A sporty young man, wearing a delicately checked shirt and a jacket, entered a photographic studio. Paweł Bielec, 36-year-old owner of a new photographic laboratory at Karmelicka street 50 in Kraków, talked with students a little. He took out a brown envelope on which he had written: ‘tableau’. The young man looked at a mirror and corrected his hair combed backward. He took a seat indicated by a photographer. The latter one was setting a special illumination system for a longer while, so that to gain characteristic features of a model in the most useful way. Coming up to the wooden camera brought from Lvov, Paweł Bielec did not suppose that the photo, which he would take in a while, would save his studio from liquidation. And that it was going to be just the portrait of the future… Pope.

Photo no 740

I often pass by one of busy places in Kraków, where Karmelicka street goes into the Plac Inwalidów Square and then it stretches towards the tram station in Bronowice. And across there are Alleys along which many cars and buses go…In this chaos of the city, a glass window of a photographic studio catches my eye. And among artistic shots, there is a special one. A thoughtful boy, at the age of 18-19, a student of the first year of Polish literature at the Jagiellonian University, and a beginner poet and actor. Karol Wojtyła.

The portrait was made by Paweł Bielec, a 36-year-old slim brunet with a dark moustache at that moment. The later Pope always remembered him in this way. The surname ‘Karol Wojtyła’ is seen in an old workbook of the company from the years 1938/39, under the letter ‘W’ and number 740. The camera with which the artist painter and photographer made a portrait of the future John Paul II, is 130 years old today, and his lens is still usable. It is willingly used by priests to take photos, preparing souvenir tableau every year.

Memory on a graphic art film

What does not the lens remember? If it could speak, it would tell us about the times of Lvov and about those times from pre-war Kraków. Besides other famous people, for example, Jan Kiepura, it made the saint person exist for ever. It photographed the funeral of Piłsudzki, a collection of money for defence of Kraków....But it also remembers criminals. German invaders, the Russians wearing stolen watches and drinking vodka…

However, let’s concentrate first of all, on history whose close description we placed in the beginning. Karol Wojtyła arrived in the studio of Paweł Bielec not to have his photo taken for his ID card. The photograph was to be a fragment of a tableau ordered on the occasion of the first performance of the play of ‘Moon’s bachelor’ – a play prepared by the Theatrical Confraternity (a Dramatic Studio ‘39’). Also the young man from Wadowice acted in it. It was a comedy tale of Marian Niżyński based on motives of a legend from Kraków about Mr. Twardowski. The first performance of the ‘Moon’s Bachelor’ was acted in June 1939, during Days of Kraków. Performances in the open air ‘lasted for three weeks and the performance was acted again on 14 and 15 August 1939 on the occasion of the meeting of legionaries, as the impersonator of the main role Lesław Petecki reported.

An important order

It was one of the first big orders of Paweł Bielec. In addition, photographs were to have the size of postcards! Images of lecturers were slightly bigger, and the biggest format was the photo of Tadeusz Kudliński, a founder of the Theatrical Confraternity. All in all, portraits of 49 people were placed on a sheet of paper. And each of them was unique.

That was why Paweł Bielec was advertising his studio so much: ‘(…) In our photos every person looks good, which we gained thanks to a special system being a mystery of our modern laboratory’. This mysterious system, is a professional operating the light, a very good retouch, but also the artistic soul and the photographer’s experience who had been interested in this art since his age of 16. Being 26 years old, he and his acquaintances opened their first photographic studio in Lvov (1928). 10 years later he moved to Kraków and on 5 May 1938, he started his work in Karmelicka street 50.

The size of the place was 100 metres square and was on the high first floor in a tenement house. Paweł Bielec had to pay the rent for a year in advance, and he had his competitor in the city. However, he showed a spirit of entrepreneurship – he advertised his studio through leaflets in restaurants, and also….displaying advertises in cinemas. He placed photos of famous people in them, among the others, of artists at that time. Maybe just these advertisements inspired the ambitious team of the Theatrical Confraternity to celebrate the first performance with such a significant tableau?

