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The British

Towards the close of the 20th century, Witold Krassowski photographed the British at work and at play. Colin Jacobson, then picture editor at the Independent Magazine, describes how it all began: 'It was late and I should have been at home. The phone rang and the man at reception told me there was a foreign gentleman who wanted to show me some photographs. My heart sank. He told me he was from Poland, and for some reason I relented. Krassowski, as I often refer to him, entered. He was taller than me, and I am tall. His moustache was thinner than mine; I thought he looked like a Polish cavalry officer. He produced a small, rather unimpressive-looking portfolio. The images were all about life in Poland, many of them dark and brooding, others very witty indeed. Each picture was immediately interesting, revealing, and beyond all that, clearly the product of one consistent creative 'eye'. I asked this stranger what he was doing in London. He told me with a straight face that he was painting houses. My cunning picture editor's reflexes were at work, late though the hour was. Mrs Thatcher, our esteemed Prime Minister at that time, was about to make another of her 'royal' visits, to Poland no less. Bingo! - we could publish a selection of Krassowski's work to give our readers a very personal flavour of the country and its people. We published the photo essay on Poland and it was a great success. I instructed Krassowski to hang up his painting brush and return to his Leica. Soon afterwards, I commissioned him to photograph an area of England called The Fens. This was a sneaky, underhand trick on my part, because this region has a reputation for being flat, dull and populated by suspicious, unfriendly and possibly inbred inhabitants. Most British photographers would laugh derisively if you suggested they do a photo story on The Fens.Witek, of course, knew nothing of this, and I did not propose to enlighten him. I told him he would have to drive to The Fens because public transport was virtually non-existent. I believe this is the only time I have ever seen him disconcerted, indeed the shadow of a frown crossed his brow. 'Impossible', he stated with finality. I cajoled, he haggled. Eventually, we compromised; he would take the train to Cambridge and then hire a car at the station. A long time afterwards, I discovered that he had only recently passed his driving test in Poland, and had never really driven anywhere at all. I was going to throw him into the deep end. Of course, the story on The Fens went well. Krassowski produced some excellent photographs, including one of my favourites, a man who grows vegetables in a graveyard. He survived Britain's roads, and as far as I know, the hire car survived him.When Witek is working, he is serious, intense, probably obsessed. And he knows when he's got a good picture. I've never met anyone who is as hard on himself, and on others, too. 'It's just anecdote' or 'it's boring' - the ultimate put-down, with a slight curl of his moustached lips. He can afford this arrogance, because when he's on song, his work touches the soul. Looking at his photographs on Britain, I know exactly where I am; I recognise straight away their authenticity, their accuracy. But the power of Krassowski's work is in its simplicity, its distilled impact. He does not seek to place his ego between the viewer and what is viewed, making clever constructions or 'significant' interpretations. He observes, pounces and portrays, presenting the altogether familiar in a completely fresh and surprising way. He makes it all look so effortless, the sign of a true artist.'

Colin Jacobson is Senior Lecturer in Photojournalism at the University of Westminster.
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