Josef Sudek's [1896-1976] life and career is the record of an heroic overcoming of odds--physical, psychological, political, aesthetic--to produce a body of work combining tender humility, unique vision, and devoted craftsmanship. That he should even have succeeded in accomplishing this is as unlikely an outcome, as that it should ever have seen the light of day, given the obstacles to its realization. As an account of the experience of a single individual against the panorama of historical event, it's a courageous story, but the point of Sudek's work--its importance as art--is not merely a record of a certain time and place, but a poetical vision whose truth and interest transcends external event. The singular character of his photographic oeuvre could have happened in any place, assuming the determination required to do it. That this should have happened in Prague, instead of Paris, or London, or New York, or Rome, reflects the accidental nature of fate. Czechoslovakia has an impressive place in the history of photography, and Sudek is very close to the heart of that national tradition.
The most obvious fact to report about him was that he lost his arm in the First World War. There were many casualties in "The War To End All Wars." Like Paul Wittgenstein, he lost his right arm to amputation, resulting from a gangrene infection in a military hospital. For the rest of his life, Sudek would bear the emotional, as well as the physical scar of this wound. Just the difficulties and expediencies necessary to carry on as an active photographer, make his production impressive and inspiring.
Following the war, Sudek abandoned book-binding to become a part-time commercial photographer. Living partly on his veteran's pension, he eeked out a marginal existence, with the help of occasional assistants. During the early 1920's he pursued the prevailing "pictorialist" "soft focus" style then in vogue, though by 1924 he had co-founded the progressive Czech Photographic Society devoted to clear focus, and the "integrity" of the negative. This early commitment to clarity and honesty of image was ahead of its time, even in the West, where the f64 Group wouldn't be formed until the early Thirties.
Following an emotional crisis in 1926, occasioned by an unfortuitous visit to the place where he had first been wounded in 1916, he underwent an aesthetic transformation, rejecting soft focus, and human subjects, for purely representational matter, devoid of portraiture. Embracing clarity and abstraction, he began to pursue a personal vision through the exploration of intimate detail, in landscape, still life, penumbral effects, the interpolation of translucent or transparent surfaces (glass). Limited somewhat by his physical disability, he compensated by documenting the internal landscape of his studio, his yard, and other proximities. The repressive German occupation during the Second World War, was followed by a period of domination by the Soviet Union, which lasted until the break-up of the Soviet Empire in 1991. During this entire period, maintaining an artist/intellectual profile was a chancy affair. Sudek was not controversial, but he took considerable risks publicly photographing Prague and the surrounding countryside during these decades (1940's, 1950's).
Like the man himself, his work is usually modest in conception, reductive, quiet, delicate. Though a private, retiring man, who wouldn't even show up for his exhibitions, he liked to entertain friends, listening to music from his extensive classical music record collection. His compositions aren't elaborate or "staged" but feel extemporaneous, with a kind of opportunistic dailiness to them which may belie their intense concentration and meditative focus.
Word about Sudek's work started to reach the West in the 1960's, after his first books began to appear in Czech. The first important monograph outside of Czechoslovakia was Sonja Bullaty's Sudek [New York: Clarkson Potter, Inc., in 1978], two years after his death in 1976. Bullaty had briefly been Sudek's assistant in the 1940's, before she emigrated to the U.S. During the following three decades, Sudek sent her a steady stream of prints, which form the basis for the book. Two earlier collections of his work--both done in Czech, and both with plates reproduced via elegant photo-gravure process--Fotografie [Edice Mezinarodni Fotografie and Pressfoto, Prague, 1976], and Praha Panoramaticka [Statni Nakladateistva Krasne, Prague], the second containing Sudek's renowned panoramic photographs of Prague--are now expensive rare editions.
