Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sudek - The Poet Photographer of Praha (Prague)

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. 



the luminist group said...

great work, fine discussion, moving tribute

J said...

Fine art photography doesn't really do much for moi--it generally seems like a project. Or it', fashionista, if not headed towards porno. "Fine art" photographers can't really compete against a Dali..or Monet--they're mostly technicians, or paparazzi not artists. The few honest and decent ones become documentarians and journalists...

What are some odd cubistic abstractions compared to of trench warfare, kulak stiffs stacked up....dachau/auschwitz mass graves,pics of nazi officers, hiroshima, monks immolated in flame, viet cong being executed in the street, crumbling sky scrapers? (or outright f**king for that matter).

The beauty of photography, it's raison d'etre, depends on the naked realism and documentary power.

Curtis Faville said...

I don't know that there's much point arguing with you, J, about this.

Obviously there are different kinds of photography. You can't simply dismiss every other kind of effort except photo-journalism. I've usually felt that the dangers and difficulties of getting shots in extreme situations--as in war--tend to make that kind of documentation a feat, rather than a work of art. The technical qualities of most photojournalists are poor because the circumstances are so precipitious. Does that make the work better?

Rejecting landscape, or conceptual abstract work, is like saying there is only one kind of appropriate emotion--rage, or horror, or indignation--but we know that this is but one tiny segment along the spectrum of human feeling.

You need to get out more.

J said...

Oh I get out quite a bit.

you are correct insofar as..."de gustibus non disputum est". But you overlook another somewhat objective criteria of good photojournalism--information, generally accurate, not just emotional stimulation.

Matthew Brady snapping photos of dead Fed and rebel soldiers was not doing Ahht per se. He was ...a chronicle of sorts. That's part of the historical record (somewhat reliable...)

The Fine Ahht's are mostly a fetish, anyway--photography, painting, poetry, symphonies what not. Or lucrative investment for the wealthy, perhaps (as with the ugly, way overrated Pollocks that Silliman praises....or was that CF).

We are not obligated to take the snob's word as authority for fine ahhts of whatever type. I am for museums...public art in a sense.To some degree. But even then, issues remain. Who decides on what's beautiful? The Rodin sculptures in front of the LACMA look pretty nice. To some they don't (some LA peeps don't care for 'em). Others would rods or cowboys or ...maybe the virgin Mary (or ..nothing human, at least per muslim iconoclasts).

Do we need to consult with one of the UCLA queer marxists to get the final word?? I don't think so. IM against rank populism--keep the hot rod shows out of LACMA. But Im against the...queer marxist aesthetes as well. The Ahht business, including photo-art, generally works about like jewellry does--very high priced luxury items, with little or no functionality. At least Rodin sort of functions....

Curtis Faville said...

Following your line of argument, the only kind of media matter would be news, documentation, basically what the Stalinist news and culture censors insisted upon.

That puts you in very questionable company, J.

Not saying you believe in limiting the media, just that your aesthetic--if such it can be called--is synonymous with the glowering fascistic policy towards all "information". Look at so-called "revolutionary" art. How would you like the secret police knocking on your door at 2 AM demanding answers, and confiscating your private papers and files?

There is no "right" content for art, no matter who you think it serves. If we've gotten it wrong--the public taste vis-a-vis museums and anthologies and governmental aid to the arts--that taste will eventually change.

And who exactly benefits from the photo of a soldier being hit with machine-gun fire? Does it matter which side he fights for? Too, what are they fighting for?--probably the privilege of being allowed to make and appreciate art which isn't just about war and suffering and degradation.

Calling all art which isn't hard-hitting verite representation "aesthete"--the province of "elites"--is the old Communist and Nazi lines.

If all art is frivolity, which you seem to be saying, then you have an implicit duty to ignore it.

Ed Baker said...

pose is posturing ... a bit to
"artsy-phartsy" for my taste

here are some images/photos taken via BEING THERE and just pointing and clicking..
no photo-shop 'dicking' around

not posed/set-up on a table! just, maybe a bit of cropping

here are some photos that changed the world... or, helped to so do..

these are the 3hree that changed my life:

am with "J" on this one!

