Stefan Szczygieł

Using high-resolution digital technology, Polish photographer and multimedia artist Stefan Szczygieł produces highly magnified images of single objects such as clocks, books, lighters, buttons, coins, and brooches in sharp definition. He ventures into the underworld of these old, disappearing items, revealing their lasting beauty.

Curated by Marek Grygiel, this well-designed show at the Centrum Sztuki Wspólczesnej—Zamek Ujazdowski (Center for Contemporary Art—Ujazdowski Castle), “Powię kszenia” (Blow Ups), presented twenty-four of Szczygieł’s large-scale photographs from the ongoing series “Przedmioty o wysokiej rozdzielczości” (High Resolution Objects), 2004–. In some instances magnified two hundred times without losing any clarity, the objects become hyperreal. Shot against gray backgrounds, they seem to float on the surface of the matte paper, right in the center, as if suspended in a void rather than belonging to a concrete environment. Szczygieł’s enlargements retain an extraordinary density of detail (about 250 to 350 million pixels), enhancing and intensifying the objects’ presence, so that what otherwise might seem trivial and even imperceptible becomes loomingly consequential, both specific and abstract. The artist takes pleasure in showing the patterns and design of these objects as well as their chromatic richness. This is particularly evident in his close-ups of old books, the most seductive works in the show; we lose all sense of their functionality and concreteness, despite (or because of) their being so pristinely photographed and displayed.

The photographs’ large format causes all sense of the images’ scale to be lost. A silver cigarette lighter in Feuerzeug 054, 11/2006 (Lighter 054, 11/2006) becomes a giant, shiny specimen from the machine age, whereas the clock without hands in Uhrwerk G 081, 11/2005 (Clock G 081, 11/2005) looks like a mysterious trouvaille, nonfunctional but endowed with the visual power of a relic. They seem to belong to an enchanted world, both rarified and mundane, somewhere between a museum of a vanished civilization and a pawnshop.

Despite the hyperreal quality of his work, Szczygieł’s imagination is introspective in nature; he is a postmodern romantic. Cleaning the objects before photographing them, but nevertheless exposing scratches, rust, and other defects and signs of wear, he allows photographs to reveal the objects’ individual stories. Some of them are the unique extant examples of their type. Such close-ups might suggest the propinquity and psychological significance of these objects, perhaps even the joy or anguish of possessing them. The images project a nostalgic feeling of age and uselessness, which the photographer wants to elevate to the level of the timeless. They possess, to use Jean Baudrillard’s distinction, “the charm of the real” as opposed to the “magic of the concept.”

While the artist insists on the uncanny qualities of the photographed objects, his works ultimately blur the boundaries between commercial and art photography, an ambiguity that is particularly evident in his light-box photographs, which, if accompanied by a logo, could easily be taken for advertisements. The works might make visible the magic of an inanimate world of old objects but they also reveal the charm of surface reality, skillfully glamorized in today’s commercial photography. This association is unfortunate, but it only partially detracts from the appeal of Szczygieł’s photographs.

Marek Bartelik