Exhibition highlights “forgotten” communist-era photographer Fafek

Today largely forgotten, Emil Fafek was a leading Czech news photographer for decades, covering everything from the Prague Uprising as a young man to his beloved sport. A new exhibition in Prague entitled Emil Fafek: On Guard aims to rekindle interest in his work.

Images of communist-era mass spartakiad gymnastics shows at Prague’s Strahov stadium, alongside regular sports events, make up part of the photography exhibition Emil Fafek: On Guard at Prague’s Leica Gallery.

The self-taught Fafek worked for over 40 years for the newspaper Mladá fronta, covering all sorts of subjects.

Dana Kyndrová | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio

Exhibition curator Dana Kyndrová – herself a great photographer – says his earliest work was some of his most important.

“He really captured the 1950s well. Also of course 1945, when the ascent of communism was being planned. That’s what interests me the most. Naturally he is known for his sports photography. Those photos are excellent and make up one-third of the exhibition. But for me the historical works are the most enjoyable.”

Dana Kyndrová explains why the new Fafek exhibition is entitled On Guard.

Ondřej Neff | Photo: Adam Kebrt,  Czech Radio

“That’s because in 1985 Mladá fronta issued a book about him, where there is an interview with Ondřej Neff. And he says in that interview that a photo reporter needs to be constantly on guard. He says that doesn’t just mean you have your camera ready and click right away. Rather you must constantly have your eyes open to what could be interesting. It’s not just about speed – you need to see in advance what’s going to happen.”

As Fafek’s work appeared in a newspaper right through the communist period, some of the photos – such as of strapping workers – may at first glance appear little different to standard propaganda images of the time.

Indeed after 1989 the photographer, who would have turned 100 this year, found himself rather unwanted following the return of democracy.

1989 The Velvet Revolution - Dana Kyndrová (interview)

Zdeněk Hrabica was a colleague and friend of Fafek’s and says he is unjustly forgotten today.

“Some people lost their sense of the reality of the world around them. Emil Fafek’s eye when it came to both detail and overall perspective was genuinely masterful – and the work at this exhibition is proof of that. He was great, he never lost his cool when the work piled up. In short he was a good man.”

Dana Kyndrová also photographed communist spartakiads, but with a more critical eye than Fafek. Nevertheless she defends his approach.

“To this day people still say to me, Oh, it was fine, we just did exercises – but in fact they were really misused by the regime. I don’t think that was how he saw it. He took photos as a professional. Nevertheless, with time these photos do have value. They are important photographs from our history – and that’s the main thing.”

Emil Fafek: Ve střehu/On Guard
Leica Gallery
Školská 28
Prague 2
Until 30 October