Girls, mountains, war and clouds: the life’s work of renowned Czech photographer Ladislav Sitenský in 100 shots

Photo: Ladislav Sitenský

This May marks the centenary of the birth of Ladislav Sitenský, among the most celebrated Czech photographers of the 20th century. He’s perhaps best known today for his iconic World War II work documenting the Nazi occupation of his homeland and lives of his fellow servicemen in the RAF’s Czechoslovak 312th squadron. But for over seven decades, Sitenský – who was also an accomplished sportsman, essayist and novelist – lovingly turned his lens to the people and architecture of Prague and other European capitals.

Photo: Ladislav Sitenský

Even in his youth, Ladislav Sitenský appeared well on his way to becoming the quintessential Renaissance man. He was as much a star performer on the cross country race track or ski slope as he was on the amateur theatre stage, an athletic lad not afraid to appear in drag in the name of art, or for the sake of a laugh.

And yet, as a teen, he was full of self-doubt – fearful that his talents, whatever they might be, did not match his love for the arts, as he would later note in his memoirs:

“… I longed to be a poet, a painter, a sculptor or perhaps a tenor, yet I was too young to do so and mainly I lacked the talent and the possibilities to acquire a Muse for myself. When I was fourteen, my dad bought me a small camera. From the start, I felt that somehow I could at least temporarily find a means of self-realisation. I needed a way – any way at all – to express my feelings … Yes, I’m passionate about taking pictures, but perhaps only because I’m not good at anything else.”

Ladislav Sitenský,  photo: Czech Television
What’s abundantly clear following a visit to the exhibition “Sitenský 100” – an eclectic collection of 100 of his photos, spanning seven decades, now at the New Town Hall in Prague – is that in fact he demonstrated an exceedingly rare talent for telling stories through a camera lens.

But don’t think it came easy. Exhibition curator Adéla Kándlová – the photographer’s granddaughter – recalled when putting together the exhibition that even throughout his golden years, Ladislav Sitenský’s was an exceptionally hard worker.

“My grandfather was not a ‘classic’ grandpa, if I can put it that way – he wasn’t the type to sit around in his slippers and dedicate all his time to the family in retirement. He was very hardworking and intensely focused, even in his old age. You would always see him at his work desk with a light box looking over negatives.”

The “Sitenský 100” exhibition, which celebrates the centenary of the photographer’s birth, also features 100 of his photos – from the very first he ever took, as a boy in 1933, to among his last, when a proud grandfather, early in this millennium.

It couldn’t have been easy to choose them. Over his lifetime, Ladislav Sitenský made more than half a million pictures in all. He stopped photographing only after the death of his French wife, Paulette, an elegant woman if ever there was one, who shared a somewhat charmed, but bittersweet life with him in Czechoslovakia, as he recalled in an interview with Radio Prague’s French section:

“I met her in Paris in 1937, where I was taking pictures for a newspaper at the World Exhibition. We had only one car for our wedding in Lille: a jeep, that's all. We had the same taste. We liked to travel and visited 40 different countries. But, for my wife, it was difficult under communism. She missed greatly having contact with French people. "

A young Paulette – then his lover, not yet his wife – makes an appearance in the current exhibition, along with a host of everyday people and war heroes. Together, they makes a clear case that Sitenský was indeed “a natural-born story-teller”, “an essayist of our lives and our times”, as the fabled Czech photographic arts historian and curator Zdeněk Kirschner once wrote.

And what times they were.

Photo: Ladislav Sitenský

From firefighters and T.G. Masaryk to the RAF’s 312th squadron

Ladislav Sitenský’s work began appearing in magazines when he was still in high school. He had his first solo exhibition (of some 300 photographs, many poster-sized enlargements) on spring when he was nineteen, a student of architecture at the Czech Technical University in Prague (ČVUT), with a scholarship to study in Paris that coming autumn.

That first solo exhibition was staged from 1 to 14 March 1939 – the eve of the German invasion that would for a time wipe Czechoslovakia off the map, and see the country’s universities forced to close.

When Nazi Germany occupied Bohemia and Moravia, many Czech and Slovak professional soldiers and airmen decided to escape from the country, rather than hand over arms to the Germans. Six months later war broke out and many of them joined the French armed forces – Ladislav Sitenský was among them.

Photo: archive of Prague New Town Hall
The war had come right as he arrived to study in France, and soon he volunteered to fight with the newly formed Free Czechoslovak Army. But before leaving for training camp, he spent all his money on cameras he found in a junk shop.

After the surrender of France, he left for England, reporting to a Royal Air Force base in Duxford. The RAF’s 310 and 312 Czechoslovak Fighter Squadrons were set up in July and August 1940, and went on to play an important role in the Battle of Britain. They were also joined by the 311 Bomber Squadron.

