New book highlights work of unknown photographer Karel Bucháček

Karel Bucháček was a keen amateur photographer who captured everyday life in Prague in the final decades of communism, as well as the dramatic events of the 1968 invasion. A new book called Stifled City aims to bring fresh attention to this unknown photographer, who never had a chance to present his work.

Karel Bucháček | Photo: Archive of Karel Bucháček

Images of Prague’s run-down streets and football matches at the city’s stadiums alongside shots of the Russian tanks in front of the Czech Radio building during the 1968 Soviet-led invasion or communist era May Day parades at Letná. These and dozens of other black and white photographs are part of a newly published book entitled Přidušené město or Stifled City, which pays tribute to the largely unknown amateur photographer Karel Bucháček. Art historian Tomáš Pospěch is the book’s editor:

“Karel Bucháček worked most of his life at the Academy of Sciences’ mathematical institute and his relatives describe him as a big introvert who never married and lived mainly for work.

Photo: Karel Bucháček

“He was known to be a photographer, and was a member of a group called Město, uniting amateur documentary photographers. But it was only after his death in 2008 that his relatives discovered how extensive his work was.”

While Bucháček only left behind a few dozen actual photos, his archive contained more than 80,000 negatives that had never been developed. They covered a large range of subjects, including images of plants and birds, but most of his work was devoted to street photography, says Mr. Pospěch:

“He was interested in the traditional Prague districts such as Libeň, Holešovice, Smíchov and Nusle, where he repeatedly returned in search of his favourite motifs. He photographed houses and streets that had to give way to the construction of the metro and he systematically recorded the demolition of Žižkov.

Photo: Karel Bucháček

“And although he was an introvert, he was obsessed with taking pictures of places where large numbers of people congregated, whether it was official Communist gatherings or unofficial demonstrations.”

Tomáš Pospěch, who has edited books of other documentary photographers capturing life in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and ‘80s, such as Jindřich Štreit or Viktor Kolář, says that unlike his colleagues, Karel Bucháček’s work was completely unknown:

“I was fascinated by the fact that he never had an exhibition or a book published. He knew that most of the photos he was creating were not publishable in his time, yet he produced such a vast body of work.

Photo: Karel Bucháček

“It seemed to me that the most important thing he photographed were the events of August 1968, and the revolution in 1989, but also the daily life in between. So we framed our selection by those two events and focused on the everyday life in normalisation.”

A lot of work on the book, which has been published in a Czech-English version, has been done by Karel Bucháček’s nephew Roman and photographer Martin Vágner, who has been gradually scanning the archive over the years and posting the photos regularly on Facebook where you can see even many images that didn’t make it into the book.

Photo: Karel Bucháček