Before I received the invitation to go there I had not heard of Bielsko-Biala. It is a historic city although Bielsko and Biala on opposite sides of the Biala river only became a united municipality in 1951. Its greatest period of growth was in the nineteenth century when it became an industrial centre, in particular for the textile industry. The wealth from this produced many fine buildings from the later years of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the south-east corner of Poland it is close to the current Czech and Slovak borders, and the Austrian capital of Vienna is only a little further than Warsaw. From 1772-1918 it was in Galicia, part of the Austrian empire, and Vienna was the natural inspiration for its new architecture, leading Bielsko to be called "Little Vienna."
After the "Great War" it became a part of the new 'Second Polish Republic', although the majority of the population were ethnic Germans, and in World War II it was annexed by Germany. The city was unusual for Poland, with roughly equal populations of Catholics, Protestants and Jews. The Nazis sent the Jews to nearby Auschwitz concentration camp where most were killed. After the Red Army took over the area in 1945, most but not all of the ethnic Germans were expelled to either east or west Germany.
You can read more about the city and its history in English on its tourist-oriented web site, which also includes pictures of the city and surrounding area (and a web cam that doesn't seem to work.)
My pictures are rather different, although they do show some of the same things, particularly some details of the fine architecture. They are my impressions as I walked to and from the hotel and to the various exhibition venues, although I wandered quite far from the shortest routes when I had time to spare, deliberately trying to follow different paths.
The shows were supposed to be open at 10 am, and it was just a little after when I walked into the show of Chinese pictorial photography.
In 2005 I was invited to show my photographs from the London's Industrial Heritage site at the first ever FotoArtFestival held in Bielsko-Biala, Poland.
This was a highly successful event, with work by some of the best photographers from around the world - one from each of 25 countries, including some well-known names - such as Eikoh Hosoe, Ami Vitale, Boris Mikhajlov and Malick Sidibe, as well as many rising stars and a few of those no longer with us, Mario Giacomelli, Inge Morath and Robert Diament.
The 26 major shows were truly an effort to be international, although concentrating on European countries, including Albania, Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the Ukraine and of course my work from the UK, as well Iran, Japan, Mali, South Africa and the USA. France and Switzerland. Alongside this were some other shows and events by Polish photographers.
Attendances for the festival were relatively small, making it more human and friendly than some large and well-established festivals, and for those who took part it was an experience we will not forget.
The 2007 Festival built on the experience gained, and the organisation was noticeably better in many ways, with the photographers being extremely well looked after and generally superb hanging and lighting of the shows.
There were slightly less shows - and fewer invited artists, which made the series of presentations - the Artists' Marathon, a little easier to fit in the two days, although some minor technical problems with the venue did hold things up.
This year the emphasis was on showing different approaches to the medium, with a good showing of exhibitors from central europe. The exhibiting artists were Michal Macku (Czech Rep), Karol Kallay (Slovakia), Stasys Eidrigevicius (Lithuania/Poland), Aleksandras Macijauskas (LIthuania), Michael Kenna (UK), Walter Rosenblum (USA), Jose Luis Raota and Pedro Luis Raoto (Argentina), Franco Fontana (Italy), Judit M Horvath and Gyorgy Stalter (HUngary), Joan Fontcuberta (Spain), MIsha Gordin (Latvia/USA), Lukas Maximilian Huller (Austria), Sarah Moon (France), Alex ten Napel (Holland), Mitra Tabrizian (Iran/UK) and Dalang Shao, Du Shao and Jiaye Shao(China), along with a show of the work of the Polish Photoclub 1929-39 and some accompanying - mainly open -shows.
I was invited to the festival to speak, and I'll also post a version of the performance I gave, using pictures by nine photographers, including some of my own work from My London Diary.
For copyright reasons I can't include the illustrations by other photographers, but where possible I'll link to similar work on the web. There will also be some differences in the text, parts of which I do not have permission to use on the web, and some of which was unscripted. There will also be some explanatory notes and material which was omitted because of time restraints. Unfortunately the written version will only be in English.
As well as my 'On London Streets' which concluded the 'Artists Maraton', there was also a lecture on the 'New York Photo League' by photo-historian Naomi Rosenblum and Nina Rosenblum presented her film about her father, 'Walter Rosenblum: In Search of Pitt Street'.
I didn't have time to see quite all the shows, but over the next few weeks I intend to write a little about those I did see, on the >Re:PHOTO blog.
On this site will be an edited version of my diary, illustrated by some of the pictures I took, of the city of Bielsko-Biala, the events and the photographers.
I set off from home at around 7.15 to catch the local bus to Heathrow. Half-way to the stop I panicked - did I have my passport and tickets? I stopped, searched my pockets and couldn't find them.
I thought I must have left them at home and ran back, but frantic searching failed to find them. Then I remembered the carefully hidden security pocket in my jacket, looked in it and found I had them with me all the time.
I ran back to the bus stop, reaching it just in time to see the bus disappearing along the road. Half an hour to wait for the next one. Fortunately it came on time, and I arrived at the check-in desk in plenty of time, if not quite the two hours that Heathrow expects.
