There is not much happening in the photographs of Václav Podestát’s People series. They are never depictions of dramatic moments, important events, or celebrities. People passing each other by in the shadows of streetlamps, a young man sleeping in a moving train, a little group standing by a mountain lake in gloomy weather, a dog running amongst people in a restaurant, five pedestrians in a Prague street, each of whom is looking in a different direction. Banal scenes, hundreds of which we see around ourselves every day, and on the whole register only passively on the retinas of our eyes, but which most of us would never think of photographing. Trivial everyday scenes in which Václav Podestát discovers something strange, phantasmic, and mysterious, something with a deeper meaning, which can serve as a visual metaphor for subjective feeling, experience, and mood, something that can express in pictures certain states or relations hard to describe in words.
Each of Podestát’s photographs rely on the viewer’s willingness to notice little details, to discover contrasts and analogies of various motifs in various spatial planes, to find the occasionally absurd co-existence of several parallel stories, which form a strange tension. Yet the photographer provides no clear instructions for how to read his photographs, counting instead on the cultivated, sensitive viewer to work with him in deciphering potential symbolic meanings. His photographs therefore incite the imagination or raise questions rather than provide unambiguous statements and clear answers. Despite the wide range of interpretations offered by each photograph, almost all Podestát’s photographs have something in common. Almost all emit a nostalgia and subtle sadness. In almost all of them the main role is played by a human being. Even though many of the photographs do not include an immediate human presence, they often show an individual moving away from a noisy crowd and turning inwards. The People cycle, however, should not really be included among sociological documents, because the specific level here plays a less important role than the generalizing level. Consequently, it is not especially important whether the photographs were made in Prague, Paris, Rotterdam, or Lužná near Rakovník. Nor are the dates of the photographs decisive; although the photographer provides them, they are only secondary information.
Podestát has a refined sense of exploring moments on the borderline between reality and the dream, showing ordinary reality in a new light. His photographs have much in common with the style of the plays of Chekhov and Williams, the stories of Hemingway and Salinger, and the films of Antonioni, where real meaning is concealed in the subtext of apparently banal sentences and images. Beneath the surface of banal motifs, Podestát’s photograph, too, are concerned with the generalizing themes of isolation in the midst of crowds, the search for deeper interpersonal relations, and life’s values, the need for faith, the longing for beauty. At the same time they are reflections of the photographer’s internal world, his experiences, his joys and sorrows. A large role in this is played by his refined pictorial composition, which is based mostly on classic principles, and often the inclusion of phantasmic shadows of people and things depicted in his photographs as well as those standing outside the pictures, recalling Plato’s cave with its shadows of the merely surmised outside world. Many photographs lead one to suspect that they have been carefully staged. Unlike Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Gregory Crewdson, and other representatives of quasi-documentary photography, which is now so trendy even among many of his fellow documentarists, Václav Podestát does not stage anything, nor does he encourage people to strike poses before the camera; instead he waits patiently for the most effective constellation of the chief components of the depicted scene from the theatre of real life.
Podestát’s vast and, after more than fifteen years, still unfinished People series is not made in isolation from contemporary trends in photography. In these photographs Podestát makes no attempt to conceal his admiration for the pioneers of the subjective document William Klein, Robert Frank, and Louis Faurer, as well as for its contemporary representatives Josef Koudelka, Carl de Keyzer, and Bruce Gilden. In Podestát’s case, however, it is not a matter of imitating others, but of searching directly for possibilities of visual reflection, his own view of the world, in which, despite all the nostalgia and occasional anxiety or sadness, it is kindness, sensitivity, tolerance, and faith in the positive values of life, which predominate. The importance of Václav Podestát in the context of contemporary Czech documentary photography is increased by his work as a journalist, organizer, and, mainly, teacher. With his work and his fervour, Podestát is able to awaken in many young people an interest in the subjective document, as is testified to by his success as a teacher in the Institute of Creative Photography of Silesian University, Opava, in the Czech Republic. At the same time, his actual photographic work is substantially broader in scope and includes the imaginative confrontation of static motifs and their reflections from the Illusions cycle, photographs of architecture, various forms of advertising work, and sociologically or humanitarianly orientated photographs (for example, his cycles about an old people’s home, a village, his final project in photography at the Academy of Performing Arts [FAMU] entitled ‘Old Age’, or his photographs about the lives of the physically handicapped, which were made for the Good Will Centre in the town of Cheb). The People series, however, is the undisputed high point of his work so far.