A classic of Polish photography, known mostly for capturing the atmosphere of Warsaw in the 1950s and 1960s – the everyday life on the streets, the cultural and artistic life, as well as the fashion of the time – in his photoreports, portraits and sessions.
Tadeusz Rolke was born in a well-to-do bourgeois family in Warsaw. His father was an administrative director in the Warsaw Town Hall, a descendant of small-time nobility from Kresy (the easternmost regions of Poland), and was born in Tbilisi. He died in 1932, when his soon was 2.5 years old. His mother, a protestant “German-Jewish bourgeois”, had no education, but secured a post in the administration of the City Council. This, however, did not protect the family from a lower quality of life (Purzyńska Małgorzata 2008).
The Second World War broke out when Rolke was 10, and ended when he was 16. He survived the bombings of Warsaw in 1939, when his family home was destroyed. He joined the underground, clandestine boy scout organization “Szare Szeregi” (Grey Ranks). He took part in the Warsaw Uprising. After its conclusion, like many inhabitants of Warsaw, he was deported to Germany, where he did forced labour in agriculture, as well as dug trenches and anti-tank trenches.
During the war, he came in contact with photography for the first time: in occupied Warsaw, he watched high-quality black-and-white pictures from the front in German propaganda magazines.
Having returned to Poland, he photographed war damage and the reconstruction of Warsaw. In 1949, his application to the University of Warsaw was rejected due to his “bourgeois background”. He worked in office jobs, i.a. in the “Społem” (Together) cooperative, which managed a chain of groceries. He started studying philosophy at the Catholic University of Lublin, but quickly switched to art history.
In 1952, he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to “overthrow the state”. The case started with his friend’s academic lecture on the possibility of synthesizing capitalist and socialist economy – a very controversial issue, due to the association with the economy of Tito’s Yugoslavia, which was insubordinate towards the USSR at the time. As a matter of fact, there was no conspiracy – it was made up by the SB (Security Service). However, after a Stalinist show trial, Rolke was sentenced to 7 years in prison. Overall, he was incarcerated for almost two years, including the time he spent under arrest. He was freed during the amnesty of 1954, but was banned from all university studies.
He found a job in a state-owned phototechnical laboratory and started working as a photographer. Shortly afterwards, he started collaborating with popular, state-sanctioned socio-cultural press: the youth magazine Świat Młodych (World of Youth) and Stolica (The Capital). The latter initially focused on efforts to rebuild Warsaw, but soon shifted its attention to the city’s cultural life. He got his first full-time contract as a photographer at the prestigious Polska monthly – a “showcase for the Polish People’s Republic”, presenting a positive picture of the country’s scientific and cultural achievements, published in five foreign languages and in Polish. This gave him an opportunity to meet journalists from Western Europe and to start publishing in German and Scandinavian press. He also collaborated with Ty i Ja (You and Me) and the famous Cracow-based weekly Przekrój (Cross Section).
In 1966, the avant-garde “Galeria Foksal” was founded. Rolke met its co-founders, art critics Wiesław Borowski and Anka Ptaszkowska, in the '50s, during his studies in Lublin. Rolke associated himself with a group of artists involved in the gallery. Some of them, such as Henryk Stażewski, Tadeusz Kantor, and Edward Krasiński, are among the most acclaimed figures of the art world of that time. He photographed ephemeral artistic events they organized, including pioneering happenings, environments or installations, which are now a part of the history of Polish art. Together with his friend and colleague from the press Eustachy Kossakowski, he was the co-author of the visual documentation of this group's activities. In this period, he also photographed sculptor Alina Szapocznikow at work.
In the following years he also shot pictures of international celebrities, such as Joseph Beuys, Oskar Kokoschka or Gerhard Richter. In Poland, he photographed cultural stalwarts from other disciplines of art, such as director Andrzej Wajda or cult actors – Małgorzata Braunek, Beata Tyszkiewicz, Kalina Jędrusik, Zbigniew Cybulski. Later in his career, he maintained contact with the art world. He shot artists who made their debuts in the 1980s and 1990s – such as Leon Tarasewicz, Edward Dwurnik, Zbigniew Libera or Paweł Althamer – for Western press.
As a result of an antisemitic campaign orchestrated by the communist authorities and the participation of the Polish army in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, Rolke decided to emigrate. “I could not stand this atmosphere” – he said in an interview in 2008. “This was no longer a country one could live in” – he added (Purzyńska Małgorzata 2008). However, he did not get a passport, as he had been blacklisted due to his contacts with foreigners and a recording of a private conversation made by the SB (Security Service), where he was critical of the authorities. In 1970, he left for an art scholarship in the German Federal Republic and did not return. For 10 years, he lived in Hamburg and married a German woman. As a freelancer, he worked for leading press titles in Western Europe, i.a. Die Zeit, Stern, Der Spiegel, Deutsche Allgemeine Sonntagsblatt, as well as with Art – a prestigious Hamburg-based art magazine (with which he occasionally collaborates to this day). During that time, he created series of photoreports – about the Fischmarkt market in Hamburg, as well as about a commune and addiction therapy centre founded near Hamburg ran by a countercultural organization of former drug addicts.
In the mid-1970s he started visiting Poland, and made photoreports for Western press during the “carnival” of the first “Solidarity” in 1980, although he did not get to the Gdańsk Shipyard and never worked in political photography. After the introduction of martial law on December 13th 1981, he decided to stay in Poland, choosing to migrate in a direction opposite to large groups of Poles at that time. As he said in an interview with Hanna Maria Giza, he was overcome by “inertia”, hence not many photos are left from that time. However, interesting documentation of street clashes between protesters and state Militia was preserved.
In the 1980s, he photographed alternative culture. He shot sessions i.a. with Kora Jackowska and the new wave band Maanam.
In the 1990s and 2000s, he briefly worked for Gazeta Wyborcza, taught at the Faculty of Journalism at the University of Warsaw and at the Warsaw School of Photography. He created series of photographs on the Jewish past of Polish towns, including some that focused on the Hasidic movement: Hasidim and We Were Here. He had many individual exhibitions, documentaries about his work were also made.
Warszawa, Warsaw, Poland
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- Warszawa, Warsaw, Poland
Author(s) of this page
- Szenajch, Piotr
Rolke Tadeusz in conversation with z Giza Hanna Maria, Strzępy czasu [in:] Artyści mówią. Wywiady z mistrzami fotografii, Rosikon Press, Izabelin-Warsaw 2011, p. 188-197.
Rolke Tadeusz n conversation with Purzyńska Małgorzata, Motyw na ciele, „Duży Format”, addition to „Gazety Wyborczej”, 8.04.2008, http://wyborcza.pl/duzyformat/1,127290,5089837.html
Sienkiewicz Karol, Tadeusz Rolke, profile in the Culture.pl portal, 2010, https://culture.pl/pl/tworca/tadeusz-rolke
Tadeusz Rolke – biografia, profile at the Artists' Archive website of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, https://artmuseum.pl/pl/archiwum/archiwum-tadeusza-rolke/2243