Fotograf Magazine

Month of photography in Bratislava 2006

Bratislava’s festival of photography can be described either in terms of superlatives or unflatteringly – depending on perspective. Some regular visitors fail to see how it is possible, in spite of all the critical responses, that the organizers were unable to avoid unnecessary mistakes in the festival’s sixteenth year, which took place in November 2006. These included the all too often shoddy installation of the exhibitions, missing captions, and major exhibitions again opening in the first half of the opening week, when most foreign visitors still had not made it to Bratislava [from Czech photography schools alone over two hundred students and lecturers visit regularly), or the still non-existing accreditation for exhibiting artists, portfolio reviewers, festival guests and journalists, who once again had to go through the humiliation of having to plead for free entrance to exhibitions and other events. On the other hand it is clear that the Bratislava Month of Photography has come a long way since its humble beginnings, and today has earned its irreplaceable niche among other photography festivals (a fact confir­med by its inclusion in the European Month of Photography, together with the festivals in Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Rome and Luxembourg). A small group of organizers, with Vaclav Macek at their head, managed to compile a festival accentuating Central and Eastern European photography, which is also accompanied each year by several exhibitions of foremost photographers from other parts of the world. The festival program has grown over the years to the current number of circa 35 exhibitions; in addition to those there is today also a well-organized portfolio review (with the participation of prominent photographers, critics and curators), several workshops, lectures, a photo-book compe­tition, and even a concert of new compositions by Slovak musicians inspired by various photographs. The Fotofoto Foundation that holds the festival managed to publish a number of books and catalogues, and in 2005 they opened the Central European House of Photography. Already for eleven years they have been issuing Imago magazine in English. The organizers have also gradually managed to eliminate the most serious mistakes in the festival production: most exhibitions were open also during the opening weekend, the extensive Slovak-English catalogue came out on time, all of the exhibition pieces were hung on the walls or panels, and none were found lying on the floor, as happened in 2005.

What then, did the 16th Month of Photography yield? As always, the larger share of exhibitions were dedicated to Central and East European photography. Regrettably, Russian photography this year was not represented by any new tendency, only an exhibition entitled Jewels of Russian Photography 1850-1950 from the Collection of Anatolij Zlo­bovsky. This presented mostly original prints of 19′ century portraiture (Konstantin Shapiro, Andrei Karelin, Maxim Dmitriev), Russian Picto­rialism (Nikolai Andreyev, Vasily Ulitin, Alexander Grinberg, Nikolai Svishchov-Paola, Leonid Shokin, and others), 1920s and 1930s avant-garde tendencies [Alexander Rodchenko, Eleazar Langman, Alexander Khlebnikov, Regina Lemberg), as well as photojournalism increasingly influenced by Socialist Realism (Arkadii Shaikhet, Dmitri Dyebabov, Georgii Zelma, Arkadii Shishkin, Ivan Shagin). The over-mannered shots of zealous builders and sportsmen taken from striking high or low angles were in many ways reminiscent of Leni Riefenstahl’s photographs from Nazi Germany, raising similar questions as to the degree of guilt of talented photographers in promoting totalitarian regimes. Its contribution lay particularly in that alongside much-published icons the exhibition included little known works, such as Langman or Lemberg’s photographs, that until recently did not appear even in detailed anthologies of Soviet photography. Polish visitors, however, were particularly surprised to see the works of a classic figure of Polish photography (Jan Bulhak) ranked among Russian artists.

The festival’s attractions that drew the most viewers included the exhibition of early works by the world-famous Hungarian photographer Andre Kertesz from the years 1913-1919. The selection of new prints from the Hungarian Museum of Photography however left aside a vast majority of the essential works that made Kertesz one of the most prominent pioneers of both modern photojournalism and experimental photography, while it included a multitude of banal pictures. In contrast, both of the Austrian exhibitions were excellent – the collection of Erich Lessing’s reportage photographs showing the short-lived euphoria and subsequent bloody suppression of the anti-Communist uprising in Budapest in 1956 (on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of this event Lessing’s dramatic photographs were presented in many cities worldwide, from New York and Paris to Vienna), and the collection of Branko Lenart’s photographs, full of imaginative tricks of perspective and references to various older works of art.

Slovak creative photography was also represented in several exhibitions. Bratislava By the Back Door [Bratislava zadnim vchodem], compiled by Vaclav Macek and featuring an eponymous publication, presented a photographic history of the Slovak capital in the 20th century. Of particular interest were documentary images from the 1950s and 1960s by Ladislav Csader, Juraj Sajmovre, Igor Grossmann and others who worked in the aesthetic of the “poetry of the everyday.” For many visitors the biggest surprise was the retrospective of an often forgotten representative of 1980s Slovak staged photography, Jan Pavlik, whose work was more introspective and less playful than the works of his colleagues at that time, Tono Steno, Vasil Stanko, Rudo Prekop, and Miro Svolik. Among the most original parts of the festival was the exhibition Stars. Its author, Pavel Maria Smejkal, digitally implanted the figures of prisoners in concentration camps with the faces of contemporary celebrities. His intention was not to question one of the last taboos in contemporary art – an ironic interpretation of the Holocaust (as attempted for instance by the Polish artist Zbigniew Libera, with controversial results]. Rather, he wanted to say that hundreds of celebrities of the time had also perished in concentration camps, and at the same time he wished to pose the question to the viewer of whether they could also find themselves in a similar situation -and how would they live up to it. Two diverse poles of photography on sociological issues were presented in Andrea Kalinove’s exhibition on Slovak politicians and the provisional dwellings of the homeless; and Juraj Chlapik’s exhibition confronting the portraits of the inhabitants of Bratislava’s largest housing project – Petržalka – with the interiors of their pre-fab homes.

