Stunning photos of Gdańsk reveal fascinating insight into a long-forgotten world – The First News
Offering an intriguing glimpse into a long-forgotten world, a stunning photo album released by the National Museum in Gdańsk has shed new light on the city’s past and, in doing so, captivated a new generation of history buffs.
Entitled “Images of Gdańsk on glass plate negatives from the collections of the Stadtmuseum Danzig”, the large bilingual volume was written by the museum’s Małgorzata Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka and features nearly 200 images from the collection of nearly 2,700 plates of institute glass.
Divided into four thematic parts (urban landscapes, public spaces, churches and people), Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka says the book was born out of a strong need to celebrate and remember these portraits of the city: its architectural fabric, its people and its rich particularities.
“Furthermore, the book reveals a lot about the technology of photography,” Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka told TFN, “as well as the usefulness of the first image medium – the negative.
“The photographs presented in this book are a testimony to the history of Gdańsk; the glass plate negatives were made to immortalize the historic gems and views of the Old Town, and out of the museum’s desire to create a visual library for research as well as preserve the era and atmosphere of Old Gdańsk .
“By their presence in museum resources, they have weathered the storms of history and bear witness to our complex past. In this book, photographs from negatives are presented as positives.
Featuring images dating back to 1860 and going all the way to 1942, the book nonetheless focuses primarily on the interwar 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 era for the city.
“Created in a period of fierce conflict, the photographic images of this era do not show clear signs of propaganda, even though they were made at a time when the popularized image of the city – both in the figurative arts and in the 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 and defined, the negatives were digitized over the span of four years by the museum with the process, says Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka, facilitating his gradual discovery of the richness and potential of the collection.
“Many of the negatives had gaps in their corners or cracks,” says Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka. “The surfaces of some had also become entangled. Due to the fragility of the gelatin silver emulsion that had been used, the negatives were photographed but not scanned, but even so the quality of the scanned negatives was so incredible that they were really easy to use to work on this book.
This becomes evident by looking at the photographs. Fascinating to look at, for those familiar with Gdańsk, these images will seem eerily familiar but also totally alien.
Just like now, a tourist pleasure boat is moored in the shadow of the Green Gate; in another image, the spindly turrets of the gargantuan St. Mary’s Church soar skyward, dominating the panorama in exactly the same way they still do today; and then there is the iconic sight so beloved by all tourists: the wharf with its signature – a wooden crane.
Despite the punitive destruction inflicted on the city by the Red Army, it says a lot about the Herculean reconstruction project that so many people will feel an instant pang of recognition looking at these photos – minus the German signage, vintage cars, fishing creaking ships and a disturbing lack of pedestrians, there are several that could pass for contemporary works broken with a retro filter.
But while this collection is conspicuously lacking in the crowds and crowds we associate with the historic center today, the photographs are not entirely devoid of human content, and it is arguably these images that give us the most food for thought.
“For me, these photos with people are the most interesting portraits of the city,” says Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka. “We may not wear the kind of hats and dresses they used to wear anymore, but there’s something about our expressions that hasn’t changed at all. Like back then, we’re always curious to appear in someone else’s lens, so I think these kinds of images connect the past to the present.
Continuing, Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka adds that in this regard, one image particularly resonated with her. “I like the photo that captures a group of young men; students posing in two rows in front of the museum building. They are young, maybe a little arrogant. I wonder, what happened next? Did they become soldiers later and did they contribute to the ruin of this city? How many of them remained alive at the end of World War II? »
And these are not the only mysteries and questions that these images seem to pose.
“One of the most important tasks for us was to untangle the authors of the negatives”, explains Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka. “This proved to be very difficult as most were only marked with a number rather than a tag showing the photographer’s name.”
Either way, the lion’s share has been inferred to be the work of Gottheil & Sohn, a family workshop established in 1830 by lithographer Julius Gottheil. “It offered daguerreotype services as early as 1843,” explains Taraszkiewicz-Zwolicka.
Passed down from generation to generation, the business grew into one of Gdańsk’s fastest growing photographic workshops at the turn of the century, only to find itself disappearing forever in 1943 – owned by Georg Emil Gottheil until then, from then on the trail is cold.
Whether he survived the maelstrom that was to engulf the city remains open to speculation. What is undisputed, however, is the extraordinary will he and his family left behind.