Fotograf Magazine

Martin Kollár: nothing special?

When the young, Slovak photographer, Martin Kollár, held his second independent exhibit in Bratislava’s Palffy Palace in 2001 during the Bratislava Month of Photography, it created a small sensation. A practically unknown cameraman came up with uncommonly mature and personalised photographic work that disrupted a number of mundane approaches used in Central Europe. Until then only a few, unique artistic personalities in the Czech and Slovak milieus like Jan Ságl, Vladimír Birgus, Karol Kállay, Martin Marenčín, or Miro Suchý in the USA, had focused their work on colour photography. And what was specifically atypical for the Czechoslovak context was that Martin Kollár abandoned the traditional documentarist cannon for portraying people, i.e. one where the photographer respects his subjects with whom he shares their life values and possibly sympathises with their life’s work. In the least, the works of Martin Parr were well known on the Czech and Slovak scenes at the start of the 1990s. But it was Martin Kollár who first managed to so markedly and matter-of-factly integrate humour into photography. He did this with elements of absurd confrontation through which he commented on the life of the middle class in the transition economies of the former East Bloc in a focused way. Until then only Miro Suchý, in his photo collections on American dog shows, had attempted to incorporate humour and irony into documentary photography.

Without exaggeration one can say that Martin Kollár motivated a strong generation of Slovak photographers. Thanks to this, we can today speak of Slovak documentary work as an important contemporary phenomenon. At the start of this century he expressed an interest in the current look (face) of Slovakia. He studied moments of leisure and forms of mass entertainment in majority Slovak society in a targeted way. He brought colour, humour and sometimes even irony to local documentary photography. And while there was not much discussion of Slovak documentary photography in comparison with works from the Czech Republic, the start of the new century brought forward several expressive personalities from the younger generation; even in the Czech milieu an unprecedented organisational fermentation. Undoubtedly, the training of this generation in the documentary tradition of the Czech School of Photography had its influence. A number of today’s most expressive Slovak artists studied at the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava – Institut tvůrčí fotografie Slezské univerzity v Opavě (Andrej Balco, Lucia Nimcová, Jozef Ondzik, Viktor Szemzö). Yet the work of self-taught artists on the Slovak scene annot go unnoticed (Andrej Bán, Alan Hyža, Dana Kaprálová, Martin Marenčin or Martin Kollár). The Slovak Documentary Photography Association founded by Andrej Balco, Andrej Báno, Petr Brenkus, Lubomír Groch, Alan Hyža, Martin Kollár, Martin Marenčin and Jozef Ondzik had an immediate impact on the increased interest in Slovak documentary photography. They initiated the publication of the book and exhibit, Family – Rodinný, which as part of Colin Jacobson’s collection broadly and fairly complexly maps Slovak documentary creations during the 1990s.

In later years the association’s work to create two relatively generous grants for documentarists would prove even more important. These grants were/are unparalleled on the Czech, even the Central European, photography scene. Whereas the first of the two was backed by the Vaculik Advertising Agency, the second was awarded by the Bratislavabased NGO, Institute for Public AffairsInstitut pro veřejné otázky (IVO). This body gave a selected photographer a year-long grant to take photos of changes in modern-day Slovakia. The grant work culminated each year with the publication of collection of the artist’s works, which formed an accompaniment to balance out a rather dry cumulative report on the state of Slovak society. In fact, it was Martin Kollár, who received this grant in 2001, and the result was the exhibit mentioned at the beginning of this article. Through his detour from traditional topics and his emphasis on colour photography and above all else sarcastic humour, something that was hardly acceptable for traditional humanist photography, he defined and markedly influenced other artists: Lucia Nimcová, Andrej Balco and even Jozef Ondzik.

The book published by Actes Sud provides a very narrow selection of 32 photographs. It brings across Kollár’s interest in the “transformation of Eastern Europe.” Thematically, visually and via certain photos, it draws on the same roots used in the selection for the Slovak grant. A number of photographs from Moravia, Romania, Hungary and Lithuania have been added. The project on “New Europe”, as the artist describes it on his web-page, forms a retrospective reflection on Kollár’s creations. Since that time Martin Kollár has been nominated for the Oskár Čepan Prize, he began to work for the French agency, VU, and first and foremost instead of film reels he moved to a medium format. This change brought about a transformation in expression. He works with rigidity, with stopping time and sometimes with a directorial approach. He created two series from America, wedding photos from China, a series on military cooks in Eastern Europe, and is working on a book about the European Parliament, and in Slovakia he photographs couples at civil wedding services.

It took several years to prepare the book. During this time it became a brief look back at Kollár’s older works, a retrospective look at a closed chapter, at that part of his work that had such a marked influence on not only Slovak, but also on Czech photography.


Martin Kollar: Nothing Special. Text by Katarína Kerekešová and Peter Kerekeš, Actes Sud, Arles 2008, 104 pages.

Tomáš Pospěch