One of the Ways
Běla Kolářová

This text was originally commissioned by the historian of photography Anna Fárová in 1968 for Současná fotografie v Československu, an anthology of Czechoslovak photography (Prague: Obelisk, 1972). However, the entire print run of the book was seized and destroyed during the communist crackdown after the Prague Spring. The Czech text was eventually published in 1990 in the quarterly Kosmas produced by the émigré Society of Arts and Sciences (Společnost pro vědy a umění) in Flushing, New York. Its first publication in Czechoslovakia proper was in the catalogue of a monographic exhibition of the artist at Galerie U Bílého jednorožce in Klatovy in 1991. Previously, in 1989, an English and a French translation had appeared in Běla Kolářová: Photographies 1956-1964 published by Éditions Revue K in Paris, both with more or less significant differences to the Czech version. After careful consideration, we decided to reprint the English translation as it is the most commonly cited source and to indicate all critical digressions from the original text in footnotes.

 

 

Sometime at the beginning of 1961, as I was browsing through a photographic publication, I was struck by the following sentence: ‘The entire world has been photographed!’ I don’t recall whether it was Cartier-Bresson or some other photographer who had made this statement but, up to this day, I remember the feeling of despondency which these few words prompted in me. A feeling of futility over wanting to carry on with photography at a time dominated by such an exhibition as was The Family of Man. At a time when a whole generation of photographers who had recorded people’s lives and familiar places already belonged to history, while the work of photographers, equipped with the best cameras and crossing the world over in search of a single picture, was reaching its peak, and when even the miraculous world of microcosm was finding its way into photographic monographs.

 

Was there really nothing left but to add the things we see to those already seen hundred times over, to keep reshaping that which had long been discovered? Was it true that a single click of the release button had really registered the entire world? I could not come to terms with that terse statement, although there were many things which spoke in its favour. And so, every time I opened my eyes and looked at people around me, at a landscape, a street or a house, at a tree, an object, at an everyday situation or an unusual one, I couldn’t help asking myself: was there someone who had seen this before me, when and how? Gradually I began to perceive a world which, in fact, was left out, unnoticed by photographers. A world so negligible and everyday as if past the merit of being photographed; small things, indispensable for our life yet taken for granted so that we hardly notice them in spite of their great number, things which, to our annoyance, assert their existence at the very moment of their demise. We then peevishly throw them away, all those bits and scraps from dining tables and desks, indifferently put away pages from newspapers  and magazines only briefly scanned, and carelessly let drop a ticket after a completed journey or a piece of wrapping paper from a sweet we’ve just eaten. And yet, all these things are a part of us, they speak about our daily life, they bear witness to us and therefore are worthy of our notice.

 

In what way, however, should these petty objects, this litter of nature and civilisation, be captured? They are too small, ordinary, even ugly, they don’t seem to fit in with the brilliant photography achieved nowadays with perfect cameras. Clearly, they need to be recorded in a different way which takes the greatest advantage of their insignificance, of their ragged, torn and used up condition[1]. Their diversity and quaint forms should yield something more than [the] eye can guess at or [the] camera register. They have to be presented in a direct way; their authenticity will be best preserved if they are projected with the help of light directly onto the photographic paper without the intermediary of a camera. 

 

That is how the ‘artificial negative’ came to life or, to make a rough division, its two kinds. In the first kind, an object placed on a celluloid is put under the lens of an enlarging apparatus and projected onto bromide paper. This is so called ‘vegetage’ and ‘photo-collage’. In the second kind, one or more objects are stamped into a soft layer of paraffin spread over the celluloid. I called this method ‘traces’. During my work I became quite amazed at the growing number of objects which were suitable for being “photographed” without the use of a camera. Further, the yielding plasticity of paraffin led me onto trying out other material such as glue, varnish, oil paint, ink.

