Czech avant-garde pioneer Alexandr Hackenschmied (Hammid) dies at 96

Alexandr Hackenschmeid, photo: Maya Deren

The death was announced earlier this week of Alexandr Hackenschmied, one of the leading figures in the Czech avant-garde in the early 20th century. The renowned photographer and filmmaker died at the age of 96 in New York, the city he had called home since for over 60 years.

Alexandr Hackenschmied was born in Austria in 1907 but grew up in Prague. He began taking photographs at the age of 21, and in 1930 put on an important exhibition entitled "New Czech Photography".

He described photography as a route to film, and made several short films himself, such as Prague Castle and the renowned Aimless Walk, as well as working as director of photography, editor and art advisor on films by other directors.

Though Hackenschmied was an artist he was not averse to commercial work, making three promotional films about Bohemian spas and working for the promotional department of the Bata shoe company in Zlin.

Hackenschmeid was also a tireless promoter of the international avant-garde of the day; in the early 1930s he organised one of the first avant-garde film projections in Prague, showing the work of, among others, US-born artist Man Ray.

1939 was one of the most significant years in the artist's life: after co-operating with American director Herbert Kline on a film called Crisis about the rise of Fascism in Europe, he was forced to leave his homeland.

Hackenschmeid quickly made a name for himself in the United States, where he later also gave himself a new name - Alexander Hammid. It was in the States that he made Meshes of the Afternoon with his first wife Maya Deren in 1943, a year after their marriage. The film is his best known, and is regarded as one of the most important of the early American avant-garde. He continued to work Deren, as director of photography and film editor.

Again in America he proved he was not just an avant-garde artist, working for the Office of War Information in the latter part of World War II.

Hammid was also a pioneer of multi-projection and IMAX films, with his work being shown at various world exhibitions.

Associates suggest his Buddhist life style, which he adopted after making a film in India, contributed to Alexandr Hackenschmied's longevity.

Earlier this year a major retrospective of his work was shown in Prague