Fotograf Magazine

18th Month of photography in Bratislava

During November 2008 the Month of Photography took place in three cities on the Danube. In addition to the long-running festival in Bratislava, the Month of Photography took place for the third time in Vienna (it was nice that this time both festivals were connected by some special events and a special bus service) and a Month of Photography in Budapest was newly added. The Bratislava festival stayed true to its tested focus on photography from Central and Eastern Europe, to which a large part of the exhibition programme was devoted. It also adhered to a newer tradition of adding on a second dominant focus area. After showing Korean and Latin American photography, this year the organisers – led by Václav Macek and Eva Szabo – focused on creations from Italy.     The main attraction was meant to be an exhibit, lecture and personal attendance by Oliviero Toscani. The former star of Benetton ad campaigns was meant to draw large crowds similar to those attracted by American portrait photographer, Annie Liebowitz. However, in the end Toscani did not show up in Bratislava and his works were substituted by large-format shots of multi-coloured donkeys displayed outdoors on Hviezdoslavovo námestie (Hviezdoslav Square). It wasn’t really a big hit.

The extensive retrospective on a classic modern Italian photographer, Mario Giacomelli, had a much greater impact. The exhibit included examples from most of his important series and documented well Giacomelli’s pioneer status in the area of European subjective documentary work (his expressive shots were created as early as the 1950s parallel to the works of the New York School of photography). At Giacomelli’s exhibit mercilessly naturalist shots of elderly persons from the series, Death Will Come and It Will Have Your Eyes, hung one next to the other. These are poetic shots of spontaneously frolicking students at a seminary for priests along with landscape details expressed in a calligraphic style, yet all are joined by his personalised artistic signature. The exposition of two series by Paolo Venturi, In Time of War and Winter Tales, was also magnificent. The artist inventively, humorously and precisely put together the scenes in these works using puppets in the style of stills from animated films.

A lot was expected from the exposition, Behind the Iron Curtain – Eastern Europe before 1989. It arrived in Bratislava just after its September premiere at the Dutch festival, Nooderlicht (there it was shown however with a small collection of photos from the revolutionary year, 1989, and mainly with projections of a number of new series showing the radical changes in the lives of citizens in the former Soviet satellite countries after the fall of Communism). The name itself was already problematic, immediately grouping the Czech Republic and Slovakia in Eastern and not Central Europe (the Dutch organisers would likely be loathe to put Austrian in the East European category, even though Vienna lies much farther East than does Prague). Ironicallyportrayed documentary shots showing a devastated people and their environment, obligatory celebrations of Communist holidays, construction of sterile apartment blocks, and the attempts of most people to escape to the small joys of a private space received the most space at the exhibit. In contrast to this, there were various expressions of inter-media and conceptual creations (Uladzimir Parfianok, Peeter Linnap, Galina Moskaleva, Gábor Attalai), arranged photo shots (Jano Pavlík, Miro Švolík), somewhat archaic post-Surrealist photo-montages (Janis Knakis) or period advertising shots (József Tóth), which were often installed in close distance to neighbouring, crude documentaries. The selection of represented artists itself was notably questionable. Many important documentarists were missing (Josef Koudelka, Jindřich Štreit, Antonín Kratochvíl, Viktor Kolář, Boris Michailov, Aleksandras Macijauskas, Romualdas Požerskis, Tomasz Tomaszewski et. al.); whereas, other internationally-known artists were represented (i.e. Antanas Sutkus, Igor Savchenko or Miro Švolík).

One can, of course, have still further reservations concerning the selection of artists and toward the exhibit’s concept. The latter was similar to Dufek’s exposition of Czech and Slovak photography from the 1970s and 1980s from the collection of the Moravian Gallery in Brno. The expo called Třetí strana zdi –Third Side of the Wall was too one-sided and gave too constricted a view of the period in question, shown only as alternative and anti-regime. Despite this, one must laud that fact that the exhibit included a number of quality works. Among these were works that were until then little known on the international scene, i.e. the suggestive collection of photos of an intense drill and brain-washing in the Polish People’s Army by Andrzej Batura, or the photos of Gustav Aulehla, Stanislav Pekár, Andrei Pandele or Ion Griugorescu, who was able to realistically capture on film everyday life in Communist Czechoslovakia and Romania.

