Early nude photographs of Madonna by Czech émigré go on display in Cheb

Photo: Martin Schreiber

This week, an exhibition has opened in the town of Cheb of a series of nude photographs of the singer Madonna taken in 1979 before she was famous. The pictures were taken by Czech-born photographer Martin Schreiber, who moved along with his family to New York in the 1950s to avoid communist persecution. When he discovered that he had nude photographs of one of the world’s most famous singers, Martin Schreiber earned limited fame and fortune for himself, selling the pictures to Playboy in the early 1980s. Dominik Jun spoke to him during his visit to the Czech Republic and began by asking him how exactly he ended up in New York:

“I was born in 1946 just after the War. We were large property owners in the south of Czechoslovakia and the communists were chasing after my father. Then, we escaped in 1948 and lived in Brussels for a few years – we had nothing, no money, nothing as everything had been left behind, of course. Finally, we got a passage on a ship called Le Liberte, which means freedom and arrived in New York on January 22 1952.”

And you then ended up becoming a photographer in New York.

“Being a young man in the 1960s of draftable age – that was the time of Vietnam and all the young Americans were going off to war whether they wanted too or not. My mother had since divorced my father and married a colonel in the army and it was suggested that I enlist because the choice was that if you enlist, you have to give one more year to the army, but you have a choice of what you want to do in the army. So I enlisted for photography, and was stationed in Germany for two years, and went to photo lab school for two months and then I worked in the intelligence corps in Germany and had a photo lab and everything I needed. And that is were I really learned to take pictures.”

And how did you come to photograph Madonna?

“I met a man named Ben Fernandez, who was the head of the photography department of the New School Parsons in New York and we talked and decided that I would teach a course in photographing the nude. And every week when I taught, I needed a model. There was a model registrar, who handled all the people that wanted to pose, but the models I was getting were a little heavy or not very pretty and so I said ‘Do you have a really pretty girl with a very good body?’ and he said that he had one who was young and fit the bill and that he would send her to me and that was it. That was Madonna.”

And what was she like to work with? Did you have any sense that she had the temperament of a rising star?

“She was actually quite taciturn; she was not quite 21; she was quiet and malleable; she did what you asked her to do. And she wasn’t very conversant or lively during class, she was just there. You know, there are fifteen people there poking cameras at you and taking pictures of you.”

And you kept the negatives and then a few years later you suddenly saw a Time magazine cover and said, ‘Hang on, I know this girl!’

“I was in New Orleans photographing horses and was at the airport waiting to catch my plane and I see at the newsstand a copy of Time magazine with Madonna on the cover and I said ‘Wait a minute. This is it.’ So then I made a few phone calls and then the whole thing erupted.”

And now these photographs that you took back in 1979 are being exhibited in the Czech Republic in the town of Cheb. So are you kind of reestablishing your Czech roots with this?

“Well, I’ve always wanted to be in and live in Czechoslovakia – I actually came here in 1989 for the revolution, but not having much money and whatever – the only way you could live here was to have a certain amount of cash, you know, young Americans with wealthy parents would come here and establish themselves, but I did try.”

And do you speak Czech?

“I speak a little bit of Czech. It is slowly coming back, and my first couple of nights here, I was actually dreaming in Czech! [laughs]”