Czech Photography Of The 20Th Century--A Guide

by Matt Damsker


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By Vladimir Birgus and Jan Mlcoch. Published by u(p)m and KANT to accompany the exhibition of the same name held at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague and the City Gallery Prague. Newly released in English. 164 pages; ISBN No. 80-7101-032-4. Copies available from KANT by writing to Karel Kerlicky, Kladenska 29, 160 00 Praha 6; email: .

As exhibition curators and authors Birgus and Mlcoch remind us in their introduction, "Czech Photography of the 20th Century" was the "largest comprehensive presentation of the main trends, personalities, and works of Czech photography from 1901 to 2000." The result was a thorough overview that offered countless perspectives on everything from obscure photography to the familiar achievements of Josef Sudek, Josef Koudelka, Tono Stano, and others. This beautifully rendered guide, on heavy stock and with generous annotations, does justice to an ambitious exhibition on one hand, and offers a unique panorama on the other.

That's because Czech photography in general is a portrait in cultural restlessness, a chronicle of a European landscape torn between huge forces, struggling to express identity amidst oceanic change. From the German occupation of the '30s, through the liberation and Soviet domination that followed, to the late-century blossoming of true freedom, Czechosolovakia has seen it all. Its photographic legacy is an unstable mosaic of vivid experience and sensation. What begins with the pastoral dreaminess of impressionist and art nouveau photography quickly yields to the documentarianism and reportage of urban and World War I images, and then the experimentalism of modern and abstract photography, with the likes of Sudek locating the textures and random beauty of Prague, while Jaroslav Rossler and Jaromir Funke play with cubist notions, expressionist geometries, and fractured form.

Indeed, there's a certain organic logic to the perception that emerges: Czechoslovakia's jagged history is abstractly reflected in the photographic distortions of the human body that seem to predominate. Nudes tend not to be merely nudes, bodies merely bodies, or faces merely faces, but canvases of anxiety, angst, struggle and strain--from the war-torn youth captured by Koudelka to the tense muscularity of various male nudes. And female beauty is typically conceptualized as shadowy, secretive, with identity cropped out of the frame for its own protection. The psychological weight of all this is built up layer by layer in this book, climaxing with the unique elegance of Tono Stano's iconic 1992 fashion shot, "Sense," in which a stunning nude woman is rendered as a vertical serpent--head, torso, and one leg emerging from the black halves of a gown. It apotheosizes Czech photography in a single image--an image of freedom stepping out of the darkness.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.