Josef Sudek (March 17, 1896 – September 15, 1976) was a renowned Czech photographer, dubbed the "Poet of Prague."
Born when Bohemia was a kingdom in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he learned bookbinding, but after his 1916 World War I injury, which led to the amputation of his right arm, he took up photography. His inability to accept the norm and prescribed limits of an artistic style and form accompanied him throughout his life.
The amputation of his arm was a traumatic experience for him, and it seemed that photography was a form of redemption, as it allowed him to peek beyond the life of loneliness into the lives of fellow humans and their environment. Few people appear in his photographs, and melancholy is the signature on all. He worked hard to make up for his physical limitations and was very patient, driven by his pursuit of perfection.
His style exhibits traits of Impressionism, Surrealism, Magic Realism, Neo-Romanticism, Avant-Garde, and Czech Poetism Movement, but central to it is a diversity of light values in the low end of the tonal scale, and the representation of light as a substance occupying its own space. Sudek's work first appeared in America in 1974.
Toward the end of his life he was branded a loner and eccentric; classical music and his famous painter and poet friends kept him company. He experienced several political regimes, yet he always maintained his own perspective of art, oblivious to whims and fashions of the time. He never sought the limelight and largely busied himself with what captured his interest. He published 16 books during his life and left behind over 20,000 photographs and twice as many negatives, most of which have not been published.
Josef Sudek never married. He died in 1976, at the age of 80.
Josef Sudek was born in Kolin, Bohemia, on March 17, 1896, which at the time was a kingdom in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to a housepainter father. His father apprenticed him to a bookbinder, and in this setting he was also initiated into photography. The father died soon afterward and the family struggled with poverty, but Josef's memories of childhood were fond. He felt very close to his sister Božena, who helped him with household chores even through his adulthood.
Sudek was drafted into the First World War in 1915, and served on the Italian Front, where he was hit by shrapnel in the right arm. Due to complications, his arm was amputated at the shoulder; he was 21 years old. Three years of convalescence in Prague's Veterans’ hospital followed, where Sudek passed time photographing his fellow patients; this marked his official entry into the field of photography. Around this period he produced several albums of pictures, including landscapes showing the devastation wrought by the war.
Once he was fit to resume normal life outside the health care system, he settled in Prague and made his living taking photographs on commission, to supplement his disability pension. He met Czech Avant-Garde photographer Jaromír Funke, who became his good friend, and joined the Amateur Photography Club. In 1922, he began formal education in his new vocation at the Prague-based School of Graphic Arts. His teachers, leading "traditionalist" Czech photographers such as Karel Novák, introduced him to the most influential American photographer of the twentieth century, Edward Weston, and his soft focus Pictorialism. But it was largely the work of Clarence White, who employed light and shadow to evoke a three dimensional mood and a virtual glow from the highlights, that can be discerned in Sudek's early work. Sudek also co-founded professional associations such as Photoclub Prague and the Czech Photographic Society.
Along with the other leading young photographers, he soon rejected the traditional—"painterly"—approach and embraced the modernist views. For this, he and Funke were dismissed from Photoclub Prague. In response, they rallied photographers who shared their modernist views, and in 1924, formed the "Avant-Garde Czech Photographic Society," which focused on the negative. Still, the light continued to work its magic on Sudek throughout his career. He admired Funke for his knowledge of law, medicine, and philosophy; this man, Sudek's peer, with his sharp, broad-specter intelligence, provided an impetus for many of Sudek's bold undertakings.
The Nazi invasion of 1939 brought much of the cultural life of Prague to a halt; likewise, Sudek took a step back to reflect on his work—and discovered contact prints. He almost gave up on the negative and pushed the boundaries in the uses of printing papers and effects instead. At that time, the ideal of printing, particularly in America, was manifested by "straight photographers" such as Ansel Adams. Sudek distanced himself from this technique and began using very dark and often low contrast images. Almost all of his subsequent work—commercial and personal—was contact prints from negatives. The pictures often relied on limited tonalities; they were dark and sombre and very subjective, as if the lives of his subjects, human or not, were to be sheltered from the outside world. The critics hammered him for this drifting away from the norm.
After World War II, he hired an assistant, Sonja Bullaty, a young Czech Jew who survived the Nazi concentration camps. While her boss was brimming with energy and almost a workaholic, she was still reeling from the trauma of the Holocaust, but she adjusted to his pace in order to do photography. It was Bullaty who took Sudek's work outside the Iron Curtain and preserved over 300 selections of his prints that he continued to send to her after she emigrated to America.
