Fotograf Magazine

On the edge of light

A perusal of press interviews given by the Czech-American Antonin Kratochvil (b. 1947) reveals that he set out to change his hard won -and financially rather rewarding – spectrum of commissions, His mo­dest references to the perils of his profession when life is literally at stake do not overshadow the ferocity of his struggle to find his calling in life. Kratochvil has established himself as a photographer without a specialization, and the breadth of his scope was a matter of pride with him. Only nine years ago he proclaimed: “I’m no artist. I’m a pro.”

Kratochvil enterntains no illusions as to the status of his black-and­white portrait work. He demonstrated this when interviewed by Juraj Mravec and Viktor Vojtek for the book Interview s fotografil(An Interview with Photography, Slovart, 2003): “Fortunately once in a while – and let me stress, just every once in a while – magazines take an interest in interspersing those glossy portraits a la Leibovitz with my realistic style.” Kratochvil had to struggle for a long time to win a position that would enable him to take so many portraits of famous faces to gather enough material for a spectacular album. At the outset of his career, more than thirty years ago, his American clients demanded color pictures. He did those, and often he would capture the very same people he presents now in Persona. Kratochvil, however, feels more at home within the black-and-white range. Only that format enables him to work with double exposure: capturing not only his contemporaries, but also his own work. Is it not surprising how Ying Quin, of Harvard University, would explain his magic with light? According to him it is the result of the Central European experience, and far from being alone, Kratochvil is in fact one of many photographers who display this particular experience. Quin cites as other examples Josef Koudelka and Josef Sudek, who, he argues, are also marked by Prague’s dark luminance.

The way in which black and white photographs are chiefly used in the press is explained by photographer Michael Persson in the Kratochvil monograph (Torst, 2003): “No matter what magazine Kratochvil’s work is published in, it lends credibility to the entire content, giving the impression that if the editorial staff are gutsy enough to use a guy who comes back with nothing more than raw, naked images, the rest of the magazine can’t be all that bad.”

This strategy, however, is not a matter of normative practice – far from it. In the everyday struggle for the majority viewer, it loses its balance. Kratochvil thinks that documentary photographers have no choice but to target their activity on the elite whose thinking it is meaningful to influence.

A Persona builds on an edgy and stylized form of reportage. This is signaled by the coven which features Deborah Harry. Aside from a repe­tition of this image, four other pages are devoted to her inside the book. This photogenic lady justifies a whole sequence. At other times, however, the same tactic seems counterproductive, as for instance with actor Pavel Landovsky when it is stretched into a triptych, or with the quadrup­le portrait of Harvey Keitel. Here the photographer was unfortunately unable to suppress his predilection for his personal ideals of manhood.

Among the celebrities, Kratochvil also places AIDS patients, priso­ners, neo-Nazis, or Ukrainian peasants from the region affected by the explosion of the nuclear plant in Chernobyl. It is however a matter of poor taste, if these Ukrainians are without any further explanation denoted as Homo Sovieticus in the captions. For this reveals as facile another slogan – the text in which Slovart recommends this book in their biannual promotional magazine. The passage in question extols Kratochvil for his concern with Third World social issues, claiming that it is his philosophy to give voice to people who have no way of telling others of the predica­ment they find themselves in. I find also dubious the flirtation with porno­graphy (in Coochi-Coo and Stalin’s Bedroom). The murderer captured in two shots and reproduced here as a two-page spread, is an achieve­ment in terms of technique, but it brings to mind the insoluble ethical problem of the media, summarized in the vain exclamation, “Let us forget Herostratus!” Echoes of this pronouncement have a spectral reverbera­tion to this day: it was first uttered 365 years before the time of Christ.

The portraits in Persona are not dated. A vain gesture – it will not provide a timeless appeal for the ones that were included just to make up the number… Nevertheless, one cannot fail to see that the book represents a formidable piece of work. The introduction to the collection was written by Michael Persson, and is perhaps not as eloquent the one in the TORST monograph, but that is surely also a matter of intention regarding the present publication.

Josef Moucha