Fotograf Magazine

The fourteenth annual month of photography in bratislava

Even though the program of this year’s Bratislava festival did not feature any mega-exhibitions like the large Slovak Photography, 1925-2000 or any retrospective like those of Salgado, Klein, Leibovitz, Witkin, Cartier-Bresson and Martinček in past years, the organisers, led by Václav Macek, were again able to put together an attractive exhibition programme last November, even if a little uneven in quality. The traditional focus again was on photographic work from Central and Eastern Europe. The accompanying events also drew considerable interest, among them creative workshops and well-organised portfolio assessments in which a number of renowned photographers, theoreticians and curators took part. These included Andreas Müller- Pohle, Wendy Watriss, Fred Baldwin, Jevgenij Berezner, Irina Tchmyreva and Elźbieta Lubowicz. For the first time ever, the festival hosted a professional gathering of photography magazine editors from the new member states of the European Union, organised in cooperation with the Goethe Institut Bratislava and focused primarily on online magazines. The current situation, in which most non-commercial photography periodicals cannot survive without subsidies, tends to favour the emergence of online magazines dedicated to contemporary and historical photographic art, criticism and theory which bring up-to- date information about developments in photography. While there are many such magazines in Western Europe and the United States, there are only a few such magazines in the former communist countries that are independent from the promotion of photography products. Among these are Poland’s, Russia’s, and the Czech Republic’s The two-day conference featured lectures on photography in Africa, Greece, Russia, the Czech Republic and other countries. In the contest for the best photography publication from Central and Eastern Europe, an international jury headed by Ernestina Ruben from the United States awarded prizes to four books. Winners in the history of photography category were the monograph Jaroslav Rössler – Photographs, Collages, Drawings from Prague’s KANT publisher and the publication Treasures from the Hungarian Museum of Photography. KANT scored another prize in the contemporary photography category with its monograph Ivan Pinkava: Heroes; the other award in this category went to the Russian book Zatonuvšeje vremja: Rossija, XX vek, 1962-1992 by Michael Dashevsky. Visitors to the main festival days, however, only had a brief chance to see the exhibit of the more than eighty books in competition. Two books published by Fotofo had their release party during the festival: Aurel Hrabušický’s monograph of a pioneer of modern Slovak photography, Miloš Dohnány, and a book of essays on photography by Josef Moucha, Experience of the Arena.
The lack of a gathering space for guests remains a traditional weak point of the festival. Although a number of important curators, directors of photography festivals, gallery owners and photographers attended the festival, they had few official opportunities for exchanging ideas or talking about exhibits and projects. A photography auction prepared by the Soga auction house was not a particular success. Only a few works by contemporary Slovak artists were sold. Another problematic area was the quality of some exhibits (some particularly shocking examples were the totally amateurish presentation of the excellent exhibit by Antanas Sutkus or the unprofessional handling of photographs by Barbora Kuklíková; a number of her works were damaged). Never- theless, in comparison with recent years, when some prints were still lying on the floor during exhibit openings and Rodchenko’s original prints were presented in the Gallery of the City of Bratislava hung on a string between two panes of glass, the Bratislava Month of Photography has made noticeable progress and most exhibits were well-installed and open during the festival’s opening weekend.
This year’s exhibition programme was dominated by various types of documentary photography. The classic humanistic school of documentary was represented by Antanas Sutkus’ Everyday Lithuania series, which included mainly older shots from the 1950s and ’60s revealing the poetry of the mundane in slightly melancholic, spontaneous shots from the streets of Vilnius and the Lithuanian countryside. Many of the photographs had not been previously published, as their authenticity set them too apart from official trends in socialist realism. (The Sutkus exhibit was later shown at the Prague House of Photography and the Opava House of Art.) While Russian photography – currently the focus of much attention at many festivals – was surprisingly absent in the Month of Photography’s programme, Ukraine was represented by one of its prominent photojournalists, Alexander Glyadyelov, whose work showed the appalling conditions found in Russian prisons. A more subjective approach to documentary photography was represented by compelling pictures of contemporary Slovakia shot by Czech photographer Tomki Němec, who often uses unusual compositions and visual symbols. Another excellent contribution was Anna Beata Bohdziewicz’s photographic diary through which she has for over twenty years aptly commented on events in her private life and in Poland. Croatia’s Mare Milin presented a different form of a diary featuring colour photographs with self-reflective motifs. A similar blurring of the boundaries between documentary and staged photography was evident in the City series by Czech photographer Barbora Kuklíková, who very inventively attempted to capture the various moods and feelings of four young foreigners living in Prague, and in the photographs of contemporary Budapest and other towns by Hungary’s Szilvia Tóth, which