Zofia Rydet. Untitled from Sociological Record. 1978. Gelatin silver print, 9 3/16 × 11 13/16" (23.4 × 30 cm). Gift of the artist

“I dream about it at night, putting together a new book,” Zofia Rydet wrote in a July 1978 letter to her friend, the photographer and journalist Krystyna Łyczywek. “Even if they don’t publish it…this will remain, not art perhaps, but a document of the times.”1 That summer, while on her annual summer holiday with her family in the town of Rabka in the southern highlands of Poland, 67-year-old Rydet embarked on her magnum opus: a series of photographs that came to be called Sociological Record.2

She had already been working as a photographer for many years, but she would dedicate the rest of her career to this body of work. The bulk of the over 27,000 negatives Rydet eventually made for Sociological Record (only a small fraction of which were printed in her lifetime) would fall under the category she called “people in interiors”—individuals photographed in their own homes. The project includes other photographs of other subjects, including still lives of the objects within these domestic settings (often featuring framed photographs, a subset of images that Rydet later titled “The Myth of Photography”), exterior views of the buildings, and landscapes. As the project developed, its boundaries and rules constantly changed.3 Rydet continued the project into the 1990s, and over time it expanded into other countries, including France, Germany, and Lithuania, as well as into the homes of Polish families living in the United States, though the vast majority of images in Sociological Record were made in the rural countryside of Poland.

Born in 1911 in the Polish city of Stanisławów, in what is now Ukraine, Rydet took her first photographs in the years before World War II, using a camera borrowed from her brother, for whom she worked at a travel agency. By the end of the 1940s, Rydet and her family had moved to Gliwice, a city in southern Poland, where she operated a stationery shop. At the age of 40, she finally returned to photography, joining the Gliwice Photographic Society and building a darkroom in her home.4

Over the next decade, Rydet developed her first major project, a series of photographs about childhood titled Little Man (Mały człowiek). The work was influenced by MoMA’s major international exhibition, The Family of Man, organized by Edward Steichen, which traveled in Poland in 1959–60.5 Taking a cue from that exhibition, Rydet structured her series by theme rather than chronology or location, creating a statement of universality across multiple cultures, while emphasizing the complexity of childhood experience. In 1965 she made the project into a photobook, interspersing her images with excerpts from the writings of Jewish Polish educator Janusz Korczak, an orphanage director who died—as did the children in his care—in the Treblinka extermination camp during the Holocaust.

For Sociological Record, Rydet followed a similar methodology throughout the course of the project: she approached a home unannounced, knocked, and warmly introduced herself, asking if the home’s inhabitants would like to take part in her project. She later described her intention that the inhabitants of each home should sit at the center of a room and stare directly into the camera: “They are to be static, as if objects themselves.”6

Despite the uniformity of her approach, Rydet’s photographs expose each subject’s individuality, as writer and filmmaker Marlaine Glicksman has pointed out: “Rydet’s Sociological Record goes beyond ethnography or mere cataloguing. It gives us a picture of Poland under communism that is not monolithic but instead striated by economic standing and religious belief, each inhabitant precisely captured amid their possessions (or lack thereof).”7 Though her project is a typology, Rydet felt that its continued growth was essential to conveying the humanity of her subjects. “To my mind, photography is not only a visual image but, above all, a language with which I would like to speak to ordinary people,” she reflected in 1990. “The more my Record grows, the more I believe that it will be timeless.”8

Lucy Gallun, Curator, Department of Photography, 2024

  1. Excerpt from a letter written by Zofia Rydet to Krystyna Łyczywek, Rabka, July 28, 1978, http://zofiarydet.com/zapis/en/pages/sociological-record/letters/krystyna-lyczywek-28-07-1978

  2. Rydet later remarked that she wouldn’t have chosen such an “academic” title, but the name Sociological Record had been coined by photography curator Urszula Czartoryska, and it stuck. “Zofia Rydet on the Sociological Record,” Konteksty, 1997, No. 3–4, pp. 192–198; recording (1988), editing, and titles by Anna Beata Bohdziewicz, http://zofiarydet.com/zapis/en/pages/sociological-record/notes/konteksty (note this same source is cited in Szupinska-Myers’s thesis as: “Rydet quoted in Anna Beata Bohdziewicz “Zofia Rydet o ‘Zapisie socjologicznym’” (interview, August 1988), Konteksty, No. 3-4, 1997, 192-198.)

  3. Sebastian Cichocki, “Photographer Zofia Rydet’s Unfinished Sociological Record,” August 22, 2017, post: Notes on Art in a Global Context, https://post.moma.org/photographer-zofia-rydets-unfinished-sociological-record/

  4. Joanna H. Szupinska-Myers, “Socialism’s Future Anterior: On Zofia Rydet’s Photographs of Polish Interiors, 1978–90,” 2019, UCLA Masters Thesis, p. 9

  5. Adam Mazur, “Perhaps the Greatest Polish Woman Photographer: Problematics of Research into the Life and Art of Zofia Rydet,” in Object Lessons: Zofia Rydet’s Sociological Record, ed. Krzysztof Pijarski (Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art, 2017), p. 82.

  6. Zofia Rydet, “On Her Work,” Wydawnictwo Muzeum w Gliwicach, Gliwice 1993, http://zofiarydet.com/zapis/en/pages/sociological-record/notes/o-swojej-tworczosci

  7. Marlaine Glicksman, “Répertoire, 1978–1990: Zofia Rydet at Jeu de Paume,” American Suburb X, October 14, 2017 https://americansuburbx.com/2017/10/repertoire-1978-1990-zofia-rydet-at-jeu-de-paume.html

  8. Zofia Rydet in Krystyna Łyczywek, Conversations on Photography 1970–1990, Voivodeship Council in Szczecin and the Association of Polish Art Photographers (ZPAF) in Warsaw, Szczecin 1990, pp. 33–37. http://zofiarydet.com/zapis/en/pages/sociological-record/discussions/rozmowy-o-fotografii

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