Madrid - Prague

We have found this beautiful text by Antonio Muñoz Molina in the last edition of Babelia only some hours after we have illustrated with a quotation from his Sefarad the importance of the celebrations of the Holy Week in Úbeda. The text, which perhaps intentionally imitates the “long sentences” of Bohumil Hrabal, speaks about Josef Sudek, whose photos have been recently exhibited for the first time after half century in Madrid. The life and figure of Sudek are just as enigmatic as the city he kept photographing in all his life, and his images have directly or indirectly determined the way we look at Prague.

Josef Sudek is a man roaming the streets of Prague, bent under the weight of a cumbersome and archaic camera and of a tripod of an itinerant photographer, a photographer left here from a previous epoch who takes his pictures hidden under the large black veil and slowly pressing the rubber ball of the releasing mechanism. In a Zen koan they ask how the clap of one hand sounds. The art of Josef Sudek has something of the fabulous resonance of this hand which cannot clap with the other, as he had lost his right arm on the Italian front during the First World War, and although sometimes an assistant helps him to stand up the camera, during his taciturn roamings over Prague he is always seen alone, the clumsy Kodak of 1894 and the tripod already became a part of his profile, just like the beret and the black coat and the left shoulder sinking always lower in lack of the counterweight of the right arm, already a phantasm and still painful, amputated in the field hospital. In 1926, when Josef Sudek had been a war invalid for almost ten years, he once again returned to Italy accompanying his friends from the Prague Philharmonics. Music was his other great love. In the middle of a concert he rose from his seat, left the theater like a somnambulant, and through deserted and dark streets he reached the outskirts of the town, wandering all through the night, this time free from the weight of the camera, lost in unknown landscapes. And in the gray fog of the dawn in a plain field he saw a farmhouse, and with the inappellable certainty of the dreams he knew that this was the farmhouse where he had been taken when he was wounded, when his arm was cut off. “But I have not found my arm,” he related later, although he did not tell where he had been after, while his friends from the orchestra were looking in vain for him before continuing the tour without him.

He returned from this journey and did not leave Prague any more. He rented a small studio looking onto a shady garden and there he worked and lived during the fifty years that were left to him. The war and the loss of the right arm swept his youth off. The obstacles on my way became my way, writes Nietzsche. It is possible that the real vocation is a way which opens by chance after all the other ones which looked more evident are closed. If they did not have to amputate his right arm at the height of the shulder because of a necrotized wound, Josef Sudek would have become a bookbinder. And without the small disability pension he received after the war he could have not devoted himself to photography
, body and soul. He began by taking pictures of the veterans he met by chance in the hospitals, of those mutilated and spiritually distorted figures populating all Europe after the slaughter, but it took him years to find his own style. At the age of twenty he had to learn how to live with one arm less, how to manage the camera and the process of image development. But it was even more difficult to learn how to see those things that nobody paid attention to, although they were there before the eyes of everyone. To do so, he had to center himself, to choose or find a fix position in the chaos and multiplicity of the world, like sharpening the focus of a lens. In order to see Prague, Josef Sudek had to leave Prague for a while. He traveled to the south, and in that Italian dawn – with the fertile plains and hazy distances only interrupted by some houses or trees – he saw the same place again where his previous life had been broken by the machine-gun, and although he could not find his missing arm any more, but nevertheless he found his other, invisible arm and hand with which he could give form to the mystery of his poetic invention.

He did not need to leave any more. The farthest terra incognita he rambled to were the fields over the tramway terminuses. He strolled about the streets with the large camera on his shoulder, in a hurry to arrive to a certain constellation of the lights, or remaining still for several minutes waiting for the right moment under the black veil. He used to say that photographing is a strange art, as it cannot show the things openly, only through allusions, revealing only the necessary minimum in order the complete image be born in the look and in the imagination of the onlooker. The panoramic format of 30×10 permitted by his camera embraced the horizontality of a square or of a field in which the human silhouettes appear isolated in the distance, but are not lost in it, for sometimes they seem to be absorbed in contemplation like the background figures of a painting by Friedrich, and sometimes we see them walking with a determined purpose, men and women crossing a street in the downtown, or moving off towards a housing block after having got off from the tramway at the last station, which is already not in the city and not yet in the fields but somewhere on the outskirts from where the roofs and towers of Prague seem just slightly more than a jagged profile on the horizon.

Gallery + + + + +
Catálogo 2009
Film + +
Sudek + + + + + + +
Wikipedia (Czech)
Blog + + + + + + +
Sudek Studio
Books +
In the photos of Sudek Prague seems to be suspended in time, offuscated in the ambiguous lights of the sunsets and dawns, depopulated and silent in the humid winter nights ligthed by the phosphorescence of the fog or of the snow and traversed by tramways like by submarines with reflectors on their prow. This is that assaulted and tormented city where the refugees of half Europe sought shelter from the advancement of Nazism, the one retaining its breath when in the infamous pact of Munich of
November 1938 the British and French permitted to Hitler to amputate half of the country, the one occupied in 1939 by the German army and by the efficient executioners of the Gestapo, the one which, only a few years after the end of the Nazi occupation, succumbed to the puppet regime of the Communists manipulated by the Soviets. Prague, which used to be in the heart of Europe, retired far behind the hermetism of the Iron Curtain: this is how we see her in these photos of Sudek from the fifties that are now exhibited in Madrid, in a silent room of the Círculo de Bellas Artes. A city of squares without traffic and of deserted nights in which the shudder of the military tattoo is still resounding, of statues full of pathos on the façades of the buildings, of windows covered with moisture, of shady gardens beaten up by the weeds that exhale the deep odour of humid earth and wet leaves. In the silence some steps resound on the cobblestones, the rumor of panting breath. The man of the sloping shoulder is sleeplessly roaming the city, in search of that light of the dawn which he only saw twice in his life, on the day when his arm was amputated, and on the day when, many years later, by wandering as in a dream, he found it.

