Fotograf Magazine

Month of Photography in Bratislava

In its twelve-year existence, Month of Photography in the Slovak capital has cut a figure for itself as the most important regular photography festival in Central and Eastern Europe. Although a rival has appeared    on the scene recently in the form of the considerably larger and more well-financed Moscow Fotobienále, that festival focusses on Russian, West-European and American  photography.

It has become a yearly tradition at Bratislava to organise one extensive exhibition presenting a panorama of work from a former Soviet Bloc country. This year was dedicated to the photography of two countries that, ten years ago, were still one –the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The exhibition in question was originally put together for the Museum of Art in Olomouc by the young curators Lucia Lendelová, Tomáš Pospěch and Helena Rišlinková from the work of 80 photographers representing a variety of trends and generations over the past two decades. As with any such exhibition, one might naturally question the inclusion or exclusion of this or that photographer representing such and such creative tendency. Nevertheless, the exhibition as a whole was a success and its extensive catalogue with text in English, Czech and Slovak is a valuable source of information for anyone interested in Czech and Slovak photography of the 1980s and ‘90s. Also praiseworthy is the fact that the curators did not balk at including the high-quality work of little-known authors and intermediate forms of art that make use of photography.

Czech and Slovak photography was represented at Bratislava by a series of exhibitions dedicated to particular photographers. One small retrospective presented the work of the late Ladislav Foltyn, a Slovak graduate of Bauhaus whose work, which was almost unknown until recently, carried on the spirit of New Objectivity and Contructivism. There was an excellent exhibition of subtly ironic ‘subjective documents’ relating to today’s Slovakia by Jozef Ondzik which was brought about thanks to a generous grant from the Bratislava Institute for Public Issues. With his ingeniously composed images containing a wealth of pictorial metaphors, Ondzik proved that he deserves to be regarded as a leading figure in the field of Slovak documentary photography, which has been experiencing a particularly fertile period thanks to the work of people like Andrej Bán, Martin Kollár, Lucia Nimcová, Alan Hyža, Andrej Balco, Matúš Tóth, Filip Vančo and many other young and middle-aged photographers. Truly Czecho-Slovak was an exhibition devoted to the work of Tono Stano, the well-known Slovak photographer with Czech citizenship who presented in Bratislava (they had already been displayed at an opening in Prague) his newest photos of nude men and women against a variety of natural backdrops. Some of the festival’s exhibitions of Slovak photographers were held in other cities, as was the case with Andrej Bán in Berlin, Rudo Prekop in Spišská Nová Ves and Miro ·volík and Pavel Pech in Vienna. The main reason they were included within the framework of the festival was probably so they could be included in the admirable 140-page catalogue, because there were obviously not many among the visitors to the festival who could be expected to make the journey to see their work. The largest Czech exhibition presented the life work of Karl Cudlín, in which his humanistic images from the everyday lives of ordinary people in the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Israel and other countries were predominant, though a subtle sense of humour and some irony were not lacking. Recent FAMU graduate Hynek Alt presented a series of remarkable photos make up a sort of personal visual diary. An exhibition of e x p r e s s i v e ‘ s u b j e c t i v e documents’ from America by Josef Moucha was held not in Bratislava itself, but  in nearby  ·amorín.

R u s s i a n photography has always  been well represented at the Bratislava Month of Photography. This was true this time as well, thanks to the groundbreaking ‘Russian Pictorialism,’ which was presented earlier at FotoFest in Houston. The exhibition, assembled mostly from the private collection of Mikhail Golosovsky under the curatorship of Evgeny Berezner and Irina Tchmyreva, showed the little- known Romantic pictorialist landscapes, portraits, genre tableaux and nudes of photographers like Mazurin, Lobovikov, Svishchyov – Paola, Grinberg, Ulitin and other photographers who have just recently captured the public eye in Russia as well as abroad. Present-day Russian photography was represented by the imaginatively installed meditative images of Svyatoslav Ponomarev, which were inspired by Eastern philosophic and religious ideas, and a collection of portraits titled ‘Suspicious (7 + 7)’ by the Russian collective A.E.S., in which the public was supposed to decide which of the women in the portraits were muderers and which were ‘normal.’ Poland was represented by an exhibition of the original and expressive portraits of many important figures from Polish public life by Krzysztof Gieraltowski and Bulgarian filmmaker Emil  Christov  pleasantly  surprised  festival  visitors  with a number of sensitive images and subtle visual metaphors, though overall the exhibition was of uneven quality and suffered as a result.

Every year, Photography Month also organises several  exhibitions  from Western Europe and the United States. This past year was no exception. The greatest attraction for visitors was doubtless the extensive retrospective of ninety-four-year-old Henri Cartier-Bresson on three floors of the Bratislava City Gallery. The legendary pioneer of ‘decisive moments’ was represented not only by those of his famed images that have become photographic icons of the 20th century, but also by a series of less well-known images selected mainly from among his work of the 1930s. Other strong points of the festival were the powerful, nostalgia-ridden portraits of people in their homes by Dutch photographer Bert Teunissen, which were reminiscent of the paintings  of the old Dutch masters with their tranquil compositions and subdued colours; the lyrical images of American Keith Carter filled with subtle metaphors and visual symbols; and the technically  precise  and suggestive photos of the ‘Austrian Weege,’ Stefan Liewehr,  who used    a cumbersome 4×5 in. camera and doddering flash to photograph the customers at various restaurants, bars and cafés in Vienna. Many refreshing ideas were on display at the exhibition organised by the College of Visual Arts at La Cambre. In contrast, the calculated and heavy-handedly symbolic tableaux in which Israeli Boaz Tal photographed himself and his family in different ludicrous paraphrases of  Biblical  scenes were disappointing, as were the rather drab images of Greek monks from Mount Athos by Kostas  Argyris.

Other events at the festival were the traditional two-day theoretical conference, several creative workshops, a carnavalesque studio at the F 7 Gallery where visitors could be photographed as any number of public personalities by means of digital technology, a contest for the best portfolio as well as the second contest for the best photography publication in Central and Eastern Europe – which caused considerable confusion due to organisational problems and above all problems in presentation. Nevertheless, despite the organisational troubles apparent in the fact that some exhibitions were closed during the main festival dates and the first weekend in November, all in all there were less problems than in previous years. This year was doubtlessly one of the festival’s best thanks to the efforts of director Václav Macek and his co-workers.

Vladimír Birgus