Sadly, Jan Mieczkowski lasted only a year in Paris before financial problems, caused by fierce competition, a lack of French language skills and an embezzling lawyer, made him to go bankrupt yet again. The photographer then decided to return to to his native Poland in 1881 (remarkably though, the business name of Mieczkowski and Cie remained active in Paris using different photographers) managing to build up a new successful photography business again in Warsaw. Jan Mieczkowski died in Vienna in 1889 at the age of 59. That was just one photographer's story and over the next few weeks I'm going to see what i can find out about the other names mentioned in the album.
Holding such a wonderful album does make me think that the traditional family album has to be one of the biggest losers of late due to the introduction and rapid take-up of digital photography; how many families still put prints together for future generations to enjoy? We place our trust in the belief that websites like Facebook will be around forever, and we upload our images to the web without even thinking about the possibility of our valuable family 'data' suddenly vanishing. Family photography seems to be far less tangible than it was, as we access images through screens and websites, rather than pages and prints. So many extra factors come into play with digital data. My fear is that we will lose a great deal of valuable social history because of a need to digitally distribute and socialise the here-and-now of our family lives.
This Polish photo album has lasted over one hundred years, has been passed from one generation to the next and has survived numerous world events. Hopefully it will last another hundred years, at least. Can we really say the same about our Facebook galleries?