10 comentarios:

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

A beautiful text indeed, and thank you for the translation.

Capturing the “ essence” of the city, becoming himself the living spirit of Prague, just like Ara Guler captured the memories of Istanbul.

Prague has Josef Sudek and Sudek has Antonio Muñoz Molina to praise his work. Orhan Pamuk used Ara Guler’s photographs to illustrate his book “Istanbul: Memories of the city”, both of them capturing the persons passing by “absorbed in contemplation”.

Revealing the unnoticed, the eternal, the essence of the city, ie. transforming a limited space into a terra incognita was due to the choice of the right point of view: “he had to center himself, to choose or find a fix position in the chaos and multiplicity of the world”.

It reminds me of the choice of Auggie Wren, the photographer of the Christmas story by Paul Auster, who was photographing time, and he was doing so “by planting himself in one tiny corner of the world and willing it to be his own, by standing guard in the space he had chosen for himself”

Studiolum dijo...

In fact, this photographer’s standpoint is very close to my heart, and I always find its products very sincere and authentic.

Ara Güler, whose images I also love and of whom I would like to write in a future post, also had a predecessor in Istanbul, the twin photographers Sébah and Joaillier – the same focusing on the immediate, the same being rooted in the everyday reality of the city. Accidentally, I have quoted their photos side by side in an earlier post.Budapest also has its enchanted photographer, Endre Lábass, now in his fifties, who has been strolling the city almost verbally without interruption since his age of sixteen. Apart from a number of beautiful albums in which the photos are accompanied by his essays (or vice versa) ultimately he also has two photoblogs, the Utazó (Traveler) and the Szerecsen (Saracen) .

Does Athens or other Greek cities also have similar photographers who are at the same time the genii loci or rather lares of that place?

Πόλυ Χατζημανωλάκη dijo...

Thank you for the links.

I am not sure that I can be of any help. Your question made me realize that I have many gaps in my local history education.

The only name that comes to my mind is that of the famous photographer Nelly’s , born in Aidini (1899) (in Asia Minor) and educated in Dresden.

She had her first studio in Athens in 1925 (Josef Sudek had been an invalid for almost nine years) and she photographed the dwellings (slums) around Acropolis of the refugees from Asia Minor chased by the Turks and not so welcomed by the “native” Greek population.

Her naked photos of Mona Paeva, (at Parthenon) the first ballerina of the Opera Comique are renown.

She has also photographed the Spanish dancer Aurea, the French, Daljell but the most famous of her photographs is that of the Hungarian dancer Nikolska (in 1929) (Nikolska is not completely naked as you can see from the picture).

She had a very long life (1899 – 1998) and although she was not confined in a particular

The other name that comes to my mind is of that of brothers Manaki. They were pioneering filmmakers and photographers of the Balkans. In Theo Angelopoulos film
Ulysses’ Gaze the plot revolves around the metaphorical quest for an undeveloped film of brothers Manakia ( before the Balkans were torn apart by the wars). You can find about them - if you do not already know – in the wikipedia:

I believe that there are many worthy photographers in many cities of Greece but I cannot recall any names. There have also been photographers during several characteristic periods. For example the civil war in Greece ( ).

Studiolum dijo...

Dear Poly, thank you very much for these hints. I knew the names of the Manakis brothers from the film, and the ballerina photos of Nelly, but nothing more. I have not known her refugee photos, and I would be curious to see more. I will try to look for them. These sociophotos of hers are even more impressive than the artistic ones. I am convinced that Greek photography must be as refined and high-level as modern Greek literature, so there is much for me to discover.

substratum dijo...

I am reading the book of exile (thanks to Poly and you)
My greetings to sunsets and to sunrises
Vangelis Intzidis

Studiolum dijo...

Ευχαριστώ, Βαγγέλη.

It is an important manual indeed for all of us living in the exile – galut – of this world.

Greetings to στεριές και θάλασσες / τ' αμπέλια κι οι χρυσές ελιές!


substratum dijo...

I dedicate to you
the last work in substratum (my second blog with poetical works of mine - another kind of metisagge)
Θα με τιμήσει η επισκεψή σου εκεί.
Βαγγέλης Ιντζίδης (substratum) (metissage)

Anónimo dijo...

Excuse me for mentioning it, but your third photograph on this blog is not by Josef Sudek but by me, Jonathan Reynolds, taken in 1981 using a Nikon FE. The anachronism of the overhead tram cables should make that obvious, and besides I still have the negative.

At the time of my visit, I was indeed thinking about Sudek, and tried to see his photos - but the curator was on holiday, and this was the communist era when 'no' meant 'no'. So thanks for the implied compliment, but please would you acknowledge the real photographer?

Jonathan Reynolds

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you for writing. I gladly give credit, also because the story is beautiful. But which photo do you mean? The night landscape with the bright windows? I have no Sudek album at hands, but on dozens of web sites it is attributed to Sudek. If it is really yours, then this is makes te story even more beautiful.

Studiolum dijo...

The “overhead tram cables” made me realize that you referred to the fourth picture. Which, in fact, has no Sudek reference on the net. I do not know how it found its way here eight years ago. Once it has nested here for so long, it deserves to be kept, with an appropriate remark to be added to it.