Issue #179  3/2/2011
Czech 20th-Century Photos, Croatia's Photo Poet, Daguerre's Problem, and The Photo League

By Matt Damsker


By Vladimir Birgus and Jan Mlcoch. Published 2010, Kant Books, Prague. 394 pages, hardbound, published in both Czech and English versions; 517 black-and-white and color plates. ISBN Nos. 978-80-7437-027-4 (English), 978-80-7437-026-7 (Czech). Information: kant@kant-books.com . Also available through D.A.P., 155 Sixth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10013; phone: 1-212-627-1999.

Voluminous and voluptuous, this welcome tome from Valdimir Birgus and Jan Mlcoch codifies for posterity much of the landmark three-part exhibition of the same title held in 2005 at Prague's Museum of Decorative Arts and City Gallery (with a smaller version mounted in Bonn). As leading artists, scholars and curators of Czech photography for the past four decades, Birgus and Mlcoch are beyond authoritative--their clear assessment (despite some troubled diction in the English-language edition) and arrangement of the epochs and images that define the Czech century is at once devotional and deeply informed.

They proceed with clarity, citing the fact that Czech photography "was never made in isolation, regardless of the official preferences of the powers that be…" Thus, the innate restlessness of Czech photo-artistry, influenced by the French, German and Russian avant-gardes, along with American, British and German photojournalism, is the propulsive force that crackles through this volume, as we witness the development of a Czech photographic sensibility that begins in the early 1900s with the Pictorialism of Frantisek Drtikol. His painterly images quickly depart from European propriety to encompass writhing, erotic nudity and a haunted, expressionistic modernism.

From there, the leap to the 20th-century Czech photographic melancholy and mastery of Josef Sudek, Jaromir Funke, Josef Koudelka, Jan Saudek, Antonin Kratochvil--all the way to Birgus and beyond--is chronicled extensively and most powerfully in the book's superbly reproduced panoply of color and black-and-white plates. From the Poetism of the inter-war photographers, with its avant-garde blend of collage and drawing, to the abstraction, constructivism, and new objectivity of the 1930s, Czech photography is a whirlwind of response to social ferment and opportunity. While Sudek's clinical studies of forks, knives and spoons represent the beginnings of clean, sharply angled commercial photography, they are counterbalanced by Funke's looming smokestacks, intimating an era of European dynamism that will rock the world.

World War II, of course, was the launching point for Czech photography's great fixations, most prominently the keen documentary streak that chronicled Nazism and the occupation of the Bohemian lands, poignantly and fearfully captured by the likes of Jan Lukas, Slava Stochl, Karel Ludwig and Svatopluk Sova in their images of the Prague uprising, and of German women and collaborators forced to pave the Prague streets and have their heads shaved. In this climate, photo-surrealism emerges as one response to the war's madness, but as the war ends and the reconstruction and repression of the 1950s and '60s wears on, socialist realism and a new humanism appear, as Koudelka's gypsy families, for example, be speak a legacy of European displacement.

Not surprisingly, in the 1980s and '90s, the pressures that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall inevitably unleashed so much pent-up energy in Czech photography that it wheeled in every imaginable direction, from Miroslav Machotka's and Stepan Grygar's studies of pebbles, stones, light and shadow to Jan Saudek's hand-colored rhapsodies of freedom and desire, with nudes posed classically while wearing Sony Walkman headphones, or in seeming flight against acid-scabbed walls. And as the 21st century presses in, the saturated color photos of Dita Pepe and her Cindy Sherman-esque "Self-Portraits with Women" series is emblematic of a truly new era, with performance art, video and all manner of postmodern fusion hitting its stride.

Indeed, Czech photography is not an easy or especially coherent artistic wave to definitively chronicle. We owe Birgus and Mlcoch a debt of gratitude for this vast labor of love and light.


Photos by Stanko Abadzic. Introduction by Zdarvko Zima. Published 2009, MeanderMedia. 127 pages, approximately 100 black-and-white plates, softbound. ISBN No. 978-953-7355-50-0. Signed copies of the book are available through Contemporary Works/Vintage Works at info@contemporaryworks.net ; or by phone at 1-215-822-5662 for $55, plus shipping.

In and all around the Czech Republic, the "visual wanderings" of Croatia's Stanko Abadzic (as Zdarvko Zima calls them in his introduction to this solid collection) stake out the margins of post-Berlin Wall Europe--a place, in Abadzic's view, of largely unpeopled vistas, beaches, streets and cafes that are nonetheless alive with visual interest and the languor of freedom. The raking sunlight and flung shadows, the verve of graffiti on scarred walls, the abstract complexity of chairs, stairs, windows, bicycle wheels and random objects are Abadzic's raw materials, and he serves them with an easy romanticism that avoids sentimentality at every turn.

