So I crossed Charles Bridge, dodging people in brightly coloured T-shirts, and (via a coffee pitstop) found myself approaching the Old Town Square. A banner on the first floor of Kafka’s House announced ‘Prague Photo’. In I went, thrilled to find that all the small photography galleries I had hoped to visit had gathered temporarily in one place, along with representative work from photography schools and academies across Prague.
I started on the top floor, where an attic space had been converted into a sort of darkroom/studio to show the work of Milos Burkhardt. On black screens which formed a little labyrinth through the space were photographs of female figures, underwater or shrouded by a thin veil. On his website Burkhardt explains that ‘photography for me is a means to express my deep respect and admiration for the beauty of the female form, and for women as themselves.’ That was evident; how wonderfully frank.
The floors below comprised a series of rooms with bare floorboards and the look of an abandoned schoolroom. In one, Oto Skalicky’s group of ‘Miners’ (2013) caught my eye, looking like small sheets of rusting metal rather than photographs. In fact they were emulsion on metal plate, a hazy image of a man’s head and torso being the photographic element, while the chemicals had caused the surface of the plate to erode as if he were looking into a sepia-coloured, heavily foxed mirror, in the rain.
Albert Grondahl’s photographic project, ‘River Palace’, focuses on a group of homeless young men who had set up quarters in a desolate industrial compound near the river on the outskirts of Prague. Grondahl got to know them, interested by the ‘existential aspect of their unprotected vulnerability’, and reached a level of trust where he and his subjects could participate on equal terms in playing the games which these images document. The accompanying text asserts that the photographs fall between the genres of classical documentary, dependent on the ‘decisive moment’, and the ‘arranged’ photograph – here, ‘participatory’ is the word. The austere monochrome manages to romanticise the squalid environment, while any pity is dispelled by the sense that they are all acting their parts in Grondahl’s surreal drama.
In a similarly classic documentary style, but minus any sign of human life, Giandomenica Becchio captures the eerie emptiness of Bozi Dar. This was a Soviet city built for Russian soldiers near Milovice, not far from Prague, and consequently abandoned after the fall of Communism. The steep perspective gives these images a monumentality, while the muted colours lend a stillness, a silence made more intense by the gaping empty windows. They are less melancholy than contemplative, testament to a chapter of Czech history the physical remains of which may be crumbling but which will never be forgotten.
And Becchio’s ‘Windows, Prague’ (2013); in contrast, satisfying in its geometric pattern of light and dark, asymmetrically composed on a perfect golden section. It reminds me of Egon Schiele’s ‘Windows (Facade of a House)’ of 1914 or the crazy Hundertwasser house in Vienna where windows, painted or actually built, become an abstract pattern…
I then returned to the fin-de-siecle windows of Vinohrady, in their elegant pastel-coloured array; double windows to keep out the cold of Czech winters and the heat of Czech summers – and the noise of the trams rumbling up and down the hill; interior windows with Art Nouveau motifs etched on the glass. I had lunch.