Adolf Zika on 15 years of photography

'Escape from Prison'

Anyone familiar with Czech photography in recent years will have come across the name of Adolf Zika – highly respected in the world of fashion for his commercial and artistic photographs. At 36, Zika has represented the Leica Gallery in France, has shot campaigns for major brand-name clients and done shoots for glossy magazines including Playboy.

The photographer makes no secret of the female form being his most important inspiration. Currently the photographer has been putting together a final selection of work, including some of his best-known images, for a major retrospective at Prague’s Old Town Hall. That upcoming exhibition and the first 15 years of the photographer’s career are the subject of today’s Panorama, taped at his studio with his baby son looking on.

“I used to be described as one of the Czech Republic’s young up-and-coming photographers but the other day I realised 15 years have already gone by! The show at the Old Town Hall, which is one of the best exhibit areas now due to the high number of tourists, will be my first major show in the Czech Republic. Years ago I got my start doing commercial commissions in Germany, and I was represented in other shows including Paris, but this will be my first one here.”

The exhibit in July will feature what are surely some of Mr Zika’s catchiest photos, including many nudes from the 2006 publication “Luxurious Luminescence”. Many of his images of women are striking, including “Escape from Prison”, featuring a model perched lightly on her toes on the edge of a seven-story building in Prague.

“She was a Czech model working in Paris who flew in for the job. The picture was shot early in the morning. She was a bit groggy from her flight a day earlier, and I was focused on the shot. Neither of us really thought about the danger: seven stories above the ground, at the edge of this dome on the roof. When I’m shooting I forget my fear of heights and I too was perched only against the tiles. There was no safety back-up. It kind of only sank in later, when we went for an early breakfast.”

Like all of Zika’s artistic work, the photo is B & W and is shot on negative. Another well-known image by the photographer is “Peek”. The model’s doe-eyed look, the picture’s graininess and natural light, make it difficult to place. It “might have been shot” in the 1960s.

“One of things they took note of abroad – especially in Spain and Portugal – is that a lot of my photos have a ‘timeless’ quality. Some of the pictures you can’t tell when they were taken: they feel like the 1970s, or 60s. One, called ‘Olympic Idea’, was bought by a collector of Leni Reifenstahl: the pose and angle reminded him of work she did in the 1930s. I’ve gradually realised that the quality of ‘timelessness’ is something I should always try to capture, even if I wanted to leave it behind. At one point I wanted to change styles, but my publisher balked at the idea.”

Zika’s approach has won him admirers both in the Czech Republic and abroad. He has also gradually broadened his portfolio to include even more major clients. More recent projects have included photographing the world of Formula 1, as well as taking on a project called “One Year in My Life”, documenting the daily experiences of the photographer over 365 days. From the exotic, to the mundane, from travel to success, to tragedy, such as a death in the family. The book is now in the works. Once again, Adolf Zika:

“The idea was to photograph a year in my life which some people might find interesting. Four months in, I was really sorry I had taken on such a burden! The rules I set included choosing nine photographs per day. That nine were chosen from around 120 shots. Add to that the fact that I am not an exhibitionist and also, unlike many photographers, I never shoot on the street. It was different. One thing that was fascinating was that when I look at the shots now, they evoke everything that happened on given days. Everything. if I asked you what you did four months ago on Monday, you’ll know how difficult that is.”

Zika’s professional work, meanwhile, has taken the photographer to hundreds of exotic locations around the world, from the coasts of Indonesia to the coasts of Africa. Unlike photographers like the late legend Helmut Newton, Adolf Zika sees his use of landscape as symbiotic: he does not want to displace nudes or create jarring images by setting them in unlikely settings, but rather pitches models against natural surroundings: a crag of rock, the sea, the desert. That is only part of the equation, he admits, sexuality is another. As a photographer what he finds most attractive is “the look”.

“A lot of photographers plan their shots in advance but I leave a lot up to spontaneity. You start out and the first shots are never all that great but then you direct the model until something clicks and you know you’ve got it. Once I know it’s on the roll I don’t shoot many more. I know it’s there and that’s it. As for what’s sexy it’s always a look or a glance. Some might think there was something ‘going on’ between the model and photographer, but you’ll only get that if you have absolute trust. As a professional I can tell you, if there was something ‘going on’, you’d never get that look.”

Adolf Zika has come a long way in 15 years as a photographer. In many ways, his story is remarkable, whether shooting with well-known catwalk stars like Simona Krainová or anonymous models. Years before he thought his focus would be entirely different: he was twice national junior champion in judo, a discipline he once thought would take him to the Olympics, before he came to the realisation the sport was no longer what he wanted in life. Nevertheless, judo was important when times where tough, when he was starting out and it continues to be useful:

“I never knew I would end up in this field: it thought I was going to be an athlete. Although I still had a ways to go, things were lined up for the World Championship and the Olympics: I was beating guys then who later went on to both. Now my oldest son, who is nine, practices judo and has four national medals. As for me? Judo taught me discipline. I still rely on it in my work. Some artists take off on holiday without a moment’s notice but I prefer not too. I could take off too, but I don’t.”

Photo: Adolf Zika