Czech photographer Dana Kyndrová on capturing reality, life from an (ironic) distance

Photo: Dana Kyndrová

Czech documentary photographer and curator Dana Kyndrová is perhaps best known abroad for her project ‘Woman between Inhaling and Exhaling’. Spanning several decades, it exquisitely captures the stages of a woman’s life, divided into seven themes – adolescence, maternity and family, work, fun, eroticism, faith, and old age. But as she noted on a recent guided tour of selected works now at the Czech Centre in New York, she is not ‘a photographer of women’.

Photo: Dana Kyndrová
“I’m often asked if women are my lifelong theme. The answer is no – I’ve taken on many themes. I finished that particular project fifteen years ago. I’ve been focusing, for example, on the ‘Normalization’ period in Czechoslovakia, in the seventies and eighties, and on Communist manifestations.

“For example, this photo here is included in a section of my book on the faces of believers – not just religious but ideological.”

Dana Kyndrová shot the photos that comprise ‘Woman between Inhaling and Exhaling’ (2002) mainly in Czechoslovakia before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in Switzerland and France after she was free to travel there, as a freelance photographer, awarded various grants. There are also shots of women from Russia and Ukraine, Germany, Poland, and Estonia. Taken as a whole, they are a portrait of the cycle of life of a ‘European woman’.

Her path to becoming a photographer, she recalls, began with a portrait should took when she was nineteen that created a minor rift in her extended family and led her to doubt her initial instincts.

“This is a photo of my grandparents. I was quite young – many years have since passed! – and at the time it caused me problems. My grandmother was very pleased to have it, and she framed it. But my cousin found it somehow morbid and criticised me for taking such photos.

Photo: Dana Kyndrová
“I went to consult photographic historian Aneta Fárová, quite a respected lady. I asked her if the photo wasn’t inappropriate; if I wasn’t odd for even wanting to take it. She told me I should photograph whatever I wanted to, but that it had to been done sensitively. That what’s important is how you approach a subject and that you not do it superficially, so it is effective.”

That encounter with Fárová, a pioneer in the field and later a Charter 77 signatory, inspired and emboldened Dana Kyndrová. But it would be another two decades before photography became not just her passion but her profession.

“When I was younger, I wanted to study journalism. But I couldn’t, because when I got my high school leaving exam, in 1974, it was a time of political pressure, when they were sacking some of the best journalists.

“My family decided it would be better for me to study languages – so as to prostitute myself to the regime as little as possible. I studied French and Russian. My mother said, ‘Just wait, once the regime is gone, you will find it useful.’ And she was right.”

An ‘allergy’ to kitsch, an ‘ironic’ point of view

Dana Kyndrová,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský / Czech Radio
Dana Kyndrová was thirteen when Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks rolled in to crush the Prague Spring reform movement. She had already begun to study French when her family lived in newly independent Algeria, a few years earlier, and spent six months in Togo, before graduating from Charles University.

She worked as a language teacher at technical university in Prague, and sometimes as a tour guide, but was always taking photographs. She had keep in touch with her early mentor, Aneta Fárová, who in 1978 led an Academy of Performing Arts student project documenting the razing of sections of the Žižkov district to make way for prefab apartment blocks known as paneláky.

Kyndrová’s ‘Woman between Inhaling and Exhaling’ project took shape in part in response to the male depictions of women that dominated photography.

“I’m a bit allergic to these photos of women, right after giving birth, holding the baby in their arms, looking down at them in euphoria. Well, maybe not ‘allergic’, but I do find them a bit banal, kitschy. Anyone who has given birth knows that it is an exhausting, harsh experience. So, I wanted photographs to show how a woman really feels at that moment.”

“Some people say I have an ironic or detached point of view. I do kind of imprint myself in my work. It’s my nature. And I think it is really important to look at life from a distance.”

Kyndrová’s other first big thematic project, entitled ‘Rituals of Normalization / Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s’ (2011), grew from an ongoing fascination with ideological zealotry, also seen in her exhibition ‘Russians: Their Icons and Desires’ (2015).

Photo: Dana Kyndrová
“When I started taking photos in the seventies, and through the eighties, it was during the so-called Socialist era, though it was under Communist rule. And we were closely watched to ensure that we weren’t taking photos of anything ‘ugly’. Nowadays, the concern is rather how you are going to use the images themselves.

“But I always ask people if I can take their picture. Some feign shyness at first, and say, ‘Don’t photograph me!’ Don’t photograph me!’ But if they really do object, well, I’m not a reporter who needs to get the shot at whatever cost. I always get their consent.”

Kyndrová notes that none of her photos are in any way staged, or arranged. All are taken in natural settings. Any editing she does in the dark room or on the computer is only to get the right balance – never to change anyone’s appearance, or the context in which they are depicted.

‘Liberation, Occupation and Departure. It was a great idea.’

Photo: Dana Kyndrová
For a documentary photographer, truth and artistry are one and the same. For this reason, she considers one of her most important projects to be collecting and preserving images marking the Soviet Union’s history on her homeland.

“This November, we will celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, which of course I also photographed – everyone did; it was a huge event. One of my most important projects was documenting the departure of Soviet troops. In total I spent a year on it, in 1990 and 1991.

The last Soviet soldier left Czechoslovak territory on June 27th, 1991, a year and a half after the Velvet Revolution and after nearly a quarter century of military occupation. But in contemporary Russia, there is still widespread ignorance or denial about what Moscow’s troops did in Czechoslovakia in 1968, or in Hungary in 1956, with history focused on the victory against the Nazis in the ‘Great Patriotic War’. Kyndrová’s thwarted plans to stage an exhibition in Moscow called ‘1945-1968-1989’, underscore this mind set, she says.

“Back in 2004, the Czech House in Moscow (part of the Czech Centre network) wanted to present my exhibition on the departure of the Soviet troops. Then they got the idea to have a wider exhibition about all three key events -- Liberation in 1945, Occupation in 1968, and the Departure in 1991.

“Liberation, Occupation and Departure. It was a great idea. The Czech Ministry of Culture liked it, and we started bringing the images together. As we were preparing to send it to Moscow, the powers that be said presenting the liberation and occupation side by side would not be possible.

Photo: Dana Kyndrová
“The Russians were willing to stage exhibitions, for example, of Josef Koudelka’s photos of the occupation separately. But not alongside the liberation of Europe. For them it’s iconic. To have it depicted along with the occupation of Czechoslovakia would be offensive.

“But, since the concept interested me, I pursued it and assembled many photographs from various sources from 1945 and 1968 together in an exhibition, a selection of which was presented here (at the Czech Center) a year ago.

“So that was my first time working as a curator, and I found I really enjoyed it, hunting for these old photographs.”

Dana Kyndrová has in recent years devoted much of her time to curatorship, often of exhibitions chronicling seminal events in Czech history. She was named Personality of Czech Photography of the Year in 2008 for her curatorial work. A retrospective of her project ‘Woman between Inhaling and Exhaling’ is on display at the Czech Center in New York through July 28.