Fotograf Magazine

From a scrapbook. On the subversive documentaries of the 1980’s

In my mind I recall the 1980’s as being overheated, feverish. Almost no one believed the regime would fall, but all authentic creations and work, all truth was automatically perceived as being subversive,[ref]After 1948 the term “subversive” almost disappeared from the Czech language. It is however very difficult to replace and very common abroad. I thank Dr. Heidrun Hamersky for pointing this out.[/ref] opposing, disruptive. For a year an unforgettable meeting in 1980 in Banská Bystrice has remained in my memory; one hosted by the courageous Tomáš Fassati.[ref]Spoločensky zaujatá fotografia I. Zborník sympózia / Socially Absorbed Photography, I. Symposium Catalogue. Galéria F (Gallery F), Banská Bystrica 1980. Josef Moucha, “O Galerii F Banská Bystrica / About Gallery F Banská Bystrica”. Ateliér XIII, 2000, no. 7, pg. 7.[/ref] Štreit’s large blowup shot there gave the feeling of an apparition and it’s not surprising that they brought the artist into custody and later (gave him) a sentence with parole. After Josef Koudelka, Markéta Luskačová, Pavel Štech, Ivo Gil and others, a second wave of documentary film culminated; one that could only demand (or provoke) one thing: persecution. My recollection of the monumental installation in the abandoned monastery in Plasy in 1981 is indelible. It summarised the previous, cosy exhibitions initiated by Pavel Štech in the Drama Club (Činoherní klub). 18 photographers, all university students from FAMU in Prague but for a few exceptions, protested against eventual repression and had their names stricken from the lists of official projects (tenders). These matters are sufficiently-well known,[ref]Anna Fárová (ed.), Plasy 1981, Prague 2009; Antonín Dufek, U nás / In our Country: 1968–1990, in: Pavel Štecha, U nás / In our Country: 1968–1990, Lomnice nad Popelkou 2001, pgs. 117–129.[/ref] but we must name the photographers: Jaroslav Bárta, Ivo Gil, Bohdan Holomíček, Daniela Horníčková, Bořivoj Hořínek, Vratislav Hůrka, Libuše Jarcovjáková, Ivan Lutterer, Jan Malý, Dušan Pálka, Miroslav Pokorný, Jiří Poláček, Zora Rampáková, Iren Stehli, Dušan Šimánek, Pavel Štecha, Jindřich Štreit and Pavel Vavroušek.

The documentarians were active. I recall the meeting of the Oči and the Documentary at Bumbálka groups, who had to have been somewhere at that time, of their later workshop at Stano Pekár’s mill not far from Bratislava, and of the Cheb workshop (since 1988). The excellent magazine by the Oči group, Dioptrie, was just as outstanding as the short-term exhibition, actually a socalled expansive presentation,[ref]Jerzy Olek, “Expanzívní fotografie / Expansive Photography”. Československá fotografie XXIX / Czechoslovak Photography XXIX, 1978, pgs. 206–207.[/ref] held a t s pots w here t he p hotographs w ere created. I don’t know if Dioptrie exists somewhere in full and if someone has scanned it. It was disseminated at that time in the usual way (the name of which I have already forgotten). The product consisting of approximately 20 copies could not be permanent. (Is there an archive that looks after such things, or just the museum of photography that we have?). In 1980 that group of students from the transport school in Žilina went through a crisis and only the most active remained: Josef Bohuňovský, Jarmila Fišerová, Zdeněk Fišer, Bohumil Kotas, Jaroslav Kroužek, Ján Štrba, Antonín Wzatek. The Oči group was criticized because its productions did not seem to be sufficiently artistic, which is typical for Czech standards. After 1981 the groups ceased to show works.[ref]See Antonín Dufek, Fišer Zdeněk, in: Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon, Bd. 40, München/Leipzig 2004, pgs. 458–9.[/ref] Do any of their photographs remain? The Dokument group (Vladimír Birgus, Petr Klimpl and Josef Pokorný) lasted longer. In 1980 the shocking Nahaté portréty (Naked Portraits) by Ján Rečo began to be created, as were the no less daring photos by this artist of the labour ministry, retirement homes, etc. in both earlier and later years. Today wouldn’t similar pictures be impossible?

