Discovering an Artist Unknown in the U.S.
Alexandra Whittaker, who graduates from Macaulay Honors College at City College this year, intends to use her 2017 Fulbright fellowship to learn about a pioneering Polish photographer whose work is all but unknown in the United States.
Fortunata Obrąpalska (1909-2004) is called the First Lady of Polish Photography for her creativity under communist rule and her boldness in exploring surrealism. "The artist versus the totalitarian state is the theme of my research," Whittaker says.
She discovered Obrąpalska in a history of photography course with her mentor, associate professor of art history Ellen Handy. They are in the City College Fellowship, which grooms undergraduates for doctoral degrees and careers in teaching and research.
"I couldn't find any of Obrąpalska's work in American collections, and that was my justification for the Fulbright: I couldn't view her original photographs in the United States," Whittaker says.
She will be affiliated with Adam Mickiewicz University, "a center for research on postwar Polish art and on the history of photography, so it will serve as an excellent home base," she says. "I am very grateful to the University's Institute of Art History hosting my project." The university is in Poznań, where Obrąpalska lived.
In the 1930s, Obrąpalska studied chemistry, biology and botany, while exploring photography. During the war, she hosted two underground exhibitions in her apartment. Her style cycled from pastoral landscapes to modernism to socialist realism to nature photography. Her excursion into surrealism produced her best-known images. In her "Diffusion in Liquid" series, she dropped ink into water, evoking shapes and bodies. "It was unlike any photograph I had ever seen before," Whittaker says.
Whittaker studies Polish at Hunter College and, with Macaulay funding, spent two weeks last summer at Jagiellonian University in Kraków.
She intends to become a photography curator. Through Macaulay, she had a taste of that career in a summer internship at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She also studied for a semester at Charles University in Prague through a City College Art Department Connor Fellowship, where she continued research on Czech photographer Josef Sudek (1896-1976), the subject of her senior honors thesis.
Whittaker says that she doesn't think of herself as a photographer, but it was a summer photography course at City College that sent her "wandering the streets of New York City, taking photographs" and participating in group critiques that "inspired me to study the history of photography. I had been trying to figure out what direction my interest in art history might take, and this summer course was the first step along the path that has led me to Sudek and to Obrąpalska."