Fotograf Magazine

Photographs of Pavel Baňka

The frequent linking of photography with memory is far from accidental, and it has accompanied the history of photography, more or less markedly, from its very beginnings up to today. The early approaches to photography stressed its character as a trace of the subject, or even its imprint: let us remember Balzac’s fear of being photographed, stemming from the belief that a photographic recording each time takes away one of the bodily spectral layers. The English critic John Berger compared photography to a finger print as well as to a death mask – the camera is able to, in contrast to the human eye, not only to notice but also to retain what it captures, in a certain fixed form.

The photographs of Pavel Baňka from his most recent collection Terezín-
-Mansfield/Mansfield-Terezín presented in VeletrÏní Palác, capture spaces now empty, yet quite recently filled with events. It was in fact precisely the interest in what went on there before that was one of the impulses for taking these photographs. Shots of places whose history is linked with death – a Nazi prison, and a hospital for chronically ill patients – however, were not created as a condemning documentary evidence. This is prevented by the complexity of the photographer’s approach: the consciousness of the cruelty of past events is inseparably mixed with the interest in the character of the place (its visual character and atmosphere), with the projection of one’s own preconceptions of these places, and one’s experience of them. It is precisely this balancing on the edge of historical and imaginary consciousness together with the uniqueness of the present encounter that really creates these photographs.

The first cycle consists of black and white photographs of the interiors of
Terezín’s Small Fortress, which turned from being a military building into
a prison very soon after it was built. Shot in an almost minimalist manner,
these spaces – shabby vaulted rooms, often with light coming through
a single window, rooms with tiles on the walls and water pipes running
down the ceiling – appear peaceful. Perhaps it is the purpose of these
photographs to reveal this all too transitory conciliation, or perhaps only to
hint at its possibility. In the accompanying article Pavel Baňka speaks about dwelling in these rooms in the company of tourist groups: the long history is daily transformed into a commentary in a number of languages. The visits of all these people however become the part of the context of thinking the place captured. The Terezín series was created between 1996 – 2002; as if by this long-term process, through the repeated visits the author defied the momentary nature of a photograph. The long exposure rates turn the dark dungeons into spaces drawn by light, perhaps to commemorate the heliographic prehistory of photography.

The second series, created in Connecticut in 2002, consists of color photographs of the interiors of a disused 1950s-60s hospital for children and adolescents. The former hospital building retain some electric fixtures, colorful peeling plaster, white tiles on the walls. Here too the composition of shots is simple, but the colorfulness of the walls lends them a pictorial character – some compositions capture the color part of the wall framed by a narrow strip of floor, or a stripe of another color on the top of the frame; there are several symmetrical photographs of ceilings, mostly
white, with a light fixture in the middle, and with brightly colored walls surrounding it. Pavel Baňka writes about his identification with the situation of the bedridden children, spending days on end motionless on the hospital beds, whose gaze probably dwelt on those ceilings for hours.

According to John Berger, photography is linked with the loss of memory,
since by being let out in the world, it loses its significance together with the loss of continuity. In order to rescue its meaning, it is necessary to reconnect the photograph in the social and political context. Baňka’s photographs of Terezín and Mansfield present a photographer’s coming to terms with his personal relationship to these places, and for that reason his accompanying texts in which he describes his encounters with the depicted loci are crucial. By photographing these places the author may have attempted paradoxically to eternalize the fates and gazes once dwelling on these walls: he thus creates death masks, the matrix of which is the residuum of memory of these inner spaces.

Pavel Baňka’s earlier works were also preoccupied with an imaginative
transformation of environments he encountered. In contrast with his ruminative landscapes presented recently (2001) at the extensive retrospective Infinity in the Rudolfinum Galery, here we come up against historical hot spots. It is the strong personal engagement that I believe links the two series of photographs, and that prevents the all too facile sentimental exploitation of places already laden with meaning while intensifying our emotional and historical wakefulness.


Lenka Dolanová