Fotograf Magazine

the 2005 bratislava month of photography

The main event of the fifteenth annual Month of Photography in Bratislava took place right at the festival’s beginning in early November. This was the ceremonial opening of the Central European House of Photography in the historic building in Prepoštská street which for many years has been the home of the Profil photography gallery and the festival’s main organiser, FOTOFO. The City of Bratislava provided FOTOFO with the entire building, located in the center of the Old Town, for a symbolic lease of one Slovak crown per year and thus, together with the Slovak Ministry of Culture and the District of Bratislava, helped in the founding of a photographic institution with three floors of exhibition spaces, offices and a photographic library named after photographic scholar Vladimír Vorobjov. In addition to the House of Photography, which recently moved from Poprad to Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia is now home to another important photographic centre, which is even planning to open a Museum of Slovak Photography.

Václav Macek, the first director of the Central European House of Photography, continues to run the Month of Photography, which – besides its traditional focus on photographic art from Central and Eastern Europe – also presents works by internationally renowned artists from other parts of the world. The jubilee 15th year was no exception, featuring almost forty exhibitions, well-organized portfolio reviews, lectures, the release of new photography books, a not-so-successful auction of photographs in the Soga auction house (which, with the exception of works by international legends such as Kertész and Sudek, sold only a few works by contemporary Slovak photographers), and a concert at which Slovak musicians premiered their musical compositions inspired by photography. The highlight of this year’s Bratislava Month of Photography were the many exhibits of classic black-and-white documentary and reportage photography, even though these genres no longer hold such an exceptional position within contemporary art as they did in the past.

Older examples of this type of photography were represented by the excellently selected small-scale exhibit of works by Austrian photo-journalist Erich Lessing, the most interesting of which were the fresh photographs of Eisenhower, Khrushchev, Adenauer and other politicians and celebrities such as actors and singers from the 1950s and ’60s, along with drastic images of lynching and riots during the 1956 Anti-communist uprising in Budapest. Another exhibit of Austrian photography of that period was Photographic Stories Between Home and Emigration, for which Margit Zuckriegl, the director of the Austrian photography collection in Salzburg’s Rupertinum, selected fifty photographs by Ernst Haas, Franz Hubmann, Inge Morath, Erich Lessing and Harry Weber from the years following World War II. Slightly newer works were displayed at a large retrospective of Lithuanian photography legend Aleksandras Macijauskas. Already in the 1960s, this artist strongly diverged from official Soviet photography – not only in his noticeably stylised approach using coarse grain and wide-angle lenses and a reduced tonal scale, but also in his much truer view of everyday life. With subtle irony, Macijauskas captured scenes from communist May Day processions and photographed weddings and funerals, veterinary clinics, and fat people on the beach. His expressive form found its voice most strongly in an extensive series on country markets. Macijauskas’s raw documentary images, which accentuate absurdity and the grotesque while at the same time making generalisations about interpersonal relations and jovial country people, were indeed groundbreaking works.

Also part of the dominant genre of documentary photography and reportage were the festival’s two main attractions – exhibitions by American photographer James Nachtwey and by Brazil’s Sebastiao Salgado. Instead of showing the fighting in Afghanistan, Kosovo, or Chechnya or the terrorist attacks on New York, Nachtwey – the most famous contemporary war (or rather anti-war) photographer – shows the suffering of the victims. He does so with a tremendous visual power and an incredible sense for spotting the most telling details or the most absurd contrast of motifs, with such a sophisticated visual composition that his black-and-white and colour photographs become iconic symbols that are impossible to overlook in the flood of other photographs on the subject. Salgado’s Workers offered a more traditional approach to humanistic photography. The exhibit was presented in three specially-adapted railway cars, brought to Bratislava by the LGP gallery (formerly the Leica Gallery Prague) after making numerous stops at train stations in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Documentary photography was amply represented in the works of Slovak and Czech photographers. Instead of the three originally announced series (Gypsies, Portraits and New York – City of Tolerance) Tibor Huszár decided to exhibit only his photographs from the American metropolis. These however, could have used a stricter selection procedure since – in addition to some excellent photographs offering much space for individual interpretation – there were a number of rather two- dimensional images. Huszár is undoubtedly a better photographer than the works shown in this exhibit. A more subjective approach to documentary photography, using strong visual metaphors and contrasting various motifs, was exquisitely presented in Andrej Bán’s series (and the recently published book) The Other Slovakia, as well as by all four recipients of grants from Bratislava’s Institute for Public Affairs: Martin Kollár, Jozef Ondzik, Lucia Nimcová and Tomki Němec. Their joint exhibit at Bratislava’s castle was a pleasant surprise thanks to the fact that it displayed a number of the artists’ lesser-known photographs. Czech photography was represented by traditional black-and-white photographs from the Mission series by Alena Dvořáková and Viktor Fischer and by Jiří Křenek’s expressive series Hypermarkets, Small Towns and Mobiles, which focus on globalisation and consumerism and inventively exploit the possibilities of colour.

This time in Bratislava (and also at festivals in Arles and Berlin), all kinds of conceptual, intermedia and staged photography were overshadowed by documentary works. This does not mean that they are marginal movements within the context of international photography, but rather that this year’s programming was not particularly strong in these fields. Audiences gave a warm reception to the well-composed retrospective of works by Miro Švolík, which nevertheless – despite the presence of a number of new and witty photographs – showed that Švolík has not yet overcome the playful high-angle tableaux vivants he made during his studies at FAMU. Not even his latest ”risqué“ close-ups of vaginas composed into kaleidoscopic flowers was able to change this fact. One of the best and most topical exhibits in this area was The Phenomenon of the Feminine by young Slovak photographer Silvia Saparová. In four series with a modern visual arrangement, the artist explores issues of the female body, its physicality and the current position of women in society. Straddling the border between documentary and conceptual photography were two exceptional and sociologically telling series of large-format colour photographs by Weronika Lodzińska and Andrzej Kramarz showing various decorations of beds and their surroundings in a Krakow homeless shelter as well as the interiors of so-called ”white rooms“ in Poland’s Podhale region which are not meant to be lived in but are part of religious tradition. This exhibit, without a doubt one of the strongest of the whole festival, was, however, only displayed for a mere hour during the opening reception, with the photographs held up by 36 volunteers. The damp bomb shelter where they were supposed to be exhibited turned out to be unsuitable for an exhibit. It is a pity that the organisers did not provide it with a better space.

vladimír birgus