Fotograf Magazine

Pavel Jasanský

New Scenery, New Residents

Pavel Jasanský (born in 1938) studied geology; however, he did not work as a geologist for too long. During his university studies, he extensively photographed, and he followed this vocation in the 1960s. During the so-called normalization, he took photographs of many personalities of contemporary culture for records and other materials. In the 1980s, he left this position and increasingly focused on his own documentary work. He was one of the few Czechoslovak photographers who were not afraid of other media, and he also worked with painting and video. 

In the 1960s, Czechoslovak culture boomed. Many photographers travelled to the West and captured their trips in great picture books depicting the busy life in London (Miloň Novotný), Paris (Josef Prošek) and New York (Eva Fuka, Miloň Novotný, Marie Šechtlová). Pavel Jasanský dedicated his first extensive series to a Western capital as well. Paristory was created around the time of the Prague Spring and proved that Jasanský was a completely different kind of photographer than trained artists or experienced photojournalists working for Czechoslovak newspapers and magazines. He was not enchanted by the Paris night life, lavish shop windows or extravagance of the inhabitants, but offered the viewer a very stern perspective full of strange things and people, bordering on pointlessness. As an amateur, untrained photographer, he was inclined to the contemporary adored humanist documentary style, but his directness and multi-layered perspective (did it come from geology?) was inspired by surrealism and it seemed similar to the current American photography. By the way, the famous exhibition New Documents was opened in New York when Jasanský was staying in Paris.

Such a view of the world requires not only directness and rigour, but also self-confidence to look at things differently and to stick to one’s guns, which is not very typical for Central Europeans. Besides his nature, Jasanský had another advantage: he did not have to defend his photographs in front of committees or editorial boards. He created his series for his own needs, without any vision of presentation. And when he experienced confrontation with authorities, they usually did not understand his work. His photographs did not meet the contemporary criteria of the obligatory optimism that was common for the Czechoslovak culture at that time. The first version of the book The City (1984), which included the photographs by Pavel Jasanský and Vladimír Birgus, was withdrawn and destroyed. The second version of the book included also acceptable and a bit more “joyful” images by Miroslav Hucek, and only then it could be published. From the three authors, Jasanský was clearly the most direct one; he was not afraid to take close-ups of any phenomena, systematically monitor them, and choose unlikely and unusual situations.

His perspective and personal settings culminated in the series New Scenery, New Residents (1985–1990). The entire series is relatively extensive and includes around two hundred photographs. We can see certain parallels with some of the series by Jindřich Štýrský, Miroslav Hák and Vilém Reichmann in this work although I do not know how well Jasanský knew these authors. He certainly took a very different path and he might have had different aims; all the four photographers, however, managed to “knead” reality and to create a multi-layered story from a clear photographic image. Reality submitted to the photographer, not vice versa.

In the case of Jasanský, we can even say that reality was “raped” in his photographs. Or even “raped twice” since the photographed objects (the author avoided capturing people in this series) had already been radically transformed by the human hand, and the photographer’s hand multiplied this strangeness. The images show the “remnants” of the activity of the modern man in strange and improbable sets. As if the objects in the photographs were asking about the meaning of their own existence – “Why here and why now?” But nobody, them nor the viewer, gets the answer. Time of pompous consumerism, which produces millions of senseless and unnecessary objects every day, this motif of Jasanský’s work seems still extremely relevant.

Lukáš Bártl