In the early 1950s, Sudek purchased an 1894 Kodak Panorama camera whose spring-drive sweeping lens allowed for making a large negative of 10 cm x 30 cm (4 inches x 12 inches), and produced almost 300 panoramic images of Prague that were published under the title Panoramas of Prague, in 1959. Like most of his books, it was only published in his native country.
Sudek's individualism did not fare well under Czechoslovakia's communist regime. Fortunately, the strong artistic tradition of the country made it possible for him to practice his art through mavericks who supported his work, and it continued to be published. He was the first photographer to be honored by the country with the title of "Artist of Merit." His hunched figure pegged to a bulky wooden tripod was quite a spectacle in Prague. He never tired of his work and worked continuously until the age of 80, when he passed away. Sudek had never married.
In 1926, Sudek ventured back into Italy with a group of friends who were musicians with the Czech Philharmonic. This trip brought him quite near the spot where his life had been shattered nearly ten years earlier. Leaving his friends in the middle of a concert and wandering as if in a trance until he reached the location his injury had occurred, he remained for two months. His friends even alerted police when they could not account for him. Finally, having reached the catharsis but permanently estranged, he returned to Prague, where he plunged into his art.
Sonja Bullaty reproduced Sudek's description of his odyssey as follows:
When the musicians ot the Czech Philharmonic told me: "Josef come with us, we are going to Italy to play music," I told myself, "fool that you are, you were there and you did not enjoy that beautiful country when you served as a soldier for the Emperor's Army." And so went with them on this unusual excursion. In Milan, we had a lot of applause and acclaim and we traveled down the Italian boot until we came to that place—I had to disappear in the middle of the concert; in the dark I got lost, but I had to search. Far outside the city toward dawn, in the fields bathed by the morning dew, finally I found the place. But my arm wasn't there—only the poor peasant farmhouse was still standing in its place. They had brought me into it that day when I was shot in the right arm. They could never put it together again, and for years I was going from hospital to hospital, and had to give up my bookbinding trade. The Philharmonic people… didn't reproach me, but from that time on, I never went anywhere, anymore, and I never will. What would I be looking for when I didn't find what I wanted to find?
From this point on, Sudek's photos changed. Those produced from 1920 until the year of his crisis are markedly different from those produced afterward, both in style and content. In his early works, the contents were shadowy; the series of his fellow invalids from the veterans' hospital portrayed ghostly silhouettes shrouded in clouds of light. Other photos from the same period utilized soft focus, often distant subjects.
After his experience in Italy in 1926, Sudek seemed to discover a new personal style and come into his full powers as an artist. He no longer used the haziness that autographed his earlier works. He turned his devotion and dedication to photographing the city of Prague, created haunting night-scapes and panoramas of the city. He also photographed the wooded landscape of Bohemia, creating some of his most captivating scenes.
Josef Sudek never attended to his own openings. He only made one exception, in the town of Roudnice, since he wanted to see how the photos were hung. After surveying the display and expressing approval, he retired to an upper floor to watch from above. He did foster friendships though; among others, with Dr. Peter Helbich, who called him "chief," to which Sudek responded with "student." Helbich attributed Sudek's melancholy to the loss of his arm but, at the same time, felt that had it not been for his disability, he would not have gone on to bring out the artist in himself.
When friends were not available, Sudek tapped into the soothing tones of music, especially by the Czech composer Leoš Janáček (1854-1928). For years, he would visit Janáček's native Hukvaldy in the eastern region of the Czech Republic, Moravia to capture both the unique charm of the area and the composer's character through photographs of the countryside, the town, and the composer's home. He held weekly classical music soirées for his friends, drawing on his vast record collection.
He once said on the relationship between the artist and environment: "…the environment does have an impact on the person; even if you curse it, it will affect you. You can't extricate yourself from it." He was aware of the direct relationship between the artist and the object of his art. What he was unaware of was the fact that the artist has the power to transform the object through the power of his imagination and the degree of his skill.
Sudek was a down-to-earth man who openly admitted his weaknesses, such as reluctance to read, sloppiness, inability to bring a project to an end, and hoarding.
Like Eugene Atget, his counterpart in France, Sudek was captivated by the city, and Prague's Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture offered plenty. But while Atget, who was a master of the sociological side of the city, Sudek stamped his own inner preoccupations into his enigmatic photographs. In historic buildings, public squares, and churches, he looked for architectural details and thus shot from a variety of angles. The same building would therefore appear different on each picture.
