Vilém Heckel brought First Republic glamour to communist advertising

Photo: Vilém Heckel, Courtesy of Galerie FotoGrafic

Entering the small, cozy space of FotoGrafic Gallery in Prague’s Old Town, I was struck by the glossy picture-perfect photographs of dashing ladies tanning themselves next to spacious cars, a family on an idyllic picnic, youngsters showing off in front of shiny motorbikes – all images of prosperity and consumerism. One would hardly believe that these were images of 1960’s Czechoslovakia and not America, but all of these are works are indeed by the once legendary Czech photographer and mountaineer Vilém Heckel, who brought a first-republic gleam to commercial photography in communist Czechoslovakia.

Martin Fojtek next to a photograph by Vilém Heckel,  photo: Masha Volynsky
I had a chance to speak to Martin Fojtek, the owner of the gallery that is currently hosting an exhibit of Vilém Heckel's work, and asked him how he and his colleagues went about selecting works for this exhibit.

“We are in contact with Helena Heckelová, the daughter of Vilém Heckel, and she is actually the owner of his huge archive. It’s enormous, there are thousands and thousands of medium-format negatives. So we went through all of these negatives. Of course, we were limited by space, but we selected around 12 large-format photographs, and then about 20 or 25 in a smaller format. We tried to choose from each field. We tried to choose certain amount of photographs from each – cars, motorcycles, car races, home appliances.”

But what is the specific focus of this exhibit? How did you actually select the photographs on display?

“Vilém Heckel is quite a famous Czech photographer. And because he was a mountain climber, he is very famous for his photographs of mountains. He died in 1970; It was quite a famous death actually. It happened under Huascarán in Peru, where he was buried under an avalanche. “He is most famous for his mountain photographs, from Hindu Kush, from South America, and, of course, from Czech and Slovak mountains. So every Czech knows him, has a books of his, a catalogue or something like that.

Photo: Vilém Heckel,  Courtesy of Galerie FotoGrafic
“What not many people know is that he was also a commercial photographer. He did photographs for publicity in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He photographed cars, Škoda cars, Jawa motorcycles, home appliances, factories and stuff like that. And in this exhibit we wanted to stress this side of his work. It’s actually commercial work, but from today’s point of view it’s art. He had quite a free hand in his work in those times, so you can see in his photographs, that he put a certain beauty in each image.”

The style of the photographs is indeed very distinct, not only in the composition, but also, for example, the lighting is very particular. Was his photography in any way unique at the time?

“I think it was unique in the sense that he had a free hand, he could do whatever he wanted, because he was already a quite established freelance photographer. So, he could actually put a lot of art into his photographs, he didn’t have to follow any strict rules of publicity photography.”

One of the things that really struck me when I first looked at the photographs was actually how, in a way, Western they looked. I can imagine many of them appearing in an American glossy magazine at around the same time, in the 1960’s. Was this also generally the style here? How did this kind of work jive with the era?

Photo: Vilém Heckel,  Courtesy of Galerie FotoGrafic
“These are all photographs from the ‘50s and ‘60s, but you can still feel in them the times of the First Republic, because he studied photography in the ‘30s in a very famous photography atelier Illek and Paul in Plzeň, which was one of the best advertising photography studios at the time. So has able to acquire this master craft of the First Republic. Also, you can see that era reflected in the products as well, some of them come from the 30’s and 40’s.”

At the same time, of course, the official rhetoric at the time in Czechoslovakia was anti-consumerism, anti-materialism, but obviously he did get the commissions for these pictures. How did work?

“Well, these photographs were not targeting the local market, they were for export. These were actually meant to be seen abroad. So, that’s probably why they agreed to this type of photography.”

And as you already mentioned, he is best known for his mountain photography. Was that meant more for the local audience?

“Yes, I think that was meant more for the local audience. Although he did become quite famous abroad, in the United States, for instance. We were in contact recently with some archives in the United States and they are in possession of some of his photographs. And they were also very interested in digital images of his works from those times, of Hindu Kush and other mountains as well.”

Photo: Vilém Heckel,  Courtesy of Galerie FotoGrafic
As far as I understand, since the mid-80s there haven’t been many exhibits of Heckel’s work in Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. How has the interest been in this exhibit, has there been considerable public response to it?

“Yes, there is enormous public response. It was also covered in the media quite a lot, I definitely have to say that it is a very successful show.”

For the younger generation, though, it doesn’t seem that Vilém Heckel is really a household name, compared to maybe some of the greats like Josef Sudek or František Drtikol. Do you think that he may become popular again?

“It’s true that the younger generation doesn’t know him that well, even for his mountain photographs. In the older generation, everybody knows him. People, let’s say, in their twenties don’t know him that well, and they are interested in seeing his work.”

Photo: Vilém Heckel,  Courtesy of Galerie FotoGrafic
Technically speaking, when you were printing the photographs for this exhibit, how difficult was it to print from negatives that are 50, 60 years old?

“Well, first of all, these negatives are in a very good state. They are technically perfect. So what we did was we scanned them on a very high-quality scanner, we digitalized them and then we just cleaned them up a little bit. And we printed them through the so-called LightJet printing, which is of very good quality. It’s actually not printing, it’s a chemical photograph from digital data. So it’s not that difficult nowadays.”

These photographs are of course idealizations and they are meant to be because they are commercial works. But even Heckel’s pictures of mountains and mountaineers are very idealistic and forward-looking. Does he have any works, that are maybe not exhibited here, which were in any way darker or gloomier?

Photo: Vilém Heckel,  Courtesy of Galerie FotoGrafic
“I think all of his work is in this line actually. I wanted though to point out one thing, which I like about these commercial photographs. They are not ideal in many respects. Not speaking technically; Technically they are good. But in some photographs you see that the model is not perfect, like she should be nowadays, or the product even is not perfect – you have a flat tire on some motorbike – you have a not so ideal setting and stuff like that, which makes them even more beautiful.”

So, do you think this could serve as an inspiration for today’s commercial photographers?

“Well, it’s difficult to say. I think it’s different now and I think time will tell.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 9, 2013.