Jakub Smolski. The village photographer from Łuka

Jakub Smolski (1895-1969) was a resident of Łuka village on the Narew river in Podlaskie voivodeship. He completed his schooling in the local parish church. He and his family spent the years 1914-1922 in Russia as refugees (bieżeńcy). Disablement prevented him from working the fields. He earned his living from tailoring.

He took up photography in the 1930s, initially using “a la minute” type of camera, and then Gomz folding camera. Photography was his source of additional income.

He completed  his five-minute camera around  1935.  The wooden, cuboid “camera obscura” box, a product of carpentry, was equipped with Anastigmat Trioplan 1:4,5 with shutterless lens mailed to Łuka from Warsaw and metal trays for reagents. Jakub Smolski’s mobile photography studio was additionally equipped with a photographic screen created through oil painting on canvas, a wooden tripod and a chest for paper, reagents, receipts and correspondence with the photography store in Warsaw.

The five-minute camera made photography commonly accessible for the first time. Brought to Poland after the First World War by photographers from Jasna Góra monastery in Częstochowa, it soon gained popularity among itinerant photographers visiting fairs, markets, odpusty (indulgences), villages and towns.

The advantage of “a la minute” camera was its easy to use and fast, five-minute chemical processing of photos, done inside the camera. The photos were made in the talbotype technique. Both the negative and the positive were developed on paper moistened with silver chloride. Right after the negative (paper) was exposed, it was developed in reagents placed inside camera obscura. The still wet negative was photographed again and processed, resulting in a positive image.  Damp photographs were instantly handed to the person being photographed.

The preserved 233 paper negatives in 9×14 format and economically cut to 9×7 provide a lot of  valuable information  about the residents of Łuka and the surrounding villages. They also make it possible to pinpoint the interests of Jakub Smolski. Modest technical capabilities of “a la minute”  camera made most photos look like static portraits taken in an “outdoor studio”. The figures immortalised in the photographs are closest family members, neighbours and residents of nearby villages. Only a few negatives are records of traditional activities. Adapted to portrait photography, the camera did not favour documentary photography.  The exhibition presents Jakub Smolski’s photos in thematic order: childhood, growing up, family, everyday life of the village, funeral. The funeral photos characteristic for village customs form a “collective village coffin portrait”.  The last group are ID photos, probably taken around 1939, during the war. Jakub Smolski’s photos are invaluable records of the interwar village. They include a rich iconographic material presenting, among others, clothes and changing fashion trends, annual and family rituals, weaving. They also demonstrate the photographer’s artistry.  The photos depict Łuka which disappeared off the map towards the end of the 1970s when the Siemianówka reservoir was built on the Narew river.  The inhabitants of Łuka and nearby villages were displaced and the places around the demolished houses disappeared underwater like Atlantis. But it has been preserved in Jakub Smolski’s photography, in materials collected in museums and in the memory of the old inhabitants dispersed around various corners of Podlasie. The photos come from the collections of Podlaskie Muzeum Kultury Ludowej in Wasilów near Białystok.

Wojciech Kowalczuk

Reproduction of Negatives: Andrzej Ciulkin