The international position of the Czech photography has really markedly changed in the course of the last decades. While in earlier books on the history of photography by Beaumont Newhall, Peter Pollock or Alison and Helmut Gernsheim, not even Josef Sudek is mentioned, most actual encyclopaedias and histories of photography also write about František Drtikol, Jaromír Funke, Jaroslav Rössler, Josef Koudelka, Jan Saudek and further authors. All mentioned authors are firmly connected to Prague (it concerns also Koudelka who lives alternately in Paris and in Prague). Even if Prague has only 1,2 million inhabitants, its dominant place in the Czech culture is comparable with the position of Paris in France or that of London in Great Britain. The same goes for the Czech photography during the entire period of its existence as well. Already in October 1841, Wilhelm Horn opened the first photographic studio in Prague. In 1862, the Náprstek Czech Industrial Museum, as a first body in Bohemia, started to collect photographs there, in 1889, the Club of Photographers Amateurs was born in Prague, the oldest photographic organization in the Czech lands. In 1902, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague started to include photographs into its collections. In 1921, the State Graphic School was opened with courses of photography. In 1920, an avant-garde oriented Artistic Union Devětsil was founded in Prague whose members had a very big interest in photography (among them also a pioneer of a constructivist and abstract photography Jaroslav Rössler) and they were creating specific photomontages, the so-called picture poems. After the arrival of Hitler to power, a lot of German left-oriented artists found asylum in a democratic Czechoslovakia, among them John Heartfield, who, during his stay in Prague, in the years 1933-38, created his most important anti-Nazi photomontages; Raul Hausmann who had an independent exhibition in the Prague Museum of Decorative Arts in 1937 or a graduate of the Bauhaus, Werner David Feist. In the course of the 1930s, several important exhibitions of modern photography took place in Prague and in the biggest one, called the International Exhibition of Photography, participated, in 1936, for example Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, Hans Bellmer, Brett Weston, Alexander Rodchenko and other world-known authors. Only a few people know that, in 1957, a first ever specialized gallery of photography in Europe came into being in Prague, the Fotochema Exhibition Hall that existed till 1991. From 1960, it was possible to study photography at the Department of Film Photography and Television Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. In 1975, under the leadership of professor Ján Šmok, an independent Department of Still Photography was founded at this school, one of two in all states of the Soviet Bloc (the second one existed at the School for Graphic and Typographical Arts in Leipzig).
The scene of photography in Prague has changed radically after the fall of the Communist regime in 1989. On one side, the system of support for amateur photographers´ movement, subsidized by the state, practically disappeared and the number of various amateur photographers clubs and circles markedly decreased. On the place of the oldest photographic gallery in Europe there is, nowadays, the Hugo Boss shop. A non-commercial photographic quarterly Revue Fotografie (Photography Review) ceased to be published, prices of photography books and photographic material have increased many times. On the other hand, the actual photography life, in the Czech metropolis, is richer and more animated than ever before. Any kind of ideological censorship has come to an end and possibilities of international contacts have opened broadly. New photographic galleries came into being, specialized studies of photography are being provided by three schools and several high schools in Prague, it is possible to buy, in large bookshops, books on photography and magazines from the whole world, auctions of photographs are being held regularly. The most important is, however, that photography has left its closed ghetto and, like in many other countries, it belongs to dominant features of the contemporary fine arts. Photography exhibitions appear regularly also in the most important art museums and exhibition halls, the photography found finally its way to permanent exhibitions of the Czech art, a lot is being written about photography in art magazines, collectors and even public collections are willing to pay all the time higher and higher amounts for high quality photographs.
Museum of Decorative Arts, an exhibtion Czech Photography of
National Gallery in Prague-Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art
Mr. Knížák justifies the non-existence of a collection of photographs in the National Gallery by the fact that a big collection of photographs is owned by the Museum of Decorative Arts. Indeed, it is the most important collection of the Czech photography in the world, among whose approximately 65 thousand pictures there are more than 23 thousand photographs by Josef Sudek, more than 5 thousand works of František Drtikol (he dedicated these photographs to the Museum already during the Second World War) and thousands of period originals of further important Czech photographers (there are, however, also some rare foreign works, for example an album of rayograms „Les champs délicieux“ by Man Ray. Although the Museum has been collecting the photographs already since the beginning of the 20th century, the first specialized photography curator was Anna Fárová only in 1970. She started to buy intensively for almost symbolic prices mainly works of avant-garde photographers and organized several important exhibitions, for example, a retrospective of Drtikol and Sudek and a show „Personalities of the Czech Photography“. Today, the function of the manager of the photography collection is exercised by Jan Mlčoch. The Museum organizes exhibitions both in its own exhibition hall of the historical building, not far from the Old Jewish Cemetery, (Josef Koudelka, František Drtikol, Jaroslav Rössler), and participates in expositions in several Czech and foreign galleries. On the occasion of the last year´ s 120th anniversary of its foundation, the Museum became, last year, the main organizer of a giant exhibition „The Czech Photography of the 20th Century“ which presented, in three exhibition areas in Prague, more than 1 200 works by 423 photographers. (A narrower version of this exposition will be presented, in 2008, in the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn). A small show of development of the Czech photography makes part of a permanent Museum´s exposition „Stories of Materials“. The Museum of Decorative Arts runs also, in two rooms of a former flat of Josef Sudek, in the Úvoz street, not far from the Prague Castle, a chamber photograph gallery for which Jan Mlčoch is preparing small expositions of works by Sudek or medallions of authors represented in the Museum´s collection. The main problem of the Museum of Decorative Arts is not only a lack of financial means for a more pronounced extension of the photographs´ collection (it receives, today, most new exhibits as a gift), but also literally a catastrophic lack of space for storing collections, for the curator´ s work and his/her assistant and for researchers. Jan Mlčoch proposed, therefore, to build a new building for the Museum´s collection of photographs, but the realization of this plan is, for the time being, very uncertain.
