Monday 30 July 2012

The tale of Mr Mieczkowski

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?

Friday 13 July 2012

Colour and Pain

The pack rides past a field of sunflowers during the 199 km seventh stage of the 2012 Tour de France, heading toward La Planche des Belles Filles, on July 7, 2012. (Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)

Yes, the Tour de France is currently going into it's second week with the usual ingredients of colour, pain and drama. How many sports let you get right up next to the action? You can get close, sometimes too close to the race participants as one ambitious amateur photographer found out during an early stage. 

After standing too far out and caught up in his own photographic thoughts, the photographer caused a crash after a bunch of riders, bunched together in the peloton, found they couldn't go around him. A peloton is a delicate thing. One rider fell and more followed. Somehow the photographer managed to escape the chaos. 

That close relationship to the spectators is what makes the Tour de France what it is. As most other sports  seems to want to add distance between the spectators and events, the Tour remains the same. Pick a place by the road on the Tour route... and wait. That equal access evens things up for any budding photographer. There aren't that many sports where the pro sports photographer and the spectator can get the same access.

That said, you have to physically keep up with the action over the length each stage. A motorbike is the essential piece of kit with the photographer perched on the back. Balancing on a speeding motorbike while trying to get a photograph of the yellow jersey , as you wrestle with the bulky zoom lens, dealing with all the changes in the weather, looks rather a challenge and maybe even perilous at times. 

Check out the thrills and spills of the current tour HERE (loads of great images but i especially like image number 32). For a more ambient look at the Tour de France, have a look at Brent Humphreys images taken back in 2007. The riders may change, but the eccentric nature of the cycling fans and the race atmosphere does not. Brent's work can be found at