A souvenir which is decaying

When I visit the studio at the Invalids’ Square 6, a daughter of Paweł Bielec shows me a 75-year-old souvenir. The tableau (of sizes 1.30/1.75m) has a damaged frame, does not look good enough and requires renovation. However, the company has not got any funds for this purpose. Similarly as for the exhibition which, based on these 49 portraits, was planned by Barbara. – Graphic art films are old, glass and of a big format. All of them must be enlarged in order to extract the beauty of these photos – says the daughter of the photographer deceased in 2002, and who with her daughter Katarzyna, the graduate of the Fine Art Academy, are continuing the work of her grandfather.

My interlocutor tells me that she devoted a few months in order to find the surnames of people commemorated together with Karol Wojtyła on a souvenir tableau. She found all of them except for two. And the task was not easy because of the way in which photos used to be archived.

– During the war occupation, these more valuable photos and the ones presenting people, who might have been exposed to some oppressions from gestapo (the studio used to be in the German sphere), might have been commandeered somehow. However, my dad elaborated a system which hindered identifying people. He did not write surnames on envelopes with graphic art films, but only the same numbers. In order to figure out, whose particular graphic art film was, it is necessary to take a proper workbook, for example, from the year 1939 and look for where a particular number appears. And numbers were assigned to surnames, alphabetically ordered. So, it means that you take this kind of book, you have thousands numbers and you have to find this proper one, not knowing whether a surname of a particular person starts with ‘K’ or ‘Z’. Only then you find the surname.

Happily saved

Mrs. Barbara says that Karol Wojtyła had ‘tableau’ written on his envelope. And inside there were two different shots and a big graphic art film separately (18/24 cm) – a photo placed in the last work. A little miss and these historical pictures recorded on these glass graphic art films – might have been lost.

The photos were kept in a wardrobe, which imitated the door in the wall. When on 18 January 1945 the Red Army entered Kraków, there was a shooting in Karmelicka street. The Russians threw a bullet into a garden on the corner of Kremerowska and Karmelicka streets, that is, about 3 metres from our studio. My dad said that it was God’s miracle that these graphic art films had not got broken, especially the one from the tableau, although it was big. Many graphic art films got broken but not this one.

– When Karol Wojtyła became a bishop, my father was looking for this cliché and later kept it separately, but not with those photos. The copy of the photograph was hanging in the glass-case, at the entrance to the photographic studio – says the daughter of Paweł Bielec. A completely new era arrived, because the young man from the photograph became Pope. Mrs. Barbara remembers that during the martial law people used to put flowers and white-red ribbons into the glass-case. For some people this photo was, however, salt in the eye and traces of someone’s saliva were often wiped away from the glass….

The man from the photo

This pre-war film-frame in ‘free Poland’ saved the photographic studio of Bielec family from its liquidation. On the following day the owner of the company got dismissal from ‘relatives’ of the nationalized owner of the tenement house. After a few dozen years of work, 90-year-old Paweł Bielec had to leave the studio on Karmelicka street 50…

Luckily, this event converged with another one in time, which preceded it. – When the delegation with president of Kraków Józef Lassota was going to Rome (24 October 1993 in order to give the Holy Father a gold medal ‘Cracoviae Merenti’) and everyone remembered that young Karol Wojtyła had had his photo taken in our studio. They called us and asked us for this photo as they wanted to give it to Pope as a souvenir. I quickly prepared a portrait from tableau for ‘Moon’s Bachelor’. Soon the issue with the studio appeared. Then I asked an assistant of the City President for a meeting. I was promised that if a place was vacant, we would be given it by the City without any tender (we did not have any money for tender, because my father as ‘a private initiative’ had been oppressed throughout the whole communist period). It was how we got to the Plac Inwalidów Square. I believe that this photo saved our company – Mrs. Barbara concludes.

Does 73-year-old John Paul II remember this photo? – He got glad about this photo. He was so grateful that he sent my dad a hand-written letter twice. The second letter arrived in 2002 when my dad was reaching the age of 100. The Pope had written with a shaky hand, that he was congratulating my dad on the jubilee and wished our whole family God’s blessing….And did he remember? Some men from the delegation told me that the Holy Father, looking at the photograph, first joked: ‘But what have you done with me now?’ and later he added: ‘I remember a dark-haired man with a black moustache took this photo of me, and I remember that little stairs led to the photographic studio…’


"Niedziela" 16/2014

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: