Fotograf Magazine

Filip Láb: New Words for New Phenomena

Filip Láb, an important theorist of photography, lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences at Charles University and member of the Fotograf Magazine editorial board, died unexpectedly at the age of fortyfive.

Filip was interested in every photograph. It made no difference to him whether it was found in a gallery, a newspaper, on a billboard, in a family album, or on Instagram. He wanted to understand them all and differentiate between the various forms they could take: sometimes art, sometimes news coverage, sometimes immediate communication to be forgotten a few minutes later – and sometimes memories that should never be allowed to disappear.

He had this approach from the first moment I met him, almost twenty-five years ago, until his painfully premature death at the end of May. Two schools were partially responsible for this interest. Both of them have heavy wooden doors that are hard to open, and both are located barely a hundred yards from each other near the Vltava River in the center of Prague. One is home to FAMU, the Film Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts, and the other to the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at the Faculty of Social Studies of Charles University. At the turn of the century, Filip was a student at both institutions and realized that neither could offer him a comprehensive perspective of the medium he felt so drawn to.

This was at a time when digitization was changing absolutely everything. Phones began taking pictures and everyone suddenly had one in their pocket. MySpace and Flickr became the fastest growing digital storage spaces for photography. None of these phenomena could be approached with either art theory concepts nor canonical theoretical texts on photography. Though he did not yet know this term, Filip intuitively tended towards photography – or rather, towards the image – as it began to be perceived by the field of visual culture studies.

At this time, we were preparing a book together, Photography After Photography, and as we worked on it, I understood that which was typical of Filip’s thinking; what he could excite his students with and what was also reflected in his later books, The Twilight of Photojournalism, which he wrote together with his mother Alena, a distinguished academic in the journalism department, and also this year’s Post-Digital Photography. The titles of all the books he participated in as an author suggest the onset of an ending. They signal that photography is changing; mutating into something else, and that we also need to start discussing it using different terms. To describe what was lost and point out what has, in fact, remained the same despite all changes.

Filip had a fantastic sensitivity for the changes his beloved medium was undergoing, and he wanted to discuss them precisely just as they were taking place. He had a passion for finding new words for new phenomena and attempted to explain them even when their interpretation was far from firmly established. Terms and understanding were just as important to him as a shared experience of the changes that are weighing down on all the users of photography. He wanted to talk to them– his readers and, most importantly, his students – about what was, in fact, happening. This zeal of his, this desire to grasp the current situation through theory at the time when it is taking place – we will miss all this terribly.

Pavel Turek