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Profiles in Black&White: Josef Sudek

In Article, Black and White Photography, Photo Print Collector, Photographer on September 22, 2013 at 12:07 pm

“I believe a lot in instinct. One should never dull it by wanting to know everything. One shouldn’t ask too many questions but do what one does properly, never rush, and never torment oneself.”

-Josef Sudek

Roundnice Gallery, office of the director, when Sudek visited to see his exhibition. Photo by Charles Sawyer, 1976

Roundnice Gallery, office of the director, when Sudek visited to see his exhibition.
Photo by Charles Sawyer, 1976

For Josef Sudek, his first true foray into photography was, literally and figuratively, an autodidactic trial by fire. Born in 1896 in Kolin – then part of Bohemia and now part of the Czech Republic – Sudek was originally apprenticed to a bookbinder by his father, a house painter. In 1915, he was drafted into the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. While serving on the Italian front, Sudek was shot in the right arm. The wound became gangrenous, forcing doctors to amputate. To find a use for their wounded soldier, the Austro-Hungarian army put a camera in his hands despite little experience. The next three years would be spent recuperating and capturing images of war.

The conclusion of the war led to a time of turmoil for Sudek. Bookbinding was no longer an option and a desk job didn’t appeal; nor did the life of a merchant. After a move to Prague, he took small commissions for photographs to supplement his military disability pension. Many of these works were in the pictorialist style. Sudek also joined the Amateur Photography Club, where he struck a friendship with Jaromir Funke. By 1922, Sudek decided that proper refinement of his abilities was needed and enrolled in Prague’s School of Graphic Arts. His formal education fueled his progressive mentality, to the point that it led to his expulsion from his photography club – he had emphatically argued that the club’s beloved pictorialist style was no longer relevant. Along with Funke, Sudek would found the Czech Photographic Society in 1924. The pair’s intellectual co-op spawned great ambition.

Once Sudek’s artistic sensibilities matured, his biggest muse would be the urban landscape of Prague, paralleling the love Eugene Atget showed for Paris. His propensity for focusing on Prague was aided by an aversion towards travel, tracing to a return trip to Italy Sudek had taken at the invitation of the Czech Philharmonic. Author Anna Farova commented in her book, Sudek, that it was the “last time he freely captured a person in his photographs.” The return to the hospitals rekindled the great trauma of losing his arm and caused a mental crisis. His disappearance flummoxed the Italian police until he somehow made his way back to Prague a couple of months later. Sudek vowed to never go anywhere again (his first western show wouldn’t occur until two years prior to his death). Instead, he completely immersed himself within his art. He might never be a normal whole human again, but he decided that photography would be his triumph. Over the next 50 years, the “Poet of Prague” produced 16 books of photography within his beloved city and the forests of Bohemia. In 1961 the Czech government made him the first photographer bestowed with the title “Artist of Merit.” Later, the government would also award him the Order of Work in 1966. Sudek died in 1976 at the age of 80.

1928 Photo by Josef Sudek

St Vitus Cathedral, Prague, 1928
Photo by Josef Sudek

Despite the disadvantage of losing his arm, Sudek had a preference to use larger equipment. One such camera was an 1894 Kodak Panorama that created a unique 10 cm x 30 cm negative. When without an assistant, he would cradle the camera in his lap to make adjustments, even use his teeth to compensate for his disability. Sudek also abandoned the practice of enlarging negatives fairly early in his career in favor of contact prints. This is attributed to a 30 x 40 cm he saw in 1940 of a statue from Chartres. The tonal variation of the contact method, not so much the detail, he said, left the greatest impression.

A shy man by nature, the neo-romanticist and modernist never married. He also never attended his gallery openings. Instead, he often found comfort in his extensive classical music collection.

Examples of Sudek’s work: Josef Sudek

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