New York

Josef Sudek

Salander-O’Reilly Galleries

In this first of a series of planned exhibitions drawn from the estate of the Czech photographer Josef Sudek (1896–1976), the gallery, in collaboration with curator Anna Fárová, chose to highlight over sixty pigment prints made by the artist between 1947 and 1954. They are all contact prints, laboriously transferred onto small (7 by 9 inches or less) sheets of textured rag paper in golden, rose, and verdant hues. In this process, the images are transposed chemically onto carbon tissue and the pigment is then pressed onto regular paper. In reinterpreting his images in the ’40s and ’50s through a nineteenth-century process, Sudek was not just being nostalgic. The pigment prints give his images a richness of tone and mood and a delicacy of texture that he couldn’t get any other way. This mixture of fragility and endurance must have appealed to Sudek at what was a difficult period in Eastern Europe. Printed from the negatives of several well-known series—including “Window of My Studio,” “Gardens,” “Still Lifes,” “Prague Gardens,” and “Gardens of Prague Castle”—they provided, along with forty silver prints ranging in dates, a miniature overview of the artist’s oeuvre.

Sudek’s mastery lay in his skillful manipulation of the tension between photographic objectivity and a subjective, romantic vision. He once said that “photography loves banal objects,” and as he continually reduced his range of subject matter, he paradoxically heightened the emotional impact of his images. Rather than venture far and wide in search of compelling subjects, he often stayed home and transformed what was directly in front of him in repeated acts of everyday alchemy. Of the sixty images seen here, more than half were made without leaving his ramshackle house; some of the most moving ones were taken out the window of his studio. The gracefully curving trunk of a small apple tree set against a fence anchored by tall, stone pillars is photographed in infinitely various light and from different angles through a windowpane streaked with dew or caked with ice. The window acts as a second lens, further distancing and framing the objects seen through it and casting a subjective veil or filter between us and the world outside.

Sudek’s still-lifes employ the plainest of objects—dirty glasses, bits of crumpled paper, spent blossoms, the remains of lunch—to create complex harmonies of light and shade. Three onions with opalescent skins are arranged on a torn piece of grocer’s paper, just as they were received. An egg sits on the whorled grain of a wooden table in perfect balance. Who else has photographed our daily bread to such magnificent effect?

When Sudek did leave his studio, he never went very far. The cemeteries and gardens of Prague seem to be mere extensions of his backyard. The fingered palms of Prague Castle, the textured walls of Troia, the luminous buds on sinuous branches in Lobkowitz Garden—all are transformed likenesses, occasions for seeing things, for tracing the play of light on sculptured forms, In one astonishing image, entitled Prague Gardens at Night, 1950–54, sunlight streams in from the right to wash the dark glen, coaxing fine details from the shadows.

What sets Sudek’s work apart from the treacly sentimentalism of so much earnest “fine photography” one sees these days is that its beauty is not skin-deep. Probing the purely photographic effects of light on sensitive surfaces, his images penetrate the assumptions of vision. Very early on, Sudek reacted against the “artistic” pretensions of fine-art photography (represented by the Photo Club in the ’20s in Prague) and dedicated himself to photography as a documentary medium. When a true romantic like Sudek turns to documentary, wonderful things happen. If his work is “pictorialist,” it is only so under the definition provided by his friend and colleague Jaromir Funke, as “a photographic document of a romantic subject produced by a distinctly photographic technique.” All of Sudek’s best work relies on the basic elements of photography—the reflection and other effects of light on surfaces, composition and framing, and the transformation of “banal objects” through these means. Even though these lapidary prints are in pigment on drawing paper, they are some of the most purely photographic images you’re likely to see anywhere.

David Levi Strauss