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JOSEF SUDEK

by Elenore Welles

 

“Cemetary and Bicycle”, vintage gelatin
silver print, 2 1/2 x 5 1/2”, date unknown.



“Prague Castle Courtyard”,
vintage gelatin silver print,
5 1/2 x 3 1/2”, date unknown.





“On the Window of My
Studio", vintage gelatin sil-
ver print, 4 1/2 x 6”, 1956.





“Kolin Island”,
vintage gelatin silver print,
11 3/4 x 9 1/2”, date unknown.
(Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica) Czechoslovakian photographer Josef Sudek’s style of enigmatic reality correlated more to Surrealist and Magic Realist paintings than to the popular photographic styles of his time. Throughout his life, Sudek remained faithful to his own stylistic and emotional proclivities, particularly in his prescient use of blurred images and in his unique expressions of light and shadow. Like Eugene Atget, his counterpart in France, he delved into the essence of his environment. However, whereas Atget reached for the sociological realities of the city, Sudek’s mysterious photographs derived from a more subjective place.

Sudek was born in 1896 and died in 1976. He lost his right arm during World War I--an event that makes his technical feats all the more noteworthy. He was, for the most part, a loner, devoted to introspection and explorations of his soul. He believed that symbolic form equates with inner emotions, a philosophy shared by many painters of his era.

In his public explorations, he concentrated on photographing historic buildings, public squares and churches such as St. Vitus’ Cathedral. There he focused on architectural details, shooting from a variety of angles and waiting for the moment when the light was exactly right. The result was a series of distinctive perspectives.

He was attracted also to airy spaces and changing light in nature, a sensibility that ties him to the Impressionists. In his Kolin Island series, atmospheric photographs of people in the countryside capture specific moments in time and strata of society as well. Blurred figures dissolve in an atmospheric haze, frozen in time. Rays of sunlight and deep shadows create a dreamlike mood, as though the observer has wandered into a sequence of a surreal Felini movie. Sudek’s lyrical transformations of landscapes often came about from exhaustive and complicated preparations. Always waiting for just the right moment, each object, person or foliage is caught within it’s own atmosphere.

In his Garden series, haunting images stem from ill-defined values of tonal gradations that move from dark grays to blacks. Gnarled and lacy structures of trees and thickly growing plants are either bathed in radiating light or darkly silhouetted.

As a result of Sudek’s reclusive tendencies, a large portion of his photographs were shot from the vantage point of his studio window in Prague. The window acts as a reflective backdrop, framing artfully arranged objects such as onions, pebbles or flowers. He was particularly fond of the way glass objects refracted light in exciting ways. Sudek liked to view these as homages to the carefully arranged still-lifes of Chardin and old Dutch masters. His later, more modernist still-lifes were beautiful studies of form, light and shadow, but they lacked the soul of these earlier ones.

He often shot the window through a curtain of dew, ice or rain drops, a distorting barrier between internal and external worlds. In The Window of My Studio, for example, a barely distinguishable figure is seen through a dusky veil of rainy condensation. The dark indeterminacy creates a barrier between the observer and the observed. This implied sense of mystery is deliberate, a way to kindle the imagination of the viewer.

Sudek’s excursions into the the realm of imagination reflects the Czech Poetism movement of the 1920s. However, he always remained true to his own inner visions and his desire to portray a world that was created from within himself. His remoteness, his need to remain close to nature, his spirituality and his attention to detail are all reflected in the photographs on view here. Most evident is his inimitable patience. His cycles of themes such as still-lifes and landscapes often took as long as ten years to complete.