30,000 Kilometers

New York Harbor, 1930s

In the 1930s, a Bohemian priest named Josef Baťka (b. 1901 Plzeň - d. 1979 Sušice) voyaged on the steamship Normandie to what his countryman Antonín Dvořák could still, only a little more than a generation before, call a “new world.” Baťka had studied at the Vatican, and travelled widely in Europe and the Near East in his capacity as a papal envoy. In addition, he was also an avid and capable photographer who, using a medium format camera which made negatives 60 mm square, left behind a trove of small square images, neatly filed in the boxes in which they were delivered from the photo finisher.

These photographs show that, entirely aside from his priestly skills, he possessed a sensitive eye for balance and form which seems somehow surprising in the context of amateur photography. His images often display a compositional integrity that rewards our attentions beyond whatever the merits of their subjects.

From the point of view of the content, Baťka’s images show his fascination with landscape, human character, modern technology and society, and they uncover for us, in their clarity and sense of estrangement, the trajectories of the rapidly changing times of almost a century ago, as described by an attentive observer with the relative objectivity of a foreigner. Not only does his photographic work capture the sense and qualities of a vanished time, he accompanied it with a lengthy manuscript that records his impressions from the American journey.

We see Baťka in one photograph, a slightly pudgy, studious-looking man, balding and approaching middle age, with protruding ears and owl-eyeglasses. His manuscript demonstrates a tidy, regular hand, with corrections and various colored markings which suggest he may have been preparing it for publication. In any event, he took the matter of recording his observations of this journey seriously.

batka1 batka1 batka1 batka1 batka1 batka1 batka1 batka1 batka1

Many of his photographs simply record what must have been novelties for him; big shiny automobiles, airplanes, New York’s Luna Park, the Queen Mary, a real red Indian!

batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2 batka2

Others portray an august geometry and balance; the mountains of the west, a joshua tree, the modern lines of the great Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Yellowstone. Although some of these are the selfsame subjects many tourists would flock to, in Baťka’s hands we detect a careful framing and exercise of craftsmanship that lend his pictures both formal clarity and timelessness.

batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3 batka3

Among his images, we also find a number that capture — whether by skill or simple luck — an array of admittedly insignificant moments that nonetheless find powerful resonance with us. These images have the ring of truth. They freeze forever situations now irretrievably lost. We enter the world of the 1930’s United States through images made by a visitor from a faraway country, Czechoslovakia, that many of the people in his pictures could neither pronounce nor scarcely imagine.

Baťka the studious is a lay anthropologist. He shows us family and professional relationships among people, codified in arrangements and human poses orchestrated on the stage of real life. Like the street photographers of later decades, he knows how to arrange himself in the scene, with the sunlight from a fortuitous angle, and when to release the shutter.

batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 batka4 Most of the people depicted above are members of the Czech immigrant communities of eastern Nebraska

We find we can study the more prosaic ones, and take from them an objective truth; the (problematic) truth of documentary reportage. But in others, we also find a visual sense that brings some of these amateur images one step closer toward the sublime.

After coming back home to Bohemia, Msgr. Baťka taught theology in the gymnasium in Nymburk. During the German occupation he managed to escape prison. Afterwards, because of the communist putsch and a sidelined and disendowed Church, he retired to his family home, where he served as a priest in a remote parish outside Klatovy, near the Šumava mountains.

El Paso, Texas or Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, 1930s

Baťka lived the second half of his life together with his younger sister Marie in the little town of Kolinec, in southwest Bohemia. He died in 1979, and his sister, who had cared for him in his old age, followed in 2004, leaving the house and all property to the church. During the inspection and clearing out of the property, several boxes containing glass-mounted photographic slides, negatives, and photographic prints, together with the lengthy manuscript of his journey to the new world, which he entitled, 30,000 Kilometers by Train, Ship, and Automobile, were found.

By fortuitous happenstance, these materials have all been saved, and in 2008, were made the subject of a multimedia exhibition called “And for this reason…” at the Školská 28 Gallery in Prague.

Click for the full catalog (pdf)

The author of this post is indebted to Miloš Vojtěchovský and Dana Recmanová for their primary research on Josef Baťka, and to Jan Bartoš for the photographs of Baťka's boxes. The Baťka catalog was designed by the author.

2 comentarios:

Kinga dijo...

"On board the Normandie", and the one with the nuns on the garden steps are my favourites! Thank you.

Lloyd Dunn dijo...

Thanks for the comment. I'm rather partial to the lady and her two dogs. It's both amusing and somehow very human. Formally, it reminds me (just a little bit) of something by Grant Wood. Maybe.