Anna Fárová: a life in photography

Anna Fárová

Art historian Anna Fárová has, for over 60 years, worked tirelessly to catalogue and promote the great Czech photographers as we know them today. She was responsible for building up the Museum of Decorative Arts’ first photography collection, before being dismissed for signing Charter 77. She catalogued the complete works of František Drtikol, inherited the estate of photographer Josef Sudek, and worked closely with an exiled Josef Koudelka throughout her career. The art historian also struck up friendships with Arthur Miller and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Anna Fárová was born in Paris in 1928, the daughter of a Czech diplomat and French academic. Despite moving to Prague in her early years, she has kept a link with France throughout her adult life:

“I used this language my whole life. When I couldn’t write in Czech and publish here I wrote in French, and naturally that was easy for me – sometimes easier in fact than in Czech. And I hope to bring Czech and French culture together and make a sort of bridge between Paris and Prague.

“I started my life in photography with Henri Cartier-Bresson. This was a man who was very important for me, and because I was an art historian, it was good for me to start with Cartier-Bresson and not Drtikol. Because Drtikol’s approach to photography is very painterly, and Cartier-Bresson gave me another direction, another way of reflecting what it means to see and work as a photographer.”

And what was Cartier-Bresson’s temperament like?

“He was also someone who had studied painting, and who was a good painter and graphic artist. He was very well educated and had a big cultural knowledge. He didn’t want to be a journalist, but just to reflect a situation. Cartier-Bresson never shows any dramatic events, he only evaluates the situation in graphic terms. This means that the perfect moment for him is when all the lines and the volumes and the grey and the black and the white of the photo go so well together. This instant when you take the photo and it seems so completely composed is, for him, the ideal moment of the situation.”

But back to you, moving chronologically, after a childhood in France, you came here to Prague, and spent some time at the meetings of the Czech Surrealists, who were obviously very influenced by the French and what was going on in France…

“After the war I couldn’t travel. So I was here and with my friends, who were painters and artists and writers, we could only speak about and refer to what was going on in the other half of the world. We were behind this curtain, but when someone was able to travel, they brought back a lot of new ideas. And it was in the air, you know, you could not avoid it, even if you didn’t have a lot of concrete material in your hands.”

But with Czech photography, let’s say, was it really a case of Czechs taking inspiration from the rest of the world? Because it seems that at that time Czech photography was really world-leading, and that some very interesting things were going on here.

“I think now there is a book published in Germany called ‘Czech Vision’ – I don’t know if there was a French vision or a German vision. So the Czech vision was always very strong. And it has existed since the 1920s, the 1930s. And the expression of these personalities was so considerable that you cannot avoid it.

“Naturally, they had information from the Bauhaus, but also from Russia, from the avant-garde, like Rodchenko, Lissitzky and so on. And all of these currents, because we have always been in the centre of all of this, led to a new take on an old way of expression.

“You can see it even in architecture, in sculpture. In Baroque architecture – they come from everywhere, Germans, Austrians, Italian artists, but their work was altered a little by the genius loci of Prague.”

You weren’t able to travel so freely, but you maintained your links with foreign photographers, and you had a very successful exhibition in Plasy, which was visited by your foreign friends like Cartier-Bresson and so on. Can you tell me a bit about that?

“We did this Plasy exhibition and we had the whole convent, which was huge, at our disposition. It was in a very bad state, but we renewed it and repainted it. And what you said was true. My friends – Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Riboud, French critics came, and English critics like Sue Davis came too, to look at this exhibition. It was even in Le Monde – that it is easy to go to this exhibition; you take the plane, you go to Prague, and then you take the bus and go to Plasy. And so they came to see it, and it was such a success internationally! It was very good, and it was astonishing.

Anna Fárová and Marc Riboud, photo: CTK
“It was September 26, 1981 that the exhibition was opened and in the refectory we made two rooms on different levels. In the upper room we did this big selection of pictures which expressed our realistic humour as epitomized in Hašek’s Švejk, and downstairs we had a theme of magical mystery as depicted by Franz Kafka.”

With all of the people you’ve met, and dedicating all of your life to photography like this, did you never want to be a photographer yourself?

“No, no, no, never! I am not gifted, I am not creative. I am an interpreter, and I know what I can do well. I feel that I can discover talented people and help them express themselves. Perhaps it is like in sport where you have trainers and coaches. I can write - I like to write and put what I see in words. In this way I can express myself through the work of others. But I’m not a creative person.”