Fotograf Magazine

Industria as seen by Vaclav Jirasek

Looking at Industria in book form, which features photographs from the eponymous exhibition in Rudolfinum Gallery, raises a question which did not strike me as so urgent at the time of the exhibition: why did you in fact start photographing factories? Was it out of fascination, repulsion, or admiration for these relics of the 19th century industrial revolution? And did you have any previous experience of the world of factories?

As is the rule with me, I hit upon this subject in photography partly by accident. In 1994 the Vailkovka foundation approached me with a commission to document the Wannieck plant in Brno, which they were trying to rescue from demolition, At first I was reluctant to take up the theme, since many photographers before me had done derelict buildings, and I was afraid of clichés. Until then I had worked with photography in terms of “staging painterly pictures” and I certainly had no ambition of becoming a documentary photographer. In the course of my work I became absolutely hooked on this factory world. Still, I was unhappy with the results I got, and I hoped to be able to return at some point. Another important moment was my childhood, when with my brothers I would spend the holidays at my grandmother’s in the industrial city of Havirov. While the city kids were sent to enjoy the rural romance, us village kids gazed with astonishment upon the rising monuments of industrial Ostrava. Another formative experience was commuting to high school in Brno by the five o’clock worker’s train every morning, which took workers to CKD Blansko (where I took a vast majority of the photographs featured in Industria). Even back then I was struck by these workers: they appeared to me like creatures from mythology. I tried to give shape to my decadent fascination with Socialist Realism in my final project at the Academy of Fine Arts. I hybridized

Socialist Realism with Gothic painting, addressing the issues of symbol and archetype.

All of this was still very much alive within me and gave rise to the need to explore the remains of the famous industrial era of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. Back then, heavy industry was represented as a major social gain and a symbol of the future, and I wanted to see what remained of this icon of my childhood in the era of media and information technologies (in general I am interested in the transformation of things fashionable into things worn-out). My main reason was a desire to share my fascination with this world. Fascination, I think, includes terror, admiration and intoxication.

Are there artists who have worked with the factory in similar ways as you? Did you feel you were continuing some tradition?

If I had anybody in mind, it was August Sander and Richard Avedon, whose portraits I am very fond of. But otherwise I approached the scene with a clear head and a great lust. The world of the factories is so compelling that I instantly forgot the world of art. After a year and a half of intensive sojourn in the industrial environment, the world of art struck me as emotionally rather pale. It had to do a lot with knowing oneself, and the real world started to interest me more than art. But the fact remains that I was unable to create a bridge between these two antagonistic worlds.

In your older photographs there are evident references to various trends in the history of art. The elegant design of Industria seems to undermine the message of the whole project. I can see some of the images fitting well in a book on the achievements of socialist industry, or a few years later, adorning the publicity calendar of some ironworks or foundry. Did you work with allusions to this kind of publicity photography deliberately?

I don’t see the book as elegant. We did not deal with this issue with the graphic designer, Robert V. Novak. What we were after was a certain vividness that would evoke the sense of a window into reality, an imaginary walk through the world of factories. We did not want to present a single photograph on a page as a sort of artifact. We also did not want to over-design the book. Instead the book is rather austere, mimicking the philosophy of my approach. If I had initially ironically flirted with anything, it was the “commentary” in books on design and architecture.

In what ways does the book differ from the exhibition in your view?

In general, in the book we took more liberties with the photographs than in the show, where they hung like artifacts in a row on the wall. The book is more intimate, and it allows you to be drawn in. Also there are a number of photographs that were missing at the exhibition, and vice versa.

Mostly one cannot tell in your photographs whether they were taken last year or fifty years ago. There is a sense of timelessness, as for instance in the interiors of churches. Yet we are told every day, that the present day is defined by change, which can be captured above all by photography. Is the timelessness in your photographs a deliberate response to this stereotype?

I think this is largely due to my working with a large-format camera. It is slow and it does not allow for dynamic photographs. On the other hand, I have to admit that I like the moments of stillness, the state of timelessness. By a concentrated observation of a place you can break outside of time, and turn the external gaze into an internal one. Naturally I am horrified at the inflation of photography. There is a trend of instantaneousness and speed, which is great on the one hand, but it also kills the original power and nature of photography. That is why I welcome every form of interference with the system.

It seems that you do not comment on the photographs in Industria, either to criticize or to romanticize. How would you define your attitude to the photographic subject?

I tried to use photography in as “matter-of-fact” a way as possible. In this case, to describe and capture things that I believe deserved it. I tried to the utmost to suppress myself. I subordinated the structure of the photograph to the effort to feature as much information on the locality, or the people that I photographed, instead of showcasing my way of attitude as an artist. It was my secret wish to become a scanner.

So you saw the factory halls as sculptural objects, which you then wanted to mediate to others through your photographs?

One of the other levels of the project is the exploration of the aesthetic of “functionality”. The form of most objects in the industrial world is defined by the laws of physics, by construction calculations and the dictates of function, that is to say without emphasis on aesthetics. Like a leaf, or a skeleton in nature, “constructed” with similar functionality, they are truly beautiful. I did not so much want to show these objects as statues, I wanted to look with highlight at the insect aspect of society, the fact that the industrial world is part of organic nature. Still, the fact remains, for instance, that the castings boldly compete with contemporary sculpture.

Did you use additional lighting for the factory halls or details of various objects?

This question was asked many times during the exhibition, and it probably arises from the impression that I made some attempt at dramatic lighting. That was not my aim at all. The halls are so large and murky that in fact standard photographic lights would fail there. The factories themselves offer an amazing range of lighting moods, and the fact that they are essentially caves perhaps creates this Baroque luminosity. The lushness of light is a natural reaction of the photographic material to the broad range of lights [rusty glass, for instance, tints the image yellow, while an ordinary light bulb tints it orange, fluorescent lamps green, red lead lamps from purple to kitschy blue-green, and fire turns it red). Naturally I did not try to avoid this. What is important is the awareness that the industrial world is very sophisticated, both in terms of color and luminosity. If I used additional lighting by flash at all [this was mostly in the case of work with still life, or documenting the chairs), it was in moments when I wanted to achieve a greater descriptiveness, to bring the photograph closer to the perception of the human eye. In those moments when film material was unable to capture what the eye could see.

As a matter of principle, you photographed the factory workers outside of the process of work. Why did you decide to strictly divide the workspace from those who inhabit it?

My original idea was of true-to-life, matter-of-fact portraits, either life-size or larger than life, built around the gesture of the portrayed, and on naturalist detail, which can speak volumes to an attentive viewer. In order to achieve any such thing in the dark environment of the factories, I employed artificial light – ring flash. It is the simplest form of artificial light, the direct flash. In order to avoid black backdrop, I would pose people most often in front of some flat surface or wall, very close to them. Gradually I came to realize that the backdrop played a peculiar role in these portraits, since it often corresponded with the portrayed, whether in terms of color or structure. As if people took on a kind of mimicry, merging with the environment they work in. My opting always for the same canon of half-figure was a conscious choice. Placing several portraits next to each other allowed for a comparison of gestures and psychology, and enhanced the distinctness of each individual. The ring flash creates in every picture the same light with a dark aura, enhancing a little the icon-effect, which also suits me well. Above all it is used in fashion photography, and I wanted to look at those forgotten, marginal figures with an adoring gaze.

Tomas Pospiszyl

#7 New staged photography

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