Sudek's photographs have a curiously moody quality, which is partly the result of a claustrophobic confinement of vision. His views of the world significantly narrow our the viewer's sense of (available) space, as if the world he (the photographer) inhabited was limited not only by his actual physical space, but by a metaphysical constriction of vision, a kind of reduction of the coordinates of spacial possibility as transmitted by the photographic lens. From a photographic perspective, this makes perfect sense. Looking through a ground glass, under a dark-cloth, can frequently seem like a wholly self-sufficient theatre of potential. Striving to achieve clarity throughout the full depth of field, composing the frame to a degree of order and inclusivity, can fully occupy the mind.
The sense of psychological isolation, implying the coercion and oppression of life under a totalitarian regime, is also an aspect of Sudek's aesthetic. Of life seen through the streaked panes of a chilly, unheated flat in the dead of winter, an egg or a glass of soda posed beside a cut loaf of rye bread; a lonely, private yard scattered with rusting, neglected lawn furniture, in one chair a ghostly half-exposed figure slumped over in obscure twilight. Simple objects and surfaces discovered about a large, seemingly empty city, at dawn, or dusk.
This barrenness, plainness, suggests privation, neglect, privacy, seclusion, remoteness, and ultimately a kind of desolation, comprising a catalogue of moments, plucked from under the watchful eyes of censors, the guardians of mediocrity and regimentation. Sudek's freedom, his symbolic physical impotence, is redeemed by the powerful silences and poise of his imagery.
This is an art practiced under the heavy, glowering presence of repression, the implacable circumstance of enforced drudgery, which survives by stealth, secrecy, and watchfulness.
The sense of a secret art, practiced in private, out of the meanest of conditions, in an endless grey cityscape, composed of murmuring lyric refusals, mournful laments for a once bustling, cosmopolitan culture, subsisting on hope and a little bread.
I remember when I first saw a book of Sudek's images. They weren't exciting, they didn't demand to be looked at. They seemed almost crudely vivid. But the closer I looked, the more I was intrigued. They were contact prints, and the level of detail and textural contrast was meticulous. This was a photographer who relished the delicate effects possible with large format negatives, contact printed, without blur or exaggerated contrasts. It was someone who loved the glowing streetlamp behind the silhouette of a winter tree branch, the twiggy bristle of shrubbery coated with morning frost, the glint of a highlight reflected off a shard of broken glass in an alley; who saw the weird angles and pleasant disorientation of a mirror resting on the curve of a chair arm. You could feel the chill in his winter views.
Despite his disability, Sudek would rise early, long before dawn, and lug his heavy cameras, tripod and film holders along deserted city streets (as Atget had before him, years before, in Paris), out beyond the avenues, to the silent countryside, still wet with dew, obscured by eerie ground-fogs. He loved Prague, and spent many mornings, while its inhabitants slept, capturing its broad vistas, picturesque cobbled streets, centuries-old inner city structures.
Sudek's example is an inspiration to anyone who believes that limits cannot be overcome, or that a seeming lack of access to "meaningful" subject-matter should be an excuse for despair or passive acceptance. It's also the story of culture surviving under challenge. How much would any of us be willing to sacrifice to afford another box of film, a package of print paper? Go without a warmer winter coat, or a bottle of beer, to resupply with a new batch of developer, or tape to mend a leaking bellows? To live with clutter, disarray, and a continuing state of semi-confusion and decay, for the sake of a few precious pictures.
Deprivation may seem its own justification under these conditions. Fate plays tricks on us. Try living your whole adult life with only one arm. Try shaving, dressing, bathing, combing your hair, cooking an egg, or riding the trolley--with just one arm. Try producing immaculate contact prints, in the darkroom, with just one arm. (Even with a partially trained assistant, this is certainly no picnic.) Try living alone for fifty years, under Nazi and Soviet domination, in grinding poverty. Try getting up in the morning when it's 40 degrees inside! Try bathing in cold water. Try being an artist in a world that denies art.
Despite this, there is joy in Sudek's art. With the dawn's rays just peeking over the horizon, stabbing his tired, keen eyes, he was tickled with his exposure. He couldn't wait to get back to the darkroom and see what he'd captured. Exhausted, sore, he'd disappear into the cave of his darkroom to open the light.