Fotograf Magazine

Anna Fárová (1928-2010)

Instilling style in photography

Fortunately I do not yet belong to the generation that has to frequently write obituaries. But in the case of Anna Fárová this is a duty that exceeds a generation gap of almost fifty years. Even though it is increasingly indisputable that even historians and art theoreticians influence the shape (history) of art to a large degree, it is not common that they in fact organise monographic exhibits and publish collected documents. In the discipline of photography, which has developed very dynamically over the past forty years, yet still is not historically or methodologically limited, this is, paradoxically, perhaps more understandable. Anna Fárová was after all one of few personalities in photography, who with her work and significance went beyond the country’s borders, yet she behaved toward the medium in all sorts of ways.

Fárová was a person deeply-rooted in cosmopolitan pre-war Europe. She was born in Paris in 1928 as Annette Safranek to a Franco-Czech family. Her friends included Bohuslav Martinů, František Tichý, Jan Zrzavý, Josef Šíma, and Otakar Kubin. From 1946 to 1951 she studied art history and aesthetics at Charles University’s Philosophical  Faculty.  Her  future  husband,  Libor  Fára,  had a significant influence on her. In the 1940s they both joined the circle of Spořilov Surrealists centred around Karel Teige.

Fárová’s trip to France in 1956 played an important, almost initiatory, role for her. There in the years of deep Stalinism she was able to visit her mother in Paris, where she met also with Max Ernst and primarily with Henri Cartier-Bresson. From this meeting, some two years later, Bresson’s absolute first collective monograph, published by SNKLHU with text by Fárová, evolved. Through Bresson and the Magnum Agency a wide range of foreign contacts opened for her. Fárová also published two other assembled texts in the edition Artistic Photography (Umělecká fotografie), begun with the Cartier-Bresson monograph.Those were on Jiří Jeníček (1962) and Eugen Wiškovský (1964). Based on quality references (for her work) she eventually became editor of the Paragraphic Books series from the New York editorial offices of Grossman Publishers. There she worked on the monographs of Werner Bischof, André Kertész and Robert Capa.

Anna Fárová’s starting position in the field of photography was facilitated not only by a perfect knowledge of French, but also by separating herself from photographic circles and hobby associations. Her marriage to creative artist, Libor Fára, already brought her into Surrealist circles and later into the milieu of theatre people and intellectuals. Although Fárová built on many predecessors (in the Czech Republic this included Rudolf Skopec and Lubomír Linhart), her innovativeness consisted of a clear acceptance of photography as an equal artistic discipline. An offer from Jindřich Chalupecký, who set aside space for photography in the then progressive Špálova Gallery, allowed her to define herself more distinctly and at the same time free herself so that she could fully devote herself to her favourite loners.

This resulted in the 7+7 exhibit, presenting two lines of Czech photography: one closer to photojournalism, the other static, creative photography: „The photo was not distinguished in any way at that time, only photojournalism and artistic photography stood across from each other. (…) Because I constantly build on and refer to Moholy-Nagy, who said that photography presented in a series can be ‚the strongest weapon and also the gentlest poem.‘ And that stuck with me. I often adhered to the premise that a photographer‘s opinion or concept is not fully contained in one image. Photography is fragmental in its message, so it is much stronger, when we see a whole range or series. A painter’s image is, or at least it can be, synthetic, while photography is usually analytic: one shot supports another and only in what follows is it clear what the artist meant.That was the idea that I applied in the exhibit.“ [ref]Stoilov,Viktor (ed.):Anna Fárová – Dvě tváře /Two Faces.Torst, Prague 2009, pp. 959-960[/ref] For Fárová 7+7 was her first larger, group exhibit that was key for the direction she would take. Here Fárová in perhaps her curatorially most daring exhibit attained, through the merger of two complementary streams, their mutual strengthening and legitimisation of a whole array of photographic expression.

In 1970 Anna Fárová at the behest of Jiří Šetlík became an expert worker at the Art-Industrial Museum in Prague in its newly-established photography department. As Fárová noted in 1972, her approach to building collections was biographic – she focused on the broader representation of a smaller number of important artists. She left the capture of whole scales of photographic creations to other experts. Fárová decided to frame the history of Czech photography from the point of view of important loners. She left the task of setting up a thorough and detailed, historic construction to her successors.

Fárová herself considered her program text on the building of the Art-Industrial Museum’s collection to be key. She published it in 1976 in the yearbook of the American magazine, Creative Camera. Here she took public relatively extensive reflections on the sense/purpose of photography in a museum and on collection- building policy: „The status of photography in a museum is actually something very recent. Photography has mostly played an accessory role. (…) Even museums of photography are still today rare, even if the number of them has grown in the past ten years. But what does that museum of photography exhibit? Not just photographs themselves, but also how techniques (technology) have developed, equipment that is used, and the evolution of that equipment, cameras. Who would have thought to exhibit on the same level a painter’s brush and his tubes of paint, his temperas and oil paints, right next to products that were created from these tools? Not even in the field of commercial art do they present to us both the finished product and the tools that helped create it. In the majority of cases, however, this does happen with photography. The equipment is assigned great importance and photography is still considered to be rather the result of technology and equipment, instead of a creation of the mind, thoughts and imagination. We forget here that photography is mainly the bearer of a message. It is a new language; a new expressive medium for man.“

