The left-handed poet of Prague

text: Taka Kawachi

Autumn/2015

“When, during the war, I used to look at my window and photograph it, I often discovered that something was happening on the ledge. That became increasingly important to me. Some object, flowers, a little stone, anything that evoked the idea of separating out these still lives and making them into independent photographs. I think that photography delights in ordinary things. And I delight in the life of things.” – Josef Sudek

Known as the “poet of Prague” and the “writer of light and shadow”, Czech photographer Josef Sudek is the face of Eastern European photography. When he was still 20 years old, he had the misfortune to seriously wound his right arm while serving on the Italian front in the First World War. Though he had to have it amputated, he used his remaining left arm to carry a large format camera with a tripod attached, where he became known for his images of early morning Prague, scenery of tranquil forests as well as still life in his studio. Work very much brimming with poetry.

Listening to his favorite classical music every day, Josef Sudek continued to take the 'drama' around the windowsill in his studio. ©DR

As Sudek was able to receive an Army disability pension from the loss of his arm, he invested most of the money into studying his hobby of photography, where he eventually started his career in his mid-20s. While he eked out a living as a commercial photographer, he founded the ‘Czech Photography Association’ with his photographer friend Jaromir Funke. The aim was a new form of photographic expression, aesthetic works that was a separate entity from his work in commercial photography.

An image from the 'St. Veto Cathedral' series. The contrast between the gravel and the interior of the cathedral illuminated by the celestial light creates an intriguing view of the world. ©DR

Said to be his masterpiece among his personal work is his series of the cathedral inside Prague castle. During a period when the cathedral was undergoing renovations, he took photographs of the interior, where the light entered and filled the room with celestial light. 15 of the images were published in a photo book entitled ‘St. Vito Cathedral’, a collection which made his name known not only in Eastern Europe but beyond. Moreover, in ‘ The Window of my Studio’, a collection regarded as his other masterpiece, are images of objects such as cups, roses, eggs or bread placed alone on the windowsill of his studio, with the scenery behind the window pane. It is a fine piece of work and the opening words of Sudek at the beginning of this piece pretty much touches on these still life standing by the window. The scenes taken seem to be filled with a lasting untainted beauty. With that sensibility, I have wondered how much influence they had over the windowsill photography of Wolfgang Tillmans.

Sudek seemed to away from having any particular opinions or involvement in politics as much as possible during his lifetime. This is perhaps why his work does not appear extreme to people as he favored taking photos of his studio and around, quiet parks and forests. Moreover, he had an unrivaled love for classical music. In his work space, cluttered to the extent where there was nowhere to step your feet onto, was a record player. You could imagine it was here, while listening to his favorite records, where he created his own view of the world. Sudek was a man who stuck to a lifetime of living on his own terms, to the point where he even did not make an appearance at the opening reception of his own exhibition.

When looking at this fine yet poetic photography, left by this man who favored solitude, the quality of his art and a beauty that appears to be alive does nothing more than purify your own heart.

Taka Kawachi

Studied at San Francisco Art College after high school, moved to New York and curated exhibitions and edited photography collections. He returned to Japan in 2011. He has recently published two books with writings about art and photography in Europe and America (not yet available in English).

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