|Viktor Kolář, Ostrava, the 1970s
|Jaroslav Kučera, Strahov Halls of Residence, Prague 1970
|Ivo Loos, from the series Faces,
|Iren Stehli, From the series
At Home 1978-79
For Czech photojournalism, the Seventies were a decade of decline. Newspapers and journals published only optimistic photographs in line with official views, resulting in lifeless, routine, cliché-ridden photography. This suppression of creativity led to photographs that were mere inventories of reality, devoid of the search for a more universal meaning and lacking the photographer’s own input. The directives and restrictions of the Federal Press and Information Office, which suppressed alternative ways of documenting local events, were largely to blame for this. Nor did the transition of most journals to colour printing improve the situation, since many printers continued to demand medium-format slide film for colour pictures, making it next to impossible to use light, handy, 35mm cameras.
In these circumstances, good photojournalism was seen mainly in sports photography (for example, photographs by Jiří Pekárek, Jiří Koliš, Vojtěch Písařík, and Miroslav Martinovský). The weekly Mladý svět (Young World) continued in the tradition of unstylized, direct photographs of everyday life. In 1975, Miroslav Hucek, the chief staff photographer of the magazine was sacked for political reasons, and was replaced by Miroslav Zajíc. From time to time, interesting photographs that stood out from the grey monotony were published in the magazine Svět v obrazech (The World in Pictures), for example, those of Bedřich Kocek, and in Signál, for instance work by Antonín Bahenský and Jaroslav Valenta.
In documentary photography, the situation was better because photographers worked without contractual obligations, and often without any chance of immediate publication in journals or books. These photographs were seldom presented in public, and the two series of exhibitions of documentary photography organized by Anna Fárová in the Činoherní klub (Drama Club) theatre, Prague, tended to be an exception. Nevertheless, by giving up almost any hope of publication, documentary photographers won relative freedom in creating true pictures of these difficult times. Some of them used the opportunity to make ironic pictures capturing the absurdity of massive Communist celebrations (for example, Ivo Loos) or the forlorn, depressing atmosphere of “real” Socialism (for example, Milan Pitlach and Jindřich Štreit). Others documented life in halls of residence, reform schools, and Prague at night, creating a much more authentic picture than the one presented by the State-controlled press. František Dostál made many humorous photographs, while his much deeper investigations into aspects of contemporary life – for example, the Summer People series – went largely unnoticed.
Documentary photography with a sociological focus was a strong current at this time. It was made by Pavel Štecha, who did outstanding documentary photography for several sociological research projects, Ivo Gil, and Markéta Luskačová, a photographer with a degree in sociology. Their work influenced some younger photographers, such as Ján Rečo, who compassionately documented life in institutions for the elderly and the disabled. Other photographers who focused on social questions include Iren Stehli, who documented life in the working-class Prague quarter of Žižkov, Pavel Vavroušek and Miroslav Pokorný, who focused on village life, and Jan Malý.
Several group projects were also organized in the Seventies. One such project focused on making photo documentation of part of Žižkov, which was marked for demolition and redevelopment (among the project’s participants were Stehli, Štecha, Jaroslav Bárta, Dana Kyndrová, and Dušan Šimánek). Several art groups with a sociological focus were established as well, for example Dokument, which aimed at capturing characteristic aspects of the lives of middle-aged people, and Oči (Eyes), whose members (including Zdeněk Fišer, Josef Bohuňovský, and Bohumil Kotas) attempted an “expansive presentation” of photographs in the environment where they had originally been taken, for example, a students’ canteen or a housing estate.
Viktor Kolář, who in 1973 returned home to Czechoslovakia after five years in Canada, made a powerful document of life in the run-down industrial town of Ostrava in “real-existing” Socialism, under a regime that restricted much and permitted little. Kolář’s photographs gradually moved away from documenting social questions and doing sociological research towards a more subjective, ambiguous form of expression. His unusual compositions encourage the viewer to reconsider conventional meanings of depicted reality. To achieve this, Kolář emphasizes visual metaphors, symbols, and hidden meanings. In their search for less obvious aspects of reality, his pictures resemble the work of the internationally known Josef Koudelka, especially Koudelka’s Exiles series, which was published as a book in 1988. In these photographs, Koudelka’s outstanding composition highlights the mysterious qualities of seemingly commonplace situations in various parts of Europe. The Exiles series successfully blends reality and illusion, life and theatre, the conscious and the unconscious. They are not only a general picture of rootlessness and estrangement, but also reflect the photographer’s own fate.
The interaction between various levels of meaning, separate themes, and parallel stories is also present in the work of Vojta Dukát and in Markéta Luskačová’s series People on Beaches of North-eastern England, as well as in the work of some photographers who were just starting out on their careers.
(From the catalogue “Czech Photography of the 20th Century by Vladimír Birgus and Jan Mlčoch, KANT and UPM, Prague 2005).