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I became aware of the work of Eugene Atget when I was about 20—his work was accessible and promoted in the US, especially by the Museum of Modern Art under John Szarkowski—and I was aware of the flow of his influence—to Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander and Robert Adams, and to my own work.

Josef Sudek is a European photographer of about the same era as Walker Evans (about a decade older),  a photographer I knew by name and a few images—but he was not an artist I paid much attention to, until the past few months, when his work was brought to my attention by Bruce Haley.  His work has not been published much in the US—there is a book by Aperture—“Josef Sudek, The  Poet of Prague” that  was published, so he has not been completely ignored—but not until I purchased several of his books published in Europe—“Sad Landscapes” and “Prague Panoramic” did his work come alive for me.

Part of the charm of Sudek is the economy of his methods—he limited his finished work to contact prints (like Edward Weston), and he worked exclusively in Prague and the nearby regions (like Atget with Paris).    But the beauty of his work comes from something far deeper than his choices of photographic methods or from working in a limited geographical area—it seems to come from a deep sense of love for his home.   Some of his pictures come from views from his window—of a lovely misshapen tree in his yard, viewed through the condensation on his window in winter.

Josef Sudek, "Window of my Studio", 1951 from "Pigment Prints"

Josef Sudek, "Window of my Studio", 1950 from "Pigment Prints"

But Sudek’s grandest work is his panoramic views of Prague—pictures made over many decades that describe the city in all kinds of light and weather.  Sudek brings a coherence to the work by the use of landmarks on the horizon—churches, smokestacks,  the shapes of hills—to provide the viewer with a sense of continuity between pictures, a way of reassuring the viewer that he has not traveled far between pictures.  In book format, this creates a sense of coherence to the entire collection—like listening to a grand symphony, where all the parts are connected, all working towards a grand finale.

The fact that Sudek lost an arm during World War I, lived through the Soviet occupation after WWII, and witnessed the failure of the Prague spring of 1968 before his death in 1976 makes Sudek’s work all the more poignant.  His work in “Sad Landscapes”  (published only after the fall of the Soviet empire) is of panoramic pictures taken in a mining region north of Prague, and shows a landscape abused and damaged by mining.  It now reads as a metaphor of the oppression of the occupation—but he includes, even in the middle of this injustice, glimpses of beauty, of humor, of hope.    And, always, beauty.


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