Josef Sudek at the AGO

Last Friday, I actually had a noon hour where I wasn’t working on a deadline and didn’t need to eat lunch at work. What a rare treat! The Art Gallery of Ontario was a 10 minute walk away and a Josef Sudek exhibit called The Legacy of a Deeper Vision had recently opened, so I checked it out.

Imagine what it would be like to live and work as a photographer in one place for your entire life. This is so foreign to modern life where we travel the world in search of fresh subject matter, often ignoring subject matter right in front of our eyes. Yet, Sudek lived and worked in Prague for nearly 60 years. Many of his photographs are either taken inside his studio or from his studio. Furthermore, imagine what it would be like to be a one-armed photographer! Think about the challenge of carrying a heavy camera and tripod around, fiddling with plates and adjustments and then developing and printing with only your left arm. Sudek was wounded in the first world war and lost his right arm. Yet, he preferred to work by himself and lugged a large-format camera around Prague for many years.

Sudek practised his art in the formative years of photography and experimented with many types of genres, cameras,  films and papers.  Many of his early works tend to be landscapes taken around the city. He seems to have a special affinity for trees, particularly in winter, where the gnarly branches in wet or snowy weather offer up interesting shapes and contrast with the solid, stone block buildings of the city. My favourite early works were photographs taken of a tree outside his studio window. The tree traces a graceful S-curve and he uses it as a subject in all lights and weather conditions. He shows the tree through an open window, obscured by a misted window and through rainy streaks. You can sense his mood as he sat by himself in the studio, listening to his classical music collection, watching the rain or sleet and contemplating the form of this tree, his tree. Of course, one of the reasons for his introspection was the tramp of Nazi boots outside his studio. It wasn’t safe to take photographs outside in his city, so he had to focus inwardly.

The Tree Outside Sudek’s Studio

Here is an excellent short video that shows some of his work. You’ll see his images of trees and many of his simple still life images taken in his studio. He was obsessed with light and his still life photos often feature glass with the reflections that seemed to fascinate him. He also seemed fascinated with simple shapes and used eggs extensively. Sudek also was fascinated with St. Vitus’s Cathedral in Prague. He took many photographs of this iconic building, often behind the scenes, showing ropes and tools for maintenance of the church. Many of the images show the light beams shining in from the cathedral windows.

Later in his career, he put together inventive series of photographs that he called Labyrinths. He used odds and ends from his studio, like a guilded mirror, sheets of glass and shells. He created light puzzles with these arrangements that the viewer must decode.

At one point in his career, he discovered an old Kodak panorama camera, made in the early 20th century. This camera works on long strips of film. The lens travels on an arc, taking a panorama over a 180 degree swing. Using this camera, Sudek wandered around Prague taking marvellous pictures for about three years. These photos were taken in the mid-fifties and document an east bloc city in the midst of the Soviet era. Sudek shows a great command of geometry in the images, with intersecting lines dominating many of the frames.

Kodak Panoram Camera

A Sudek Panorama

These panoramas were some of my favourite images in the show.

There are many books of Sudek’s work. He was quite prolific. I purchased Josef Sudek, The Legacy of a Deeper Vision, published by Hirmer. It is an excellent survey of Sudek’s work and a close match of the images in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s exhibit. The exhibit features 175 photos, mostly contact print from large format cameras, gleaned from the AGO’s collection of nearly 1,000 Sudek prints donated to the gallery. Maia-Mari Sutnik is the curator of Special Photography Projects (talk about a dream job!) at the AGO and put the exhibit together. She also edited the book. The book is quite large (12 inches high by 9 inches wide) and the quality is very good. There are several very helpful essays that explain his work and give some background on his life.


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