Konrad Pustola’s pictures of dark rooms do not make for easy viewing. They do not depict scenes that are in any way horrific, obscene, or even unpleasant, but they do confound many of the customary expectations of what a photograph should look like, and of what it should do. Dark Rooms 1b (Lodz) is typical of the series: it is panoramic – or letterbox – in format; it depicts a darkened interior space of indeterminate description; over half of the composition is given over to the play of light across a row of bars, or metallic corrugations – it is characteristically hard to say; the remainder of the photograph continues the deep black that forms the background to the bars, until several more vertical striations appear, picked out by the same light source. This area of the picture is confusing and ambiguous at best, illegible at worst.

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Dark Rooms 1b (Lodz) © Konrad Pustola

So – if from a photograph we hope for an abundance of figurative detail, the drama of narrative content, or even the illusion of a pictorial space we can imaginatively occupy – many of Pustola’s photographs might disappoint. At their most extreme, and maybe most interesting, they afford us only dim glimpses of barely variegated, ill-defined shapes, or spaces. As photographs go, they are severe, unyielding and recalcitrant.

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Dark Rooms 2f (Krakow) © Konrad Pustola

Dark Rooms 1c (Poznan) is not dissimilar – once again there is a claustrophobic compression of pictorial space, though this time the effect is achieved by photographing downwards from waist height. A faint beam of light falls across the corner (its apex carefully truncated) of a brick-paved floor. Darkened walls, marked by dribbled stains, enclose. Importantly, two spent condoms lie discarded, for Pustola’s Dark Rooms belong to the gay sex clubs of his native Poland.

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Dark Rooms 1c (Poznan) © Konrad Pustola

In the words of Alexander Garcia Duttmann’s accompanying essay: “We come here to fuck and suck strangers, or to watch them nailing each other to the dirty tiles.” Hence the glory holes, mattresses, benches and toilet roll; and anonymous cubicles, stained sheets and leather swing. The rooms are dark for a reason. The photographs are about the clubs and about the sex, yet the formal rigour of Pustola’s work enables him to address his subject without recourse to prurience, scandal, or worthy homilies about transgressive lifestyles.

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Dark Rooms 2b (Krakow) © Konrad Pustola

Indeed, he seems to drawn at times to those moments and spaces where depicted content can bear only an ambiguous relationship to pictorial meaning – the darkness shrouds both the clubs and any documentary value the photographs might aspire to. Even the series’ ‘brightest’ picture, Dark Rooms 2b (Krakow), seems committed to obfuscation, albeit by means of a hazy light that renders the entire upper half of the image impenetrable. Not least of the strategies by which he achieves these effects is the use of the panoramic format – for so long a photographic means of reaching for a wider, more exalted, more inclusive and encompassing vision. Pustola’s Dark Rooms, though, is the panorama’s nemesis. Instead of yielding an excess of information or a glut of event, his pictures promise something altogether more intractable and less accomodating: to make darkness visible.

Guy Lane

Dark Rooms – Konrad Pustola (Kodoji Press)  €32