Tadeusz Rolke Archive at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw
An archive of several tens of thousands of photographs representing the life’s work of one of the most acclaimed Polish photographers – Tadeusz Rolke. It comprises photoreports on the everyday and cultural life in Warsaw, fashion photography and documentation of avant-garde events from the mid-1950s until 1970, as well as photos depicting Polish society during the “carnival” of “Solidarity” in 1980, during the martial law, the transformation in 1989, and the alternative culture of the 1980s.
Warszawa Pańska 3, Poland
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Name of collection
Tadeusz Rolke Archive
Provenance and cultural activities
Tadeusz Rolke picked up an interest in photography already as a child, when he flipped through German propaganda magazines – which were full of high-quality black-and-white pictures from the front – in occupied Warsaw. During the war, he joined the underground, clandestine boy scout organization “Szare Szeregi” (Grey Ranks). He took part in the Warsaw Uprising. After the war ended, 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.
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.
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).
Photoreports and photo-essays from this period include pictures of horse races at the Służewiec racetrack, the legendary Różycki market in the Praga quarter of Warsaw, or a summer camp of the Roma people in Pruszków near Warsaw. They present a picture of the life of the capital, a panorama of the streets of Śródmieście, of youths, passersby, hundreds of small events. At this time, Rolke was also active in fashion photography. The results of his regular cooperation with designer Barbara Hoff, published in the Cracow-based weekly Przekrój (Cross Section) “shaped the tastes of several generations of Polish women in the Polish People's Republic” (according to the profile of the collection on the website of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw).
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 film 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 '80s, 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.
Rolke's style of photography was sometimes characterized as “humanist photography”, “photography of the moment”, or “recording the moment of revelation”. He was dubbed “the Polish Cartier-Bresson” – in reference to the French pioneer of street photoreports and originator of the concept of photography as an attempt to capture the elusive “decisive moment” (as stated in the profile of the collection at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw). Rolke spoke i.a. of the key importance of “training your eye” and the ability to recognize geometric composition in the frame. He said that when taking pictures, he “translates reality, selected places, into the language of photography” (Sienkiewicz Karol 2010).
He listed “information about the event, intelligibility and clarity of message, coordination of form and content” as indispensable elements of a good photoreport (in an interview with Małgorzata Purzyńska). In the same interview, he also spoke of the desired traits of a photojournalist: “Photojournalists should be open, have an interest in people; they cannot be self-conscious, but also should not feel superior to those whose photos they take. They need to have innate reflexes, instinct, tact and great sensitivity, so as not to offend anyone or spark conflict” (Purzyńska Małgorzata 2008).
Tadeusz Rolke's archive was acquired by the “Agencja Gazeta” photo agency, owned by Agora, the publisher of Gazeta Wyborcza. There, a large part of the archive was digitalized. In 2014, the collection was presented to the Artists’ Archives at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, were it is currently fully available online.
Rolke Tadeusz w rozmowie z Gizą Hanną Marią, Strzępy czasu [w:] Artyści mówią. Wywiady z mistrzami fotografii, Rosikon Press, Izabelin-Warszawa 2011, s. 188-197.
Rolke Tadeusz w rozmowie z Purzyńską Małgorzatą, Motyw na ciele, dodatek „Duży Format” do „Gazety Wyborczej”, 8.04.2008, http://wyborcza.pl/duzyformat/1,127290,5089837.html
Sienkiewicz Karol, Tadeusz Rolke, profil w portalu Culture.pl, 2010, https://culture.pl/pl/tworca/tadeusz-rolke
Tadeusz Rolke – biografia, profil na stronie Archiwów Artystów Muzeum Sztuki Nowoczesnej w Warszawie, https://artmuseum.pl/pl/archiwum/archiwum-tadeusza-rolke/2243
Description of content
The archive contains 100 000 photographs, 62 000 negatives, and 4 000 slides deposited by Tadeusz Rolke, and additional 42 000 digital negatives deposited by “Agencja Gazeta” photo agency.
It comprises photoreports on the everyday and cultural life in Warsaw, fashion photography and documentation of avant-garde events from the mid-1950s until 1970, as well as photos depicting Polish society during the “carnival” of “Solidarity” in 1980, during the martial law, the transformation in 1989, and the alternative culture of the 1980s.
- photos: 1000-
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
Warszawa, Warsaw, Poland
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Important events in the history of the collection
- completely open to the public
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 Musuem of Modern Art in Warsaw, https://artmuseum.pl/pl/archiwum/archiwum-tadeusza-rolke/2243
Ronduda, Łukasz, interview by Szenajch, Piotr, December 19, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection