Chochola at Prague Castle

Photo: Barbora Kmentová

For the next three months visitors will have an unparalleled opportunity to view work by famous 20th century Czech photographer Václav Chochola, at Prague Castle. Part of the Maximum Photography series, the show features large scan prints of some of the late artist’s best known photographs – from moody industrial landscapes to portraits to more experimental work.

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
I met Pavel Lagner, the show’s curator, this week and asked him about the photographer’s long career:

“Chochola’s focus was very broad, spanning many different genres: from sports reportage to art photography which used staged or theatrical elements. The current show features mostly artistic work in the PPF collection. What I find remarkable about Chochola as an artist was his humanity and his close connection to other Prague artists. There is poetry in his landscapes – a poetry of the ‘ordinary’ - which is similar to Hrabal’s, although his work stands alone. I’m not sure I can express it in the right words, but there is something magical about Chochola’s photography. An atmosphere of the past: some pictures were shot 60 years ago, but feel even older, as if they were done at the turn of the century.”

Václav Chochola,  photo: CTK
Blanka Chocholová, the photographer’s daughter, says her father’s work was all about specific atmosphere and specific time and place. A tram line on a foggy morning. Wooden shacks on the city outskirts. A simple coat stand as a metaphor for oppression during the war. A display of public joy when peace was announced.

“His life and his photography is really about atmosphere and a reflection, and through the atmosphere we can now feel those times and what they were really like. He was photographing from the age of 17, all of life, all things around, all kinds of motifs, so now I think if he could see the collection at the Castle, he would be really happy. Photographing, for him, was all the world.”

Chochola’s inexhaustible energy led him into different genres, include portraiture: to this day he is remembered for capturing famous artistic figures like actor Jan Werich, painter Kamil Lhoták or the young and fresh 1960s star Jana Brejchová, captured playfully with a pipe and cap. Blanka Chocholová once more:

Photo: Štěpánka Budková
“His pictures, I think, really are iconic now. Faces of well-known personalities, we have an image of them through his pictures. He photographed painters like Jan Zrzavý, Frantíšek Tichý, then Jiří Trnka. I see pictures of Hrabal but his portrait by my father is the one I remember the best. He was able to find just the right second when he had a connection with the other person. He would say ‘Look at me now’ or something like that. His ability to do that, I think, was very important.”

Some sessions, not surprisingly, come with legendary anecdotes, like one related to photographing Olympic Czech runner Emil Zátopek:

“He was taking some portraits of Emil Zátopek, very famous at the time and when they were leaving the stadium together they saw the bus was coming. So they both ran for the bus! They both ran so fast that the people inside were surprised: they told my father ‘You run like Zátopek!’ which was really funny of course, because Zátopek was by his side! So together they caught the bus in really good time!”

Despite his success in mapping the world of sports, Chochola is most appreciated for more refined artistic work: rollages, superimposition, long exposures, including one of the definitive images of in the new show, a famous self-portrait. Its title is Noční chodec (Night Walker) – a photograph not without a touch of humor. Chochola used long time exposure to photograph himself, nonchalantly moving in front of the camera, his back turned, leaning against a Prague lamp-post, possibly having a smoke. In the picture Chochola is present only as an ethereal outline. Not quite there on a Prague street, a kind of casual ghost.

“Night Walker is really Václav Chochola’s symbol, his self-portrait standing in the night city. He put his camera on a tripod and left quite a long exposure and he stood near this street lamp. Eventually he went back and closed the shutter. The result was that his body was like a dream only.”

Curator Pavel Lagner:

“He not only took risks but was willing to experiment and play. The self-portrait from 1949 is very playful and you can tell he was enjoying himself, stepping in front of the camera. I can picture him getting a kick out of taking it, or imagine his excitement in the darkroom waiting for the picture to emerge. As a spectator, this is something I like. Of course, this picture is ‘key’ within his catalogue: when you say the name Chochola, this is the one of the images that often comes to mind.”

Equally successful was Chochola’s work in the 1960s, during the political thaw which led up to the Prague Spring: Chochola photographed famous American jazzman Louis Armstrong, and also, briefly, visited Paris in 1969, shooting figures like Man Ray or Salvador Dali. In one shot Dali casts a quiet glance at the camera, holding a perfect egg close to his peeping eye and these images too are represented in the latest show. One thing, however, does set this exhibition, unlike those which preceded it, apart. This is Maximum Photography, which means maximum sizes, larger than the actual prints the photographer made in life. The larger formats help recast Chochola’s images for renewed enjoyment and scrutiny. And that’s not all that makes this show unusual, Pavel Lagner again:

“The exhibition is sited at Prague Castle’s southern gardens, reachable from the 3rd courtyard or from the Castle stairs. The photographs are large scanned 3M folio prints pasted on massive glass stands. The folios are water and sun-proof; the only disadvantage is that none will survive once the show is taken down: they’ll be peeled off the glass the way you’d peel a sticker off your car windshield. The prints are much bigger than Chochola’s originals, which were a little larger than standard A4, about 1 metre ten in width.

“Some may criticize that, given the artist never worked in such a format, but I have to stress I would never take such a move without consent from the original artist or in this case his descendent. Some might think it’s not appropriate but the fact is that by enlarging he work as well as by placing it in public gardens, means it will reach an audience that otherwise might never step foot in a gallery. And that’s the point. In that respect I think this kind of exhibition can be very effective.”