Josef Sudek: The magician behind the lens

Josef Sudek, photo: CTK

Josef Sudek was one of the most important Czech photographers of the last century. Whatever he turned his camera to - be it Prague’s monumental St. Vitus’ Cathedral, or his own lowly studio window – exploded with light upon being snapped. He enjoyed critical acclaim throughout his life, and after his death in 1976 public interest in his work has remained immense. His former studio, in Prague’s Malá Strana, has been rebuilt in his honour. The space, which now exhibits young Czech photographers’ works, is run in part by Miloslav Saňko:

Josef Sudek,  photo: CTK
“This house where we are now is a copy of the original house which was destroyed by fire in the middle of the 1980s. The original house was built at the beginning of the 20th century as a photographic studio. It started to be used as a studio in 1927 when Josef Sudek rented this place for himself and for his sister. You know he both lived and worked here, and he stayed here until 1958, when he moved up to Úvoz – a street near Prague Castle – because he got a job up at St. Vitus’ Cathedral.”

His work went through different phases, so can you tell me what sort of photographs he was taking and developing in this particular building?

“You know, maybe the most famous cycle of his works was inspired particularly by this place. It’s a cycle called ‘Window of my Studio’, and it spanned 14 years, during which he took photos of his window all year round, in summer and in winter.”

Today, the studio may have been completely renovated, but in its windows you can still find a vase of old flowers and few empty glasses just like the ones in Sudek’s photos. The studio proved a source of inspiration for Sudek and doubled up as a cultural venue for his peers. Here’s Miloslav Saňko again:

“In the 1950s, here in the Czech Republic the situation was problematic vis a vis culture. And here in this studio was a kind of cultural oasis. For example, every week, I think it was particularly every Thursday, there was some kind of musical soiree. Because Josef Sudek was a very passionate, very patient, collector of recordings of modern music. He had some friends in the West, and they sent him some LPs of modern music. I have heard some of the memories of the Czech composer Jan Klusák, who came to these evenings a few times because they gave him the chance to hear some very modern music.”

The composer Jan Klusák later went on to dedicate some of his work to Sudek. He wrote this music especially for the soundtrack to ‘To Live one’s Own Life’ – an excellent 1960s short documentary about the photographer and his work.

Josef Sudek’s musical evenings were a popular affair. Another guest at the photographer’s soirees was Anna Fárová, who was later to become a leading expert on Czech photography, and the woman who spent nearly a quarter of a century sorting through Sudek’s estate. I asked her about her first encounter with the great photographer:

“It’s a very long story, and a very old story. I was just 18 years old, and my father who was a diplomat and a lover of music (and a friend of Bohuslav Martinů), he introduced me to Sudek just after the war, in 1946, for a music session in Sudek’s old studio. So that is how I met him – of course I knew something about Sudek already – everyone in Prague knew something about Sudek, he was such a famous figure, even by his appearance, but also by his work – but this was the first time I met him directly and personally. I was a little shocked, because it was a very bohemian atmosphere, of course the music was wonderful, but I just couldn’t have imagined the way that it was in this atelier.”

Josef Sudek,  photo: CTK
This is audio footage of Sudek himself from shortly before his death.. Here, the photographer is talking about his relationship to music. In his later years, Sudek set out in the footsteps of one of his favourite composers, Leoš Janáček – to photograph the musician’s native Beskydy mountains.

The curator Anna Fárová worked in very close contact with Sudek throughout the photographer’s life. He asked her personally to prepare his first monologue, and when he and his sister Božena died, Sudek handed his legacy over his life-long friend to sort:

“Sometimes I say that Josef Sudek and his sister Božena Sudková were very close to me as a family – as a new family. [When Sudek died] Božena leant me the keys of the upper studio on Úvoz and asked me to look at it and to do, with Sudek in mind, what was best to do. So I started with some of my best students and my daughters to clean and to organize everything in this upper studio. Every week we spent about 12 hours there, and this lasted for 15 years. I wished to have nothing and put everything in state institutions, because I knew that even the worst state institution is in this case better than a private collection. I started with the organization of the positives and negatives – I started to put them together thematically, and we made an inventory, and there were around 70,000 pieces. Can you imagine?”

Anna Fárová has subsequently discovered numerous unknown Sudek photos and written tens of books on the photographer’s work. The biggest retrospective she published opens with a photo of an unusual metal sculpture of a hand. Sudek had his right arm blown off in the war, and for most of his professional life worked with only one hand. Here’s Anna Fárová:

“He was once in Italy, looking for the places where he was wounded, and he told me and other friends ‘I never found my hand there’. He was very well adapted to his left hand and he did everything he could to not need anybody to help him. He was very even acrobatic when it came to using his left hand. And even at the school where he studied photography he was drawing with his left hand with a great deal of virtuosity. Naturally, he didn’t photography his hands directly, but he photographed often sculptures with such deformations, so perhaps this is what he was meaning without saying it.”

Josef Sudek’s work can be seen today in his old studio on Úvoz street – just below Prague Castle.