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Josef Sudek

“Everything around us, dead or alive, in the eyes of a crazy photographer mysteriously takes on many variations, so that a seemingly dead object comes to life through light or by its surroundings. And if the photographer has a bit of sense in his head maybe he is able to capture some of this—and I suppose that’s lyricism.” – Josef Sudek

If we looked at Sudek's early images without knowing his dates, we might be excused for thinking him a turn-of-the-century Pictorialist. So important was atmosphere to him that the pictures he took in 1922—1927 for Invalid War Veterans' Home recall scenes from a cozy inn. Objective social reportage was not Sudek's aim. Yet over the following years he would find a link with certain tendencies of the period. The complex geometries in some of the images taken in St. Veit's Cathedral in Prague (1924—1928) recalled the spirit of Russian Constructivism.

The straightforward object, advertising, and architectural photographs he began in 1927 to supply to an aesthetically advanced clientele were very much along the lines of the Bauhaus and the "New Vision." Apart from his commercial activities, Sudek produced highly sophisticated series: Window in my Studio (1940—1959), Vanished Statues (1952), In the Enchanted Garden (1954—1959), Glass Labyrinths (1968—1972), Labyrinths (1972—1975). These were supplemented by numbers of still lifes, composed of various seashells, eggs, simple drinking glasses, bread, an unexposed roll of film, even a sponge and head of cabbage. Into these images entered the poetry for which his daily business left him no time.

A sculptor in light, a true "light-painter," for over 14 years Sudek recorded the changing light at his studio window: dotted with raindrops, steamed with humidity, frosted over—by day, in twilight, by night. "He wrestled with light like Jacob with the angel," as the poet Jaroslav Seifert recalled. Cellophane and oiled paper with a seashell placed on it could form the point of departure for a drama in light on which he worked for hours on end.

In parallel, photographs of Prague gardens and parks, and of landscapes in the city's environs emerged (the latter taken from about 1947, with a panorama camera). Many of these images showed a return of the numinous mood of Pictorialism, mentioned above. In several works taken in the garden of his architect friend Otto Rothmayer, Sudek rang changes on the theme of the Enchanted Garden. Modern white garden furniture, occasionally supplemented by sculpture fragments or stone balls, figured as accessories to a locale spirited into a state of mystery. Touches of surrealism alternated with lyrical moods.

As the piles of crumpled paper he later captured in his Labyrinth series indicate, up to a year before his death Sudek not only remained on a search for a bygone era but reacted to the aesthetic ferment of the present day.

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan

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