“A miracle”: Photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková on finding acclaim later in life

Libuše Jarcovjáková

Photographer Libuše Jarcovjáková documented her own turbulent life, and minorities such as homosexuals and Romanies, in the final decades of communism in Czechoslovakia. Some of her best known pictures come from an underground gay and lesbian bar in Prague called T-Club. In those years Jarcovjáková had no real hope of showing her often raw, black and white work publicly. However she eventually did find acclaim, including through a major 2019 exhibition in France’s Arles that really made her name internationally. I spoke to Libuše Jarcovjáková, who is now 70, at our studios in Prague.

Could you please tell us something about your background? I understand there were artists in your family.

'Self-portrait' | Photo: Libuše Jarcovjáková

“Actually my grandfather was an artist, a painter, in Brno, and both my parents were painters.

“The family was funny, because they were very, very impractical, so we were really getting by when I was young – but it was very inspiring.

“They were mostly only interested in art, not in normal things; ordinary life was something aside.

“It was nice actually. That was the ‘50s, when I was pretty young.

“When I was older, it was already the ‘60s, which was a really very beautiful time, with all the movies and literature and so on.

“Then I studied art school – and this is the beginning.”

What about photography? When did you first get into photography in any kind of serious way?

“At 13, 14. I started to visit a photo club, for young people.

“You know, I was growing up with art, but my father was pretty dominant, so there was no way to be a painter or to do some graphic art or something like that.

“And photography was the only way how to be visual in my one way, somehow.

“I was a pretty bad student. I was not taken as a talented person at that time.”

“So I started to study graphic school in Prague and then troubles started, because when I wanted to go to FAMU [film school] it was not possible for some political reasons and I started to live a pretty complicated life, working in a factory and so on.

“But by that time the camera was already something like a part of me; wherever I was, I photographed.”

You did go to FAMU, after three or four attempts to get in. You are known for a kind of raw style of photography – how did studying at FAMU actually influence your work?

“Not much. I was 25, I lived a really kind of wild life, night life, and I had almost no connection to my classmates at that time. I was older a little bit.

“For me what was important was to finish the school.

“What was really very important was the library which was there. It was the first time I met great photographers, like Richard Avedon, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.

Photo: Libuše Jarcovjáková

“And there were a lot of people who were important for me.

“But I was a pretty bad student. All my work was somehow delayed and I was not taken as a talented person at that time.

“So it was important for me to finish it, because I wanted to show myself that I am able to finish something.

“But it was not normal studying in the usual sense.”

You documented your own life in your photography, including in the early ‘70s taking a picture of yourself and your boyfriend after losing your virginity. You also took a photo of yourself after having an abortion. That seems like quite an unusual approach – what led you to document your own life like that?

“Frankly, I don’t know. It was somehow very intuitive.

“Somehow it was like navigations through my own life.

“I always got some distance when I took photographs of myself and this distance helped me understand a little more what was happening, and what was behind things.

“I always got some distance when I took photographs of myself.”

“And there was no possibility to show the photos to anybody, so I knew that it was more or less private stuff.

“I also wrote always; I had some diaries from early childhood.

“Maybe navigation is the right word for it.”

You also photographed minorities, including lesbians and gays and the then I guess quite new Vietnamese community, Romanies, the world of late night bars. What was the attraction for you of people who were outside the mainstream of Czechoslovak society?

“You know, this is part of my character, that I am adventurous.

T-Club | Photo: Libuše Jarcovjáková

“There was no possibility to travel at the time and I was looking for something special and something complex.

“So being in Roma families, for example, was absolutely another world.

“I was really happy to be there and partly because of my empathy… I had an open door at that time, and I was able to make friendships with the people.

“For example, with the Vietnamese I was their teacher, teaching the Czech language, and the classroom was near their accommodation, so we were together.

“I had the possibility to come to their own private rooms and to spend with them private time, and leisure time.

“Coming to this gay club, it was a paradise for me. Because it was so vivid, so colourful and very, very friendly.”

“It was very, very important and also interesting for me – not only visually.

“I was always interested in otherness, somehow.

“And coming to this gay club, it was a paradise for me. Because it was so vivid, so colourful and very, very friendly.

“Being part of this community and having the possibility to take pictures there was really so… I don’t know if ‘nice’ is the right word, but I liked it very much.”

I don’t know what the situation was like for homosexuals in Czechoslovakia in the ‘80s, for example. Was there a certain freedom in these bars? Were they publicly known to be gay and lesbian bars?

“Most people who came there had coming out behind them. Most of them were clear with their identity.

“I have to say it was really free there.

