Fotograf Magazine

Jan Svoboda: I’m Not a Photographer

I’m Not a Photographer is a book full of paradoxes, and sometimes even slightly irritating. It’s not a catalogue of the exhibition curated by Jiří Pátek at the Moravian Gallery in Brno. It’s not a photobook. It’s not even a typical research monography. I’m Not a Photographer is an all-in-one catalogue, a photobook and a monography. A rather strange status of this publication may have originated from the fact that the book has more than just one authors. It was edited by Rostislav Koryčánek and Jiří Pátek, and its overall concept was created by Pavel Vančát and Jiří Pátek. The layout is by Robert V. Novák and we can find an original tribute to Svoboda in the book by Jiří Thyn.  The problem starts with the title. If Svoboda is not a photographer, then who he really is? A poet? An artist? Do these identities contradict each other? Svoboda’s own words, taken out of context, really do not mean anything as far as the book’s contents is concerned – the book at first glimpse presents him as an astonishing, yet a rather overlooked Czech photographer. If this was not enough, the book is introduced with a dedication “To Anna, Aneta and Antonín” (we know who they are), who helped Svoboda become a photographer. The publication (as well as the exhibition at the Moravian Gallery) also “helps” Svoboda to become a photographer and helps us in understanding the philosophy behind his pictures. Despite a statement made by Jiří Pátek in his introduction, the book (like any monography) does not aim to strip the author’s work of various myths, but rather to reinforce his position and legendary status. And it, fortunately enough, succeeds to do so since Svoboda really was a great photographer.

                The 300-page hardback volume with a special dust cover is beautifully edited, printed and published in two language versions. Even if the English translation lacks quality here and there, the book has a great chance to become an international success. Novák contradicts the image of the artist and the form of earlier books by choosing a dense, soft, subtle paper that turns the publication nearly into a luxury item. For the more orthodox collectors and enthusiasts of “stark” editions and Svoboda’s raw and simple photography, this model may be too much to take, but for the wide audience out there, it is undoubtedly startling. When leafing through the pages, the reader’s attention may be turned to a simple absence of classic full page double spreads, a motive so popular today. Only Thyn’s photos are printed this way, a fact distinguishing their originality. There is however some concern whether adding Thyn’s works was all that necessary. This problematic decision manifests itself in spreading the few pictures all over the book (while they are not even referenced in the table of contents) and in submitting their author to the deceased master. It seems that Thyn’s photographs would work so much better as part of an individual publication or exhibition.

        Another remarkable graphic motive in Novák’s layout is the evasion of artificial division of the book into individual parts. A rather small format of photographic reproductions, despite having its faults, allows for inclusion of literally hundreds of pictures within the book. The pictures are by Svoboda himself, as well as reprographies of catalogues, views of exhibitions or facsimiles of press reviews. Such richness of sources initially intertwines with various essays, further on acquiring their own autonomy, and finally turning into a calendar of events.

                Whatever we may think of I’m Not a Photographer, the closest in form it goes is a research monography. The argument for this lies in a whole range of texts that problematise and portray Svoboda’s personality and his body of work. The book is opened by a significant summary treatise by Pavel Vančát, followed by Antonín Dufek’s text dedicated to Svoboda’s bout against official art institutions. However valuable the article by this prestigious researcher may be, it rather presents only a starting point for further research than a profound analysis in its own right. The problems associated with art institutions raised by Dufek are further on treated individually by Jiří Pátek. Jaroslav Anděl, in turn, places Svoboda’s work in the context of the aesthetics of Modernist photography. The text part is closed by essays that perhaps ideally match the book’s title and a revision of Svoboda’s photographic work. Katarína Mašterová writes about his portraits of works of art and Petr Rezek places Svoboda’s photography within the context of choreography. In the following part, a detailed and startling Calendar of Events may be found, edited by Pavel Vančát and Katarína Mašterová: it presents the author’s biography, the already mentioned Thyn’s photographs, a complete list of exhibitions, a bibliography of catalogues, performances and other facts associated with Svoboda’s work, an index and a detailed description of reproductions.

                In an original layout of the book, Svoboda’s photographs are published in a very specific way. In combination with pictures and texts, the calendar of events and Thyn’s photographs, autonomous character of individual pictures is reduced. The same applies to the mixture of reproductions with individual prints, reviews and fragments of letters. The collection of photographs is introduced with a beautiful poem by Svoboda entitled Zase doma! (At Home Again!) that is a kind of confession and perhaps an introduction , a definition of Svoboda’s vision: “Poetry is not lazy. It whispers deceiving words to you. Reality beheads fantasy. An image which won’t return!” Following this poem, we have a layout that avoids simple chronology of events and artificial divisions based on individual topics or problems. Svoboda’s work is submitted to poetry. It’s easy to overlook it, too. It demands attention and subtlety. These qualities certainly didn’t lack with the editors of this book that has become a wonderful house for Svoboda’s photographs.

Adam Mazur