Fotograf Magazine

From the memoirs of Jan Lukas

The Fiducia Gallery in Ostrava held the first retrospective commemora­ting the legacy of Jan Lukas (1915-2006), whose obituary was published in the previous issue of Fotograf. As the author of the essay of the TORST monograph (2003) dedicated to Lukas, I am well aware that this book, which evoked the mood of six decades during the past century, relied exclusively on the surviving prints. Lukas’ daughter Helena, herself a photographer, has now selected from her father’s negatives an Italian Diary (Italsky denik). Without any editing or manipulation, the prints made by Ludek Vojtechovsky do justice to the immediacy of the original compositions.

Lukas started using the 35mm format in New York, during the late summer of 1964. He arrived in New York on the invitation of his fellow exiles, whom he then decided to follow instantly, in the first stages of enchantment (enhanced by the pleasant autumnal weather). He only returned home to collect his family. And it is the hardships of being a refugee that the Italian Diary stands as testimony of. The fifty-year old Lukas literally photographed his way through the first ten months he spent in three different refugee camps.

What is crucial is that this new predicament impressed him so far as to radically change his style. Ever since childhood, this specialist in unique genre pictures was used to seeing the world through the square shaft of the Rolleiflex camera! In the years 1965 and 1966 he instead poured forth sequences where the uniqueness of the individual images was of little consequence – what mattered was the testimony as a whole.

The collection was selected to fit the Fiducia space, which eventually accommodated 43 photographs. It is thus an edited memoir, rather than a diary. After arriving in the United States, Jan Lukas processed the negatives, but enlarged only a few images (e.g. those from the birthday parties of both his daughters]. He instead worked on more urgent photographs. At times, the catalogue with foreword by Helena Lukas Martemucci departs from the actual installation, as the images were selected for print well in advance. In any case, what we have here is a fairly sober summary. The artist left his emotional responses to himself. All the more responses he would evoke in the viewer…

The Fiducia curators Roman Polášek and Martin Popelář founded a new line of publications that will hopefully accompany their remarkable exhibitions also in the future. Already the first volume includes almost thirty reproductions, evincing a high degree of utility. For this is a reve­lation of a whole new chapter of – not only Czech – photography! Its only parallel is perhaps the Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness, documenting Zdenek Tmej’s experience as conscript under Totaaleinsatz (forced labor for the German Reich) and published in Prague after the war (see Fotograf 2004/4). What is crucial is that this is not detached reportage, but a view from the inside. Neither Tmej nor Lukas had to affect the journalistic “putting themselves in the shoes of kind of identification with the interned. They were the interned.

Before the war, both Tmej and Lukas had worked for the progressive Prague publishing corporation, Melantrich. They entered the theatrically minimalist stage of the provisional housing facilities – whether that of forced labor facing deportation to a foreign land by a totalitarian power, or of refugees fleeing from political tyranny – as well-established reporters. They would hardly have succeeded without considerable experience with working in unpropitious light conditions. But without a sense for non-dramatic subject matter they would hardly have photographed at all… Reflecting about their testimony probably helped them to get over their predicament. This would explain the large number of shots taken, which they knew they would mostly never see publication. For who cares about the un-striking (ex)positions of the millions of luckless inhabitants of our planet?

All the action of Italian Diary 1965-1966 is that of survival: personal hygiene, lying on barrack bunks, learning a foreign language, the washing and drying of clothes, the palpable proximity of latrines reeking of disinfectant, waiting for food rations (eaten from military field dishes), waiting for money handouts, waiting for the mail, waiting, waiting… A holiday mood briefly enters in the form of a priest and a Christmas tree… But still, a sense of the provisional hangs over everything: even the emotional investment in tamed pets and casual relationships… Denouement comes with parting from those who have already won permission to leave the Old World (for Canada, Australia, the US…).


Lukas J. Italský deník 1965-1966. Ostrava: FGF 2006 (published as catalogue for the eponymous exhibition at Photo-Gallery Fiducia, 12. 10.- -10. 11. 2006)

Josef Moucha