Tina Rowe

The Christmas Portrait

This is Christmas in Krakow, late in 1993 or early 94.  This family are sitting on a large crib and getting their photos taken.  They are a strange kind of family.  She dominates in her hound’s-tooth coat, scarf and sunglasses. Her Imelda Marcosness does something to the arrangement that makes the image superficially all about her.  But then again, the father brings to mind Dr Aziz from A passage to India for some reason, older and wiser, plumper, but with a little more thought the lead actor in this play.  But who could look anything less than a supporting character to someone so grand as her.  The boy in the middle, who I always notice last, looks at the man, not the woman.  The power in the relationship seems quite clear, but the relationship is between the males.

This is without a doubt on of my favourite photographs that I took in Krakow.  usually I remember taking photographs, but I have no recollection of this.  What I can see is why I took it.  they really were and unusual group.  Her coat is expensive and very distinctive.  At this time there were frequently sudden gluts of a particular fashion on the streets, especially after Christmas.  But her coat would have come from Vienna or Berlin or London.  Not Poland at all.  There were still Pewex shops, though they had lost their dollars only power, but that coat could not have come from a Pewex, it was too stylish for the lumpen tastes of the state funded buyers. His coat might have come from a German Kaufhof or the grander Peek und Cloppenburg, but his shoes, they seem like shoes that you could buy in Krakow.  This group would have been striking.  I have two photographs of them but this is the better one, but that means that I was looking at them for a fairly long time.

Being in Poland during the early 1990s I was able to observe the replacement of an old way of doing things with a new one.  This goes on all of the time I know, but 40 years of communism had stopped abruptly. someone I knew had been confined in hospital because of a difficult pregnancy over the period that Jaruzelski had handed over power to solidarity.  when she was admitted, there were still militia on the streets. When she came out, the first thing she saw was graffiti that said fuck the government and it had clearly been there for a while.  It is hard to imagine what it is like to be given what it had taken so much suffering to get.  Consider if your dreams came true, what would that be like? We don’t often think about the aftermath of getting the thing we most desire, the reality of day to day living with that thing, but this family in some ways is showing that.  Outwardly they are successful, possibly rich, maybe even part of the first wave who did well without having to leave to make a better life.  This wasn’t visible in 1991, but by 1994 it was.  But time doesn’t stand still, you can’t be in your prime forever.  At some point younger people will start to emerge and the novel for you will be the old hat and clichéd for them, your dreams become passé. People are able to comment on something that happened when they weren’t even born and through the prism of their perceptions the event changes.  This is a photograph of change without any of the protagonists being aware of what a statement of change it was or even how fleeting that upheaval was.

Printing it as a large cyanotype was intended to show this, it is blue because it is a little about melancholy, it is bright blue for the optimism, it’s broken into sections because nothing comes fully formed and all of it can be taken apart at any time.

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