Among the highlights of the festival were The New Documentalists (Poland), assembled by Warsaw curator Adam Mazur mostly of works by young Polish photographers, Zuzana Krajewska, Rafal Milach, Igor Omulecki, Weronika Lodzinska, Andrzej Kramarz, Ireneusz Zjezdtzalka, and others. They collectively form a strong younger generation that has grown tired of the endless reiteration of works by the Polish pioneers of conceptual and multi-media art from the 1950s and 1960s, as is still the case at many Polish schools of photography. They look for inspiration above all in the current trends of subjective documentary, the modern sociological portrait, or stunningly precise fragments of urban landscapes and various indoor scenes. The Bratislava reprise of this essential exhibition, first shown at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, revealed a surprisingly high level of achievement both in terms of craft and content – such as only a few years ago would have been sought in vain in Polish photography. By comparison to the more ironic exhibition Poland Now (Teraz Polska), launched in May 2006 at the Month of Photography in Krakow, the present exhibition inspired more optimism. A more traditional rendition of the photographic documentary was visible at the retrospective of the internationally renowned Lithuanian photographer of the middle generation Romualdas Požerskis, whose black-and-white images have the ability to reveal large, general themes in the most trivial situations, combining authenticity with lyricism.

Czech photography was represented this time very extensively and in very good quality. This was largely due to the gigantic retrospective of Jindnich Streit stretching over two floors of the Slovak National Gallery. It was an expanded version of the exhibition held in Ostrava, on the occasion of the 60′ birthday of this foremost representative of Czech and European social documentary. He entrusted with the selection of photographs his former student and present colleague at the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava, Tonia Pospech. It was a propitious decision, since Pospech was bold enough to interfere with the chronological sequence of cycles and to eliminate some less essential works. In this way he succeeded in selecting only the very best works – including some that had hitherto existed only in negatives. Particularly the bleak, and yet visually compelling images from the everyday life of villagers in the region of Rjtmarov and Bruntal where Streit masterfully combined a portrait of a specific group of people in a concrete environment and period with timeless values documented the outstanding quality as well as the historical, sociological and philosophical significance of Streit’s work.

The Bratislava Month of Photography however also presented an opportunity to compare Streit’s work from the last two decades of the 20′ century with the older and hitherto virtually unknown photographs of the 75-year old Gustav Aulehla. With startling openness and visual sophistication, and often with subtle irony, fifty years ago Aulehla began documenting the devastation of both people and environment during the rule of Communist totalitarianism in his native Krnov and its vicinity. Since photography was not his means of living, he did not have to worry whether his photographs would be published or not, and he thus created an unusually truthful personal documentary that portrays aspects of life at the time far more aptly and authentically then the lyrical photographs of his contemporaries, representatives of the “poetry of the everyday” trend. Czech photography was represented in Bratislava also by a small exhibition of multimedia works by Mila Preslove, a traveling exhibition of unconventional portraits by Antonin Kratochvil held by Leica Gallery Prague in railway carriages, and the very personal and often rather intimate photographs of Sri David, who has for a number of years photographed his wife and teenage son. While in his earlier cycles Skryte podoby (Hidden Image) and Bez soucitu (No Compassion) photographs were merely a vehicle to realize the artist’s concepts and it was inessential who actually pressed the shutter release, in David’s generalizing, and yet ever so subjective family documentaries, photography now becomes work in its own right.

The program of the Bratislava festival this year included a section entitled East of the East, introducing photographs from China and South Korea. Those included extraordinarily compelling photographs from contemporary China by the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who has in recent years become one of the most well respected figures in contemporary photography. His large-format color prints place Burtynsky within the current trend of technically perfect and outwardly reserved shots of reality, but people have started appearing with increasing frequency in his recent photographs. The spectral images of thousands of uniformly dressed male and female workers sowing shoes in vast halls, gutting chickens or eating in immense factory canteens most eloquently illustrate the loss of both individuality and traditions going back thousands of years, and the current sharp advance of mass production and mass consumerism in a country where hard-line ideology goes hand in hand with tremendous economic growth. Bratislava saw the premiere of Contemporary Korean Photography, featuring also examples of older works from the 196Ds. It was fascinating to see the international tendencies (a sophisticated use of color as well as computer-processing of the image, technically perfect prints, a renewed interest in portraiture) in many works fused with traditional Korean cultural influences, or a desire to reflect the fast-transforming South Korean society, or the imperviously isolated and incessantly arming nation divided into two completely different states.

An undisputed contribution to the festival was also the extensive exhibition of the Finnish photographer Arno Rafael Minkkinen, who has for many years photographed fragments of his body in both rural and urban landscapes, a retrospective of Slovenian photography focusing on its conceptual and staged trends, a surprisingly good exhibition of Cuban photographs on religious themes entitled The Other Side of the Soul, a collection of color documentaries from Columbia by the Dutch artist Hannes Wallrafen, and Mutations I – a selection that included computer-manipulated works by seven artists from the seven countries where festivals included in the European Month of Photography take place. The sixteenth Month of Photography in Bratislava was thus among the better years in the history of the festival so far.

Vladimír Birgus