The cultural programme of one of this year’s European Capitals of Culture will be enriched by the exhibition ‘Foton’s Women.’ This unique exhibition, showcasing the history of the women who exerted great influence on the development of Polish analogue photography, was created thanks to the efforts of the team responsible for the Vintage Photo Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland. During the 11th edition of the international Analog Mania festival (1–30 April 2023), organised in Romania, the audience had the opportunity to get to know this vital part of Polish photography history. The festival, just like the one that takes place in Bydgoszcz every year, focuses on old photographic techniques.
The value of the Polish Foton Photochemical Plant (1925–2007), the largest Polish manufacturer of black-and-white and colour photographic paper, was rediscovered by Katarzyna Gębarowska. A scholar of the history of photography and director of Vintage Photo Festival, she suggested a new and previously disregarded approach by turning attention to the role of women in the operations of Foton. Since the photochemical sector was classified as light industry, women could be employed there, meaning that they formed the core of the plant workers. Those women, previously confined to the shadows for years, came to the forefront thanks to the exhibition and its accompanying book, ‘Foton’s Women’ (2018). The history of Foton’s female team, who built the post-war legend of Polish analogue photography, was surely of interest to the festival audience in Romania, where the currently-closed Azomureș (AZO) factory used to manufacture photosensitive materials. The Vintage Photo Festival team were invited to take part in the Analog Mania festival and decided to showcase the ‘Foton’s Women’ exhibition to initiate a dialogue with Romanian photography.
We are presenting this exhibition in Romania, because cooperation between our countries is a complete terra incognita. We don’t know if the photographers operating in Romania knew of the materials produced by Foton in Bydgoszcz, or used them in their work. We know that photosensitive materials were also manufactured in Romania. We are happy to take a close look at the daily life of the women who worked in the AZO factory. ‘In recent years, the names of three photographers, Hedy Löffler, Geta Brătescu and Clara Spitzer, have been frequently mentioned in discussions about Romanian photography. The question came to mind of whether these artists were familiar with Foton’s photographic materials, as they were exported to the countries of the former Eastern Bloc. The exhibition prepared by the Vintage Photo Festival team, “Foton's Women,” now presented in Romania, will be an interesting pretext to explore the subject matter further.
– said Katarzyna Gębarowska, Director of Vintage Photo Festival
The Bydgoszcz-based Foton enjoyed an internationally-recognised reputation, exporting its products across Central and Eastern Europe. Information about the plant’s activities aimed at market expansion is much easier to find than details of the people who contributed to the success of the company. Thanks to Katarzyna Gębarowksa and Małgorzata Czyńska (the authors of the exhibition book), the female workers, who had been functioning for years anonymously, were given faces by taking forgotten vernacular photographs out of the shadows. The found photographs show that these women were at the centre of factory life. The everyday lives of chemists, laboratory workers, accountants and models contribute greatly to understanding of the industry. Foton’s women are also artists who used the plant’s products in their creative work for several decades. Teresa Gierzyńska, Natalia LL and Jolanta Marcolla added their voice to the social archives about Foton. All artists in Poland knew Foton very well, and in addition to the above-mentioned artists, their materials were used by Małgorzata Potocka and Zofia Kulig. Artists from across Poland were the faces of promotional materials for the Bydgoszcz plant. The presentation of the aforementioned exhibition in Romania might help mark out a new direction of research into the presence of women in photography, the significance of Foton materials inside and outside Europe, and help discover previously unknown links between the two countries.