Fotograf Magazine

Vicious Circles

The Czech literature on photography possesses a long shelf of missing books, particularly in terms of thorough art-historical monographs. Even legends, such as the internationally recognized figures Josef Sudek and František Drtikol, are represented only by isolated essays. Not a single Czech photographic estate property has been comprehensively treated!

The unfortunate premise for the publishing of photographic books in Czech Republic is the relatively narrow community of those interested in buying relatively costly albums. Even though local production costs have risen steeply in the last fifteen years, in comparison with Western Europe they still remain somewhat lower. Unfortunately, local purchasing power has dropped even more dramatically. So the first vicious circle is the low level of production. If in more developed countries there are always several books available on the work of seminal artists, in the Czech lands it is a feat to even bring such a project to fruition and continue to offer it for sale in bookstores.

Sumptuous books are a luxury anywhere in the world; for publishers, however, the essential question is the return on their investment. In other words: it is the calculation of how many copies have to be sold in order for the venture not to be loss-making that decides whether or not a book is published. 

If we are talking about a 300-page volume, with 300 reproductions printed on high-quality paper in full-page format, with a print run of 1000 copies, then the production cost of each copy might be 300 Czech crowns, or approximately 10 Euro. (This is the lowest of five estimates provided to me from printers in various cities). Even if we abolish any thoughts of an authors’ honorarium, the return on investment will encounter a general need to save money, which in turn renders the project unfeasible (unless the theme is Pragensia, nudes, or Josef Sudek). The moment we add the 5 % VAT and the minimum profit for distributors and booksellers, the retail price rockets up by roughly half, i.e., into a sphere in which in this country not even the hypothetical thousand people who are interested can permanently afford.

Another consideration is whether the book will make its money back quickly enough, for the rental of storage space does not contribute to the return on investment. Few local publishers can afford to bring out books that will start generating profits only in a few years’ time. In fact this strategy is open solely to museums and galleries, whose shops and offerings in subsidized gallery buildings form a specific distribution network. 

Some book projects are lucky enough to receive grants, or another type of support, whether in the form of sponsorship as advertising, or some other way of bringing down the sale price. The various ways of being customer-friendly are more or less inconsistent. Their combination just about keeps some isolated and improvised publishing experiments in business. 

The systematic development of the edition of monographs Foto Torst, which now runs to almost twenty volumes, has been made possible through collaboration with a foreign distributor. The conditions, however, are rather severe –  both in the selection of representative artists, and in the limit of around ninety reproductions in a small format. One can hardly expect from this quarter a search for new talent and its generous promotion. 

Publishing ventures in the field of photography are for the most part random. This means, above all, that this activity is terribly slow, moving literally step by step. And some of these steps may be totally erroneous, since they are not governed by the principles of art history, but by coincidence. Mostly of a financial nature. 

As for the albums that do succeed in being brought out, we may gratefully state that they are beautifully done, but alas, they are generally conceived as popularizing works. Even though few of them now lack a text in English that disseminates knowledge of Czech culture for those abroad, this does not take place at all possible levels of detail. This means, for instance, that almost universally these books omit to list the original format of the works reproduced. Even in the era of e-mail, a detailed treatment of international sources is almost always missing – the assessment of foreign literature on the subject, or the presence of representative works in collections abroad. In fact, not a single retrospective of Czech photographers includes so much as a simple list of works!

What is most startling is the ignoring of living stars, such as for instance Josef Koudelka and Jan Saudek. The latter artist is himself preparing to take stock of his work to celebrate his 70th birthday… well, it is a question as to what way he will choose to conceive his personal career survey. In fact, all the Saudek albums until now have aimed at primarily commercial success. You may object that there are already a wide range of Saudek books. But it is precisely with Saudek that a thorough research has the possibility of finding new discoveries: be it the half-forgotten early photographs, or the still unsuspected context of his creative background.

Czech bookstores are not devoid of books on photography, because our lands abound in activists. New books constantly pop up, which indicates that the will to bring out a book is stronger than a sober assessment of potential obstacles. It is mainly because of this that the situation is better than in most of the other countries affected by the economically destructive epoch of totalitarianism. However, we have had little luck in bringing out extensive monographs summarizing whole oeuvres. The isolated enthusiasts lack the power to carry out the most demanding large-scale works in art history, such as the history of photography – not even Czech photography, let alone world photography. And yet such atlases of photohistory should definitely form part of our market: not only to please the hearts of fans of photography, but also as a part of general education. 

A significant aid to publishing possibilities would be a sufficient number of institutions featuring art photography collections. Books on painters are usually brought about to accompany major – usually travelling – exhibitions held by official institutions, simply by virtue of their existing and employing multitudes of staff who require something to do. The task of regional galleries and state-run museums is to create public art collections, to manage these and to present them to the public. But only a few of those who form this network concern themselves with photography. The education system is a part of this vicious circle, bringing up generation after generation of specialists to whom photography means nothing. Traditional art history in the Czech Republic has continued to ignore photography out of sheer inertia, since those who lecture at departments of aesthetics and art history are often graduates from those very same departments, having heard nothing about photography during their studies. In the end, it may appear as though the rich framework of institutions is ruled by interests totally distant to the needs of our general society. As examples we may cite two painters from the exhibition program of the National Gallery in Prague: last year the bizarre Vladimír V. Modrý, and this year a new exhibition dedicated to the notorious and ubiquitous Václav Špála.

Holomíček B. Národní divadlo, sezóna 2002-03/The National Theatre, season 2002-03. Texts:

Daniel Dvořák, Jan H. Vitvar. Prague: Gallery 2004, 152 pages.

Pitlach M. Das Evangelium nach Matthäus/Evangelium podle Matouše. Texty: Tomáš Halík, Milan Pitlach. Prague: KANT 2004, 80 pages.

Štecha P. Praha/Prague.Texts: Pavel Bém, Josef Kroutvor, Kristián Suda, Zdeněk Lukeš. Prague: Prostor 2004, 180 pages.






josef moucha