In 1978, artist Zofia Rydet set out on a mission she knew was impossible: she wanted to photograph every house in her native country of Poland. At the time, Poland’s population was 34.97 million, and Rydet was already 67 years old, so she was sure to work quickly and obsessively. “I need to take photos immediately — it’s like an addiction, like vodka for an alcoholic,” Rydet once said. Her method for accessing private homes was simple: “I knock on the door, I say ‘hello’ and I shake hands.” By the time of her death in 1997, Rydet had knocked on at least 20,000 doors, and the resulting photographs created a comprehensive portrait of Eastern European domestic life that she called “Sociological Record.”
Zofia Rydet: Record, 1978–1990, now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, is the largest exhibit ever of Rydet’s images from this sprawling project. Many of these photographs have never been seen before, as Rydet didn’t get a chance to develop all her negatives into prints before her death. For 30 years, while traveling through 100 Polish villages and towns in the regions of Podhale, Upper Silesia, and the Suwałki area, Rydet used the same compositional scheme: she photographed each house’s hosts with a wide-angle lens and a bright flash that highlighted the details of the interiors.
These idiosyncratic details were what interested Rydet most. Her work stemmed from a deep curiosity about human individuality — what’s universally human versus what makes people unique — and she believed the objects and images in private spaces “revealed people’s psychology.” The project began when she visited a car manufacturing plant in Jelcz with friends and saw a hall transformed into office cubicles. She was fascinated by how people had personalized their cubicles. “Although they were identical, they differed a great deal, because the people working there decorated them with what they liked to look at,” Rydet said in a 1990 interview, well worth reading in its entirety, about “Sociological Record.” “The things I saw! Beautiful girls and holy icons. Jazz stars and photos of children. Hunting trophies and rosaries. Each person marked his space with his personality. And that’s how it began.” Each photograph explored how the house reflects the greater society and culture in which it’s situated, and how despite that, “there are no two similar people or two similar houses,” as Rydet used to say.
Rydet’s photographs are full of mystery, and, without text accompanying them, they raise more questions about their subjects than they answer. Why is that couple posing with a three-foot-tall, blond doll as if it were their child? Is the glamorous woman in that portrait on the wall a painting of that old lady when she was young? What’s with those alien-looking sheep in that picture hanging behind that guy with the dog?
The photos also convey Rydet’s compassion for her subjects — how she used photography as a vehicle for human connection. “I know that some people think I am delusional or conniving when I tell these people that they are beautiful,” Rydet said. “But I really do see something interesting and beautiful in everyone, I am charmed by something in each individual that is worth salvaging — particularly those wonderful human tales that I hear during those visits. Every person is a separate story; some are fascinating, some instructive, sometimes they are deeply touching.”
The outsized project was also about the preservation of a country’s collective memory. Rydet was explicit about how she used photography in an attempt to outlast death. “I have never been bored, but the closer I get to my own death, the more I would like to overcome it, to be constantly photographing,” Rydet said. “I would like to salvage and be able to hold onto so many interesting moments and faces. A day when I don’t photograph seems wasted to me …. Photography gives me the chance to stop time and overcome the specter of death. The simplest, most ordinary documentary picture becomes a great truth about human fate, and this is my constant struggle with death, with the passing of time.” The fact that we’re still poring over Rydet’s pictures 20 years after her death suggests her attempt to freeze time is working better than most.
Zofia Rydet. Record, 1978–1990 continues at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (Emilii Plater 51, 01–001 Warszawa, Poland) through January 10, 2016.