He worked hard both in terms of technique and aestheticism; his panoramic photos were an astounding 1 x 3 meter in size, and the sweeping lens technique was extremely demanding. The persistence, patience, and continuous investment paid off and yielded unique results in the hands of the maestro. Also, he continuously explored and challenged the possibilities of his antique camera. That is why his landscapes blend in the surroundings rather than parcel it into isolated units.
Gustave Flaubert once expressed an ambition to write a book which would have no subject, "a book dependent on nothing external … held together by the strength of its style." Photographers strove to achieve this by making light the subject of their photographs, leaving the trite, material world behind. Sawyer said that Sudek, "mesmerized by a gossamer curtain draped over the back of the chair, the mist from a garden sprinkler, or the blurriness of air saturated with vapor, has come closer than any other photographer to translating this fantasy into reality. He looked for such materials everywhere. Once, accompanied by Bullaty, he saw a ray of sun enter the darkness of the Romanesque halls below the spires of St. Vitus Cathedral and started waving cloths to raise mountains of dust to see the light." This is an Impressionist sensibility.
The ubiquitous melancholy and detachment with which his photos were taken underscored tranquility on one hand and belittled human intimacy on the other. These excursions into the realm of imagination point more to Surrealist and Magic Realism paintings than to the photographic styles of the age. They also reflected the Czech Poetism movement of the 1920s, which never spread beyond the boundaries of the country. It aimed to show an optimistic view of the world stripped of politics by building on lyricism and playfulness. The only permitted time frame was the present—its joyful moments imbued with happiness and emotions. Philosophically, it was a reaction to the feeling of alienation widespread in Europe of that time. The Czech artists were convinced that human relations had been warped, which they attributed to the society, blinded by its own system and complexity. As a result, society did not show interest in the happiness of an individual and was self-centered. Poetism strove to rectify and overcome this feeling of alienation.
Nevertheless, Sudek's own stylistic and emotional peculiarities overrode the styles prevalent during his life. Being a loner, he produced a vast number of his photographs out of his studio window, which acted as a reflective backdrop, framing artfully arranged objects such as onions, pebbles, or flowers. Those were his homage to the carefully arranged still-lifes of Jean Baptiste Simeon Chardin and the Old Dutch masters. Even though the setting was the same, Sudek would make each of the photos distinct and unique with the aid of atmospheric conditions, such as dew, ice, or rain drops. In The Window of My Studio, a figure is barely distinguishable through a dusky veil of rainy condensation.
There were two basic periods in Sudek's life in which his work took drastic turns. The first was after his crisis in Italy during which time he came to terms with the loss of his arm. Prior to that time, his photos were bathed in haziness, even referred to as ghostly. After his return from Italy there was a clarity and beauty in his work which had not been seen before. Then came four years of a rapid artistic development and later on healing of the soul, through his study of the reconstruction of St. Vitus Cathedral, completed in 1928. Sudek devoted endless hours to photographing objects in various settings, particularly objects given to him by friends. To him, the photos were "remembrances" of the person.
The other hallmark of his creativity started with his discovery of the contact prints in 1940, when he came across a 30 x 40 cm (12 x 16 inches) contact print photograph of a statue from Chartres, France. The intense beauty and authenticity of the stone brought out by this method convinced him that it would be best to make only contact prints. He realized that it was an all-powerful tool that would allow for presenting detail as a broad spectrum of tone, which is what he desired. This also meant that he would have to dedicate himself fully to his artistic passion and maintain a high standard of craftsmanship. From then on he carried view cameras as large as the 30 x 40 cm format (12 x 16 inches), operating the equipment propped in his lap with one hand, and what one hand could not handle, the teeth would.
In the 1930s, Sudek worked mostly as a photographer on commission. He was described as a very expensive, goal-oriented businessman who did not hesitate to hire an attorney when his royalties were not paid or when the buyers defaulted. Later in his life he played down this chapter, admitting that money was good but doing just that would have driven him insane. He was eager to quickly return to his art once the commercial order was completed. He never loosened his standards though, pioneering this field in his country. He worked for the Družstevní práce publishing house and its promotional publications focused on quality work, living style, and modern life, where he briefly sat on the editorial board. Then he took on orders to photograph Prague's factories and businesses and various products.
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