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Still Life with Glass of Water by Window
By Alex Novak
Josef Sudek was born on March 17, 1896 in the industrial town of Kolin on the Labe in what was then Bohemia (a part of the Czech Republic).
When he was a young boy of 15 years old, he learned the trade of bookbinding. He also became a budding amateur photographer. Before he could develop his photography talents further, he was drafted into the Hungarian Army in 1915 and served on the Italian front. Even there he still managed to continue his photography--that is until he was wounded in action. Gangrene infection set into his right arm and eventually surgeons removed it at the shoulder.
For three years, he was a patient in a veteran's hospital; it was there, during his recuperation, that he first began photographing in earnest, taking pictures of his fellow patients, even later returning to the hospital after he was discharged. As Anna Farova says in her introduction to the book "Sudek", "…it would be the last time he freely captured a person in his photographs."
Sudek joined the Amateur Photography Club and struck up a friendship with Jaromir Funke, a well-educated, vocal, young photographer with advanced aesthetic theories concerning photography. In 1922, Sudek was able to get a free scholarship for a photography course in a school for graphic arts in Prague. He studied photography there for two years. Between a disability pension and intermittent work as a commercial photographer, Sudek eked out a meager living.
Together with his friend Funke, he was expelled from the Photography Club for his stubborn opposition to those who stood firmly by the pictorialist approach that the pair considered dated and simplistic. The two upstarts gathered other like-minded photographers and formed the avant-garde Prague Photographic Society in 1924, devoted to the integrity of the negative and an anti-painterly approach to photography.
In 1926 while traveling at the invitation of some musician friends of the Czech Philharmonic, he returned to Italy to the very place where he lost his arm. It was to be a life-altering event. Confused and unable to leave without the arm he had lost there, Sudek remained behind--even after the group left--cut off from friends and his home in Czechoslovakia. Finally, after two months of this heavy psychological battle, he returned to Prague. The event forever changed him. He would never travel again. As he himself said, "I never went anywhere, anymore and I never will. What would I be looking for when I didn't find what I wanted to find?" When he returned to Prague, he returned to his photography with determination and single-mindedness.
Many observers see a sense of the mysterious in Sudek's later work, but writer Charles Sawyer notes in one of his articles on Sudek, "I think this is a mistake: the air of mystery vanishes once we see in Sudek's photography a person's private salvation from despair."
After 1926, Sudek began to find his own personal style and come into his full powers as an artist. Gone is the haze of soft focus, and gone too, are people. Most of his cityscapes show only deserted streets. As if to make up for this absence of the human element, Sudek often personified inanimate objects within his images. The woods of Bohemia and Moravia captured by his cameras were inhabited by "sleeping giants", as he called them, huge dead trees that watched over the landscape.
His sense of light became crucial, often planning for a year or more to capture the exact lighting situation. As his assistant Sonja Bullaty recalled in her book on Sudek, "I remember one time, in one of the Romanesque halls, deep below the spires of the cathedral [St. Vitus]--it was dark as in catacombs--with just a small window below street level inside the massive medieval walls. We set up the tripod and camera and then sat down on the floor and talked. Suddenly Sudek was up like lightening. A ray of sun had entered the darkness and both of us were waving cloths to raise mountains of dust 'to see the light,' as Sudek said. Obviously he had known that the sun would reach here perhaps two or three times a year, and he was waiting for it."
Many others of Sudek's images reflect this same sense of patience. His "cycles" of themes such as still lifes and landscapes often took as long as ten or more years to complete. In 1927 he settled into the garden studio that was to be his primary residence and work area until 1958 when he moved to a new studio in Uvoz. From the 1940s, Sudek also spent many of his summer holidays living at his close friend Pavel Parma's house in the town called Frenstát pod Radhostem. From there it was an easy transit to his beloved Moravian forests.
Beginning in 1928, Sudek photographed the reconstruction of St. Vitus Cathedral and issued his first album of ten original photos for the 10th anniversary of Czechoslovakia's existence. Together with A. Schneeberger, Sudek opened a studio in Prague in 1927. From 1927 to 1936 he worked for the publication house and design center "Druzstevni Prace", specializing in portraits, ads and reportage. Here he was exposed to many of the avante garde approaches to design, including Constructivism, and Functionalism, which would greatly affect his future work. He was also active in the international salons of the day from 1924 to 1935, although the work submitted became more and more modern in style as the years progressed.
In 1933, Druzstevni Prace gave him his first one-man show in the Krasnajizba salon. That same year Sudek's work was included in the important Filmfoto or Social Photography Show, which was held in Prague and arranged by the Left Front.
As Farova has written, "In photography he had gone from Pictorialism via Impressionism to experimental functional compositions. He had found his dominant themes--the city of Prague and the effects of light."
In 1940, he saw a 30x40 cm contact photograph of a statue from Chartres from about 1900. The print so impressed him that he changed his own approach to printing, thereafter mostly making contact prints instead of his previous enlargements. I have only ever seen one enlargement from this period, and I am still not positive Sudek made it himself. He said it was less the fineness of details that made contact prints crucial in his work than their tonal variation. He lugged view cameras as large as the 30x40 cm format (roughly 12x16 inches) around the steep streets of the Hradcany and Mala Strana sections of Prague, working with only one hand and using his teeth when his left hand wasn't enough.
No photographer, except possibly Atget, was as devoted to portraying their city with such intensity and love as Sudek. And Prague was indeed a magical city in his images.
He published eight books, beginning with his first one in 1947, just after WWII. During WWII Sudek acquired an 1894 Kodak Panoramic camera whose spring-drive sweeping lens makes a negative 10x30 cm. He used this unusual camera to make a stunning series of cityscapes of Prague, which were first published in 1959 as "Praha Panoramaticka".
In 1961 Sudek received the title "Artist of Merit" from the Czechoslovakian government, the first such photographer so honored. In 1966 the Czech government awarded him the "Order of Work", one of its top honors.
In 1968 Sudek was included in a group show, "Five Photographers", at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. It was the first major showing of his work in the U.S.
With Bullaty's encouragement and help, Sudek's work continued to be featured at exhibitions in America, first in her studio in New York City in 1971 and then in 1974 when the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY gave him a retrospective exhibition. Bullaty also convinced photography dealer Marjorie Neikrug to exhibit his work in 1972, and the Light Gallery in 1974.
On his 80th birthday in April 1976, the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague put on a major retrospective of Sudek's work, which later appeared at the Photographer's Gallery in London. Another retrospective was exhibited in Brno, Czechoslovakia that same year. Soon after, Sudek died of a heart attack suffered in his studio in Prague on September 15, 1976.
His friend and associate Petr Helbich, who rushed Sudek to the hospital after his heart attack, printed a memorial portfolio of 13 of his images from the original negatives in 1976, just after Sudek died. Petr Tausk wrote the introduction.
In 1977, the International Center of Photography in New York City had a major retrospective of Sudek's work, along with exhibitions in Germany, Scotland, France, England and Italy.
Sudek's work is in many museums and institutions, including the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, the George Eastman House, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, the Center for Creative Photography, the Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the California Museum of Photography, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University, the U.S. Library of Congress, the National Museum of American History, the High Museum of Art, the University of Iowa Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Snite Museum of Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Baltimore Museum of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, the Hallmark Photographic Collection, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Princeton University Art Museum, the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the International Center of Photography, the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Toledo Museum of Art, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, the National Gallery of Australia, the Museum Ludwig, the Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe, the Norsk Museum for Fotografi-Preus Fotomuseum, the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.