In the mid-nineteenth century the Frenchman Nadar began what would become a large oeuvre of portraits made with the camera. Painters could not compete with him in terms of quantity, accessibility and verisimilitude. His subjects were usually personages from the world of art. Photography, however, loves ordinary things and comes down to them from the heights of art. And photography also loves ordinary people. Disderi knew that, and with his 'calling cards' of the standardized 8,5 x 6 cm format he portrayed just about anybody. He always included the entire figure from head to toe in the artificial surroundings of his studio but in an ordinary pose and through a harmoniously pleasant lens. He was thus the first to demonstrate photography's ability to provide inexpensive portraits for anyone. With bombastic advertisements and low prices he attracted crowds to his Paris portrait studio.
In charting unknown regions, in wars and on expeditions to faraway lands, travelling photo studios come into use during the nineteenth century. Photographers travelled also to nearby villages as well as to places further afield to photograph the locals. In our century particularly, in the 1960s and 1970s, the outstanding American portrait artist Irving Penn, financed by Vogue magazine, renewed the tradition and went off to photograph the natives of countries such as Cameroon, New Guinea and Dahomey. Penn always strove for absolute simplicity and purity of picture. Around his subject he left only an imaginary space in which he sometimes intentionally left a small detail betraying the portrait's origin in the studio. Ultimately only one thing was essential: the subject's confrontation with the eye of the camera.
An exceptional portrait is a rare thing. If it is achieved, a single person becomes the essence of the human being in general, and one begins to talk about humankind and not only about an individual.
In New York and London in the 1950s, Penn was taking photographs of various tradesmen with the tools of their trade. He presented the full figure in an appropriate pose and dress against a neutral, almost non-spatial back-drop. In this way he was linking up with the enormous project of his German predecessor, August Sander, who had planned to present a picture of twentieth-century man. Sander had even wanted to document the entire German nation, beginning in 1911 but forced to stop as the dictatorship of the 1930s took hold. Sander had a concept to help him systematically to chart out his entire topic. He arranged the nation by class, profession, type, society the peasant, the petit bourgeois, the housewife, the woman at work, student, professor, scholar, scientist and soldier. He alternated full-length portraits with half-lengths and with details. The subject was not isolated in the studio but was situated in his or her natural environment, portrayed so as to leave room for the imagination, and left as an integral part of the portrait.
In the Czech Republic today, a large project of three photographers of the middle generation has been following in the footsteps of these earlier photographers, taking advantage of all the possibilities that they offer. But although these three Czechs have much in common with their forerunners, both in intention and in technique, they are, each of them, going their own way.
Jan Maly, Jiri Polacek and Ivan Lutterer also have a mobile studio. A commission (unrealized) in the spring of 1982, to photograph Czech folk costumes led unexpectedly to this idea. At the time, a man came into their tent with a bottle of wine in his hand, wearing grubby work trousers and a tee-shirt rolled up above his belly. He had long sinewy arms, a relaxed, casual pose, but a direct look. Unknowingly he set the theme and the style.
An outstanding portrait is truly not a common occurrence. The professional can obviously create a number of good portraits, but only rarely does the special moment arrive when the person portrayed becomes a being, a consciousness, an existence, by the force of his or her own presence. To achieve that, there also has to be empathy on the side of the photographer, and that unique meeting or peculiar visual dialogue manages to create out of one person a sort of transpersonal and generally valid model of communication. That sort of portrait etches itself indelibly into the imaginary gallery of our memory. Which is what has indeed happened, and this rare phenomenon encouraged our three photographers to portray on ever growing number of subjects in Bohemia and Moravia as part of their long-term project (it's been fifteen years now) about ordinary people who have this capacity within themselves. The idea then emerged for o large set of portraits. The result is Czech People, one big portrait, in fact, comprised of hundreds of individual portraits.
The mobile studio travelled to almost every part of Bohemia and Moravia, where the photographers then waited for people to drop in. Every visitor, upon arriving, first received his or her portrait in the form of a Polaroid snapshot, which itself attracted a lot of people. Each person could come in straight off the street, dressed as he or she was, bringing objects related to their work or leisure, in the company of friends and family or alone. The pose, meant to be natural, relaxed, was chosen by the subject himself. The lighting and the neutral background remained unchanged from portrait to portrait. The manipulation of the subject has been minimal, if there is any, it tends only to underscore the natural character. As a counterweight to the quantity and variety in front of the camera, the photographers exercised discipline in their technique and conception.
Jan Maly, Jiri Polacek and Ivan Lutterer studied together at FAMU (the film school in Prague) in the 1970s. Each then chose his own separate and independent path as a photographer. The moving force behind the Czech People project, as Polacek and Lutterer readily admit, is Jan Maly. Since the early 1980s they have been setting out on average three times a year to work on the project. They leave it to chance who comes into the studio. It is, in fact, on invitation to chance. People drop in by chance and bring with them by chance their experience of that moment, which makes it all the more real. Attributes of the subjects turn up, objects which we would look for in vain in a commercial photographer's studio, but which say something not only about every person but also about the times he or she lives in. Bags, tools, baby carriages, helmets, toys, welder's goggles, animals, work clothes and everyday wear. All of this provides a picture of everyday life free of all pretence. Most of the people would probably have never dared to enter a regular studio this way, but because the whole project looks like a fairground attraction with no strings attached, and because there is also an instant Polaroid snapshot thrown into the bargain and there is something unrelated to artistic pretension and convention, no one is afraid to enter the mobile studio. The Polaroid is also a way of making the initial contact, and is a test run for the photography the' follows.
Fifteen years have changed the shape of Czech People, but not the photographers' methods. All the more, then, does the project illustrate the historic changes of physiognomy - in the external signs of dress, and, particularly, in posture, expression and overall appearance. The erstwhile deference, contrition and uncertainty have given way to a greater self-awareness and self-confidence. This is underscored by the poses and expressions. The gray of conformist dress of the early years has been replaced by a more personal apparel and an overall individualization. Generations, families, couples friends, groups and individuals march past us. We see 'tramps' (a special breed of Czech camper), Czech wannabe veterans of the Vietnam war, Czech ?Injuns? and other Czechs of note, with their dotty inventiveness and playful humour. This stereotype of photographic presentation does not give anybody preference over anybody else. All the more clearly, then, do the differences, great and small, appear. We do not have to take too much time with an analysis of each individual photograph, because the process is standardized and repetitive, and this forces us when looking at this sampler of Czechs to concentrate solely on each individual component of the project's whole structure.
Whereas Penn was on aesthete, Sander a systematist and Disden a businessman, the trio of Czech photographers is quite different. Their project has from the start been financed by them alone, and to it they have devoted their spare time. They are not undertaking Sander's cross-section of classes and societies of the nation. They are not setting up Penn's artistic portraits of intellectuals and exotics. The only thing they have in common with Penn is the current technology, the emphasis on abstract space and, with it, the division and foregrounding of the person portrayed on an abstract background ?'Everyman? is thus highlighted, taken off the street, out of his or her natural environment and placed before a neutral backdrop as the subject of study. The subject can thus be better observed and cannot hide anything from us, and nothing gets in the way of our observation.
Does Czech People provide an answer to the question of who we Czechs are? It's probably too soon to tell what the full significance of this project is. The answer will come only with time. The mascot, Fate and the basic Czech People, however, remain relevant.
(Anna Farova, 1997)
© 2001 Czech People - Maly, Polacek, Lutterer, ArtForum / ICZ a.s.