 

I had thus followed the road already pursued by Man Ray and others before me because it seemed to me less trodden. Naturally, while working in the dark room I couldn’t resist the magic of light, its miraculous ability to create an image of its own on photographic paper or plate – an absolute photography. How little is needed for its creation! One simply has to keep trying to tame the light, confine it within a form, be it a few hairs or any object that happens in our hands; a small sieve or a lock, a piece of metal with holes in it. Or one can cut up sheets of black paper, scratch over a photo plate especially prepared for this purpose. Another thing you need is movement. At times, it is the movement of the lens of the enlarging apparatus which is being gently shifted from its vertical position, at other times the bromide paper is moved about freely under the light of the apparatus; we lift its sides and push it across carefully with the precision of a millimetre. The paper can be also attached onto a rotating device which is then used with varying speeds and timing. There are numerous other possibilities; all one needs is a measure of patience in researching new ways which can be combined with those already proven. I found a good and helpful source of ideas in pressed glass with its diversity of patterns no longer manufactured today, in foreign manuscripts or in designs for what is known as objective photography. Nor could I ignore old, intimately known photographs of landscapes and places which we dream about although we’ve never seen them, a world of macrocosm translated into black and white, portraits of people whose memory is dear to us. After all, we are marked by all these things and can contribute by making them whole with the feeling they arouse in us, with the need for recollection and reflection they induce in us. I call the use and treatment of old photographs ‘derealisation’.

 

During the years of my work in photography, spent mostly in the dark room, I had to learn to disregard the lack of interest of those professionals who, in the spirit of the landscape painter and portraitist of the past century, had accepted their division and claim that a photographer should remain a photographer [2]. They want to see to it that the once established categories of artistic, journalistic and industrial photography are maintained, blind to the changes which are taking place in the world around us, to the fact that scientists, painters, musicians and poets keep crossing the boundaries of their respective disciplines or dispensing with them altogether.

 

It is true that the range of a photographer is widening with pictures of the most remote landscapes and cities and their ancient or contemporary architecture, with the discovery of new types of people and their features. The consumption of photography is on the increase, especially in advertising where it is at its most visible, confronting us most frequently; it practically engulfs us with the images of beautiful landscapes, faces, objects, trying to win us over and influence us, as if tempting us into forgetting the inevitable end of all things, ourselves included. This kind of photography comes in great quantity but lacks diversity. An advertising photographer usually works with objects which, in order to having to accommodate them often within a single picture, he has to pile up, compose, arrange. Why not seek out objects which have no value for advertising or sale, unusual objects, and involve them in a different kind of blending and composition from the one employed by the advertising photography? Why not reveal that under the form of every object, a form which corresponds with its function, lies hidden another, grotesque form, the form of a calligraph, a letter or a cipher; why not recapture this form with the help of plastic material? Why not try and find a new way of arranging things? An attempt at this had become my ‘arranged photography’.

 

One day, as I was working on this type of photography, I realised that my camera wouldn’t do anymore. It could not compete with the human eye. A brief shot of small objects, their image in black and white caught within a fraction of a second cannot capture the luminescence of these objects and their transformation under the effects of light, the shadows they throw according to the angle of our vision. I therefore resolved to fix the objects on with a glue; that is how my assemblages came to life [3].

 

Prague 1968

Translated from the Czech by Jitka Martin

 

 

1. The following sentence in the Czech text is missing from the English translation: ‘They must be given a chance to manifest their existence in ways that are different from the more flattering image seen through the flawless optics of the photographic apparatus.’

 

2. From here on and for the rest of this paragraph, the wording in the Czech text differs: ‘One must ignore those who insist on the distinction between artistic and commercial photography. No one, not even photographers, can be indifferent to the daily deluge of advertising photographs. No one can resist their attractiveness, just as no one can avoid having to resist them, because they want to entice us with perfect faces and objects untarnished by the wear and tear of life; because they are not concerned with the demise of things; because they order and stage things in front of the camera according to rules that are too perfect and routine; because they work with multiplicity but are unable to play with it, unable to demonstrate its unexpected variations the way a mathematician, a composer of serial music or a poet would do with numbers, tones and words. And because these objects are more than merely functional, they also offer themselves as another kind of Gestalt, one that is grotesque, legible. If we look carefully we can catch a glimpse of a letter, a cipher, a mark that we can then arrange into ornaments, or enlarge or make smaller as we see fit.’

 

3. The conclusion of the Czech text is more open-ended: ‘So I stopped photographing and began gluing. Only for some time though, as the possibilities offered by photography were far too seductive for me to abandon it completely.’