The large retrospective of a German photo-reporter from the Magnum Agency, Thomas Höpker, included a number of photos from life during Communism, mainly from the former GDR. The strongest aspect of his works are the extensive photo-essays and social documentaries from the 1960s and 1970s. Höpker’s newer colour, geographical shots and reports from exotic lands do not really go beyond standard photo content for magazines such as National Geographic or Geo.

The exhibits of Josef Koudelka, Invaze 68 – Invasion 68, and Andrej Bán, Kosovo, provided an interesting contrast. At first glance they are completely different. Koudelka clearly stands on the side of the defenceless citizens of Czechoslovakia, whose desire for a greater amount of freedom was destroyed by Soviet tanks and sub-machine guns in 1968. In his photos he accents expressiveness, drama, and the sharp contrasts between black and white tones. Bán takes no sides in the bloody quarrels of the Kosovo conflict. But in his mostly novelcomposition, colour photos he shows the horrors of ethnic wars, typical aspects of the lives of Albanians and Serbs, the same as significant details of the local environment, which he knows well from his approximately forty visits to Kosovo. Koudelka’s and Bán’s photos are connected, however, by a desire to go beyond just an historical account. They instead look for general ethical motives in concrete events and the ability to find visual metaphors. Not all of Bán’s photo are equally good (but then neither are all of Koudelka’s). However, all in all both the exhibit and the representative publication, Kosovo, published in both Slovak and English by Slovart, give testimony to the fact that, in this artist, Slovakia has an outstanding representative of Humanist, albeit supremely modern, documentary photography.

Further tendencies in „new documentary were represented in Bratislava; for example, compelling group portraits of wedding parties, christenings, and funerals featuring various social groups by Pole, Przemysław Pokrycki. The event also included provocative homo- and hetero-erotic scenes, nudes and portraits by Pokrycki’s compatriots, Zuza Krajewská and Bartka Wieczorka. Their works provoked a scandal and attempts at censorship from local politicians. There were also the subjective black-and-white fragments of everydayness by Hungarian, Tibor Zátonyi, or the ironicallyexpressed sharply-coloured photos by Austrian, Reiner Riedler, of visitors to commercial tourist centres and amusement parks featuring replicas of the Mexico’s pyramids, Moscow’s Red Square and the Titanic.

At the retrospective of Mexican, Pedro Meyer, authentic documentary footage blurred with computerised photo-montages, connecting heterogeneous motifs in post-Surrealistic compositions. It was a markedly fragmented exhibit – from the points of view of motive, theme and quality. In addition to strong works of art, it also included superficial works created for effect and bordering on kitsch.

The programme also did not lack examples of contemporary staged creations. In addition to the already-mentioned series by Venturi, there were the inventive homages to various personalities by Miriam Petráňová, arranged with the help of miniature figures. The event also featured the digitally-edited portraits of twins in fairy-tale landscapes by young Czech photographer, Tereza Vlčková. A broad spectrum of contemporary creative trends completed the inter-media works as well (i.e. the merging of photography and painting by Daniel Fischer and Viktor Kopasz, the group review of works from the border between photography and video, Mutace II – Mutation II). There was conceptual work (Průhledy – Vistas, a new collection by last year’s winning participant, Sylva Francová. This work joins varied perspectives of the same apartment block from different stairwells of the same building) and the exposition of timeless portraits of African and Romany emigrants or homeless persons, created by Pierre Gonnord in the style of paintings by the Old Masters. Historic photos had little space this time round. The most captivating of these were forgotten, controversial shots (often propagandist) from the occupation of Poland in September 1938, and from the Eastern Front. These were taken by Jozef Cincik while serving in the Slovak Army, which fought at the side of the Wehrmacht.

The festival also had its traditional evaluations of photo portfolios, a contest for the best photographic book from Central and Eastern Europe (in the historical category, Koudelka’s Invaze 68, won the top prize, for books of contemporary photography the large monograph by Vladimír Židlický won), a concert with projection of photos, a showing of winners from the sittcomm.award competition (the surprise winner was Filip Berendt), lectures, creative workshops, a bilingual catalogue, a large number of students from many foreign schools who came for the opening weekend, and also a number of organisational messes. The 18th year of the festival did not stand apart from the standard Bratislava Month of Photography, which today ranks among the grandfathers of photography festivals in Central Europe. 

Vladimír Birgus