My first reaction on reading Sudek’s biography was of dismay, as were many of the photographs in this book entitled “poet of Prague” disappointing at first sight. He came across as an opportunist, a many of many faces, astute and cunning more than the dreamy artist that some of his views would make you expect him to be. I was of course missing the point: Sudek did what it took to survive and work in difficult circumstances, and was still able to achieve great poetic results eventually. He had to be resilient and cunning to withstand the troubled history of his country and times, take care of his mother and sister, and cope with his invalidity.
Like the unforgettable soldier Sveijk, Josef was a very reluctant recruit of the Austro Hungarian army as it went to war in 1914. He did all he could think of to avoid combat duties, pleading with the authorities on the grounds of some illness. He is by that time the only son and surviving male of his small family. One can imagine how his mother and sister might have been rather overprotective of him, he might have been a little spoiled then, as he was later taken care of by his sister throughout his whole life. But still he had to go, his lax military attitude landing him into the trenches in the worst possible position, damp and next to the latrines. Paradoxically it was this punishment that saved his life, when a bombardment happened to spare his spot and kill all his comrades. More absurdity and tragic irony as faith strikes, again a la Sveijk, when the eleventh offensive starts along the Italian front. Josef is hit by Austrian shrapnel (the so called friendly fire) as he is exhorting his fellow soldiers to take cover. Truly the anti hero, totally un rhetorical common sense in the heat of battle. No victorious march here, just a bunch of men trying to save their skin against all odds. By 1916 his war is over. He comes home wounded, leaving his right arm on the field.
This would have sealed many men’s fate: destined them to the life of an invalid, a pension, maybe begging. Sudek wasn’t above all that, he applied for every possible state financial aid and claimed not to be able to make a good living or pay taxes. At the same time he was doing very well indeed as a free lance photographer, from a humble wooden shed where he had installed his studio, charging five times more than his colleagues for his prints and doing also nicely paid advertising jobs including the enjoyable odd female lingerie shoot. Hardly completely pitiable and helpless, wouldn’t you say? This was to become a pattern: like a modern bohemian Robin Hood, he would cheat on his taxes and try to milk the state any way he could while maintaining a low profile, and sponsor his poor artist friends with a generous part of his good income. If not in a strictly commercial sense by selling him things, these would repay his financial support by giving him their works of art. Sudek ended up with a considerable collection, largely amassed in the studio that was to be eventually filled to the ceiling with papers and things of all sorts.
Before settling down for good in Prague, his home and inspiration, Josef was to live another Sveijkian adventure in Italy, as he toured along with an orchestra in 1926 (music was the other great passion of his life). Apparently he disappeared for two months, unaccounted for, and reappeared in Prague as if nothing had happened. Nobody knows where he went or what he did, but I for one would love to read that story. He did go back to the old battle field, this we learn from a letter he wrote, possibly looking for a missing part of him: his lost arm or his youth? Those he didn’t find, obviously, but the farm where he was first brought to, just wounded, was still standing. He was never to travel again.
His high commercial times were ended by the annexation of Bohemia Moravia by Nazi Germany and the second World War. Bleak times for Prague. Sudek retreated into his studio and his own thoughts, working on still life and introspective views from his window. The frosted or steamy windowpanes diffusing the light reflected by his sisters laundry hanging to dry, a tree, a wall. Arguably among his best work, I think, the true unique contribution to world photography, are not the studied monumental views of St. Vitus Cathedral or other formal studies, outdoors landscapes and views, but these intimate simple details. He endured, he worked, he survived the Nazis ending up in post War Prague, under communist rule. He went on working as best he could, his images better than ever and true to his style.
Paradoxical situation again. The new regime would harshly criticize his work, albeit in the preface of the good books lovingly devoted to his photographs that where being printed with its endorsement: the equivalent of illustrating a libel against pornography with saucy pictures. It means that even Marxist official critics recognized his value, albeit in conflict with the orthodoxy of their ideology, and were prepared to compromise. Eventually, maybe malgre’ lui, Josef Sudek became an important influential figure in Czech Photography and was to attain a quite unique status in his country that kept him in a way above politics, as well as international recognition in Europe and America. He worked hard well into his seventies and died in 1976.
Prague panoramas are among the best. He must have found a way to tune his vision to this odd difficult format, and used an old Kodak camera he had found and repaired, to produce the most impressive series. In his own words: ‘I had to learn to look like the camera’ [don’t we all? I wonder] in order to come to terms with the cylindrical perspective of a rotating lens. This can make things to look different than to the naked eye: the important can become unimportant and the other way around. He obviously got his priorities right, the work is enchanting.
The intimate views from his window, the little still lives, the delicate moments of poetry in the interior. Not so much the studies of light and structure, that relate too much to photographic studies of the visual grammar common to most photographers of the era, but those who rely on a quiet instant of revelation: simple objects unassumingly telling their silent story.
Prague in the mist, trees silhouetted in the foreground. Not too perfect, simply right.
One photograph in his studio, of a female nude reclining on a shelf seen from behind. Untypical, a little strange. I can’t help thinking that this might be his sister, Bozena Sudkova. Not enough to have been his faithful confidant, nurse, assistant, washwoman, cook and cleaner all her life, she might have been asked to bend over naked in front of his camera as well. I hope I am wrong for her sake. Not a bad picture, though.
Favourite photo of him: next to his camera, on a rooftop, with Sonja Bullaty. Both looking up, Josef tense and focused, Sonja slightly bored, a tint sceptical. Sonja was a survivor like himself. She came back alone from the camps, her family gone, and worked for him before emigrating to America and becoming one of the advocates of his photography there, as well as a success in her own right.
So Mr. Ray Mears and followers, this is Sudek’s recipe for survival: poetry won’t pay the bills or keep you afloat like a canoe of tree bark, but it can make life worth living when times are hard.
Bohemian first impression.
(footnote, a childhood memory)
When I was about seven years old, in the late sixties, I was given a puppet of soldier Sveijk as a present by a girl from Prague. Dana Lukaskova was staying with us for a while, an exile whom my mother had instantly taken under her wing and brought home. Her shy gentle smile is a fond unforgettable memory, as well as her kindness and her quiet pride and deep love of her country. She also gave us a photo book on her home city by another master: Karel Plicka. Powerful dramatic black and white work.
This first good impression was only to be confirmed when in 1995 I had the pleasure and privilege to spend an afternoon with Jan Hnizdo and the Polaroid 20x24 inch. super camera. A good photographer and a nice man, we understood each other well. To my regret I still haven't made it to Prague, but it can't be far off now! In the meantime there is more Bohemian photography that I would like to comment on. I will keep you posted.