Fotograf Magazine

Here at Last! – Czech Photography 1938-2000 in Reviews, Texts and Documents

Agreeable design, 375 pages including index and bibliography, 102 texts structured chronologically in 6 chapters, DOST Publishers, 2011, edited by Tomáš Pospěch. This about sums up this new anthology, which looks back at the era of early art photography and skims the surface of the era that followed. 

The first question more a rhetorical one given the circumstances would be: why only now? The idea tackled by most of the texts included has been history for at least fifteen years now, so why then has it taken so long for anyone to attempt to give the epoch of the presiding notion of art photography a standard survey? This is not counting the “Photography Theory Reader” (Čítanka z teorie fotografie, Opava 2003) edited by Aleš Kuneš and Tomáš Pospěch, which was nevertheless different in terms of both its format and function. Figuratively speaking, an anthology is a almost akin to receiving last rites. It administers the past for the sake of the future. This potential tendency naturally also generates a certain angst, and as a result feeds debates regarding who has the greater claim to inclusion… 

In this respect, Pospěch’s compendium represents an honorable and functional compromise. Yes, some things are missing and some things are surplus. Thus for instance, V. V. Štech’s essays on the aesthetics of photography and its relation to the fine arts unquestionably belong in the first chapter. Although these were originally of an earlier date, they nonetheless came out in 1941 as part of the selection Pod povrchem tvarů (Under the Surface of Forms), rather symptomatically in a section entitled Crucial Issues of Art (Stěžejní otázky umění). Moreover, to take a sober look – how many subsequent authors contemplating the artistic possibilities of photography transcend the limits established by their very definition? Also the much respected and much condemned Professor Ján Šmok deserves worthier representation. Although the theses he upheld are present as a subject of inquiry in the contributions of other authors – why not instead abandon one of the two articles he wrote in the 1950s in favour of a sample text that would give a more precise notion of the theory of communication he so vociferously advocated? Another author who is represented too little and too imperfectly is Jaroslav Anděl, unquestionably one of the most talented as well as best informed members of the founding generation of theorists of Czech photography. His thoughts on methodology, terminology and perspectives on photography are unparalleled for their time (e.g. “How to Regard the History of Photography, in Vybrané kapitoly z dějin fotografie / Selected Chapters from the History of Photography, Prague, 1978, etc. etc.). A charting of the breadth of the spectrum of theoretical impulses which had formed the context of the period would be greatly assisted also by the inclusion of the series of Václav Zykmund’s reflections on symbol and sign published in Čsf (the Czechoslovak Photography magazine) during the course of 1970. Despite these proposed alternatives, however, the present compendium is quite balanced on the whole. 

The real feat accomplished by the editor, and the priceless tool which offers the reader a broader outlook which transcends the necessarily limited framework of the book are the short commentaries attached to each of the texts. These explain their points of reference with other texts or the concrete background that gave rise to the text in question. On a secondary level, Pospěch thus outlines an “institutional and social history” of the field of photography, which moreover gives the portrait of the era a greater plasticity. Perhaps all that one might wish for is some brief information regarding the authors of the texts themselves. Younger colleagues, and the next generation of researchers ever more so, would no doubt appreciate knowing who was who. 

The concept of the anthology is unfortunately prone to a certain isolationism. In respect to our relationship to the international scene, the publication quite literally corresponds with its title. One certainly learns about “Czech photography” to the exclusion of all else. This therefore reinforces the stereotype that everything that local photography engaged with derived from the local context. Although the editor’s note includes a list of several names of foreign theorists and mentions that their essays were published in the Czech Lands in the past, this cannot be taken as an explanation of the essence of their influence on the Czech scene. Another thing missing is the merest hint of the collaboration of local amateur photography – which during that period constituted virtually all photography – with international amateur organizations, such as for example AFIAP. Here Pospěch in his role as editor remains in no small debt to the reader. The sum of these shortcomings essentially amounts to the absence of any kind of relevant clue regarding how to read the compendium and what to expect from it. There are basically two possibilities for incorporating such commentary: either within the editorial note, or even more aptly, at the outset of each chapter. The latter would in addition provide room to explain the reasons for structuring the historical panorama in the manner it is presented – which moreover is not entirely made clear in its present form. 

Some essays in the last chapter signal a shift in paradigm which took place in critical thought on photography some time ago. Having selected artists provide their ideas on work with the banal, with appropriation, gender and other post-modern strategies was certainly a good choice. A finer balancing of the contrast between the new and the old would nevertheless again be greatly assisted by the addition of a brief editorial commentary. Who better than the editor to set forth the whys and hows and where this may all lead to. In spite of this litany of shortcomings, the arrival of the present publication is an event. It appears exactly between the Karel Císař anthology Co je to fotografie? (“What Is Photography?”, Herrmann & synové 2004) charting foreign texts, and České umění 1938-1989. Programy, kritické texty, dokumenty (Czech Art 1938–1939, Programs, Cirtical Essays, Academia 2001). The result makes for an overall survey that offers anyone interested in the history of Czech photography a more or less comprehensive image.

Jiří Pátek