Fotograf Magazine

Photogeny of Identity: Memory of Czech photography and the world behind the mirror

After November 1989, the home scene paid witness to several large exhibitions, which attempted to recapitulate the past. Renowned theorists and curators, in their well-established styles, presented the public with a picture of the last several decades. Something like a balance sheet which society likes to do at moments of significant changes. They weren’t just exhibitions dealing with the social and political situation but with the approaching millennium; they were some important projects reflecting the history of photography. There is a link between these two types of enterprises: the first, conceptually aimed at social questions contained material dealing with history and theoretical paradigm of the field, which was also the main content of the other type of exhibitions. 

For example, at the time of the opening of the exhibitions Us 1948–1989 (1999) and Society Through the Lens 1918–1989 (2000) put together by Antonín Dufek, the interest was in the reflection of the social and the ethical ground of our past; however the projects touched other levels too, including the one which looks towards the form and the functioning of the media as such. In that sense these exhibitions were the antecedents of the exhibition Photogeny of Identity, which opened this year. While the mammoth exhibition Czech Photography of the 20th Century organised by Vladimír Birgus and Jan Mlčoch formally summarised one epoch of the existence of domestic photography, the conceptually more modern A Story of a Modern Media. Czech Photography 1840–1950 (2004) by Jaroslav Anděl tried to look at photography in the wider context. 

From the historical perspective it is evident that both the society and the experts need to clarify for themselves certain fundamental questions, which then remain in the wider subconscious. Said simply, we need to know what we were in order to establish basis for our future existence. Big photographic exhibition is, as sociologists would say, a part of social negotiation, as is the case of the internal matters of photography as well as society. It is a part of rituals confirming the consensus of the past and the present. Let us remember the big travelling exhibition The Family of Man (1955) whose humanitarian message dominated world photography for the next few decades. Post-modern feel of today’s world makes the identification role of such enterprises relative but we can’t say that it has disappeared. It only is more difficult to notice it in the multiple realities. 

Therefore it is all the more interesting, and it doesn’t say much about the field, that big domestic exhibitions receive only minimally adequate critical reactions. It is not usual anywhere in the world that enterprises with national significance or any other significance, would only get a reaction in terms of newspaper articles the size of a postage stamp, telling the reader what there is to be seen at the exhibition. Or what he should be able to see but can’t see because many important pictures have not been included. If I am not mistaken, the only relevant answer to a larger format enterprise and therefore also of basic importance, was the review by Pavel Vančát of Vladimír Birgus’ and Jan Mlčoch’s Czech Photography of the 20th Century, published in Hospodářské noviny. That is not very flattering for such a prestigious and lively genre as art review is. Not to mention the fact, that the atmosphere of general contentment (and sideline complaining), which such paralysis carries with it, is in the end harmful for the whole system and for the exhibitions, because they quietly disappear into total oblivion. And so it happens that facilities, which are expected to start a paradigmatic discussion and are expected to have a key to the formation of the discipline, because their size and their ambitions naturally put them in that position, simply don’t fulfil their role and the exhibitions remain on the level of a sometimes more sometimes less successful show. 

According to-plan, the exhibition Photogeny of Identity. Memory of Czech Photography by Helena Musilová and Josef Moucha was supposed to open in the long-awaited new space of the Prague House of Photography in Revoluční Street. For objective reasons that hadn’t happened and the exhibition found a replacement space, no less dignified, in the Dům pánů z Kunštátu in Brno and in the National Museum of Photography in Jindřichův Hradec. The extensive exhibition, with photographs from the PPF collection, The Prague House of Photography, Moravian Gallery in Brno and from private collections, amounted to over two hundred images from thirty-one photographers. 

To put together a big exhibition, which maps a certain epoch, is a demanding and risky enterprise. It is a challenge to existing presentation schemes and as has already been said, the thing is more complicated because the post-modern reality, fed by plurality and individualism, is not favourable to unifying moments. To define universal cultural units, as Foucault said, is complicated in this situation. Why do such projects at all? For example, projects studying national identity? The text on the cover of Photogeny of Identity says, that a certain impulse for doing the exhibition was globalisation: a phenomenon, which touches all circles of society by its tendency towards nivelisation but at the same time it ignites pressing questions about the nature of man, or a nation. One can agree with that. It is true that an image, especially a photograph, plays an important role in the building up and maintaining identity. With regard to the concept of the project, it is necessary to emphasise that this role is played thanks to social constructing, to the fact that its significance is in constant motion. But then, of course, the image has to be seen as an active part of social activity, which is not the case of this particular project. The title already signalises that: Photogeny of Identity. Memory of Czech Photography. Excellent marketing title, intellectually mysterious but as in many similar cases we know from home and abroad, it shows that it’s easier to think of an effective title than a meaningful concept. If we confront it with the current thinking about photography, we get the impression that it implies the idea of direct reflection, i.e. the understanding of photography as a ‘mirror with memory’, exactly as Beaumont Newhall, the Nestor of the discipline, applied it to photography years ago. Today’s theory of photography is different from the old one, thanks to the changes, which humanities went through in the 1950s and later, and mainly in the 1970s, the theory of photography gradually got closer to semiotics. 

