Tadeusz Rolke: That style of photography was simpler back then. It would be unimaginable today

Capturing the Moment

 Actress Małgorzata Braunek by Tadeusz Rolke. Dress and styling: Barbara Hof/Hofand, 1969 ©Agencja Gazeta

Actress Małgorzata Braunek by Tadeusz Rolke. Dress and styling: Barbara Hof/Hofand, 1969 ©Agencja Gazeta

Tadeusz Rolke is a documentary photojournalist and humanist photographer whose work oozes intimacy, spontaneity and individuality. His work, which was published in popular magazines across Poland and Germany, is widely seen as the precursor of contemporary fashion photography.

Born in Warsaw in 1929, Rolke, was sent to a Germany to work as a forced labourer during the Second World War. After the war, he studied art history at the University of Warsaw, but his studies were suddenly interrupted when he was identified as “an enemy to socialism” by the new communist authorities and subsequently arrested and imprisoned. As a result of the amnesty following Stalin’s death, Rolke was released and he found work in an optical works in Warsaw. Before long he was working with press organisations and soon became one of the Poland’s leading photographers, receiving commissions for popular publications such as Ty i ja and Przekrój, and for fashion houses such as Moda Polska and Hoffland.

Thoroughly fed up with communism, Rolke moved to Hamburg in the 1970s and began working for a number of German titles, including Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, Stern, Art and Brigitte.

Following the imposition of Martial Law in 1981, a time when people were actually fleeing the country, he returned to Poland and spent time documenting the murky reality of life under Martial Law for western magazines.

In Tadeusz Rolke’s fashion spreads from the 60s and 70s, there is a fine line between fiction—posed shoots with models—and reality—fashionably dressed women on the streets of Warsaw. “That style of photography was simpler back then and depicted the situation as we found it. There was no entourage for the shoot; it was just me, Basia Hoff and a girl. The girls did their own makeup and they usually had their hair done beforehand. There was no location van, no assistants. Everything was amazingly simple and cheap. It would be unimaginable today,” said Rolke in an interview for Ninateka.pl.

Rolke’s photographs from the period successfully capture the uniqueness of the moment and the individuality and subjectivity of the models. Randomness and spontaneity is unthinkable in traditional fashion photography — the models in Vogue, for example, tend to exude a beautiful coldness. But in Rolke’s fashion reportage, he photographs his models as they stroll around Moscow’s Red Square, or while sightseeing in Stockholm or Warsaw. He prefers to capture the moment, regardless of whether he is snapping a fashion shoot or everyday life at a fish market in Hamburg — always managing to grasp the essence of his subject matter. When French Elle commissioned him to take behind-the-scenes shots for a fashion spread in 1965, the resulting photographs looked less like a series of documentary shots, and more like a sophisticated fashion shoot starring Jean Shrimpton and Heidi.

Paulina Latham