Fotograf Magazine

Filip Láb

Apostle of Future Photography

Filip Láb, who died unexpectedly and prematurely in May 2021, was not only a prominent theorist and teacher of photography, but was also one of a generation of artists that dealt with the shift in political polarities and radical changes in the photographic paradigm. His relatively short but very significant creative period, tied to his collaboration with Bára Mrázková, still surprises with its innovation and precision.

Writing about Filip Láb in the past tense, even after half a year, seems absurdly cruel to me. We shared not only a birthyear – 1976, but also interests in photography, pop culture and cars, and each meeting with him had a pleasant quality of unspoken conspiracy and appreciation. All the more shocking then, was the unexpected news of his sudden death, just a few weeks after the publication of his pivotal publication, in which he described the present and future of photography as both an insider and a discoverer.

Filip Láb was born into a family associated with photography (his mother Alena Lábová taught it at the Faculty of Journalism at Charles University in the 1970s), and on his father’s side he was also close to music. He combined his innate talent for photography and writing in a parallel study of journalism and photography at FAMU, where he graduated with a theoretical thesis on the visual language of 90s magazines (Živel, Reflex and others). In 2002, Filip Láb and his classmate Bára Mrázková set off for a semester-long intership at Middlesex University in London. For both of them, it was an important encounter with the British music and photography scene, which each of them tried to reflect in their own way: while Mrázková focused on subjective feelings and atmospheres, Láb undertook his first experiments with what was then a novelty, a digital camera (with a staggering 2 megapixels). The result was their first joint project, titled His n ‘Hers, which displays this dual vision of English culture at the beginning of the millennium, and which they presented together at Prague’s Školská 28 Gallery in 2004.

In the same year, Mrázková and Láb embark on another collaboration, under completely different terms: their authorship is already fully merged here, yet there is a change in genre, which is a kind of fictional amalgam of war, documentary and staged photography, this time with an emphasis on image quality at medium format. The American Night series (the title also reveals inspiration from film narration) tells of the delusional time and atmosphere of the 1980s, from a position that combines, in a vaguely disturbing and inappropriate way, the imagery of Jeff Wall and Andrei Tarkovsky. Then, thanks to a grant for Filip’s doctorate, the whole project expands into an ambitious proportions, incorporating over the space of two years photography in five countries of the former Eastern Europe (Berlin, Balaton, Katowice, Bratislava, Goli Otok), where together they freely reconstruct selected events of the totalitarian period in a completely new way – as a kind of generational historical dream. The project, finally presented in 2006 under the name Eastern Block, then completely exceeded its original student dimensions: patronage for the abundant catalog came from Václav Havel, and the prestigious Václav Špála Gallery forgave them their rent. Above all, however, the content was an unprecedented statement about the feeling of a generation that had been deprived of its authentic past.

At that time, however, Filip Láb began to focus more and more on his theoretical and academic career. In 2009, two of his publications are published: Twilight of Photojournalism?, which he co-authored with his mother, and Photgraphs after Photography published with Pavel Turk – a book in which he describes the fundamental changes in the production and distribution of photography at the time. Both texts anticipate his other articles, contributions, and lectures, to which he devoted most of his time and energy in the following decade. That Filip Láb did not give up his freelance work altogether is suggested, among other things, by the cover and several concluding pages of his latest book Postdigital Photography (Karolinum, 2021), which are decorated with inebriating still lifes of natural objects and flowers generated entirely by artificial intelligence. It is as if Filip, in his constant mixing of practice and theory, was heading somewhere far away into a future that he was able to see and formulate as few others can in our country.

Pavel Vančát is a free-lance curator and writer, based in Prague. Since 2008, he has worked as project curator of StartPoint: prize for European Art Graduates. He has curated dozens of exhibitions of contemporary art, photography, and visual culture. He was the head curator of Prague’s Fotograf Festival 2019 and co-curator of m3 Sculpture Festival 2020: Layers of History.

Filip Láb (1976 – 2021) was a photographer, theoretician of photography, teacher, and member of the editorial board of the magazine Fotograf. He studied photography at FAMU and journalism at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, where he later became an instructor and faculty vice-dean. He has published several books and a number of scholarly articles on the technological and social changes of contemporary photography.

Pavel Vančát