Curators Vladimir Birgus and Josef Moucha have put together an intriguing two-floor compendium of the work of current students, recent graduates and successful alumni of the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava. The works on display cover a twenty-five year period from the Institute’s founding in 1991 up to the present; and though it’s become a thoroughly international school the exhibition is dominated by Czech, Slovak and Polish photographic work.
The exhibition benefits from the variety of photography genres and approaches cultivated at the Institute. Art photography, portraiture, photojournalism, narrative photography, there’s something for everyone’s photographic taste within the two artfully packed floors of Prague’s House of Photography.
The works chosen reflect the political, social and economic changes and upheavals of the last twenty-five years in a variety of ways and to varying degrees of intensity. Europe’s immigration crisis, the war in Ukraine, the impact of the internet, the destructive malfeasance of global finance, are all here, along with perennial themes of mortality and the inexplicability of human behavior. The overall feeling is not a particularly cheerful one, but as we expect photographers to show us the age we live in, we must be open to what they lay before us. Isolation, displacement, confusion and anxiety are the predominant tone of the exhibition, but there’s also humour, beauty and some sense of reassurance.
Some of the most interesting and striking works are the portraits. Jan Langer’s ‘Hundred Year Old Czechs’ places original photos taken of Czechs in their teens, twenties and thirties and puts them alongside photos taken by Langer when each is over a hundred. Taken in black and white and with the sitters as close as could be gotten to the original poses, the result is a startling confirmation of something we’re all aware of but can barely accept: the ineluctability of time and the ageing process. Though with only the white strip of the portrait frames dividing the young Czech from the extremely old one, ‘process’ vanishes and the transition from youth to old age is instantaneous. And yet, disturbing though the reality of ageing might be, Langer’s portraits make us look closer, through the ravages and wrinkles to the spirit of the individual beneath.
Marta Cieslikowsk’s photographs also deal with mortality, though in a more understated, ironic way. Her series, ‘This Tooth Wont Grow Back,’ is an evocative study in human and animal fragility in which a girl with one bleeding nostril, a goldfish spilled from a glass of water, a tooth, fresh as pure white bread dough in a harness of string and a dead piglet are all victims of the irreversibility of time’s arrow. These are beautiful, spare pictures in muted, delicate pastels that playfully push art photography in the direction of mass-market ornamentalism. Though it’s difficult to imagine the most arresting picture in the series taking pride of place in the average middle-class home. It’s a photo of a dying orchid, the plant’s last couple of flowers blooming in full subtle flush above the browned and wrinkled remains of the blooms below.
Dita Pepe’s ‘Self Portraits With Women’ also evince a certain playful attitude, both toward her female subjects and to the notion of the photographer’s ‘objectivity.’ Pepe mimics her sitters in dress, posture and attitude. Staring at us with rustic curiosity, head-scarved like the babicka next to her, she confronts us with aggressive eroticism, dressed like a whore, and grins, innocent in pink lace over the tea-things of a fluffy sweet-faced middle-aged lady. If the photographer is in the photo where is the photographer? The observer has joined the observed, but how close are they? The photographer is a kind of chameleon: whore, grandma, housewife; maybe we should all follow suit and liberate our appetite for different lives?
Tereza Vlckova’s series of portraits of young female twins are rather more sombre. Each set of twins, in exactly the same outfits, stand side by side out of doors, for all their likeness, disconnected from each other and from parents, family and the world. Apart from their isolation Vlckova draws our attention to the small signs that point to the difference in character between each twin. One young blonde girl has her head lowered slightly and glowers at us out of shadowed eyes; one hand is half-making a fist. Her sister’s is more limply relaxed and looks at us more directly, less distrustfully. But can we trust our intuitions as to the character of each?
Daniel Polacek’s ‘WEBsadFaces’ also explores human disconnection, in the feverish attempt, ironically, to overcome that disconnection. Polacek was drawn to the “alarming behavior and signs of emotional emptiness” of people in video chat rooms, desperately trying to find a way out of their loneliness. Polacek’s photos made by cropping screenshots and then enlarging them, capture very effectively the emptiness and anxiety of these people. Put all together the images look like a kind of unwitting group snapshot of a people convinced which the answer to their individual hell lies somewhere on the internet if they can just connect with the right person. One or two of these slightly blurred, jaundice-coloured faces have a distinct Goya-esque quality.
Robert Tappert uses an effective enlargement technique for ‘Damaged Portraits of Immigrants Found On The Serbian-Hungarian Border.’ Enlarged, it’s impossible to tell whether the damage to the passport-style photos was man-made or the result of being left out in the weather. Either way, these scratched out, smudged out faces suggest a world of sudden, violent dislocation.
But what of the Europe the migrants are so intent on reaching? In Martin Wagner’s black and white series, ‘Where Europe Begins’ it’s a fractured continent symbolised by a destroyed railway line; a forbidding, unrealisable dream people are dying to reach, symbolised by the footprints petering out on a deserted beach. In Jiri Krenek and Mariusz Forecki’s colour photo-journalistic style work it’s a land of greed and slavish conformity. Krenek’s lens gets up close to an obese couple loading the boot of their car with the week’s shopping, in ‘Hypermarkets’; while paper money rains down over a dutifully grasping audience of white-collar workers – a scene strangely reminiscent of mass Communist-era sporting events – in Forecki’s ‘The Pop Culture of Work.’
Greed finds its echo in Hana Connor’s black and white ‘Wall Street’ series, with the pallid faces of financiers caught in the spotlight of scandal. This in turn is suggestively echoed by Konstancja Nowina-Konopko’s ‘1001 Bad Deeds.’ It’s most unsettling image one of a group of young boys hanging from the rails of an outdoor swimming rail, and which could be subtitled: ‘If Looks Could Kill.’
Curators Birgus and Moucha’s selection facilitate this cross-referencing and echoing of theme and subject in this completely absorbing two-floor exhibition, supplemented by extensive published material from many of the photographers concerned, and a space where you can sit and watch a video slide show of the works. It must’ve been a daunting task of selection, with such a variety of styles and approaches to choose from, but the result is a wonderfully variegated mirror held up to the troubled world we inhabit.
Image courtesy of the artists and curator Vladimir Birgus