The journey of Joe Marsh

Powerful images document a Chico State grad’s three years in Poland

Three pillars of Polish identity: A “Matka Polska"—the revered Polish Mother—strides onto a corner whose street names honor Poland’s greatest fighter for independence, Tadeusz Kosciuszko (left), and the Catholic Church ("Klasztorny,” “Convent,” right).

Three pillars of Polish identity: A “Matka Polska"—the revered Polish Mother—strides onto a corner whose street names honor Poland’s greatest fighter for independence, Tadeusz Kosciuszko (left), and the Catholic Church ("Klasztorny,” “Convent,” right).

Photo courtesy of Joe Marsh

Joe Marsh is an intense guy. You can tell that by his photographs of street scenes in Poland. There’s an edge to many of these pictures, a strangeness or off-kilter quality that makes them seem haunting and, sometimes, disturbing.

Marsh, who graduated from Chico State University in 1998 and has been teaching English in Poland for the past three years, is not a trained photographer. As he writes in a recent e-mail, “I have precious little instruction in photography—one basic B&W course at CSUC—and while I like my stuff a lot the truth is I half expect everybody to barf when they see it.”

I didn’t barf. Yes, he’s untrained and he works, as he tells me, with a “30-year-old malfunctioning Minolta purchased in 1989 at Broadway Pawn plus a couple good lenses found here and there (one in Krakow)…” But he’s got a natural eye and great passion for his subjects. These are some of the most intriguing pictures I’ve seen in a long time. They provide a glimpse of the people of a country that is going through tremendous changes, and they tell a truth that is undeniable.

You can see for yourself beginning next Tuesday, May 7, when the Humanities Center Gallery on campus will begin showing a selection of Marsh’s photos. Marsh himself will be there for the opening reception that evening from 5-7; he’s flying in from Poland just for the event.

Marsh found this extravagantly parti-colored, self-described “shaman” on the main square of Wroclaw, in Lower Silesia.

Photo courtesy of Joe Marsh

Coming back to Chico, a town in which he struggled with personal demons for many years, has Marsh feeling all kinds of emotions, from fear to delight, he says. “If I can get to the Upper Crust and have a big glass of that great coffee and a piece of their chocolate cake, I’ll be OK, I think. And I wouldn’t mind visiting the bookstore next door. Do I ever miss both those places!”

Books have always been a big part of Marsh’s life. He grew up in Albany, N.Y., where he was born in 1960, the second of six children. His father was a high school and community college teacher, his mother a homemaker and, later, a nurse. It was not, however, a happy household—"the whole of it was hideous,” Marsh writes, referencing in particular his father’s coldness and violent rages—and Albany was a tough town where a boy was always in danger from young thugs. Joe sought refuge in libraries and books. At the age of 17 he dropped out of high school and joined the Navy, where for the first time, he says, he felt safe.

Safe, but not exactly at home. Marsh had begun his wandering, and 25 years later he’s still doing it.

After three and a half years traveling the seas as a Navy radar technician, Marsh came to Chico to attend college. It was 1982, and he was 21 years old. He was not a typical student, and for him Chico was not the idyllic academic sojourn filled with parties, romance and outdoor fun it is for so many young people.

His painful childhood caught up with him, and he began having bouts of severe depression. “It took me many years, the best part of a decade, really, to come to grips with it, deal with it, and get a handle on it,” he writes. “Frankly, I think I’m lucky to be alive.” He credits “an exceptionally talented and patient Chico therapist” for helping him through it.

Joe Marsh

Photo courtesy of Joe Marsh

His schoolwork suffered. Sometimes he’d do well, easily garnering A’s; at other times, he’d simply not do the work and get F’s. He dropped out several times, once for three years, but kept coming back. He was always poor and had to take dreadful jobs—graveyard shift dishwasher at Denny’s, for example—to stay alive. To get the money to pay for his final semester, he spent five months working as a cook on a fish processing boat in the Bering Sea.

His favorite teacher, history Professor Laird Easton, describes Marsh as “one of the smartest students I had when I first came here. … He had an edge [as a result of his difficult childhood], and it gave him a kind of insight that other students didn’t have.”

Marsh was the type of student who, while having all kinds of troubles in his classes, was regularly reading the New York Review of Books. He was smart enough to do graduate work at Harvard or a comparable school, Easton says, but his grades were just too poor.

It took Marsh 16 years to graduate, which he did in 1998, with a major in history. He was 37 years old.

Acting on a dream to go overseas and write and do photography, Marsh then applied for teaching jobs in several countries, finally accepting one at the LOGMAR School of Languages in Rybnik, in Upper Silesia, where he began working in 1999.

The title of this picture, “The Price of Faith,” was provided by a Polish friend of Marsh’s, who characterizes Poland as “one big vodka bottle” and cites a causal relationship between the country’s staunch Catholicism and its problems with alcoholism.

Photo courtesy of Joe Marsh

Rybnik is a town of 150,000 located midway between the city of Katowice and the Czechoslovakian border, in what has long been one of the most heavily industrialized areas of Poland and, indeed, all of Europe. Most of its residents, Marsh writes, work in the coal mining, steel and power generation industries. The town is dominated by a huge coal-fired power plant that provides electrical power throughout the region.

Part of his reason for going to Rybnik, he says, grew out of his awareness of the profound changes going on in the world. “I sought to witness the adjustments to unimpeded American power that societies the world over must make in ever-accelerating fashion,” he writes. His curiosity, he continues, is rooted in his boyhood memories of growing up in a key Rust Belt city, Albany, where he was “awed by the devastation visited the Northeastern United States by many of the economic and political changes lately given the name of ‘globalization.’ Where better than the Poland of today to glimpse the struggle to accommodate the New World Order?”

His Polish hosts often ask him, he writes, why he doesn’t photograph “the many fine churches and castles, mountain resorts like Zakopane, the gorgeous Mazurian Lakes, or the ancient forest preserve of Bialowiesza.” Others can do that, and have done it, he replies. “I wished instead to show something of everyday life in the Poland that few tourists would care to see.”

Poles, who imagine the United States as “one-third Baywatch, one-third Ponderosa [Ranch] and one-third Central Park West penthouse,” have no idea that “blighted industrial Poland is much the same as blighted industrial America,” Marsh writes. “A burdensome sense of inferiority wrought by severe economic hardship is compounded by their acute awareness that Americans regard Poland as a waste zone absent redeeming features except as an inspiration for bad jokes and a flash-point for the tiresome world wars that we Americans like to think we won single-handedly. Rarely in either country is Poland understood as a place whose destiny has been, in fact, intimately joined with America’s own.”

His pictures, and this exhibit, are an attempt to rectify that. He writes that he wished to present “a version of the truth of the everyday Poland, to illustrate what is beautiful about it, and to show Americans a Poland I have come to love and think of as home.”

Unfortunately, he says, he can’t afford to stay much longer in Poland. A skewed social-security tax system would eat up increasing amounts of his earnings. He’s hoping to go to Korea or Japan, where the pay is much better, to teach for a couple of years, then return to Poland, bankroll in hand, to work on a writing and photography project he has in mind.

But this, he admits, is just fantasizing. “At the moment I haven’t any idea where I will be in three months.” What he does know for sure is that is that he wants to be a “real” photographer and writer. This show, which happened almost by accident when Laird Easton showed some of Marsh’s pictures to Humanities Center Gallery Director Thomasin Saxe, is “a step in the right direction.”

That it is, and an excellent reason for Joe Marsh to revisit Chico, this time knowing that he’s done something truly worthy of recognition.