J said...

Not exactly. I'm actually against some brutally realistic photos being publicly displayed --as with the girl with her nose sliced off who recently appeared on the cover of Time. It might have been a small shot inside in the mag, or alluded to. But on the cover?? About like putting a rape on the cover. And definitely riled the natives (see my latest post).

That said I favor a kinder-gentler type of statist control of entertainment and media (and Ahhts). I don't have a problem with the idea of censoring...pop culture (whether pop/rock/rap/hick noise, or silly pointless movies, space opera, and TV shows, etc. The world would have been better off sans Star wars). Or with demolishing much of the art world (including ripping Pollocks and much modern Ahht off the walls, and ending Federal funding).

That doesn't mean social realism ala Stalin, but might imply ending much of the bogus decoration that passes for great visions and so forth. Understanding that POV required a few years...then, Plato said much the same in the Republic (and Bertie Russell, however cold cerebral, hyper-rational also tended to be a bit iconoclastic as was Marx, no pal of theatre or opera types. Or recall Adorno's denunciation of entertainment, pop music and Hollywood. I m not a marxist per se, but ...actually respected Adorno slightly for the Culture industry essay).

Or ...something like a Department of Truth in advertising and media and "aesthetic production" or something. Controlling the masscult of entertainment. Yass. Bonfires of Pollocks and 75% of the garbage hung in museums

Ed Baker said...

regarding museums... out of Talk Four of Milton Resnick's OUT OF THE PICTURE

page 199..

question to Milton;
"What do you think are the ideal circumstances for a painting after you've finished it?"

M.R.'s reply: "The ideal circumstance is that we can make more paintings than any museum could possibly want; we're so fruitful, so with our culture that there's no way museums could ever lack for what they'd want.
There would be even more. But as it is, so little gets past our culture that museums fight for any old trash."

Question: "Once you painted your painting, where would you like to see it? What kind of environment?"

M.R.: "Maybe I'd like to see a big warehouse with all kinds of surplus paintings being stored away for some future where we might use it someday."

Question: "Use it for what?"

M.R.: "Well, like fruit, you know, grain, wheat, anything. All I am saying is that if for some unaccountable reason we become so rich in art that there was just too much for museums or people to buy, then it might be better to store it in Kansas in a big warehouse somewhere. I don't think art ought to be made part of people's lives unless they really need it. The museums never are able to make you feel their truth, their real sense; all they do is make phonies out of people."

Question: "Are you saying that the process is more important than the
product? That it is more important that people do it then that what happens to it after it's done?"

M.R.'s answer: "Yes."

J said...

yess EB-- the salon jpg--what a horrifying pic that is. Napalm day for the kids, probably courtesy of Westmoreland (lets not forget the Demos were as much to blame as GOP/Nixon/Kissinger..starting with St.JFK, the LBJ)--

worth a few crates of the usual decorator images (photos,paintings,etc).

the luminist group said...

i used to agree somewhat with J regarding photography. actually, it's more complicated. i've seen how photography (and film) can distort the understanding of fundamental human realities -- for instance, of one's own body. those involved in martial arts can know how the representations of techniques in photos and in film were able to distort the comprehension of them and impair learning. drawings were more helpful in some cases. is the nature of physical reality graspable by means of the eye alone? The Chinese do not think so. Likewise, to what extent can an almost disembodied eye and mind (Eigner) grasp the nature of worldly events truly? (One recalls the importance of the idea of the "postural schema" in Merleu-Ponty.) But for me it was the contrast between Sudek, Evans, and Adams that was so meaningful. Maybe photography requires comparison of that type more than do other arts, maybe going into any photo too much is getting off the point, there isnt any "in deep", the point is more to contrast with a different photographer. it is a (societal) conversation about the world by means of the eye (as well as a vocation of profound indeed almost medieval humility on the part of the artist/worker. (Something that i think CF values a lot.))Maybe Deleuze's film books would be of interest in this connection, and in connection with Eigner.

Curtis Faville said...


These are interesting musings.

