Fotograf Magazine

Toman’s Panoramas

A richly illustrated portfolio of the work of Jiří Toman (1924-1972) was presented in Fotograf No 3. An exhibition of 65 panoramic shots from the collection of the East Bohemian Gallery in Pardubice provides a good reason to return to this enigmatic artist. The exhibition, Panoramic Photographs, was prepared by curator Vít Bouček, the author of an essay in a book of the same name. It was he who already in the mid1990 s stood up for the purchase of a large part of Toman’s work by his home institution. Of the nearly seven thousand negatives thus acquired, eighteen hundred are panoramic (6 x 18 cm), the rest square (6 x 6). Other significant fragments of the estate had extremely varied fates. Above all, it still remains unclear what is in private collections.

Antonín Dufek, as the very first representative of a state institution to do so, acquired for the Moravian Gallery in Brno some later prints of the documentation of Jiří Toman’s happenings, as well as a homogenouslooking collection of 1940s – 1960s impromptu photographs, subjectively seen and mostly perfectly composed in the full square format, and also some unique photo-montages, collages and illustrations for Josef Nesvadba’s book Poslední cesta kapitána Nema/The Last Journey of Captain Nemo. Jan Mlčoch organized for the Museum of Decorative Arts an acquisition of original positives from Toman’s sister. The Benedikt Rejt Gallery in Louny owns – thanks to the interest of its former manager, Jan Sekera – not only photographs and some of Toman’s photographic and xylographic collages, but also drawings, objects and other important negatives, the processing and publication of which we will hopefully see soon. Apart from that, Jiří Toman wrote screenplays, worked on animated films, graphic design and stage design for occasional plays, the photo-documentation of which (since 1955) brought him posthumous fame as a pioneer of action art.

The very first Toman exhibition was organized by the art historian Jaromír Zemina, with the assistance of the sculptor Stanislav Kolíbal and with the laboratory work done by Jan Svoboda. It was held in Brno in 1973. In Revolver Revue 25 (1994), Zemina observed that it was at the same time ”the last 

exhibition presenting Toman’s work in all its aspects, and it would be probably impossible to repeat it in that scope as much of the estate has since perished.“

The art historian Anna Fárová presented Toman as one of the revolutionary figures in Czech photography, including in the genre of panorama. She gave a programmatic title to the catalogue of the Roudnice-Pardubice exhibition, Jiří Toman fotograf/Jiří Toman – Photographer (1992) because ”the main stress in Jiří Toman’s work lies in photography, from which everything else derives.“And Fárová sticks to this opening declaration at the close of her essay: ”The daring way of seeing, the originality of his vision, these are the epithets of an oeuvre, a photographic oeuvre which is monumental, that lends to Czechoslovak photography a new dimension for the 1950s and 1960s.“It was in the spirit of these words that in her capacity as curator she made the selection of negatives to be printed for the exhibition.

The curator of the Pardubice Gallery, Vít Bouček, stepped outside the convetions of state art museums, setting an example to others. The acquisition bodies, dominated by experts in traditional media, have long neglected negatives. This is the price for the existence of photography departments among collections of a different nature. Thousands of contacts, hundreds of press proofs and dozens of exhibition prints were made from Toman’s negatives by the Pardubice photographer Luděk Vojtěchovský for the East Bohemian Gallery; Vojtěchovský is a brilliant technician, but he often strove to achieve the impossible: in all kinds of ways he tried to soften the projections of extremely high-contrast, and sometimes badly developed films, trying to balance the uneven run of Toman’s more than half a century old panoramic camera… The printing in the catalogue enhanced the contrast in the reproductions even more. But one can hardly hold it against the publisher: there was nothing to go by, because there are no original prints.

By focusing on Toman’s panoramas, the Pardubice Gallery consciously presented only one of the many aspects of Toman’s work. Twelve years ago, the gallery held a comprehensive retrospective that featured all the facets of the work of this versatile artist, including also video-projections of his films. This generous retrospective is still remembered. This time, the curator focused on regional themes (even though here he also had recourse to trips abroad), in order to present the photographer as someone relating strongly to his native town and its surroundings, a photographer who was coscious of creating a documentary record of his epoch. For this reason, Toman did not hesitate to take descriptive photographs. Inspired by Josef Sudek, with whom he used to photograph together after 1945, and whom in the 1950s he helped substantially on the work for Panoramic Prague, he embarked on the preparation of a similar album on Pardubice, one that however remained unfinished. More is the pity… as he would for instance turn the panoramic camera by 90 degrees on its end, and capture the mist, several lanterns suspended in mid air, and the reflection of the sun on the surface of water…

Toman’s innovation of the panorama lies in that in the 1950s and 1960s, he used the camera, predestined for a tripod, for taking surprisingly dynamic impromptu shots, shot by hand, or even while riding in a car or bus. It is a variation on the subjective vision of the moviecamera that asserted itself in world cinema at the time. If as a photographer Toman astonishes us with the minimum elements that can hold together the composition of his photographs, this also has a parallel in cinema – including his own films – for instance in his animated opus O Čtverečce a Trojúhelníčkovi/About Square Girl and Triangle Boy, (1965).

It is only when we analyze a representative sample of Toman’s heritage that the real implication of Toman’s creative contribution to the given medium is revealed. Nonetheless, it is already clear why Toman inspires so diverse readings. Each exhibition dedicated to him can bring something different: Toman’s work does not rest on its unity.

If Toman sometimes startles the present day viewer with an absolutely traditional concept of photographing, it is because apparently he did not feel bound by the criteria of success, or progress at all costs. His diversity in terms of aesthetics and subject matter (as well as message) lead Vít Bouček to draw up a program for the creation of a whole series of Toman exhibitions, that are to result in a monograph. That will certainly be a fascinating report on an uncommon way of visual thinking. Especially if it also features the work that the East Bohemian Gallery is currently lacking. The curator’s approach to Toman so far testifies that he musters the sobriety necessary for approaching a personality so much mythologized.

In his study, Vít Bouček comments on an exhibition organized by Anna Fárová in the Pardubice Chateau in the Winter of 1993, that ”the titles of cycles, if they can in fact be considered cycles at all, for they are rather cut and printed films strips, were only added afterwards“. Twelve years ago at the exhibition, I noted down the titles, some of which appeared in the Toman portfolio in Fotograf: Staré Pardubice(40 . léta)/ Old Pardubice (1940s); Oheň (50. léta)/Fire (1950s); Světlo (konec 60. let )/Light(end of the 1960s); Vítr(začátek 70. let)/Wind( beginning of the 1970s) and Skleník/Greenhouse, from the turn of the 1960s and 1970s)… The ”title“ Ryba uvězněná v igelitovém sáčku/Fish Trapped in a Plastic Bagwas the product of a proofreader’s or typesetter’s error.


Jiří Toman, Panoramic Photographs (from the collection of the East Bohemian Gallery). Texts by Jiří Toman and Vít Bouček. Východočeská galerie v Pardubicích 2004. (The extended premiere lasted from the end of September 2004 until February 2005, and was reprised in Spring 2005 by the Opera Gallery in Ostrava).

josef moucha