“It was something like an island – it was kind of family life, somehow. It was really friendly.

“I always used a flash, because I wanted to be seen. I wanted everybody to know I was taking photos.”

“Anyway, sometimes people were interested in this culture, let’s say, and when I started to photograph it, I started when I was asked to take some documentation for the people, personal photos.

“I always used a flash, because I wanted to be seen.

“I wanted everybody to know that I was taking photos; I needed to have some agreement from the people.

“It was also the reason I hated these photos for a long time, because I always had the feeling they were, like, theatrical.

“But with time it was OK, and I’m very happy I did it.”

Did the StB, the secret police, take any interest in this scene, or this world?

“Probably yes, but they were not easy to recognise.

Photo: Libuše Jarcovjáková

“I’m sure the staff collaborated somehow, or they had some agreement or something like that.

“But it was not seen… you knew that probably we were observed, but I never, ever felt fear, or some feeling of discomfort.

“Anyway, with time, I was already sure that I had to change my life, I had to get out, because it was somehow like a circle, always the same.

“So I wanted to go abroad and my decision was for West Berlin.

“The only way [to get out] was marriage with somebody, and that happened.

“And at the end, or before I did that, I had one bad experience – the secret police wanted to see my negatives from one party, one of my last parties at the T Club.

“And they had a serious reason.”

I was reading about this – some regular at the club was murdered and the police were investigating the killing?

Photo: Libuše Jarcovjáková,  Czech Centre Berlin

“Yes, exactly. They wanted to see the people who were present on that last evening.

“I knew it was important on one side, but on the other hand it was not so clean – you had some doubt.

“Somehow everything happened in the same moment, I was already on my way abroad, and I stopped doing this work.

“Because I felt the risk of it much more strongly.”

If we can jump forward in time quite a lot, you started to become known in the 1990s and 2000s. You had some exhibitions and you also had a book that came out five or six years ago called The Black Years. Is that how you look back on that period of your life, as black years?

Černé roky | Photo: Wo-men

“Yes and no. Life is always divided into many, many parts and I lived a lot of colourful parts and black, or dark, parts.

“When I think about this right now, I think it’s a little too pessimistic.

“Because I lived a pretty free and independent life during all these years.

“On the other hand, I struggled a lot with many personal issues, I had a lot of depressions.

“So maybe grey years – it should be known as ‘The Grey Years [laughs].”

When you started to become known in the 1990s and 2000s, you have a collection of 20,000 or so photos – how were they selected, or how did it happen that they began to be seen by people?

“It was step by step, a long, long time.

“I think I was not very readable. It was somehow too raw. The visual language was a bit, let’s say, strange.

“Also it was not pure documentary photography. It was somehow in the middle.

“I lived a pretty free and independent life. On the other hand, I struggled a lot with many personal issues.”

“So it took time before I got my fans, before I could show more complex work, more stuff I had done.

“And with time mostly among young people, or younger people, I started to be… maybe it’s too strong, but sometimes I feel that for a special kind of people I’m like an icon.

“Which is a little bit strange, but I can understand why people like my work – I think it’s free, and independent, and somehow it’s about life.

“But that took time. It was not from one day to another.”

And some of these fans, or supporters who helped you, were your students?

“Yes, exactly, that was the beginning.

“They brought me the first opportunities to exhibit and it was really step by step, better and better opportunities.”

I guess the high point of your career so far was a few years ago when you had an exhibition at Arles in France, at its famous festival of photography, in your mid-60s. How has it felt to achieve this kind of recognition later in life?

“A miracle, on one side. A big surprise to me.

“You know, this exhibition was very special for me, because I got a fantastic space, the Church of Saint Anna in Arles.

Man with snake,  1983 | Photo: Arles exhibition

“And what’s important is that the festival in Arles has, and had that year, a really big public.

“I think around 140,000 people saw this exhibition. And this is enough to feel it has some impact.

“It was pretty much like a dream, but on the other hand somehow it was logical.

“Because my work came at a time when the director of the festival was on a search to find somebody from Central Europe, an older woman – I was probably around 65 – and also this authentic material; the topic of this exhibition was Czechoslovakia from the ‘70s to ’89.

“And it was not known that there were such spaces like the T Club, gay clubs and such things.

“So the topic was interesting and the photos had some good, let’s say, quality.

“There were a lot of vintage photos, which means photos made from original photos in the ‘80s and ‘70s.

“And an important role was played by my curator, Lucie Černá, who did this installation.

“So the exhibition was interesting and somehow I felt, OK, that’s happened, I’m happy – it’s very strange, but that’s life.”