Worlds Imagined and Real
In which I offer my take on a fantastic new book about a small Latvian town and then dive into some Polish music
I don’t know if this is interesting for you (it might not be), but for these emails, I’m employing a variety of approaches. They’re partly written on the fly, while other parts are pieces that I prepare in advance. I tend to have too many ideas, many of them completely unrelated to photography, and I will often write a little something. My computer used to be littered with stubs and finished articles that never saw the light of day because I didn’t know where to publish them. Very early on, my blog was supposed to cover a much larger variety of material than merely photography. That idea disappeared very quickly, given how much my interest in photography grew. But I am now able to breathe some new life into writing about other things with these emails.
Glass Strenči, a book showcasing a selection of photographs made in the small Latvian town of Strenči during the interwar years, provided a much needed jolt of enjoyment for me. It arrived in the mail after one of its editors, Anna Volkova, had emailed me. Would I like to see a copy? Sure, why not. What I had seen online looked quite good. But I wasn’t quite prepared for what the book had to offer. This little town that I had never heard of had been the source of a bewildering number of brilliant photographs, made by a local photo studio. I immediately wrote a review, which you can read here.
Right when I started writing the piece, I had the idea that the world of photography with its strange rituals, rules, and odd characters must be the equivalent of Japan’s Kabuki Theater. I don’t know where that idea came from, but I’m still very fond of it.
Anyway, the book is sold out, but I urged Anna Volkova to produce a second edition, and I was told there would be attempts to make one (Anna also kindly provided the photographs I used in the review and here). It’s a truism that photographs on the computer screen look different than in printed form; and these pictures here can’t quite convey the absolute delight that is the book. But I’m going to show you a few more regardless.
Not sure what’s going on here and why the picture was taken the way it was.
I know exactly what’s going on here and why the picture was taken. But somehow, it ended up quite amazing as well. I’m not sure Jeff Wall would be able to pull this off quite as well.
At some stage in the book, I started thinking the town had had more than its fair share of weirdos.
I guess you get my point. It’s a great book. And ideally, there’ll be a second printing very soon. If there is (and assuming I hear about it), I’ll make sure to let you know.
A little while ago, I started to wonder whether or not Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki and Hańba were doing one and the same thing. I had discovered these two Polish groups separately, and I had never thought of them at the same time. Hańba play what I have found described as punk, folk punk, or folk cabaret. The quartet relies on a banjo, accordion, tuba, and drums (plus, occasionally, a clarinet), producing what to me more often than not sounds like klezmer. The band's basic idea is that punk was in fact invented in Poland in the 1930s, and they rely on poems written in the 1920s and 30s for their lyrics. The result is often boisterous and infectious (see and hear them perform in this video). In contrast, boisterous isn't a word I would think of when describing Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki, who re-perform music from the interwar period. Infectious, though, it certainly is. I was familiar with this type of music from old recordings, but to hear these songs the way an audience might have enjoyed it back then – without, in other words, artifacts such as the crackling of a record, but with full audio fidelity – is nothing but starling (there's a video on YouTube, filmed from the audience, that gives a pretty good impression what a concert looks and feels like). Here, Yiddish classic Bei Mir Bistu Shein – maybe most commonly known as The Andrew Sisters' Bei Mir Bist Du Schön – turns into Czy Ty wiesz, Mała Miss?, to reveal a musical complexity I had not been aware of.
(screenshot from Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki's Abduł Bey)
(screenshot from Hańba's Puste Samoloty)
The closeness of these two groups should have been apparent to me for a while, especially given I had watched video clips produced by both. Compare, let's say, Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki's Abduł Bey with Hańba's Puste Samoloty. In both cases, the visuals work along very similar lines, borrowing as much from interwar modernism as from the kinds of visual shenanigans established by Terry Gilliam for Monty Python's Flying Circus. Obviously, the visuals work with the music. But they were also made with an audience in mind, and that audience is us. Reminding myself of that, I realized that maybe I ought to be careful with how much I want to really draw out of the comparison of these – let's face it – promotional materials. Still, both groups clearly refer to the same time, and both bring back to life Poland's cultural richness during that period, a richness that the rest of the world appears to be largely oblivious of.
One night, I started thinking about the idea of simulation and how it applied to these two groups. I had had a beer or two, so some of my conclusions don't appear to be holding up (so it goes). Still, in a nutshell, both groups are simulations, albeit very different ones. I have never read music discussed as a simulation, and I admit it does feel a little bit strange to describe Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki as one. But with its careful re-creation of visuals and sound, it does simulate what an original group at the time might have looked and sounded like: it simulates for us, in other words, the experience of being at a concert somewhere in, let's say, Warsaw back in the day. Hańba, however, is a very different kind of simulation. Punk was not invented in Poland in the 1930's – at least that's the official story. But then who is to say that it wasn't? So here then is what it sounded like – or rather might have sounded like (if we stick to the official story). One simulation is closer to the “what if?” that we tend to think of when we hear the word, the other one is closer to postmodern ideas that do away with lived realities altogether.
These various connections notwithstanding, I feel there is one major difference between these two bands – and it's not the style of music itself. While Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki celebrate a culture cruelly cut short, theirs is a nostalgic project. We, and of course I'm including myself here, respond to it because of the connection it provides us with a past long gone. In contrast, Hańba are aspirational in the sense of creating a call to arms to defend the Polish republic – on the surface, the ill-fated one between the two World Wars, but really the one under assault by Poland's neo-fascist PiS government.
In other words, Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki's case is passive, while Hańba's is active: the world as it was versus the world as it is and should not be. But we could drive this point further. For their second album, which does sound like a high-fidelity version of period music, Jazz Band Młynarski-Masecki apparently relied on recording equipment from the time when the music was originally performed, creating a high-fidelity nostalgia that, in this day and age, has more in common with PiS than with the countless Poles who, in light of their nation being a member of the European Union, strive for a more cosmopolitan and just society.
Well, that was a lot more pictures than last time, was it? And I threw in some YouTube videos. Substack makes this all very easy and simple.
I hope you enjoyed this installment of my emails. As always thank you for reading!