excellently combined natural and flash light and strong colours. The exhibition Crossroads for Ideas, on the other hand, made a rather uneven impression, featuring photographs taken by four Slovaks in Great Britain and three British artists in Slovakia. An exception to the often aimless works, such as Tomáš Agata Blonský’s one-dimensional diptychs and triptychs or Lisa Davis’ straigh forward nighttime shots of Slovak housing estates, were the fresh colour photographs by Silvia Saparová and Martin Varholík, which straddled the currently very popular boundary between staged and documentary photography, and Robo Kočan’s imaginative images revealing fantasy characters in bizarre tree and rock formations in Wales. It was a mistake to include old travel photographs by Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund into the festival programme, as only a small fraction of them served more than a purely informative purpose.
Documentary photography, however, was not the only category in which Central and Eastern European works were represented. One real discovery was the first large retrospective of Slovak photographer Miloš Dohnány, whose works in the 1930s followed the principles of constructivism and the New Objectivity; another was the large exhibit of Igor Grossman, an outstanding representative of Slovak post-war photography whose most interesting works were documentary shots from the Slovak countryside with strong contrasts of black and white that provided a more graphic effect; and a small retrospective of Karlis Lakše showing his still very fresh and lyrical works from the Latvian countryside of the 1920s and ’30s. An exhibit of works by Jan Svoboda showed his early works from the 1950s and ’60s from the collection of the Moravian Gallery in Brno. These photographs depicting fruits, stones, the details of a woman’s body and other simple motifs are reminiscent of Sudek’s works and the structural abstraction impulses of the time, while also reflecting the artist’s inner world. One particular attraction was the Nude in Czech Photography, 1960-2000 exhibit, which after Prague, Olomouc, Moscow, Paris, Aachen, Poznan, Wrocław, Walbrzych and Opava made its way to Bratislava in a slightly revamped version including some previously never exhibited works. (It was subsequently shown in Athens in the spring of 2005.) Photo of a Mandala: The Centre is the Essence, an exhibit by Milan Blatný – last year’s winner in the portfolio category and a student at the Institute of Creative Photography in Opava – showed Blatný’s original photomonta- ges inspired by Tibetan symbols of the Buddha’s spiritual incarnation. One of the best-known Hungarian photographers, Gábor Kerekes, presented his sometimes overly graphically stylised older works. A presentation of works by university students from Central and Eastern Europe, Generation East, made a rather unclear impression; in addition to collections from schools in Bratislava, Košice, Opava, Ústí nad Labem and Poznan it quite inexplicably included works by students from Nottingham Trent University. Nonetheless, it showed a number of fresh works, particularly from the field of interdisciplinary arts, modern portraits and several inventive video programmes.
Naturally, the Bratislava Month of Photography also included exhibits from other parts of the world. One of the best was Germans, an exhibit by the famous Swiss member of Magnum, René Burri, which somewhat ironically depicted various aspects of German life in the difficult period after World War II and during the economic miracle. There also was an exquisite and moving documentary series by Indian photographer Raghu Rai about the victims of the disaster at the Union Carbide chemical factory in Bhopal, where a huge leakage of poison gases in 1984 caused the death of several thousand people. Rai’s exceptionally strong photographs, which radiate both anger and an attempt to help and inventively work with details, bold compositions and sharp contrasts of light and shadow, were taken both immediately after the disaster and twenty years later. The well-known German photographer and publisher of European Photography magazine, Andreas Müller-Pohle, presented a large exhibit of conceptually-oriented works frequently and inventively exploiting state-of-the-art technologies. Two poles of documentary photography were represented by exhibits by Austria’s Kurt Kaindl, whose photographs of various national minorities in Europe follow the classical sociological approach, and Greece’s Ilias Bourgiotis, who applies a much more subjective approach in his photographs of people from the Mediterranean. The American photographer Arthur Tress was represented by a collection of older staged scenes and portraits with a strong symbolic subtext. Many visitors were attracted by photographs by England’s Rosie Barnes which sensitively revealed the world of her autistic son, and by the unusual fragments of urban environment and landscapes by three photographers from Turin – Maurizio Briatta, Alessandro Cane and Giancarlo Tovo – in the Pizza, Sun and Love exhibit. Unfortunately, the exhibits presented in Vienna posed a bit of a problem, as only a small number of festival visitors travelled from Bratislava to see them. They were doubtless attractive exhibits – for example a project by one of the most original Slovak artists of the younger generation, Dorota Sadovská’s Body-Pain-Ornament, and a show of works by five photography school students from Bratislava (Sylvia Saparová), Krakow (Joanna Źak-Twarog), Opava (Jan Bartoš), Budapest (András Ridovics) and Vienna (Andrea Sperl). With the official announcement of the cooperation of the Months of Photography in Paris, Vienna and Berlin, we can expect that 2006 will offer close communication not only with Vienna but with the other cities as well.

vladimír birgus