Fotograf Magazine

Vladimír Birgus Photographs 1972-2014

The essays which accompany the third and to date the most comprehensive monograph dedicated to Vladimír Birgus (b. 1954) are written by the art historian Štěpánka Bieleszová, curator at the Olomouc Museum of Art, where she presented a retrospective in honor of the photographer’s sixtieth birthday (15 May – 15 September, 2014). Her foreword is divided into clearly defined sections with a manageable amount of data and a well-outlined context, under the titles Photographer, Writer and Curator, and Teacher. The book naturally includes a comprehensive list of solo and group exhibitions, as well as of the exhibitions curated by Vladimír Birgus, and a bibliography listing dozens of books, catalogues and articles. The artist was invited to participate in the selection of reproductions, giving the editor access to key source materials for the chronology of the major landmarks of his career, and also granted her an interview. Being himself a critic and analyst of the photographic output and tendencies of his fellow travellers, as well as the co-author of History of Czech 20th Century Photography, Birgus obviously has an informed knowledge apart from his own pursuit of photography. This essential contribution to accessing his oeuvre provides the dimension of a personal testimony. I find this approach much more congenial than a cold detachment from the articulation of personal experience, not to say Structuralist distance.

The earliest of the reproductions which accompany the encyclopedic introductory study date to the years 1969–1974. This period marks a phase when Birgus was engaged in the staging of symbolic scenes. Full-page (and in some places two-page) reproductions take up two-thirds of the total 180 pages, with equal parts devoted to black-and-white and color. The structure of the book as a whole, as well as the spreads themselves, received due care; both the design and layout by Petr Šmalc and the typography take full advantage of the technological resources available. The spiral of this retrospective view is defined by a pursuit of existential subject matter. Starting with staging preconceived scenarios, Birgus soon shifted his focus to capturing real-life moments. To use the standard terminology, in the early 1970s Birgus abandoned staged photography in favor of subjective documentary. In the following decade he went against the dominant trend in that he was one of the first Czech documentary photographers to deliberately start working with the use of color. Images that form part of the cycle Something Unspeakable (Cosi nevyslovitelného) are marked with the place and the date they were taken. This, however, seems less and less important. The psycho-social dimension plays a dominant role, as the stories photographed give way to the story of the photographer.

Karel Kerlický’s venture, KANT Publishers, places most of their photo-books in international distribution. This is also the case of the Birgus monograph. The English version has been brought out in well rendered translation by Derek and Marzia Paton and distributed by the New York-based ARTBOOK/Distributed Art Publishers.

Josef Moucha