Fotograf Magazine

Bratislava month of photography 2007

As usual, the program of the 17th Month of Photography in Bratislava included several exhibitions by world famous artists. This time around these included the photojournalists of Magnum, which celebrates its anniversary, and the French multimedia artist Georges Rousse; still, the largest part of the 35 exhibitions presented as is traditional works from Central and Eastern Europe. Following on from last year, when the festival’s main themes included Asian photography, this year the event presented photography from Latin America.

 Among the best exhibitions of the entire festival was Open Maps, put together by the Spanish curator Alejandro Castellote. This was a truly representative selection of artists drawn from a number of South and Central American countries, including works by both internationally renowned photographers and visual artists working in photography, such as Miguel Rio Branco, Vic Muniz, Mario Cravo Neto, Luis Gonzáles Palma or Marco López, as well as works by artists as yet little known in Europe. In spite of all the global vogues, Latin American photography preserves many specific traits of its own, such as the co-existence of Catholic and indigenous religious motifs, its responsiveness to current political and social issues, and the popularity of Surrealism as well as the frequent eccentricity of staged scenes. This was exemplified also in a solo exhibition of Paula Luttringer, who metaphorically rendered the walls of the cell where thirty years ago the women who resisted the Argentine military dictatorship were secretly held and tortured.

 The main attractions for the general public were two exhibitions of the current stars of Magnum, which was celebrating the 60th anniversary of its foundation. Paolo Pellegrin (Italy) is a representative of new trends in photojournalism, a far cry from the traditional composition and clarity of the works of the founders of Magnum. In Bratislava he presented a collection of expressive black-and-white photographs from various neuralgic points of our planet – Sudan, Kosovo, Palestine, Afghanistan. However, only seldom did he straightforwardly capture the victims of military and religious conflicts, famines or genocides. Frequently exploiting the blur of movement and a tonal scale narrowed down to the contrast of black and white, his photographs focus chiefly on eloquent details which reflect these tragedies indirectly, on the level of symbolism. Balancing on the edge of reportage and the subjective documentary, Pellegrin’s photographs are deeply moving, but when seen in greater numbers the question arises as to whether their form, so unconventional at first, may not become a kind of cliché through constant repetition.

 Magnum’s other exhibition presented a cycle entitled Zone by Carl De Keyzer (Belgium), showing life in the prison camps of Siberia. Even though De Keyzer was limited during his work by the prison guards who supervised that he showed only a “positive picture” of the surroundings, he still succeeded in creating extraordinarily powerful images capturing a broad range of aspects of prison life in the harsh conditions of Siberia. The whole exhibition struck one as very depressing, revealing as it did the deep rift between official proclamations of a humanist approach to the re-education of criminals, and the dire reality of the situation. Many of De Keyzer’s spectral photographs give the impression that they are meticulously staged scenes, but in reality the photographer used no such device. The flawless and brilliant technical execution of the prints from medium-format negatives only enhanced the power of this outstanding collection.

 The most extensive exhibition, Lost Time? Slovakia 1969–1989 in Documentary Photography, evocatively showed life in Slovakia during the era of Gustav Husák’s regime. Curators Aurel Hrabušický and Petra Hanáková performed a genuine feat in terms of research, finding photographs not only in a range of archives, museums and galleries, but also representing dozens of photographers. A vast number of images were mounted on two floors of the Slovak National Gallery, broken down into a number of chapters organized by themes, in which the curators showed not only the bizarre nature of official celebrations of Communism, the obligatory political decoration of streets or shop-windows, or the suppression of individuality during events such as the Spartakiáda mass gymnastic displays, but also the private lives of ordinary people, as well as regional and religious traditions surviving in spite of all ideological pressures. The distance of time only served to enhance the quality of a number of supremely authentic images by Stano Pekár, Anton Podstraský, Juraj Bartoš, Ĺubo Stacho, Ivan Kováč, Ivan Hoffman, Jozef-Ort Šnek, Jozef Sedlák, Ondrej Nosál and others, who created an unflinching portrait of Slovakia during so-called “Normalization”, at times with an ironic detachment. Among the chief merits of the exhibition were also several refreshing features of its installation, evocative signifiers of the period (such as blackened “censored” parts within introductory texts, or the “adorning” of the exhibition space with artificial flowers in the instantly recognizable metal boxes of the period). It was commendable that alongside well-known photographs, the curators included in their collection a number of as-yet unpublished or forgotten works, but on the other hand the show would clearly have benefited from a stricter selection process. And at the same time, there were surprising omissions of some artists (Karol Kállay) or well-known images – the final section on Velvet Revolution and the opening of the Iron Curtain very visibly missed the photographs of Tibor Huszár. Some motifs, too, were repetitive and spread too thinly across a number of second-rate descriptive images, which were moreover at times torn out of their period context. Still, in spite of all these partial criticisms, Lost Time?, accompanied by an extensive catalogue, is an exceptionally valuable documentary of a time when so much was dictated, and so little was allowed. Following the major exhibition Slovak Photography 1925–2000 or the outstanding retrospective of Martin Martinček, this is yet another proof that in recent years the Slovak National Gallery has contributed substantially more to the research and popularization of photography than the National Gallery in Prague, which so far does not even have a collection of photography in its own right.

