CROSSING BORDERS: CONTEMPORARY CZECH AND SLOVAK PHOTOGRAPHY
When the former Czechoslovakia freed itself from Soviet rule during the "Velvet Revolution" of 1989, the rest of the world looked on in awe. For many in the West, Prague became an emblem of liberty and a magnet for those who wanted to experience this vital and historic city which was finding a new voice.
A city is like a person: if we don't establish a genuine relationship with it, it remains a name, an external form that soon fades from our minds. To create this relationship, we must be able to observe the city and understand its peculiar personality, its "I," its spirit, its identity, the circumstances of its life as they evolved through space and time.
The rusty railroad bridge soared twenty-five feet over the dark swirls of the Elbe River, and jumping off it was the chief rite of passage in my hometown of Kolín, Czechoslovakia. Once you could do that, you were cool. Later, when the heart-pounding thrill wore off, we’d wait for a train to thunder up behind us, moon the passengers, and leap off as a group.
I live in two worlds. One is real, the other is a response to negative qualities in the first—but is a realm apart. This domain is constantly changing, developing. I enter little by little, maybe voluntarily, perhaps by necessity, because this world is far better than the real one.
CZECH AND SLOVAK PHOTOGRAPHY: A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT
The history of Czech and Slovak photography has always offered established standards by which to evaluate new works. In spite of many unfavorable conditions in the past, the former Czechoslovakia has enjoyed a wealth of creativity that has resisted stagnation.
Beached whale, deserted ship, or Klondike gold rush town? For years, this is what Ostrava seemed to me. Its slag heaps, the night sky glowing red as though lit by the aurora borealis. And its smells—of acrid ozone following a storm, of pungent smoke from the coking plants.
Imaginary spaces, human body shrines, illuminate Vasil Stanko's world of ideas. To interpret motion and gesture in photographs, to choreograph figures into exacting compositions, resides in the artist’s imagination. This allows him to create architectural elements using the human figure to define space.
In a series of nudes that he began in the 1980s, Tono Stano explores the irreality of the camera—its capacity to obscure the obvious while revealing the fundamental, in obsessive detail. Theatrical lighting, which imposes a graphic quality on a female torso, likewise banishes the notion of what beauty-product advertisers might call "satin-smooth” skin.
For more than a decade, Ivan Pinkava has made portraits whose austere elegance has strong affinities with certain nineteenth-century portraits, in particular those by the French photographer Nadar. Like Nadar, Pinkava’s interest is focused on the figure, starkly alone.
In his large-scale, expressionistic images, Kamil Varga seeks to find the preliterary essence of the world. Using the tools of photography, combining techniques of montage, multiple, and hours-long exposures, he creates a fiery realm expressing the sensuality of ritual, the wildness of barbarism, which he invites to remain for the future.
In May 1985, I photographed the Prague Fifth District Spartakiad on assignment, but without enthusiasm. This stadium event was staged every five years to display the glory of the communist regime through its people's strength and unity.
In 1990, Josef Koudelka began photographing in a region of what is now the Czech Republic where the land and its towns and villages have been devastated by open-pit coal mining and industry. Thirty-four panoramic photographs from his study, along with a text by Josef Vavrousek, former Minister of the Environment, were published as an accordion-fold book entitled The Black Triangle—The Foothills of the Ore Mountains (Prague: Vesmir, 1994).
In 1976, I ventured back into a world I had left behind a decade earlier and quickly realized that I had become a foreigner in my own country. (Even the Czech language I speak is different than what is spoken there today.) So the main point of reference I had was my pictures.
"Stones of Magic,” a series underway since 1988, reflects the relationship of man and nature in the context of prehistory, when this relationship was, perhaps, more natural and encompassing. My installations—ancient stone objects and, finally, color photographs—are inspired by the Stone Age culture which was mainly settled in Europe, but traces of which are found all over the world.
The Jack Smith retrospective, curated by Edward Leffingwell, opened at P.S. 1, Long Island City, on October 29, 1997, then traveled to the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, in March 1998. EDITOR’S NOTE: Film artist Ken Jacobs was an early collaborator with the legendary filmmaker, photographer, and performer Jack Smith (1932-89).
MEANS TO AN END: PETER GALASSI ON THE PHOTOGRAPHIC WORK OF ALEKSANDR RODCHENKO
On the occasion of Aleksandr Rodchenko, the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Aperture spoke with Peter Galassi, Chief Curator, Department of Photography at MoMA, who co-curated the show with Magdalena Dabrowski, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings, and Leah Dickerman, Assistant Professor of Art History, Stanford University.
PAVEL BANKA, (b.1941, Prague) was a founder of the Action Group of Free Photography (1989) and the Prague House of Photography (1991). His work is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Ludwig Museum, Cologne.
Aperture is deeply grateful to H. E. Alexandr Vondra, Ambassador of the Czech Republic to the United States, Washington, D.C., and Marcel Sauer, Cultural Attaché, for their support of this project. Among the many who shared their insights and expertise, we especially thank Antonín Kratochvil in New York and Prague; Jan Novak in Chicago and Prague; Antonín Dufek in Brno; and Alex Zucker, on the Internet.