Fotograf Magazine

Ladislav Sitenský’s acquired muse

“… I longed to be a poet, a painter, a sculptor or perhaps a tenor, yet I was too young to do so and mainly I lacked the talent and the possibilities to acquire a Muse for myself. At the age of fourteen my dad bought me a small camera and from the start I  felt that somewhere I could at least temporarily find a means of self-realisation. I needed a way – any way at all – to express my feelings … Yes, I am passionate about taking pictures, but perhaps only because I’m not good at anything else.“

Ladislav Sitenský (1919–2009) was one of our most noteworthy photographers. His vivid photos, incredible fate in life, humanity and personal involvement – all this contributed to his becoming a legend during his lifetime.

Sitenský took photographs from childhood and just shortly after that he began to get them published. He gained acclaim, for example, for his report on the Prague fire-fighters or for his work from the funeral of T.G. Masaryk. In March 1939 he captured on film the occupation of Prague by the German Army, and rather due to political circumstances and not his own personal focus he became a war photographer for the next several  years.  In  autumn  1939  he  was  meant  to  begin  studying architecture in Paris, however, at this time the Germans tore into France and Sitenský (after the French defeat) more or less ran away to England.

He wanted to immediately join the fighter-plane pilots of the British Air Force, but his colleagues talked him out of it, so that he could continue his photographic activities. “I quickly understood that it makes sense to drive  from  squadron  to  squadron  and  capture  all  the  important happenings. How my friends died in the war. I was glad that I managed to photograph them before they passed on to eternity.“ Sitenský created one  of  his  most  famous  collections  –  he  eternalised  the  life  of Czechoslovak pilots, who joined the fight during the Second World War in the ranks of the Royal Air Force. Before our eyes he defines the sky full of planes, the fighter machines, the take-offs and landings, the tense expectations for departure, training and moments of rest, genre shots are replaced by masterly portraits.

No less interesting are  Sitenský’s civilian photos from  occupied England, namely the bombings of destroyed London or his photos of the Czechoslovak armed brigades after the opening of the Western Front. He avoided, and this characterises his later photographic creations as well, the recording of excessively sensational shots of human suffering. In all his memoirs he wrote that to him that seemed like doing business with man’s most intimate emotions.

In his own way Ladislav Sitenský shared a fate similar to that of today’s at-long-last recognised Czechoslovak fighter pilots after the change of the regime in 1948. The Communist dictatorship sharply condemned and refused their activities in England, they classified the Communist resistance against the Nazi regime as the only sensible one. The pilots, who returned home after the wartime flights, presented a marked danger for the new regime: they fought for freedom, for liberty, they knew too well the price of Western democracy. Sitenský escaped arrest, “only“ his book on the fighter pilots had to go to the paper mill and could only be published after 1989. Sitenský’s photos inspired Jan Svěrák in the film, Tmavomodrý svět / Dark Blue World. Antonín Střížek references them on his canvases.

Another creation by Ladislav Sitenský characterises an immense scope of themes and approaches: “I am perhaps the only photographer in all of Europe, who had such a wide focus. I did architecture, people, war – whatever crossed my path, I photographed it.“ He succeeded in remaining a freelance photographer; he had the opportunity to publish further. “On one hand I did not provoke them, on the other hand I did not march to their tune.“

Sitenský loved Prague, the Vltava River, the cloudy sky and the winter mountains – in a number of interviews he admitted his love for snow, ice and mountains overall – he proved this love in books like Praha stověžatá (Hundred-spired Prague); Krajinou domova (The Home Landscape); Se skautským pozdravem (With a Scout’s Greeting); Bílé opojení (White Intoxication); etc. He also worked as a portrait photographer, through which he built on his pre-war portrait activities: in addition to Winston Churchill, Marshal Montgomery, Edvard Beneš, the English King, George IV, and Queen Elizabeth II, he photographed a whole range of personalities from  our  theatrical  and  musical  scenes.

Zdeněk Kirschner wrote that Sitenský is “a natural-born story-teller, a witty columnist, a novelist and a fiction-writer – an essayist on our lives and our times. His photos are authentic, lived, personal and actually endlessly kind and straightforward.“ Ladislav Sitenský’s departure along with the recent deaths of both Jan Lukas and Zdeněk Tmej has closed an extensive and unique chapter in the history of Czech and Czechoslovak photography.

Helena Musilová