 An effective contrast to this exhibition was 5 Years of Slovakia in Documentary Photography – Grant Vaculík Advertising. This selection, curated by Tomáš Pospěch, included five recipients of the aforementioned grant, Andrej Balco, Andrej Bán, Martin Marenčin, Jozef Ondzik and Viktor Szemzö, whose highly topical images demonstrated how fundamental were the changes that both Slovakia and Slovak documentary photography underwent after 1989. What a pity that at the last moment the much-postponed opening of the Prague House of Photography’s exhibition project The Photogeny of Identity. The Memory of Czech Photography was called off yet again – for its curators, Josef Moucha and Helena Musilová strive to present seminal moments in Czech 20th century history in a far more subjective selection of works of the foremost Czech photographers than the curators of Lost Time? Photographs from the days of the Communist totalitarian regime were further represented at the Bratislava festival by a series of until recently unknown images of religious festivities in Poland at the turn of 1960s and 1970s by the Poznań photographer Andrzej P. Florkowski, a number of humanist photographs by Fero Tomík featured in his retrospective exhibition Visual Diary of a Slovak Photographer, and peculiar images of the womenfolk of the Moravian town of Kyjov, shot stealthily with a variety of primitive home-made cameras, by the current star of the international photography scene, Miroslav Tichý.

 Naturally the festival gave the most space to local Slovak work. Apart from the above-cited exhibitions it was represented also by a small-scale retrospective of the early work of the ninety-five year old photographer Viliam Malík, encompassing his social photographs and traditional work drawing on the tradition of Pictorialism, as well as more Modernist work influenced by Constructivism. Peter Župník presented an extensive collection of playful, poetic pictures. The Department of Photography and New Media at the Bratislava Academy of Fine Arts and Design commemorated the 15th anniversary of its existence with an imaginative exhibition of student works on various themes and of various styles at the Médium Gallery, as well as the impeccably organized 5th meeting between the university-level photography schools of Slovakia, Czech Republic, Poland, Austria and Hungary. The youngest generation of Slovak artists also presented itself at the multi-medial exhibition by the Dudas Brothers, exploiting a plethora of elements of mass culture, and in the exhibition of two doctoral students of professor Milota Havránková at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design (Bratislava), Petra Bošanská and Dominika Horáková – confirming once again that with current topical work possessing a well-defined concept, the question of whether one is working in traditional or digitally manipulated images is of little importance.

 Apart from the above-cited Tichý exhibition, Czech photography was represented at another three venues. Miroslav Stibor, who has only just turned eighty, displayed his photographs from the 1960s – alongside his notorious portraits and nudes there were also featured some surprisingly interesting documentary photographs. The Bratislava Castle hosted an extensive show of Young Czech Women Photographers, featuring works by artists already well established (Dita Pepe, Daniela Dostálová, Barbora Bálková, Sylva Francová, Barbora Kuklíková and others) as well as those thus far less well-known (Tereza Vlčková or Barbora Prášilová). Finally, the Institute of Creative Photography of the Silesian University in Opava (Czech Republic) presented samples of the most recent course assignments and diploma works of its students.:: This year, the festival’s organizers, headed by Václav Macek faced a daunting task. Sponsors provided much less money than in previous years, and the organizers thus had to save everywhere – in terms of promotion, social events, and even the catalogue, which slimmed down considerably to 90 pages. Fortunately, this was not reflected in the exhibition program itself, which included even more events, such as for instance the multimedia games with perspective by Georges Rousse, original arrangements of small objects by Pawel Źak, or large-format sociological portraits of Cubans by the Greek photographer Haris Kakarouhas, the photo-reportage on contemporary Russia by Oleg Klimov, a projection of images with music, the public announcement of the winners of the Sittcom Award, and several creative workshops. In short, it was a standard year for an already well-established photography festival.

Vladimír Birgus