I hope I am not mistaken when I say that even a disciplinarian critic would pass the question of the title as a concession to successful presentation of the exhibition. Unfortunately, the anachronisms also appear in the texts explaining the concept of the exhibition. Helena Musilová writes: “Our aim is rather to survey the notion of “identity”, that is, to attempt to find the most characteristic processes and trends that defined the actions of the inhabitants of the Czech lands in the 20th century. It was not obvious “icons” that thought – such as Czech beer or ice-hockey (i.e., the way we wish to be regarded), but the visualisation of an invisible history, the capture memory as it had once imprinted itself in the light-sensitive emulsion of film stock.” The manner of formulating and the simplicity of the text are disarming. Some will probably imagine, on reading the text, the piles of paperwork which current literature devotes to problems of history, identity, photographic representation and discussions of their relationship. Here one is simply told that history is reflected on film emulsion. A question arises of what history and what identity are the authors talking if we can usurp them so easily? All terms and phenomena used with such lightness in the few lines dedicated to the concept of the exhibition are in motion and if they should be more than a material for metaphorical turns, it would be necessary to anchor them in some referential framework. 

When we talk about identity, nobody, we hope, would think that it’s possible to dig identity out directly from the image. In the end, Musilová confirms it indirectly when she says that the intention of the exhibition was to avoid the superficial qualities of ‘Czechness’ like beer, ice hockey and others, which we connect with Czechness. Latent understanding is thus that identity, or the process of establishing identity, is the work of two sides – those who present the image of identity and those who accept that it is a construction which, should it be understood correctly, needs that the creators and the recipients share the same categories and classifying schemes and that those are linked to a certain social space. Sadly, the idea of the icon is not developed further in the text and so in the final analysis, linked to our national perception on the background of globalised Europe, it looks a little confused. Despite the fact, that national icons are basic and infamous, they have a distinct potential. We unify under our own myths, which divide the world into two: us, and the others. So, if the concept of the exhibition was really about our national identity, and not about showing that all people in the world are basically the same, the icons, provided with an adequate concept, could have helped more than the general human theme, which was preferred in the selection of the photographs, as Josef Moucha explains in his text. 

I personally think, that discussion on how to best objectify national identity – whether through the icons of Czechness, the inclusion or not of images of important historical events or from the point of view of ordinary people – has something of a cycle in it, what came first: the chicken or the egg. Identity, as contemporary studies show, is not a homogenous whole, which could be spanned from one point. And if we want to try and at least just touch it with the help of photography, we have to remember, that a photograph is a complex ideology rather than an image. This is where the real problem of Photogeny of Identity starts. The photographs at the exhibition are artistic in nature. Therefore we have to ask: how do they relate to reality? The authors themselves feel the limitations imposed by the character of the material they worked with and they tried to come to terms with it by making a suitable choice. Josef Moucha says in text that they have balanced the subjectivity of the material by preferring civilian themes. The exhibition in Hradec even included a section of documentary photographs from ČTK (Czech Press Agency), which couldn’t be shown in Brno for lack of space. That indicates that the dilemmas, which naturally appeared, were being resolved in the intension of the old paradigm, which, when it comes to the question of representation, will automatically offer a division of the subjective versus the objective. It’s also necessary to mention the categories with which the exhibition deals. The individual sections of the exhibition carry multi-meaningful titles, which are presumably supposed to remind us that reality always has many meanings, but not even such a clever managerial skill can cover up the fact that behind the titles is nothing more than portraits, landscapes, documents and formal experiments (the classical art history categories) from well-known artists in the same way as one is has been used to seeing them from time immemorial. The large publication is basically nothing else than a selective anthology of medallions of masters of photography at any given time. It is laudable that it is a collection with additional historical overview and new facts, but basically that doesn’t change anything. 

It is a shame, because the theme of identity and memory is calling for an innovative approach or at least for the repetition of the well-tried methods, which were used in some newer exhibitions, which, proved, among other things, that even material seen many times and liked, can surprise when put together well. I am now thinking of the two recent exhibitions: Modernism: Designing a NewWorld 1914–1939 and Photo: Modernity in Central Europe 1918–1945, which proved that even such an old, over-done exhibition article as modernism became during the period it was running around galleries, can acquire a new shine with a suitable curating strategy. We just need to remember that some of the things, which are now parts of art collections, had also other functions beside art and that as long as exhibitions will endlessly copy traditional art history categories, their message will be desperately lacking in animation. Photogeny of Identity. Memory of Czech Photography is definitely an attractive exhibition, which will certainly please the eye of the laic, and the expert will notice some facts and authors who had been left out for many years. Finally, who wouldn’t be excited face to face with such a wide range of photographs, nostalgia and perhaps even a feeling of belonging. However, somewhere at the back, behind all the sentiment, in the part of the subconscious stamped by the analytical drill of western thinking, a feeling preys that many of the pictures hanging on the wall today don’t say practically anything about identity, memory or photography.  

Jiří Pátek