Fotograf Magazine

Jindřich Toman: Photo/montage through printing

Jindřich Toman ranks among the top experts on Czech and Central European Modernist and Avant-garde book culture. He proves this once again in his new bound collection on photography and photo-montage in Czech media, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s.

Toman’s work has indubitable value in that it clearly shows how photography and specifically photo-montage as “commentary photography“ worked in the Czech media environment. He does not focus on the “parenthetic“ aesthetic and formal quality of photos themselves, but rather on their context that is given by their usage in print reproductions, in montages and when tied to texts. From this perspective he serves up a view of photography and photo-montage as media, which are bound to the written word (descriptions, texts, commentaries, etc.).

He elaborates this theme from the perspective of an “adisciplinary“ approach, which is a term for emphasising a diversion (withdrawal) from specific disciplines (art history, literature, sociology, politics). Toman heads
in the direction of visual studies.

According to the author the book can be read starting from the end or starting in the middle. And one cannot exclude even starting at the beginning, which this reviewer did. He affirms that all approaches are possible. And he allows for this not only in his structuring of the main chapters with a clear set
of sub-chapters, but also through short commentaries: on the reproduction
of a concrete page or dual-page set. Yet the text is written in a readable way, lacking that characteristic dryness typical of certain types of scholarly text.

Toman explains basic terms in the European context and thus, for example, with photo-montage he points out its usage since the second half of the 19th century (humour, photo manipulation, futuristic postcards, photomontages from The World of Animals 1911, etc.). He defines the interpretation of image poems in Poetism, for which he looks at Teige’s key statement that this is the “art of print.“ “The electrotype was ultimately more important than the original.“ (pg. 85) František Matoušek thus in the book Art in Book Form / Umění knižně vydané (Prague 1925) filled in the book form with a nine-strength programme of machine-reproducible art, which had its pre-images in Kazimir Malevič’s book, Suprematizm: 34 risunka (Suprematism: 34 drawings), published in Vitebsk in 1920. Malevič selected a series of his own suprematist images, photographed them and then published their reproductions, each on its own page and with a graphic frame, as a sequence of proposals for an abstract film. When you flipped through the catalogue, you got the impression of film sequencing and timing, which is – according to Malevič – “ … impersonal, uniform, abstract, invisible, unperceivable, which is …“[ref]Tupytsin, Margareta: Malevich and Film. New Haven – London 2002, pg. 23.[/ref]

Toman watches the “new territory of modernity“ in photo-montage, such as the world of film or modern cities with their skyscrapers, night lighting and entertainment business. His finding on where photo-montage applies itself is interesting: in motifs connected to religion and faith, but also to rural areas and agriculture. Photo-montage was both used and refused on an ideological basis: it had a huge significance for Soviet propagandist typography, i.e. for “tractor propaganda“, where as for the Nazis it was the “medium of hatred.“ Toman presents as case studies four examples from important artists, who worked with photo-montage or photography when developing book covers: Jindřich Štyrský, Toyen, Vojtěch Tittelbach, and František Muzika. In my opinion, in addition to these persons from the world of book typography working with photography and photo-montage, it would be worth underscoring the role of Ladislav Sutnar.[ref]Comparison: Vlčková, Lucie (ed.): Collective Work. Sutnar – Sudek. Prague 2007.[/ref]

The author pays deserved attention to John Heartfield and specifically his productions in the Czech Republic with a number of new findings, and also proposals for new text attributions. Overall Toman’s excursions into the realm of periodicals (Reflektor) and image magazines are in many respects heuristic. The book includes a number of book and magazine covers with author dedications, mainly to Vojtěch Tittelbach. He created the series of covers-ads for the magazine, Domov a svět (Home and World), a publication that Zdeněk Rykr ran from 1929. It’s a matter of further investigation whether or not Rykr did not make some proposals himself (he was the author of the cover for issue 12 from 1930). Rykr knew Tittelbach from his earlier work at the magazine, Trn (Thorn).

In the closing part of his book Toman touches upon the phenomena: photopoetry, photo-comics and the art of inscenation in the photographic space (Heisler and Toyen). Ultimately he analyses Teige’s covers and erotic collages in which he looks for a path to a surrealist private space, a sort of return to the aesthetic of the 19th century, to the original, nonreproduced photo-montage, which once again gains an aura of authenticity. Radical modernisation beckoned for photography Toman claims. Modernist stylised drawing no longer sufficed. Whatever photography, and above all photo-montage, touch “they modernise it.“

So what is local, that is Czech, here asks the author? It is first and foremost the broad scope of Czech modernist book culture. It is the presence of a strong consumer for this culture, the middle class, which wanted to be a user of modernity. Czech modernism created the “dialectic of translocal exchanges and local needs,“ asserts Toman (pg. 346). Or, in other words, the need to align ourselves with theWest went hand in hand with the consumer’s demand to include modernism among his/her values and into the experienced (lived) environment.

Toman’s publication notably moves our knowledge of modernist book culture from the inter-war period forward. It shows for the first time the irreplaceable role that photography and photo-montage had in realising
the “modern project“ in the Czech Republic.


Jindřich Toman: Foto/montáž tiskem. Edice Moderní česká kniha
(Photo/Montage through Printing. Modern Czech Book Edition), Kant,
Prague 2009, 375 pgs. ISBN 978-80-86970-92-9.

Vojtěch Lahoda