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The Mass Media

Josef Sudek: Miracle From Eastern Europe

Branded as one of the bloodiest periods in the history of humankind, the first half of the 20th century was dismal, especially for those living in Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe was an area of the globe that was marked by constant invasion, war, political upheaval, repression and death. However, in the midst of this dreary era existed a few miracles.

“Josef Sudek: Poet With a Camera” is an exhibit that captures one of these miracles and is on display at The Museum of Fine Arts Boston (MFA). The exhibit follows the life and work of Sudek and certainly provokes viewers into contemplating working against odds and triumphing obstacles. One could not walk away without noting this artist’s stunning will to overcome adversity.

The exhibit contains 78 of his photographs that he took in the five decades following his return from the First World War and also traces Sudek’s dramatic shift during the era of the Second World War. According to a press release, “With the political upheaval and repression that characterized Czech life during World War II…the photographer turned inward and began to photograph the private world of still life.”

His series titled “From the Window of My Studio” (1940-45) captures Sudek’s shift to his private, “withdrawn and frugal existence.” It was at this time that Sudek grew to love the beauty in simplicity, and his more famous photograph “Glasses and Eggs” (1952) defines this aloof period.

Josef Sudek was born in 1896 in Kolin, a small town just outside of Prague, in former Czechoslovakia. His father passed away when Sudek was only two years old. Soon after, Sudek’s mother moved the family to the town of Nove Dvory to live with relatives. Sudek is described as having been an indifferent student, but with a love for books nevertheless. This love drew him to choose bookbinding as a profession once he reached adulthood.

In 1915, a year into the First World War, Sudek was drafted into the army. He was stationed to serve in Italy a year later where he was tragically and mistakenly shot by a fellow soldier in the right arm. Surgery was performed to try and save the limb but proved unsuccessful and his arm was amputated.

Upon returning home after serving in war, Sudek met Jaromir Funke, a photographer. Photography was a hobby that Sudek developed before going to war. Remarkably, using only one hand and his teeth, Sudek carried around his bulky camera, tripod and film with his friend Funke and photographed Prague, and would soon be known as the celebrated “poet of Prague.” In the mid 1920s, Sudek and Funke traveled Europe, arriving to Italy in 1926 where memories of war, and the loss of his arm, were recalled, throwing Sudek into a period of grieving for those losses.

It was also at this time that Sudek performed a seemingly impossible task. Sudek ran across a broken Kodak 1894 panoramic camera. He had been long fascinated with panoramic photography. Determined, in spite of his handicap, he used his teeth to substitute his missing arm, and patched up the camera in addition to making his own film, as the camera was so old that Kodak was no longer making the particular model of camera that Sudek found. “Somehow, the fact that he had only one arm never seemed a handicap,” stated Sonja Bullaty, one of Sudek’s closest friends and former assistant. Sudek went on to photograph illustrious panoramic scenes of Prague. “A View of Prague Through Trees” is one of Sudek’s most haunting pieces, as he intentionally positioned the camera in a vertical position to bring the sky to the middle of the photograph, with trees coming out from the sides, making it appear as if the trees grew sideways. Much of Sudek’s panoramic photography appears in a landmark book titled “Prague Panoramas.”

For anyone who needs an inspirational pick-me-up, “Josef Sudek: Poet With a Camera” is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston until January 17th 2005 in the Trustman Galleries.