In Prague, there are further public collections of photographs as well, but they cannot, however, compete, by their importance, with funds of the Museum of Decorative Arts. They are mostly oriented historically (the National Museum, the National Technical Museum, the Museum of the Capital City of Prague, the Náprstek Museum), only a smaller collection of the City Gallery Prague is oriented towards a contemporary creation of plastic artists working with photography. Of a more universal character is the Collection of the Union of the Czech Photographers which is, nowadays, stored in the National Archives. Among its roughly ten thousand pictures, dominate works of leading amateur photographers since the 20ies of the last century till present days, but we find there also several period originals of classic authors of the Czech photography. A specific place is occupied by a collection of photographs of the PPF Property Company. The collection came into being from the initiative of the richest Czech entrepreneur, a dollar billionaire, Petr Kellner, who is the main owner of this company (apart from many other companies including the Czech Insurance Company). Mr. Kellner started to collect photographs of Josef Sudek and, later on, institutionalized his collecting interest in one of his firms. If somebody wanted to compare the quality and range of this collection with, for example, famous corporate collections of the Gillman Paper Company or the Hallmark or with a collection of the singer and composer Elton John, he/she would probably be disappointed because with the exception of Josef Sudek, Drahomír Josef Růžička and Jan Svoboda, the most important Czech photographers including Drtikol, Funke or Rössler are represented by second-class works and later enlargements or they miss in this collection completely. Collecting photographs is, till now, not very common in the Czech Republic although the number of people buying photographs as a hobby or for speculative reasons keeps increasing. If at auctions in Prague´s Auction Hall Dorotheum, Griesen or Václav Prošek appear recently, from time to time, photographs of Sudek, they happen to be, in many cases, sold for higher prices than is the case in New York, London or Munich and their buyers stem less and less often from abroad.
Former Leica Gallery Prague
Former Prague House of Photography during the flood in August 2002
New venue of the Prague House of Photography in Revoluční Street
Plan of new gallery, Prague House of Photography
Gallery Langhans, library
Langhans Gallerry-an opening of new exhibition
Further Prague´s galleries are substantially more modest. For presentations of works of young authors penetrating only with difficulties into prestigious exhibition halls, the Velryba Gallery is of major importance, having its headquarters in impressively adapted underground premises of a popular café with the same name in the Opatovická street nr. 24, in the downtown of Prague. The Gallery in today´s conception has been existing since the year 1998 when its owner, Pavel Micka, agreed with officials from the FAMU Department of Photography to alternate there, in monthly intervals, exhibitions of the FAMU and other photographic and graphic and plastic arts schools. Young photographers receive sometimes opportunity to exhibit in the Studio of Josef Sudek as well. The most famous Czech photographer received, in the year 1927, an older wooden photo atelier on the courtyard of one of apartment houses in the Lesser Town. Till his death, in the year 1976, he was creating there publicity snapshots, clarion clean still-lives with glasses, shells or eggs. Even magic photographs from the cycle „Window of My Atelier“ in which he was capturing through dewy or frozen window a ground apple tree and other trees and bushes on a sad and grey courtyard. A fire, that broke out in the studio nine years after the photographer´ s death, blundered away plans to found there a Sudek´s museum. The already mentioned rich PPF company built, in the end, a replica of the studio where small expositions have been taking place since September 2000. But not, however, those of Sudek´s vintage prints, but rather of new enlargements of his works, of works of contemporaries of Růžička, Rössler and other authors as well as contemporary Czech photographers of young and middle-age generations.
