Last week I went to see an exhibition of photography that reminded me why I wanted to study art history in the first place. As if nostalgia were the theme of this review, the exhibition I went to see was of the photography of Josef Sudek – a Czech photographer from the turn of the century.
To look at a photograph by Josef Sudek is to step back in time, into a world not entirely our own. Sudek (1896 – 1976) was a Czech photographer, born in Bohemia in the town of Kolin. He is best known for his photographs of Prague and its environs – particularly St. Vitus Cathedral which was under reconstruction at the time. Sudek lost an arm in the Austro-Hungarian War. Having no previous experience, he began photographing fellow patients at a military hospital, and went on to study photography in Prague for two years. He worked heavy, dated apparatus with assistance, and was a regular fixture in the city.
His skill in capturing atmosphere, detail and stillness is an indispensable part of his documentation of his city in turbulent times. The occupation of Prague during the second World War had a profound impact on his style and subject. Throughout his career, we can see the beauty of a city during the turn of a century give way to the rising apartment blocks of a socialist regime. Sudek’s solitary glimmers and dream-like compositions offer a refuge in a society that was brought to its knees in the early years of the 20th century.
The exhibition is on in the Douglas Hyde Gallery in Trinity College, Dublin from the 18th of November to the 21st of February, in Gallery 1. Admission is free, and booklets cost 5 euro. They are small, beautiful and sparse booklets, just like the exhibition.
Gallery 1 is cavernous and impressively bare. The photographs are spaced apart evenly in a string around the entire space. They are kept in slender and dark wooden frames and cream mount-board, some are large and languid, others are small and elegant. The gallery is flooded with natural light, but the overhang above the images provides a shadow in which a pool of light over each is more noticeable. The walls are white and smooth, the ceilings very high. No information cards are provided with the photographs – each is left to fend for itself. Instead there is a small white folder filled with clipped articles about other exhibitions of Sudek’s work, and a brief information piece.
Sudek’s work is nostalgic, panoramic and dreamlike. The large, white-walled open space of the gallery with small frames clinging to its sides is mimicked by the pale space of the mount-boards and the photographs within. The effect is of receding space, like looking down the bellows of an old camera, so that we have to look closer. A lack of information cards, security ropes and even titles is liberating in a way that invites you to lean in. There is so little keeping you apart from these images, the experience becomes private and solitary.
Sudek was known for his beautiful panoramas, and though only a few of his images contain people, when they do they are spectacular. The photograph ‘Merry Way’ or Nachód is one such example. A photographer stands with his back to us on the shore of a forest. A small group of people walk past as two others disappear into the distance, and a washed-out looking building looms to the right. Everything is dappled light, typical of Sudek’s focus. The shapes of the trees, the path, the building and the people are layered. They look like paper cut-outs in a diorama; their figures flattened and caught mid-step.
‘Summer Festival in the Park’ takes the un-sharp contours of ‘Merry Way’, and softens them further. Light streams from the top right hand corner, illuminating a group of revelers outdoors. It creates pools of light on the ground, and makes silhouettes of the trees. The viewer is drawn in to the lower left corner, where from a distance we can watch the
An untitled image from the series The Streets of Prague demonstrates Sudek’s ability to capture a mood and a moment. A lone dark figure stands framed beneath the arch of what may be a railway bridge, while tramlines snake from the lower right into the distance of the upper left, cutting the frame diagonally and leading us into the murky street. Lines are blurred, and an amorphous crowd gathers further away. It looks like winter. Again, there is a great contrast between light and dark, like in most of his photographs. Whether in groups or alone, Sudek’s figures convey solitude, and this lonesome shadow is no exception.
‘Prague Castle – View from Black Tower’ (1950-1955) is an example of Sudek’s famed panoramic photography. Small in scale but wide in scope, the snow-capped roof-tops of Prague recede from the front to the back in a rising triangle with the castle’s turrets at its apex. Overhead hangs a grey sky and a pale watery sun. The panoramic format lends itself to the composition in a way that creates a feeling of height and of movement towards the castle, focusing the viewer’s attention on it. At the same time, the stillness of the image suspends it in time. This is a good example of Sudek’s frequent contrast between the obscure and the detailed, eventually bringing us back to the point of focus after we have taken in the dynamics.
In ‘House on the corner at night in the fog’, there is an empty street covered in snow, and a rectangular house coming sailing out of the right side like the prow of a ship. A single light is on in the house; the rest of the scene is dark. That the lit window is in the center of the image is appropriate, but in its small rebellion it maintains the entire vitality of the photograph. Mindful of the enforced curfews operating in the city at the time, it’s hard not to wonder about the people in that room with their light on.
‘Memories of Dreams’ is unusual. It takes place in a garden, with the photographer in a chair with his back to the viewer. A gnarled, twisted tree stump dominates the left, and seems to have an eye, giving it the appearance of a ram. I mentioned layering before, and in this case it’s entirely different. The artist leans back into a metal garden chair, a pair of glasses on the back of his head, a cloth cap and a curiously dissolved lower body. The chair appears at once empty and occupied, the shoulders of the sitter fade into nothing, and nothing is in the seat.
Sudek loved the courtyard garden of his studio, and it was often described by his friends as a magical place. Here, he puts himself in it as he slowly disappears. Perhaps this is a way of catching himself between two worlds – the world he lives in and the world of his photographs.
This is a short review of Sudek’s work. His subjects were diverse, numerous and infinitely layered both in appearance and meaning. The Douglas Hyde Gallery have produced a beautiful display of Sudek’s photographs. The layout of the exhibition is exactly what is needed to make enable the full potential of these time capsules. Sudek was alive in troubling times, and his quiet documentation of a city he loved being brought to its knees must be seen to be believed.
His style is undeniably painterly, so much so that in certain images it is hard to believe they were not made by hand, such is the delicacy of the line and the fluidity of motion. His photographs bring to life the smallest details of ordinary life and make them glow. The beauty of the natural world is contrasted with the emerging apartment blocks of a new regime, and the stillness of humanity with the dynamism of condensation on a window pane. Every image feels like a private encounter between viewer and artist. In the silence of the gallery and with the starkness of its light and colour, we are closer to his subjects than ever before.