Fárová achieved her first important public success at the Art-Industrial Museum in 1972 with the exhibit and catalogue, Photographer František Drtikol. Both became sensations thanks among other things to the interventions by censors. Here Fárová first attempted to work on one, huge body of work by one artist; this fully satisfied her „clean up“ tendencies. For the collection‘s further direction, the exhibit, Osobnosti české fotografie I ze sbírek Uměleckoprůmyslového musea v Praze / Personalities of Czech Photography I from the Collection of the Art- Industrial Museum in Prague, played a key role. The exhibit took place in 1973 in the Gallery for Creative Arts in Roudnice nad Labem. 11 artists were presented, who according to Fárová made up the backbone of the history of Czech photography during the first half of the 20th century: Alfons Mucha, František Drtikol, Drahomír Josef Růžička, Jaromír Funke, Josef Sudek, Jindřich Štyrský, Eugen Wiškovský, Jan Lauschmann, Jaroslav Rössler, Jiří Sever, and Miroslav Hák.

From 1970 Fárová taught (thanks to a spontaneous urging by several students) at Prague’s FAMU up until 1976, when she decided herself to end the engagement. Those seven years of pedagogical work meant parallel engagements in other photographic institutions for her. For her students she was a valuable source of knowledge, original sources and contacts that would continue to develop in exhibits at the Drama Club (Činoherní klub), in Plasy or at Chelmnice. „I received many booklets and catalogues from abroad. I also had Koudelka’s works with me, so I almost always showed that off. I also took them (the students) to the museum’s collections. Mainly I helped them to understand (realise) themselves. I took the first three all the way to the fifth year and I consulted final theoretical work with many others. I went with them to the library and I taught them how to look for sources and literature and references and how to work with that word. This way extraordinarily entertaining for me.“

The promising development of her career in the museum was cut off by political persecution. After signing the Charter 77, Fárová was immediately fired from the museum. In the years that followed she made a living through translations and ad hoc publication abroad. In her remaining time she devoted herself to organising Sudek’s legacy. In what today is a cult edition from Jazzpetit, she published in 1982 the study, Jindřich Štyrský, fotografické dílo Jindřich Štyrský, Photographic Works, under the pseudonym, Annette Moussu (her mother’s maiden name).

Fárová also played an important role in that she was able to connect Czech photography to work structures – through her strong and still developing foreign contacts she became the main link for experts travelling to then Czechoslovakia to look for photographs: „The first booklets I made were those of foreign photographers, whom I wished to bring here. I gained awareness of values. Only after I went down that path did I take on mapping Czech photography with greater certainty. (…) I still wanted to build a bridge between my original country and my new one. I wanted to bring them closer, make them friends, connect them. This was very important to me: it was my program. I also wanted to boost artists‘ confidence and show them that their work has some significance. That’s why I offered several of Wiškovský’s photos to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where I had a good relationship with John Szarkowski, director of the photography department. I learned a lot from him concerning photographic interpretation. Our opinions grew closer. When I offered him something, he usually accepted it: for example, Josef Koudelka’s collection of photos of gypsies.“ [ref]Ibid., pp. 955-956[/ref]

The Photoboom of the 1970s was expressed in then Czechoslovakia by increased visits by photography experts from abroad. For them the prices on the practically non-existent Czech market were often minimal. But this also manifested itself positively in buying options for the Art-Industrial Museum: Photographs at that time had more or less no value. Not to mention that many artists were honoured by the fact that their photos found their way into a museum. So perhaps they would sell one for a symbolic price and they would add the rest for free. For them this was de facto recognition. Finances did not play such an important role. During the first two years I bought just the most basic works; for example, Rössler’s creations. He was exceedingly pleased by this. He was a complicated, neurotic being. Rössler wanted to give me everything, all of his work. But I wouldn’t accept it. I told myself, it is much more important that it be stored in an institution.“ [ref]Ibid., pg. 977[/ref] Thus in that way a significant amount of the works by Czech photographic Avant-Gardes moved, thanks to Fárová, to foreign collections: often directly to the world’s most prestigious museums (Bibliothèque nationale de France, International Center of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House and others).Thus she actually stood in for, in the conditions of Real Socialism, the non-existent, local art market. Particularly after her departure from the museum she often served as an independent consultant on acquisitions from abroad.