The Sudek´s name is carried by the Chamber Photography Gallery of the House of Photography of Josef Sudek in the Meiselova street, seated in one ground floor room in a house where Franz Kafka was born. The Gallery is being run by the Foundation of the Czech Press Photo under the leadership of Daniela Mrázková, ancient editor-in-chief of the Revue Fotografie and the Fotografie Magazín. The interior of this exhibition hall reminds, nowadays, more an overcrowded shop of photographic books, magazines, posters and authors´ photographs, too than an elegant gallery. The level of the exhibition programme oscillates strongly, besides banal macrophotographs of insect, there appear excellent works of Graciela Iturbide or high quality photographs of grant winners of the Mayor of Prague, attributed annually to one Czech photographer depicting different aspects of life in the Czech metropolis. Recently, good exhibitions of documentary photographs appear, all the time more frequently, in a gallery situated in the St. John Nepomuk chapel of the Franciscan Monastery at the Jungmann square. Martin Wágner, its lessor, presents there oft snapshots showing uneasy life in countries of the former Soviet Union. Even in the very ambulatory of the Franciscan Monastery, there take place very often major expositions of photographs. We end the total enumeration of photography galleries in Prague by the Fotogalerie Pasáž (the Passage Photo Gallery), being run completely without any conception, its owner Elen Michajlovová adapts herself mostly to average customers´ taste and exhibits and offers oft pseudo art nudes. Recently opened Gallery Caspari Centrum and Gallery of Václav and Tomáš Jírů have not managed to prove their conceptual intentions yet, they present mainly works of their owners.
Gallery Rudolfinum in Prague
The City Gallery Prague-The House of the Stone Bell
The City Gallery Prague, Municipal Gallery, opening of the exhibition Czech Photography of the 20th Century, 2005
The City Gallery Prague, Municipal Library
Far less satisfaction arouses the contemporary situation in the Czech photography press. After the disappearance of a legendary quarterly Revue Fotografie (Photography Review) that thanks to a Russian-language version was also a principal source of information on photography works in the whole Soviet Union as well, there was, in the Czech Republic, no similar photography magazine oriented towards high quality photographs and not to tests of object-lens or competitions for beginning amateur photographers. Only thanks to generous subsidies of Miroslav Lekeš, a benefactor of art, an exclusive magazine Fotograf (Photographer) started to be published, four years ago, in Czech and English versions, edited by Pavel Baňka. Each thematically oriented number (till now, six of them were published) brings a number of medallions, printed in high quality, of Czech and foreign photographers, theoretical articles, critiques of exhibitions and books and information on the most important festivals of photography. From a number of technically oriented magazines stands out the DIGI Foto whose editorial staff strives to include into each number articles on the most important events of the world of photography and interviews with important photographers, curators and theoreticians. The traditional monthly Fotografie Magazín, under the leadership of its new editor-in-chief Richard Guryča, also seems to strive to publish displays of high quality works of classic authors and young representatives of the Czech photography as well. Further further photographic magazines such as Photolife, Foto Video and Art Photography, oriented towards amateur photography, to nudities indulging vulgar tastes, travel snapshots and pictures of animals. Much more high quality information on photographic events can be obtained from graphic and plastic art magazines Ateliér and Art & Antiques.
The quantity and quality of books on photography from the Czech Republic arouses admiration and envy in many much bigger countries as well. Two small publishers have, however, the principal merit in this field: KANT of Karel Kerlický and Torst of Viktor Stoilov. Whereas the KANT is oriented, today, towards perfectly printed monographs, books on history and present time of photography and big catalogues, which it publishes in co-production also for such prestigious publishing houses such as The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press or Arnoldsche, the Torst Publishers concentrate mainly on small monographs of Czech photographers which by their conception and format follow up with a famous Prague edition Umělecká fotografie (Artistic Photography), appearing since the year 1958. For the publicity of the Czech photography it is of tremendous importance that all their books appear with English texts as well and are also distributed abroad (for example, by the New York company D.A.P.). In Prague, till now, there does not exist a specialized bookstore with photography literature, but a good choice of Czech and also foreign publications on photography is provided, for example, by the Palace of Books on the Wenceslas Square or the bookstore in the House at the Stone Bell at the Old Town Square. Times when it was possible to buy cheaply rare books of Sudek or Funke in Prague´s second-hand bookshops or at auctions are gone for ever and prices of many publications do not differ remarkably from those in Paris or New York. The best opportunities to acquire photography publications sold out a long time ago are provided by auctions organized by the Antikvariát Václav Prošek (the Václav Prošek Second-Hand Bookshop) or Antikvární veletrhy (Antiquarian Fairs) organized every autumn.
Another object of envy of photographers from Eastern and Central Europe is a big quantity of Czech schools where photography is taught. The oldest one, although, nowadays, not the biggest any more (the biggest school with 170 students from the Czech Republic and from a number of other countries is the Institute of Creative Photography of the Silesian University in Opava), is the already mentioned Department of Still Photography of the Film and Television Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague, to which, in the 1990s, directly in the Czech metropolis, a competitor grew up in the form of a newly established Atelier of Photography at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design and recently at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague as well. Apart from superior schools, there is, in Prague, a number of state and private high schools where photography is taught. The Graphic High School, founded already in 1921, has, among these schools, the longest tradition.
So, this is the actual photography scene in Prague. From the range and the level of a photography setting in New York, Paris or London, it is and surely will be far. But it is certainly the most lively in its whole history till present times.
Leica World 1/2006