Fotograf Magazine

Un-regulated. Virgin Forests in Photography

The exhibit and subsequent publication, Unmanaged. The Natural Forest in Photography, came about as an exemplary co-operative work between the Department of Environmental Studies at the Masaryk University Faculty of Social Sciences in Brno, the Moravian Gallery in Brno and the division of forest ecology at the Silva Tarouca Research Institute for Landscape and Ornamental Gardening. The project developed during the Year of Czech Forests. The project’s objective as described by its editors, Dana Zajoncová and Tomáš Vrška, “is not only to draw attention to the tradition of protecting Czech forests, but also to point out the nonscientific and non-forest value that these wild spaces have … we feel it is important to recognise spaces, where a sort of wildness can be expressed, i.e. a feature of simple, direct human impact. We hold the opinion that these spaces will play an important role in sorting out issues related to environmental crises. Beyond that we feel that these spaces fascinate and provide internal (spiritual) enrichment.”

These other values mentioned by the authors include artistic, aesthetic and general psychological values and and the deeper ecotraining (educational) significance of the forests, or older forests. They perceive these spaces as important for the spiritual life of contemporary man, industrial man, the consumer civilisation that has gotten used to having the non-human world of nature firmly under its control and to using it for its own profit. Wild spaces, nature that we do not regulate, enables us – provided we are perceptive – to contrast against it the gaps (inadequacies) in our attempts at a direct, objective interpretation and controlling (conquering) the world. It opens up our sense for ambiguity, procedurality, complexity, vulnerability and last but not least the sanctity of reality.

These values challenge us to delve deeper into reality, into its spontaneous, sensual perception and experience, in which an artificially-maintained discontinuity between the human and non-human can disappear. It reminds us that we are part of the evolution of one large, and not only human, community of life. We are part of its mysterious transformations and stories that we will never be able understand and penetrate fully.

Something from participation in this eco-phenomenological philosophy (evoking our long past animistic heritage) resounds strongly in the series of photographs that Moravian Gallery curator, Antonín Dufek, chose for the Unmanaged exhibit. The exhibit was installed in the not-so-large space on the ground floor of the Místodržitelský Palace in Brno. Its impressive installation on narrow, green-painted panels brings to mind a dense forest labyrinth that beckons us to incessant wandering and discovery of more and more photos of forest corners and isolated spots. It calls for an even deeper submersion into the complicated structures and depths of the living and mysterious world of nature. Dufek’s exhibit offers the first historic look, capturing wild nature in modern Czech photography ranging from the 1930s until the present. It reminds us of the contributions of founding personalities in Czech modern photography such as Jaromír Funke, Josef Sudek, Adolf Schneeberger and other important artists from the 1st half of the 20th century including Ján Halaš, Zdenko Feyfar and last but not least, Rudolf Janda.

This (Janda), our first photographer of wild forests, the author of the first photographic book on this topic Virgin Forests in the Beskydy (Pralesy v Beskydech) had a similarly strong bond to the old Beskydy Forests as did graphic artist, Josef Váchal, to the Šumava (Bohemia Forest) wilderness. From among Sudek’s and Janda’s followers we should point out the cultivated Petr Helbich and also Čestmír Krátký, Jaroslav Štochl and Karel Kuklík, who were all fantastically preoccupied by the ephemeral atmosphere of the renowned Boubín Forest and the Šumava wetlands.

The photographic collection Trees- Breaks (Stromy-Polomy) by Pavel Nešleha (1971– 1996) and the series, Silence (Mlčení), by Václav Jirásek (1993) are marked by their focused meditativeness and symbolism, along with their affinity to Romanticism and its sensitivity. Miloš Šejna’s photographic series, Maple Mine I-VI (Javorový důl I-VI, 1982), is also noteworthy. It is a testament to this fascination with the ever-changing life of one cliff: the perfect wakefulness of “the extraordinary patience of things,” as precisely characterised by poet, Robinson Jeffers.

Painter Pavel Heyek’s photograms of natural grass and root structures; the distance-less photos of intertwined bush labyrinths by Petr Zinke; and Milena Valušková’s photos from the series Ingrown (Zarůstání – 2000) are also characterised by a similar focused submersion into non-human reality. With the enormous painter-like photo-images of Jiří Šigut and those of the exhibit’s youngest artist, Vojtěch Fröhlich (a FAMU student), this approach grows into its maximum possible expression. We can speak of lively commentary, indeed passionate participation in the sensual world, which has the character of unusual magic; of a deep connection or identification with the world of nature. Similar motivation inspired the creation of the unique series of large-format, colour photographs by recently-deceased photographer, Miroslav Prokůpek, Creatures (Tvorové – 2002–2007), which represents that culmination of this exhibit. Miroslav Prokůpek was a poet, who was deeply enticed by the hidden spiritual life of wild, previously untouched, places in nature. He passionately defended against their destruction. He was a unique creator able to feel – through all these living things: trees, wind, plants, animals – “the greater Being”: these nourishing, ecstatic touches of mystery in a super-human world, of which he felt he was completely part.

The works and life of Miroslav Prokůpek provide us today an inspiring testament to how through development of communication and mutual (expression) with super-human nature we can overcome the limits of our narrow egos, how we can attain a deeper humanity as part of our awareness of a broader, non-generic community of life. This is undoubtedly the essence of the challenge of new environmental paradigms that we see before us today, for “we are one global community!” It would appear that therein lies the key to solving all of today’s environmental and social problems: (developing) an actual Earth ethics.


Un-regulated. Virgin Forests in Photography
Moravian Gallery in Brno, Místodžitelský Palace, 16.10. 2008–11.1. 2009

Jiří Zemánek