Fortunately I got through the security check without any hitches, not even asked to prove my need for the syringe and needles, not a glance at the liquids in their plastic bag. Probably by now the staff know that the scare about them was always pure fiction. And I settle down to read a rather more satisfying fiction, Doris Lessing's 'The Golden Notebook' in the departure lounge. It's a very thick work (although Nobel Prizes are not awarded by weight.)
The edition starts with a preface by the author, that looks at the role of critics and the way that literature is abused by education, which rather than teaching students to appreciating it forces them to concentrate on peripheral aspects. I think how much some of her comments apply to photography also, where the deadening academic hand virtually throttled photography - especially in the UK - in the 1980s and 90s, and still festers its poison across the medium. Not that I'm predjudiced against it of course!
The preface impressed me greatly (and so did the rest of the book.) Later I decided to read a small section from it at the start of my presentation.
I hate flying. Cramped, uncomfortable seats, noise and vibration, and painful popping of the ears that leaves me aching and half deaf for days.
Warsaw aiport is a shambles. I need to transfer from the international arrivals to the domestic departures, and follow the signs. I'm in a hurry because the flight from Heathrow was delayed and its approaching the time I should be at the boarding gate.
Before long I'm lost in a car park with nothing to tell me which way to go, but I can see the domestic arrivals and have to walk along the road to get there. I ask someone where the departures are, and find the doors are just around the corner - but hidden from sight until I walk a yard or two further.
Then, despite the fact this is a transfer, I have to queue for 10 minutes to go through another security check, this time being told to remove shoes, belt, watch and everything from my pockets.
At last I'm in the departure area (its hardly a lounge) and my flight is listed on a screen, but with no other information about it. Eventually it moves from one screen to another, but still no information. The flight time comes closer and close, then eventually it gets marked as delayed. I get talking to an American and find he is going to run a workshop as an entertainer - I think to do with puppets. Other flights go and we are still waiting, but finally the Krakow departure is called and we file up to the checking desk and then on to the bus, which eventually takes us across the tarmac to the plane.
The flight is very noisy; somehow I'd expected it to be quieter as the plane had propellers, but it was smaller, a little more cramped and noisy, and I was very pleased to land at Krakow, despite the deafness and the pain in my ears from the pressure changes.
I'm even more pleased to walk through the barriers and see a guy holding up a sign reading 'Peter Marshall' and 'Misha Gordin'. I go up and introduce myself, and a minute later Misha arrives. I'd expected two others going to the festival to be on the same flight, but their travel plans have changed, so it is just Misha and I who get in the car to be driven to the hotel in BIelsko-Biala.
Its a slow drive over back roads, and it soon gets too dark to see much over the windows. I let Misha sit in front, and in the back I'm still pretty deaf and finding it a strain to join in the conversation, although we exchange some basic details. Misha has been travelling for over 24 hours from somewhere in the backwoods near Minneapolis, which makes my journey seem pretty easy.
When I walk into the foyer of the hotel, Inez is there waiting and we greet each other warmly; it really is so good to see her again. We check in and I ask about food, and Inez says she will take us to the restuarant - when we've got ourselves sorted out.
My next surprise is that we are then introduced to our volunteer guides who are going to look after us during our stay. I'm delighted to meet Kate (Katarzyna), as on my first visit I did rather get lost, and it's great to be looked after. We are also given the festival goody bag, with catalogues etc, and also a huge calendar with pictures from the 2005 festival.
Its good to have this, but I also immediately think however am I going to get this home, and hope that the Poles are rather more sensible than the security at Heathrow.
Ten minutes later I'm freshened up slightly and down in the foyer ready for some dinner. Inez introduces me to the photographer Jose Luis Roata from Argentina who has been in Poland for a few days helping to hang the shows and says "We're just waiting for Sarah Moon."
And so I get to meet Sarah Moon, one of the most famous models of the 1960s, a fashion icon of the time, whose picture surely featured among the many women pasted on my bedroom wall in the huge collage of my late teenage years.
Who then became a famous fashion photographer, and also produced fascinating series of images, in particular re-telling the stories of Hans Christian Anderson and other fictions, as well as making many films, not least one about Henri Cartier-Bresson, who was a friend of hers.
Sarah reminds me very much of me of her pictures, and speaks perfect English with only a slight accent, as she spent her early years in England where her family were during the war.I don't think we talk much if at all about her work, but we do seem to find plenty of things to talk about, both squashed together in the back of the car and also over dinner in the restuarant. I even find I can tell her a little about Paris that she doesn't know, or at least about the banlieue.
It's interesting too to learn more about Misha and in particular about his ideas about freedom and America, which we had already begun to explore duing the car ride from the airpost.
The restuarant is the oldest in Bielsko, nineteenth century with high ceilings and very old-fashioned. I have beetroot soup with a croquette as a starter and it is delicious, although the chicken main course is a little disappointing.
Apart from Sarah and Misha, few of the other photographers had yet arrived.
I was tired after my journey, so decided on an early night after dinner rather
than a trip to a bar.
(continued on next page.)