The Alphabet of Things
Karel Císař

In a rare self-reflective statement written in 1968, Běla Kolářová looks back on a key moment in her artistic career, describing how in early 1961 she came across a statement claiming that the entire world had already been photographed [1]. This proved to be a turning point in her career, as it encouraged her to concentrate on small functional objects – a world which, up to that point, had been largely neglected by photography.


At the same time it could be argued that several of the “street photographs” from her 1957 series ‘Children’s Games’ foreshadow this interest in what I propose to call ‘the marginal’. Turning her attention to the “peripheral” subject of children from the suburbs, Kolářová carefully avoids Cartier- Bresson’s logic of climax, and instead brings into focus the invisible correlations between time and space, trajectory and distance, speed and rhythm. When comparing for instance the photograph of children skipping with a rope (fig. 1) to a photogram from her series of ‘Radiograms of Circles’ (1962–63) (fig. 2) a striking formal similarity between these two seemingly unrelated works emerges: both the “documentary” and the “abstract” image foreground the trajectory of an unfinished movement. For this very reason, they ultimately resist any categorisation by genre, while simultaneously challenging the assumed stability of the visual world. Both photographs are “documentary” insofar as they are “authentic” recordings of the real world, but their underlying formal principles transform them into “abstract” images that reveal its hidden aspects. By presenting abstraction as the flipside of social documentary photography, principles transform them into “abstract” images that reveal its hidden aspects. By presenting abstraction as the flipside of social documentary photography, Kolářová’s works from the sixties revive a central concern of the modernist project of a New Vision [2], which explains their relevance in today’s debates on the critical potential of photographic abstraction [3].


The affinity between Kolářová’s work and New Vision manifests itself in the choice of subject matters and means of expression, but also – and more importantly maybe – in its intention to revolutionise human perception. Kolářová writes that if ‘the entire world has been photographed’ and we must forever ask ourselves if everything we see has already been seen by someone else, then we need to turn our attention to the things we have so far excluded from our conscious perception. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we only take note of these ‘small things, indispensable for our life yet taken for granted’ when they are about to disappear or no longer fulfil their purpose; for it is only when ‘pages from newspapers and magazines only briefly scanned’, ‘a ticket after a completed journey or a piece of wrapping paper from a sweet we’ve just eaten’ become the ‘litter of nature and civilisation’ that they attract our attention.


But Kolářová went beyond the precepts of New Vision in that she never sought to radicalise perception by solely substituting the human eye with the superlative eye of the camera: ‘Clearly, they [these petty objects] need to be recorded in a different way which takes the greatest advantage of their insignificance, of their ragged, torn and used up condition. Their diversity and quaint forms should yield something more than [the] eye can guess at or [the] camera register.’ This reflection led her to develop the 'artificial negatives' created by either inserting organic matter or small everyday objects between sheets of cellophane or stamping them into a layer of soft wax applied onto the surface of the celluloid. These handmade photographic negatives resemble some kind of modern clicheÅLs-verre, in which potato peelings, onion skins, impressions of poppy seeds or nutmegs appear on a translucent surface.


Kolářová’s artificial negatives are closely related to George Brassaï’s ‘Involuntary Sculptures’, which first appeared in print in an issue of the Surrealist journal Minotaure in 1933 (fig. 3, see next page) [4]. Both open up a path towards an intensified experience of form, but rather than mere optical representations of objects, they are near-haptic incarnations of their morphology and texture, which are offered up for our intimate contemplation. The weave of a piece of cloth or the veins on a leaf in Kolářová’s artificial negatives and resulting photograms transcend the boundaries between the organic and the inorganic. Echoing Rosalind Krauss’s deconstructivist reading of Brassaï’s work, they are not so much ‘interpretations of reality’ than ‘presentations of that very reality as configured, or coded, or written’, [5] making visible ‘the automatic writing of the world’ [6]. In Georges Didi-Huberman’s anthropological conception, Brassaï’s ‘Invisible Sculptures’ ‘constitute a repertory of forms emerging directly from involuntary, or rather automatic, contact’ [7] and the artist ‘bears testimony to the most unwitting of gestures, the most tenacious of contacts, the most secret of organic movements’ [8]. When following these two lines of thought, one is constantly surprised by the resolve with which Kolářová’s work retraces the path of interwar avant-garde photography, sharing many of its formal qualities but also such iconic motifs as “the expired ticket”, epitomised by Brassaï’' Involuntary Sculpture (Rolled Bus Ticket) from 1932 [9].


