The exhibit displaying photographs by Bogdan Borkowski, organized by the Center for Jewish Culture as part of its “Encounters with Jewish Culture” program, launched last week, with a very successful turnout at last Thursday evening’s grand opening.
The photographs depict the daily life of the residents in Le Marais, the Jewish Quarter of Paris. I had the opportunity to speak with the artist regarding the project and his views on the changes occurring in the area of Le Marais.
The Krakow Post: How did the idea for the exhibit come about?
Bogdan Borkowski: At the beginning, I had made an arrangement with the BISE Bank gallery in Warsaw, and I started off without knowing what to photograph – I just thought to myself, they have a gallery – the bank had relations with Jews, it held French/Polish money – so I offered the idea to the bank but didn’t know what to photograph. I then met with an assistant from the Fine Arts Academy in Gdansk and we thought about what to do, whether buildings or people and so on, considered a few ideas, until we wandered around the city and decided there should be streets, shops and people and simply anything that constructs a scene, to show life as it is.
Q: So you finally chose a natural approach.
A: Yes, it’s natural – I searched for ways to present it, whether only through portraits or shop fronts, I could’ve shown it in a serious light, but I decided that I would just sit by each of the shops and wait until something interesting starts happening. Some of the shops are left that are sometimes difficult to photograph, for example because there might be a lot of tourists, of course tourists can also be interesting, though things have to fall into place – if you capture a movement, the movement has to make sense, it has to express something. This is necessary in order for the viewer to work out what is going on – even if it’s through imagination or speculation, regardless of whether it’s correct.
Q: Is it the first time the exhibit is shown in Krakow?
A: Yes, it’s its first time in Krakow. Though, as a photographer, I’ve had other exhibits shown in different parts of the world, this particular series has only been exhibited in Warsaw, Paris and now Krakow. It hasn’t traveled very much because I work primarily as a filmmaker – I have two films to produce as Polish/French productions, I have the opportunity to have my exhibits travel, my friends ask me to send them some of my work but, unfortunately, I don’t have the time. It’s all a bit on hold at the moment, because this series should now be traveling to New York, Sweden, Australia, etc. but I work on my own and get a bit lost with the organization of it all. I’ve now started a system, as I am looking for assistants, who I can assign to work with me on different projects so that I can get through them a bit faster.
Q: How did the exhibit make its way to Krakow?
A: While I was in Warsaw, I found out that the French Institute financed a large exhibit for Roman Cieslewicz, who is one of the greatest graphic artists of the second half of the 20th Century, he worked a lot with Beaubourg, or the Pompidou Center in Paris, and his work was exhibited in Poznan and, as his friend, I was working on this exhibit. So it was through the French Institute that my exhibit ended up being shown here. I am very happy that it’s in Krakow – I love to be able to travel while working.
Q: Have you had a chance to visit Kazimierz a bit?
A: A little, just between the hotel and the Center for Jewish Culture, had a bit of a look here and there, checked a few maps to see where it is in relation to the city – but haven’t gotten a chance to look at it properly.
Q: Based on what you have seen of the area, are there any differences you noticed between Kazimerz and Le Marais?
A: Well, my view would be a bit unfair, because someone told me that there aren’t any Jews left here, and indeed one could say that there are all sorts of bars here and so on – however, there are many old buildings and, coming from Warsaw, where old is often associated with ruined, neglected, and often Jewish. The Jewish quarter in Warsaw doesn’t have any Jewish names, even though it’s an original neighborhood, but it’s disappearing in a natural way.
Q: The area of Le Marais is changing daily – are you looking to renew this exhibit or add new pieces to it so that it continues?
A: I am doing so, I observe the area as I live there and try to record the changes that occur, though I really should be working on it a bit more, but even recently, just before my departure, I took photos of signposts and that have disappeared. I try to capture what I can. I would also like to add television into the project, kind of like some private television programs have “no comment,” where the camera is set up, and simply stays in the same position, recording the movement that goes on.
Q: I see what you mean – some of the photos you have here present the same scene in different moments, showing how it has changed over a short period of time. For example, two photos of the same shop front, but one with the owner standing in the doorway, and the other with someone walking past.
A: Exactly – so that’s why I’d like to do this “no comment” and then I would add the video clips to the photographs. This wouldn’t diminish my function as a photographer, as I still capture a moment – my photographic work will continue to exist and will be even more emphasized, that even in situations where there isn’t always something happening, I am able to catch those exceptional moments. And especially now that there are such flat television screens, the “no comment” would work well.
Q: What is the future of Le Marais?
A: It’s very grim. It doesn’t look good at all. Many of the businesses have closed and part of the area has already vanished.
Q: The residents of Le Marais are slowly moving out, as well, correct?
A: Some of the residents leave to Israel, but besides that it’s becoming a very expensive area, where there are a lot of tourists, on Sundays there are crowds of people – such is the power of Le Marais, it’s a very beautiful and old neighborhood, where there are museums and palaces, it’s also where the aristocracy used to live so the buildings are magnificent. It’s one of these exceptional parts of Paris. So, as people come through into the Jewish streets, the line of shops makes its way into the Jewish Quarter. The prices in the Jewish shops are put up very high. The ones that look old attract people, but it’s a small neighborhood and some of the businesses suffer, in which case they are sold and turned into boutiques. Other times, the owners make such a profit, about five times what they originally invested, and decide to sell the business and spend their retirement in Israel. The Parisians who live in the area would like the old shops to stay, and sometimes boutiques are opened where the old signpost is conserved under cultural heritage. It is often seen where, if a new cafe opens, the old sign for a pastry shop is still there. Even if a bar or nightclub is opened, the sign for the old pastry shop would remain [laughs]
Q: What do you aim to express about Le Marais – do you hope that though these photos, the area will somehow survive?
A: I want to show people that it’s changing, but maybe if people see the photos it will have an effect – although if an old shop has turned into a boutique, it can’t be reversed back into an old shop. Maybe it will initiate a movement to help it, which would be good because there aren’t any photos of the area, no one seems to be taking action photographically, the only thing left are black and white postcards from before the war. Sometimes it’s easier for tourists to take a few photos, but when I was there I got strange looks and had to explain to the people I was photographing “this is my work, I live in the area, just keep doing what you’re doing, I just want the photos to come out well as they’re for an exhibit about you and about this area.”
Q: Do you have another project that you plan to work on next?
A: I’m continuing to work on this project, I have a film, there’s also the next series of photos – there’s even too much [laughs] So my life is rich and I don’t have to look for work, I just occupy myself with projects. It’s good that I’m never bored. My mind is never empty, it’s always full of ideas.