In terms of the valuation of art as art, I draw a line between that and considerations of the artist, society, and concerns like the pitiable or admirable or courageous nature of the maker. We don't like Sudek or Eigner because they were disabled. We like their art, and there should be no confusion about that.

We also can't NOT ultimately "know" about the artist--sans lies and illusions draped over reality. But we must always be careful not to impose biographical deductions upon the work(s). I have been careful to make this distinction--for instance in my post on Seidel. With someone like Jack Gilbert, it's a very sticky question: Where does one's sense of the meaning of the artist's life end, and the art begin?

Another interesting figure is Minor White, who believed that the mysteries of the visual always had a transcendent aspect. Mere "pictures" weren't enough.

I see no reason to "prefer" one mode over another. Why can't we have Capa and Cartier-Bresson, and Edward Weston and Don Worth, and Sally Mann and Emmett Gowin, all together and at the same time? What is it that dictates we must choose, or exclude, or discriminate? Photography can have a very important role in recording events, but why should it be restricted to this function?

The meaning and representation of "the body" has a distinguished history in photography. Why can't that endeavor co-exist with "non-body" experience or art? In order to objectify our experience of reality, we are either restricted to the consciousness of our own (or another person's) physical being. But art requires an intermediate objective, even if (like music) it only exists in the time of its performance. Even the plastic arts have a fragility, too. Paintings can disappear or be destroyed. Think of what's been lost....

J said...

Not saying you believe in limiting the media, just that your aesthetic--if such it can be called--is synonymous with the glowering fascistic policy towards all "information". Look at so-called "revolutionary" art. How would you like the secret police knocking on your door at 2 AM demanding answers, and confiscating your private papers and files?

You misread me. Didn't I just mention that I favor public art, Rodin, LACMA? The point concerned what specific criteria we use (or should use) to decide what goes in LACMA. I don't think it's necessarily up to one curator, or even a few snooty academics (mostly the...queer marxist UCLA aesthete sort). Id rather see a room of custom Harleys or the work of skilled cartoonists than most of the odd conceptual BS--or quasi-porno-- they feature at LACMA.

(Your Gestapo-like point's a non sequitur).

The gallery business is another matter. It's a free country and such (putatively), but ....I think the gallery ahhts people want to move product more than anything. When hyper-designed B & W photos of lesbians sell like hotcakes, and some unknown Magritte or Monet don't...guess who gets featured in the gallery--It'

There is no "right" content for art, no matter who you think it serves.

We disagree on that. That's the usual art for art's sake school--the red wheelbarrow school!-- that has been in effect, like, for decades. David's "Napoleon crossing the Alps" is...I contend, objectively superior to ...well the work of the photo-tech. you've featured here (or about any photographer you can imagine), just as Beethoven is to Britney Spears. That's not to say that objective criteria may be easily proven to exist--regardless, that is how intelligent people view the arts (tho granted, photography has mostly replaced the traditional portrait or historical-realist painters...)

J said...

The power of photography relates not so much to "aesthetics", but to the information a good pic conveys--it's not one Capa. It's thousands of images of WWII, or other major events. That was my point on "realism" for lack of a better term--photography has sort of created a new way of seeing.

When the photographer moves away from realism and attempts fine art like a David or Monet, it generally seems contrived if not trivial. The greatest photo of a bell pepper just doesn't really make it. It's essentially a technical exercise. Weston may be a great craftsman, but he's not really a David.

Ed Baker said...

Man Ray and his manipulated women-object!

Claude Cahun and her
manipulated self-object! choose.... then: either "just do" or

"just don't know"

Jaak said...

Putting this photojournalism business aside, is a person, who claims, that he could not understand Victor Vasarely, Salvador Dali or Caspar David poorer or richer than the one, who enjoyes all of them (I guess, there may be such :)

Tatjana Fischer-Driessen said...

Mr. Faville, a simple thank you. I was reading 'Prague Pictures' by John Banville. The book introduced me to Josef Sudek, and your article is an eloquent accompaniment, which has triggered my curiosity about this person. On my next visit to Prague I will make sure to find his work.