Among her works inviting a deconstructivist reading are those based on a repetitive accumulation of elements such as poppy seeds, bits of steel wool or bristles, and those based on textured materials such as potato peelings or onion skins. The resulting forms are organised configurations, their meaning determined by syntax – exactly as in written language. It is therefore no coincidence that some of the titles of these works, such as Signs or Unknown Writing, refer explicitly to language. The syntactic effect is further emphasised by the use of a grid, achieved through the use of paraffin or varnish, which maintains the separate fragments in a state of exteriority to each other [10].

However, the strongest incentive for a deconstructivist approach is provided by the dual nature of her artificial negatives, which act simultaneously as matrices for the production of positive photographic copies and as originals in their own right. Kolářová thus calls into question the boundaries between the organic and the inorganic, the original and the copy, the positive and the negative. The idea that syntax is understood here in both its spatial and temporal sense is perhaps best demonstrated by the fragments of a wristwatch in Expanded Time (1961) (fig. 4), which are separated from each other in space and time since they cannot be grasped all at once. Moreover, as ‘litter of nature and civilisation’, they are the residue of a past process – one that has already taken place and is only implicitly present in the image.


This brings us to the concept of an anthropology of the image as the second strategy with which I propose to apprehend Kolářová’s work. Besides Expanded Time the most interesting works for this analysis are Unravelled Threads (see plate 7) and Shards of Glass (all from 1961), because they represent objects that have been broken up into pieces while pointing to the cause of their destruction: the loose threads indicate the disintegration of a piece of fabric they once held together, and the shards evoke the shattering of a sheet of glass – just as Brassaï’s expired ticket points to its own obsolescence as much as to the “automatic” action of the hand crumpling it up in the depths of a pocket. In all these examples, viewers are shown only the remnants of objects which, rather than being represented (mediated), are presented in their literal meaning. They are ‘contact images’ (Didi-Huberman) – images which, in the understanding of an anthropology of the image, are symptoms of unconscious human activity [11]. Particularly significant here are the cogs and springs of the wristwatch in Expanded Time, as they demonstrate the inherent link between the processes of destruction and knowledge: if we want to know how the measurement of time works, we have to dismantle and destroy the watch; even so, the resulting conglomeration of individual parts will provide a glimpse of the original configuration. Broadly speaking, Kolářová’s work brings to the fore the relationship between a contingent aggregate of fragments and the necessary synthesis of parts, while pointing out the possibility of a seamless transition from one to the other.


We can ascertain that Kolářová was aware of this relationship from the fact that the common denominator in her work is the reversibility of order and disorder. The premises of her work must therefore be sought even before Brassaï, possibly in Karl Blossfeldt’s photographic portfolio ‘Art Forms in Nature’ (1928). Like Brassaï, Kolářová shares with Blossfeldt an interest in the microscopic details of photographic enlargements, which she uses to shatter our confidence in the visual world. Kolářová and Blossfeldt also have in common the project of a sprawling visual atlas that puts the transitions between organisation and disorganisation in a wider context. From the photographs of Kolářová’s first solo exhibition in 1966 at Galerie na Karlově náměstí in Prague it appears that many of her works were presented as diptychs or groups whose meaning derived equally from the works’ individual (inner) syntax and the larger (outer) structure of the series or sequences thus created. This arrangement reflects both Blossfeldt’s atlas and the work of many conceptual artists from the sixties, [12] while also highlighting Kolářová’s interest in the kaleidoscopic nature of morphogenesis and in the dialectical relationship between form emerging from formlessness and objects collapsing onto themselves.


The apparent disorganisation of Kolářová’s artificial negatives finds a counterpoint in her arranged photographs and assemblages of objects such as metal shavings, safety pins, snap fasteners and paper clips, in which the syntax is developed into ‘Swatches’ and ‘Alphabets of Things’. The former, among which Razor Blade (1969) and Big Fastener (1971), use geometrical grids to link “patterns” of identical objects, and sometimes refer to the isomorphic relationship between the part and the whole (see plates 34, 35). The latter, on the other hand, comprise dissimilar items whose shapes are reminiscent of the letters in a children’s ABC (see plate 18). As with the artificial negatives, the blank – the gap between the signs – is a constitutive element of meaning: while sometimes acting as mere punctuation between graphemes, in From A to B (1963) (see plate 19), it represents the gap to be bridged between the first and the last vowel of the alphabet. As further evidenced by works such as Safety Pin (1963) and the later photograms from the ‘Fragmented Time’ series, obtained by shifting objects under the enlarger, Kolářová considered the alphabet not as a set of static units with stable meaning, but as a series of dynamic elements which constitute meaning through constant rearranging.