Dagmar Hochová, Viktor Kolář, Bohdan Holomíček and František Dostál worked intensively with the Město group. Jan Malý, Jiří Poláček and Ivan Lutterer invested in the project, Český člověk / Czech Man (published in book form, 1997). Pavel Jasanský took on the consumer way of life in the collection, Nová krajina, noví obyvatelé / New Landscape, New Inhabitants (beginning in 1985). Jaroslav Bárta put into images the barbarization of society by documenting pavements and facades, repaired without regard to history, aesthetics, and craftsmen’s‘ pride. Later he added ceremonies from the opening of finished sections of highways and at the end of the decade he began (work) with time-lapse topographic collections. This was already a further “generation” of activities: in Cheb’s Galerie 4 together with the museum he began, starting in 1988, to put together documentary photography workshops in the region. In their own way five members of the photography circle at the Žďas Culture House in Žďár nad Sázavou took over the helm from the Oči group and eventually presented as joint authors the collections (Den v Prioru / A Day in the Prior Store, Neděle na Velkém Dářku / Sunday at Velké Dářko Lake). Twice they were able to put together the Fotofest festival (1988, 1989). Other unforgettable documentaries were created by the cameras of Michal Bartoš, Jiří Horák, Jaroslav Krejčí, Jaroslav Kučera, Dana Kyndrová, Miloš Polášek, Jan Reich, Jiří Všetečka and others. Let’s not forget that amount of engaged documentarians and the diversity of their interests and methods.

Social documentary work is tied to the departure from the concept of the human family and with it also the strategy of generalisation, typification. It no longer wanted to be a mirror put in front of all of society: one photograph no longer had to speak of the entire human race. It didn’t try to be timeless. On the contrary, the contrasting method of twinning “then and now” made its way forward (Pavel Štecha, Jaroslav Bárta). Social documentary photography was not torn from science (sociology) nor from art. Many collections were inspired, for example, by conceptualism (Jaroslav Bárta, Jiří Erml, Jiří Hanke, Ján Rečo and others); i.e. the most animated model – today even more significant than then.

The question is what influence social documentary had on society, given that only little of it was published and that which was appeared mainly at exhibitions and with a very limited group of viewers. On the other hand, each issue of the magazine, Mladý svět, perceived as a magazine operating on the edge of what the regime could tolerate (including printed photos), was followed very closely at all levels of society. It was important mainly that almost all social documentaries were perceived by the Communists – contrary to photojournalism – not only as non-conforming and resistant, but also as directly subversive and as having thus a clear meaning. Of course a handful of progressive Communists, working for change, perceived the documentaries’ subversiveness as positive, but they did perceive it.

One of the reasons to explore the social documentary photography of the 1980’s (and the 1970s) consists of the fact that it should be protected. This could be in part the task of several collections of artistic photography in this country, but mainly archives and museums. To the latter belongs the task of documenting contemporary history, which transforms itself fluidly into the past. In addition to this, it is necessary to document the photographic medium, not only in its artistic but rather even its non-artistic areas.

Compared with the current media situation, photography would likely demonstrate marked differences and therewith also a noticeable dependence of societal usage (of everyone?) on the societal system. In the case of the photography, (there is also a dependency) on radical technical innovation (with digital technology photography parted after 150 years from the dominance of the negative-positive principle and increased its “artisticness” and uncontrollability). In the 1980’s several models (trends) of artistic photography existed side-byside. Only a few individuals however communicated in the context of creative art. Today certain photographers produce the most sophisticated part of image art and the context of artistic photography is bound as before to schools. It has almost disappeared from the amateur environment. If one thinks of documentary photography, I am reminded of Jaroslav Bárta’s projects (1999, Letem českým světem / 1999, Flight around the Czech World[ref]1999. Fotografie české společnosti / Photographs of Czech Society. Cudlín, Čejka, Dvořáčková, Gil, Holomíček, Hrachová, Kolář, Němec, Pospěch, Rošický, Štecha. Kat. České foto. / Dept. of Czech Photography, Supreme Burgraviate, Prague Castle, 2000. Introd. Ivan Dejmal, Pavel Scheufler; Jaroslav Bárta, Zdeněk Helfert, Daniela Horníčková, Ivan Lutterer, Letem českým světem 1898–1998. Obraz proměny českých zemí v odstupu století. / Flight around the Czech World 1898–1998. Image of the Transformation of the Czech Lands as Seen over the Centuries. Lomnice nad Popelkou 1999.[/ref]) and the documentary work most often tied to the name, Jindřich Štreit, and the Institute of Creative Photography. A truly serious novelty is humanitarian photography. Photojournalism freed itself and also became dependent on capital. Paparazzi and celebrity photographs have the greatest societal role. The societal role of the photographic medium became radically reduced. The number and significance o documentary films is growing fluidly; however, they do not completely replace photography simply because they flow and “do not stand.” Even though there is certainly much more documentary activity that what I have named, I think that the radical, gradual transformation of mass culture and society since 1989 has remained only seldom photographically recorded. And despite the fact that digital photography is simple and cheap, I fear that the willingness to sacrifice oneself for something, which doesn’t generate money, has disappeared; i.e. the actual willingness to be free. Isn’t this the opposite of what we wanted twenty years ago? It’s as if we don’t want to shame or even admire that which we then won; critical analysis and societal reflection have limited themselves to a minimum. In recent years we can at least be grateful for “dead pan” images, which are about something. If only they were, despite their name, lively enough to make an impression on society. The fact that photographers have rarely been able to change something is simply no excuse nor explanation for resignation.

Antonín Dufek