The advent of the Post-modern (era) had an impact on Fárová’s thinking. One must point out, however, that at the end of the 1960s she was, of course, already well-informed about the conceptual reversals (that were to come). This includes her personal meeting with Andy Warhol in 1974.[ref]see Fárová, Anna: AndyWarhol’s Factory. Jazz Bulletin 9, [1982,] No. 27–28, pp. 90–91.[/ref] She summarised her thoughts on the shift in the meaning (interpretation) of photography since the 1960s and 1970s in the catalogue for the exhibit „11“, in which her reflections on the already trendy Post-moderns appear. „It seems today that photography can step foot onto any territory without losing its validity. It can annul its regularity, but it cannot annul itself. (…) In the 1970s a photographer manipulated positives, negatives; he played with the realness and the credibility of the photographic record, he even coloured them in artificial colours. You can borrow anything; Post-modernism absorbing everything that came before is here. Piracy as a programme. The past decade is marked by a distrust of the originality of one’s one works. We accept everything from all sides: from everyone and everything. Not even the term personality is sacred. Everything has been here; our eyes are overflowing (film, video, television, photo magazines) and mainly we have here a complete loss of visual innocence. Is it an accident that Witkin is creating in 1980 photographs with the title, Out of Eden? Should we understand Post-modernism as an attack on Modernity. Should we comprehend it as a critical movement. It is not just about its diversity of form, but also its references to the relationship between art and culture, to the consumption of art, on revision of our stances toward the Avant- Gardists, etc. Recently photography has become part of complicated relationships, but in return is has been included in the overall cultural context, which it had not been before. The difference between photograph and image is being erased. Often you cannot extract one from the other and this is actually unimportant. The question whether photography is art has lost all meaning.“ [ref]Fárová, Anna: 11 (exhibit catalogue text), Fotochema, Prague 1988[/ref] If we understand Post-modernism not as an attack on Modernity, but rather as its conclusion, then we can comprehend Fárová’s text as the developmental conclusion of her work, in which she included almost all the history of the 20th century: beginning with Art Nouveau Drtikol and ending with the playful Post- modernity.

Over the next twenty years Fárová devoted herself to her previous favourite (activities): improvements (rendering more exact) and popularisation. Both which her new-found freedom afforded her. Unfortunately, her effort to complete the popularisation of Czech photography by means of creating a new, autonomous and central photographic institution: the Czech Museum of Photography, proved unsuccessful.

In 1995 Fárová‘ definitive version of Sudek’s monograph was published by the Torts Publishing House: it’s respectable both in its scope and processing. Her life-long obsession with perfection and completion led Anna Fárová to process the legacy of her husband, Libor Fára. She took part in a detailed research of Sudek, Drtikol and other artists. For her 80th birthday Prague’s Langhans Gallery prepared an exhibit called Anna Fárová & Photography together with a catalogue that included her entire bibliography. Several months before her death an extensive anthology of her entire life’s work, complemented by a magical, retrospective interview with Viktor Stoilov, was published.

In evaluating Anna Fárová‘s life-long contribution it is necessary to realise that at the time she first became interested in photography, there was essentially no methodology for the discipline. Until that time only a few pioneers worldwide took interest in photography as an artistic discipline with its own logical development. The scope and consistency of her work is indisputably impressive. If we had to name several main principles that she gradually outlined in her work, we must – in first place – mention hierarchy and elitism (without a negative connotation). Fárová was the first to emphatically (and often very brashly vis-à-vis certain persons) to establish priorities and preferences in Czech photography. Although she several times referred to herself jokingly as the „cleaning lady“, i.e. the one who established order in a seemingly chaotic body of work, one must add that she chose the subjects of her „cleaning“ very carefully (and on the contrary she avoided many). In her sphere of interest we find mainly the great loners/solitary artists (who often became great thanks to her efforts), Sudek, Drtikol, Koudelka, and also a generation of FAMU students from the 1970s and 1980s. Her selective choices soon became the standard for quality, and for a photographer to put together an exhibit with Fárová became a prestigious affair. When Fárová spoke of the concept of „personality“, she was able to – through consistent and focused work – develop these artists and ultimately insert herself only seemingly paradoxically among them. She was the first person in then Czechoslovakia to embody the role of curator in photographic events: so far she has yet to be outdone in this discipline.

The term personality is closely related to the biographic interpretation of art- historical work, i.e. that a work and one’s life mutually explain one another and are closely connected. This concept, stemming from the Modernist thesis on the originality of works of art and artistic personality, faithfully served Fárová as a work tool and medium for promoting an artist. A further innovative vision that Fárová brought to the history of Czech photography was the idea of extensive photographic collections. One isolated photo was not sufficient reason for her to take an interest. In understanding photography as its own language she placed emphasis right from the start on organising wholes, which she herself often helped over a long time to prepare: whether it was a coherent exhibit collection or a monograph publication. With all this she defined, and not only on the Czech scene, the personality of the modern, autonomous, photographic artist.

An inherent part of the works and the person of Anna Fárová were her charisma and her refinement, complemented by a healthy dose of self-confidence, stubbornness and femininity. These she infused in the objects of her „cleaning“ through her interest and care, and she also often inspired them to respect themselves and to have the courage to create and exhibit. I am more than happy that I had the opportunity to meet Anna Fárová in person a couple of times over the past years. Perhaps now I better understand why she was able to earn such respect and success in the field of artistic photography. A more than inspiring memory remains with me: that of a unique woman, who was equally good at advising and criticising just as she was at admitting her own passion, loathing, or even helplessness. Through all this she maintained an uncommon refinement and empathy.

Pavel Vančát