By Matt Damsker
Josef Sudek: The Window of My Studio; Portraits. Volumes One and Two of a series of Sudek photography books published by Torst, Prague, Czech Republic, 2008, hardbound; $60. Volume One contains 75 color photographs, ISBN No. 978-80-7215-315-2; Volume Two contains 86 color photographs, ISBN No. 978-80-7215-319-0. Information: http://www.torst.cz
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These first two volumes of studio work by Prague's poet of the camera begin a comprehensive series of Sudek photography books published by Torst (all nine of them will eventually be available in the U.S.). They powerfully capture the moody artistry of the great photographer at his most hermitic, on one hand, and most social on the other, although it may be misleading to dub Sudek's portraits--mostly of family and friends--as sociable artifacts, since they convey the same shadowed sense of isolation and interiority that defines so much of his work.
That said, these superbly reproduced images bring Josef Sudek (1896-1976) to life with remarkable clarity and fresh focus on the mysteriously "non-descriptive," as Anna Farova calls it in her "Contemplation" in the first volume, which offers startlingly abstract images from the two windows of Sudek's studio in a courtyard of Prague's Lesser Town, where he worked and lived for much of his career. These studies are uniquely expressive, capturing either the close-up sight of the lonely, gnarled tree that occupies the gated exterior, or the wonderfully complex double vision of windowpane--usually frosted or fogged over with humidity--and tiny yard beyond.
Farova notes that the emphasis on the tree brings to mind Sudek's later series of maimed trees which he sought out in a forest of the Beskid Mountains (the focus of a subsequent Torst volume), but it's also clear that the studio-window studies, with their close-in, claustrophobic mood, are highly personal expressions. They stand as timeless, unsentimental metaphors for the reality of inner and outer life, and at their most abstract they evoke everything from Japanese brush painting to Monet's water lilies, yet they remain utterly Sudekian in their appreciation of spare, humble details--an old cup in the corner of the window frame, laundry drying on a clothesline, the squat Prague houses beyond the gate, or else a glass of water or a lone piece of fruit in sharp focus before the frosted glass, which result in unique still lifes.
It's obvious that Sudek invested his soul and spirit in these images. Farova calls his studio window "the changing screen on which his memories of the First World War and his losing an arm in battle were perhaps projected when Sudek was deep in contemplation." These photos also mark the beginning of his non-commercial work, when he stopped enlarging his photos and devoted himself to contact prints. And while there may seem an intense melancholia to these wintry, inside-outside shots, suggesting an imprisoned yearning for outward connection, they are also charged with a palpable delight in the sheer visual magic of the images, their optical effect and play of light, tonality and reflection. They are clearly the work of an artist in sublime command of his medium.
As for the portraits collected in Volume Two, one of Sudek's Czech champions, Jan Rezac, describes the "rare unity of style" of Sudek's work in an interview with Radim Kopec, which prefaces the book. Indeed, it's not such a leap to move from the stillness and mystery of the studio window shots to Sudek's depictions of his human sitters, bathed in shadows and--to a one--introspectively engaged while Sudek captures them looking off to the side, deep in thought, or else facing the camera with airs of resignation or reserve. Smiles are rare here, and usually slight. Sudek knew, as Avedon once pronounced, that "the smile is a mask," and so his subjects seem thoughtfully themselves, often exuding an Eastern European anxiety and sobriety that seems an outgrowth of wartime experience.
There's also a charming theatricality at work as well. It's something not usually associated with Sudek, but his images of well-dressed sitters in their suits, trench coats, fedoras, berets, cloches, and with their canes and pipes, are often evocative of Hollywood studio shots, with a downbeat, noir-ish glamour that doesn't detract from or mock their implicit character.
This theatrical overtone reaches a kind of apotheosis in a 1928 close-up of a young man--a Mr. Podrazil--who faces the camera with a frank, full-frontal glare of self-possession, confident and a little cocky beneath his large fedora, while the shadows cast by his hat darken three-quarters of his face, from which his intense dark eyes penetrate us. Sensational. So, too, are Sudek's images, from the 1940s, of a veiled woman, the contours of her head barely discernable under silky fabric. She is the mysterious totem that could stand in for so much of Sudek's work--dark, hidden, wounded, and yet throbbing with the irrepressible life that lies beneath.
Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005.
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