Discussions around photography have a habit of falling into generalization and here I find myself stumbling into it, too. There are some photographs that insist we examine them more closely: not only the image itself but also the way in which it came to be. From 1978 until her death in 1997, Zofia Rydet was devoted to an expansive photographic project called ‘Sociological Record’. Beginning it at the age of 67, she visited and worked in America, France, Germany and Lithuania, but travelled predominantly within her native Poland, by bus and on foot, to villages and towns, photographing people and their possessions. Her subjects were often poor, many abjectly so, but the images do not make a spectacle of poverty, nor do they promote pity or patronize by making misery heroic. ‘Sociological Record’ comprises some 20,000 pictures. Most are black and white; many remain undeveloped. To see a selection of these photographs in ‘Zofia Rydet. Record, 1978–90’ (which has been carefully curated based on Rydet’s own unrealized plans for an exhibition) is to step not only into the homes of hundreds of strangers, but also into the artist’s eccentric and complex taxonomy.
Each photograph in ‘Sociological Record’ belongs to a cycle and, because some of these cycles lasted for decades whilst others were abandoned, one gets the sense that Rydet’s taxonomic scheme was as elastic as it was obsessive, as though what was photographed could, at any moment, disrupt or determine the rules. Apart from her portraits of children, men, women, couples, families and the elderly amidst their belongings, included here are selections from various sub-categories, such as ‘Women on Doorsteps’, ‘Disappearing Professions’, ‘Artists’ Apartments’, ‘The Myth of Photography’ and ‘Presence’ (photographs, found in homes, of Pope Paul II). Often these sub-categories speak to each other. Take, for instance, ‘Windows’, photographed from inside different rural huts. In almost every image, a table is positioned under a window and on it is the stuff of daily life: bread, mugs, bowls, plants, a clock or radio, the occasional newspaper. Seen next to ‘TV Sets’ – images showing a television (usually decorated with an array of trinkets) as the focus of a room – it becomes possible to trace Rydet’s interest in how private space and the habits therein are continually redefined by the outside, and then, in turn, how the outside comes to be remade inside. The remarkable thing about these images is that history looks like what it is: a mess of details. In each room, we see the jumbled personalization of religion, communism, technology. In some photographs, shifts in domestic life are explicit: the television sits on the table, where those common objects might have once been, obstructing the window completely.
Rydet almost always photographed rooms and people straight on, with a wide-angle lens and flash. Consequently, her pictures have an unfussy, pragmatic quality, without being monotonous. On the three occasions that I visited the exhibition, I noticed people inspecting the images as though there was something in them to find or figure out. Perhaps because there are too many idiosyncratic domestic flourishes in the photos simply to let your eyes pass over them. Often an interior is nudged into the surreal or the comedic by a single thing: a couple sitting on either side of a doll, which has been propped against a chair to face the camera; a grubby stuffed toy panda looking over the shoulder of a grubby man, both with matter-of-fact expressions; an old woman, seated and wearing a headscarf, lovingly watched over by a poster of Donna Summer.
Unlike, say, Eugène Atget’s unpeopled ‘Intérieurs Parisiens’ from the early 20th century, Rydet’s project (which deserves similar renown) became as much about the person as about their home. Despite the project’s ambitious scope, the subjects retain their individuality. Rydet believed that our possessions – and the way we arrange them – reveal an inner life that we can’t always articulate. For this reason, photographs of intellectuals always disappointed her, since they ‘can’t decorate their houses as they please’. For Rydet, it seems, there was an original beauty (and expression) in spaces that had not been overworked; interiors constructed from whatever one has to hand. In other words, a room with its own rules.
First published in Issue 176