Abadzic is Croatia's photo poet, arguably sans peer. When he captures a series of dolls, mannequins and the like in Prague or Zagreb, or handprints on Parisian walls, he suggests a sense of play and abstract delight that can't easily be translated into words. The loneliness of empty tables and chairs in the lengthening evening light is mitigated by the sight of a frothy latte left behind, or by the curlicues of ironwork shadows falling all around.

If anything, Abadzic's random sights and humorous still lifes (a carefully composed dinner plate, for example, elegantly outfitted with a seashell and dice, and placed on a cushion of rich fabric) are so luminously exposed, wringing every ounce of shadow-and-lightplay, that they infer color and texture beyond their austere black-and-white dominion. Original, complicated, and busily inhabiting the frame, Abadzic's photography never fails to breathe, inviting us into these mundane and nearly surreal spaces, implying that there is room for us--and for dogs, babies and art--in his brave new Europe.


From Hans Rooseboom, curator of photography at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, comes a finely researched, self-published monograph, "What's Wrong with Daguerre?" This 35-page treatise explores the historical record, familiarly noting that when Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre introduced his daguerreotype process in 1839, he was regarded as photography's principal inventor, but that it wasn't long before other innovators--notably Joseph- Nicéphore Niépce, William Henry Fox Talbot and Hippolyte Bayard--were viewed as rivals, sparking the "priority debate" about who was the rightful father of photography.

With ample citations and clear comparative analysis, Rooseboom argues compellingly that Daguerre's problem (that is, the devaluation of his role and his process) has often been a matter of bias or nationalism on the part of photo-historians and others who, for example, view the daguerreotype as an instrument of commercialism and the calotype of Fox Talbot as a purer expression of photographic art.

"The comparison invariably works to the detriment of Daguerre," writes Rooseboom, noting that "Daguerre is generally regarded only as an inventor--the inventor of a technique that was only successful for a short time--rather than being considered a photographer in his own right." By that standard, of course, the indisputable artistry of Fox Talbot and the other rivals enjoyed the advantage.

Ironically, Rooseboom adds, neither the daguerreotype nor the calotype are in use any longer (at least generally), yet the debate regarding the primacy, or priority, of their inventors goes on. As recently as 2007, Roger Taylor's book "Impressed by Light: British photographs from paper negatives, 1840-1860" seemed to resurrect the priority debate, with Taylor asserting that "British photographers had invented the process." While no longer explicitly depicted as a battle between different countries, says Rooseboon, the invention of photography is instead described as "a struggle between individual persons, photographic styles or professional ethics."

Indeed, between Daguerre's direct positive on a copper plate, Talbot's print from a paper negative, Bayard's direct positive image on paper, and Niépce's role as Daguerre's collaborator (before his premature death in 1831), it is no wonder that the rivals inspire such varied allegiance on the parts of critics and historians. Thus, "pro-Talbot literature" such as Taylor's depicts Daguerre as "merely a forbidding ghost in the background (or, to be specific, on the opposite side of the Channel)."

Rooseboom concludes that the dispute may never be settled. When we consider that each of the rivals was working toward individual goals as opposed to racing toward the same finish line with the same technique, it is easy to see that their different priorities and nearly two centuries of photo-historical opinion may forever prevent a consensus in Daguerre's favor. If that is what's wrong with Daguerre, it is hardly his fault. For information on ordering the monograph, go to http://www.nescioprivatepress.blogspot.com , or email h.rooseboom@rijksmuseum.nl . Or signed copies of the book are now available through Contemporary Works/Vintage Works at info@contemporaryworks.net ; or by phone at 1-215-822-5662 for $10 each, plus shipping.


Also of note, from the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago, "The Photo League at 75" collects some 50 classic photographs of urban poverty and social injustice in the Depression era and beyond, all celebrating the founding of the Photo League in 1936, a non-profit organization that endured for three decades in New York and to which the greatest American photographers if the day contributed. From Berenice Abbott to Max Yavno (with Lewis Hine, W. Eugene Smith, Weegee and others in between), the Photo League "was the heart and soul of social documentary photography until McCarthy-era hysteria forced its closing in 1951." Information: http://www.stephendaitergallery.com .

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 in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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