The series of ‘Radiograms of Circles’, which can be seen as a culmination of the artist’s work, represents a kind of middle ground between her artificial negatives and her later arranged photographs and assemblages. Like the artificial negatives, the ‘light drawings’ in this series aim to reveal the secret nature of things without resorting to the use of a camera; like the arranged photographs, they let order emerge from chaos. By dispensing with the material object altogether and instead capturing the movement of light, Kolářová achieved complete autonomy for her works and created what she called ‘absolute photography’. In order to fixate the moving light, she channelled it through a sieve or a perforated metal plate and projected it onto a sheet of photographic paper rotating at a steady speed.


Having exhausted the possibilities of “street photography”, which invariably entailed some form of posing (the shot of children skipping the rope being an exception insofar as it depicts a trajectory), she chose the laboratory-like environment of the darkroom and took complete control over the image. Yet by doing so, she did not abandon her preoccupations with the concept of marginality as evidenced by her documentary work; rather, I would suggest that her use of essentially anachronistic techniques reflects a fundamentally political concern with the marginal. As a photographer without a camera, as someone experimenting under largely adverse conditions with the suppressed techniques of the interwar avant-garde, and as a woman artist living in a satellite state of the Soviet Union, Kolářová was certainly aware that the margins are the sites of greatest intensity. For it is precisely from the margins – be it those of abstract light circles or those of society – that great, revolutionary things emerge.



Karel Císař is a writer, curator and assistant professor of aesthetics and art theory at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague.


Translated from the Czech by Martin Pokorný




1. Běla Kolářová, ‘One of the Ways’ [1968], in Běla Kolářová: Photographies 1956-1964 (Paris: Éditions Revue K, 1989). All subsequent citations are taken from the reprint of this source, which appears in the present volume on p. 11. The publication history of this text is reconstructed in the introductory note to the reprint.


2. See László Moholy-Nagy’s 1923 manifesto ‘Light: A Medium of Plastic Expression’, originally published in the magazine Broom, Vol. 4, and reprinted in Richard Kostelanetz (ed.), Moholy-Nagy (Praeger Publisher: New York, 1970), p. 117–8.

He outlines the various possibilities offered by modern (photographic) technology to capture the world in a way that the human eye cannot. Moholy-Nagy’s theories, which he further developed in The New Vision: From Material to Architecture (New York: Brewer, Warren and Putnam, 1932), influenced the manifold photographic experiments and innovations in the interwar period, from photojournalism and photomontage to camera-less photography, which would later be subsumed under the generic term ‘New Vision’.


3. See for instance George Baker, ‘Photography and Abstraction’, in Charlotte Cotton and Alex Klein (eds.), Words Without Pictures (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2009), p. 358–79.


4. Brassaï, ‘Sculptures involontaires’, Minotaure (Paris, 1933), No. 3–4, p. 68.


5. Rosalind Krauss, ‘Photographic Conditions of Surrealism’, in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1985), p. 113.


6. Ibid., p. 115.

 7. Georges Didi-Huberman, Ninfa moderna. Essai sur le drapé tombé (Paris: Gallimard, 2002), p. 121. [‘… constituent un repertoire de formes directement surgies de contacts involontaires ou, mieux, “automatiques” …’] 


8. Ibid., p. 123. [‘… porte témoignage des gestes les plus insus, des contacts les plus tenaces, des mouvements organiques les plus secrets …’]


9. Ibid., p. 122.


10. See Krauss, op. cit., p. 105: ‘Whether we think of syntax as temporal – as the pure succession of one word after another within the unreeling of the spoken sentence; or whether we think of it as spatial – as the serial progression of separate units on the printed page; syntax in either dimension reduces to the basic exteriority of one unit to another.’


11. See Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps. Histoire de l’art et anachronisme des images (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 2000). 


12. See for instance Mel Bochner, ‘The Serial Attitude’, Artforum, No. 6, 1967, p. 28–33