Just before Christmas in 1942, the BBC’s Czech service broadcast a special programme featuring the airmen and their British and Polish colleagues to help raise morale back home:

“As their Station Commander I am very happy to tell you that I consider this Czech squadron of yours as powerful a team of fighter pilots as could possibly be found in this world today.”

For much of the war, Ladislav Sitenský would serve with the 312 – as an aircraft mechanic. He was no great fan of flying. Plus, a commanding officer had decided that there were enough pilots – accomplished photographers were a rarer breed.

He was known to his superiors for his magazine series on Prague firefighters, and for his cycle “That Murky Morning”, documenting the funeral and days of national mourning following the death of Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the country’s first president.

Though he would become known mainly for his wartime images of the 312th squadron and other Czechoslovak squadrons, his range was far wider, as the “Sitenský 100” exhibition shows – replete with exquisite shots of city nightlife, ablaze in neon city centres; majestic landscapes; and a nude from 1943 (entitled “A Quiet Evening”), masterpieces all in how they play with perspectives and tones.

Photo: Ladislav Sitenský

Grounded – or a Magnum Opus on ice for 70 years

The famous collection of pictures Sitenský took of the 312 and other Czechoslovak squadrons was published only last year – the Communists had banned it along with anything glorifying non-communist resistance. Historian Jiří Rajlich, who wrote the book’s foreword, says they are of considerable value – as much for their artistry as their historical significance.

Photo: Ladislav Sitenský
“The significance is twofold. First, Ladislav Sitenský’s photographs are important for their documentary value. He was one of the few who took high-quality pictures of the 312th squadron. But first and foremost, they have artistic value, because he was able to play with light, with clouds, and so on. That’s why today, 70 years later, his photos are still very powerful.”

“The book was meant to be published at the start of 1948. It had already been printed. But because the Communists came to power the print run was destroyed. Just a few copies were preserved. The book was revived and printed again in order to come out, symbolically, on the 70th anniversary of the Communist takeover.”

No less interesting are his civilian photos made in from wartime England – which are sensational only in the positive sense; they do not exploit people’s suffering but rather celebrate their humanity.

So too are his portraits of Winston Churchill, Marshal Montgomery, King George IV and Queen Elizabeth II – or of Edvard Beneš, who led the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and personally opened a 1941 exhibition at Harrods in London of his photographs of Czechoslovak pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain.

After the war, then flight lieutenant Ladislav Sitenský – who received the Czechoslovak War Cross as well as a total of 14 other Czechoslovak, English and French military honours –turned down an offer to join the British Sunday Times newspaper as a photographer.

Instead, he returned home and remained in the Czechoslovak Army, working in the photo-documentation department of the General Staff, until late 1946, when he left to pursue a career as a freelancer.

Girls, architecture, war and sports

Though he at first worked for aviation magazines, he was inclined to photograph just about whatever he came across – as he often remarked – in order to capture the poetry of the moment. In 2002, at the opening of what would be his last exhibition, called Mraky, or Clouds, he spoke to Radio Prague about his life’s work.

“I am 83, and I’ve been taking pictures since I was 14. I suppose I am most likely the only photographer who has been taking pictures of everything, whether it was girls, architecture, war or sports – everything which passed by me I've taken pictures of.”

All of these photos here are of clouds – why clouds?

Photo: Ladislav Sitenský
“Because it’s nature. I like nature very much and of course clouds – that was always since my first film, which I did in 1933, I was taking pictures of clouds.”

You are associated with aviation and flying - were any of these photos taken from planes?

“No not one (laughs). It’s true I was for six years with the Royal Air Force, but I never really felt really well in a plane. My stomach didn’t like it – the smaller the plane, the worse it was.”

Do you know how many flights you made?

“Not many, really… I did more flights after the war. I’ve been in 40 different countries – I was in four continents – so then I got used to it.”

Do you still take photos often?

“No, unfortunately. Everything went well through all my life till I was 80; all my life I wasn’t ill at all. I didn’t know what sickness was.

“I always liked very much mountains, and my dream when I was young was to climb Mount Everest. Of course I didn’t manage – there was a war on and so on. But luckily enough, five years ago I flew in a plane just above Mount Everest, so at least I've seen it with my own eyes.”

Apart from snow-covered mountains, clouds and playing with light, he loved depicting Prague, the city of his birth, and its people, recalled his granddaughter, curator Adéla Kándlová.

The exhibition “Sitenský 100” will be at the tower gallery of the New Town Hall on Karlovo náměstí in Prague 2 through 23 June 2019. See for more details.

“Probably more than anything, he loved the countryside… But Prague also enchanted him. He took exquisite, beautiful photos of the city not just during the First Republic but through all later eras.”

It was not until the literal end of an era – with the regime change in 1989 – that Ladislav Sitenský could display and eventually publish his wartime photographs, he enjoyed another two decades of artistic freedom. And in 2007, two years before his death at age 90, he was awarded the Medal of Merit in arts and culture by the President of the Czech Republic.