Philadelphia

Joseph Sudek

Philadelphia Museum of Art

This comprehensive exhibition of the work of Czechoslovakian photographer Joseph Sudek presents a selection of images dating from his youthful experiments of 1911 to his last photographs of 1976, the year of his death. The experience of Sudek’s work, represented here by more than 200 black and white photographs and several books, is heavily inflected by curator Michael Hoffman’s installation choices. On the entry wall, a biographical quote from Hoffman’s catalogue preface identifies Sudek’s general affinities with the landscape of his native country. One is particularly struck by the fact that during the first World War Sudek lost his right arm and returned home to begin a life in photography. The gallery has been painted a deep red, suggesting an obvious association with the artists’ Eastern European origins, but the effect is more phenomenal than biographically illuminating, as the intensity of the red stands up to the darkness out of which many of these photographs emerge. In views of Prague from the ’20s, as well as later images from a series called “A Walk in the Magic Garden,” from the ’50s and ’60s, the light appears to come through only because the photographer has waited long enough to witness it. It is Sudek’s empathy with the darkness and his patient desire to experience and shape the light that informs much of this work.

A series of photographs taken between 1924 and 1928 poetically documents the completion of the interior of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, a project begun some six centuries earlier. Emphasizing the dramatic shafts of diffused window light, Sudek presents the atmospheric effects as palpably as he does the great interior architecture. The catalogue essay by Anna Farova explains how Sudek fanned dust into the air of the cathedral to further control the hazy light.

During this same period Sudek produced a group of photographs, labeled “Commercial Experiments” by the curator, that explore formal and abstract relationships and attest to Sudek’s awareness of contemporary photographic developments. In these works, formal authority over these “modern” technologies is apparent, but the mysterious weight that characterizes Sudek’s more personal explorations is absent. Sudek’s modernism is located elsewhere; he cuts the figure of a lone seeker of inner truth. His worldly successes and public contributions (he was one of several photographers who founded the Czech Photographic Society in 1924) seem to sit outside of his private and true domain. As a photographer Sudek looked ever inward as his life and work became more hermetically centered around his small studio, its adjoining gardens, and the vast collection of objects he assembled around himself. This private reality became World for Sudek; under his photographic scrutiny the things and views that were most intimate and familiar to him were called upon to reveal the mysterious inner life he had always tracked.

Eileen Neff