Sunday, June 22, 2008

Josef Sudek Volume 1: The Window of My Studio

I owe my readers a small apology as the postings this month have been few and far between. I've just had too much on my plate these past weeks to dedicate the time and energy to writing as frequently as I have in the past. I also figure I can occasionally let your bank account catch up especially after tax season but that is a poor excuse.

After a couple postings on Josef Koudelka I thought it appropriate to stay in Prague and mention its photographic poet, Josef Sudek. A new multi-volume series of books from Torst collects his works under the titles of: The Window of My Studio, Portraits, Still Lifes, Advertisements, Saint Vitus's Cathedral, The Ancient Forest of the Beskids, Rothmayer's Garden, and Labyrinths.

Sudek had a small studio with a courtyard in Malá Strana, Prague and it was the views through it's windows that provided Sudek with decades worth of subject matter. The first volume in this series, The Window of My Studio presents 76 photographs made over the longest period of the artist's life from 1940 until his death in 1976.

For Sudek, the window didn't just provide a source of inspiration for photographs but it was also a refuge of sorts. Through the German occupation of Czechoslovakia during Second World War and later under the Communist regime, the window -- as Anna Farova mentions in her essay accompanying this book -- became "a source of reassurance" for Sudek. It was a metaphoric link of outer and inner worlds and seemed to represent both the stillness of those times and the subtle changes that occurred in those fixed frames.

When seen within this context, the viewer tends to overlook the repetition to the frames and instead concentrate on the varying degrees of distortion that the frost and water on the panes of glass creates. The "mourning tree" that sits just outside in the courtyard in turn becomes a maimed stand-in for Sudek and gives reference to Sudek's loss of his arm while serving the Hungarian army during the First World War. Awkwardly angular, the trunk of the tree zigzags upward until it releases into a shock of off-shooting branches that quickly defies order.

The other window in the studio looks out on a block of apartments which brings an element of the city to this series. The glow from lights in the apartment widows outside of Sudek's inner world becomes a source of beauty with the approach of evening. This far-away window light gets scattered and refracted through the droplets of moisture and turns into ill-defined highlights that ornament the darkened frames.

The Window of My Studio has a design that feels at times more like that of a catalog than a true showcase for the work. It plods along with some wonderful pairings and other spreads that fight the flow of the book. The other difficulty here is with the reproductions. Although some get very fine treatment, others do not fair very well. I think this is due to the publisher attempting to mimic the color tonalities of Sudek's carbon prints, along with a poor choice of paper stock. To be fair, this is a common difficulty with many books of his work other than the older titles that were printed in luscious gravure.

Although I am at odds with some of the design and production, this series of books shows promise in presenting a complete study of Sudek’s work much like the Harry N. Abrams box-set did for August Sander a few years back. That set isn’t without its flaws either but it has become a source that I feel I couldn't do without. By the end of this series on Sudek -- that feeling may be very similar.


Book Available Here (Window of My Studio)

Book Available Here (Portraits)

Book Available Here (Still Lifes)

Book Available Here (Ancient Forest of the Beskids)

Book Available Here (Advertisements)


Jan V said...

We all tought you were lounging om some southern beach...

I agree with you that most publishers and / or printers seem to have difficulties with reprodrucing Sudek's work. I think I have about 6 or 7 books on - or by - Sudek an all are very different. Really ugly is the Aperture-publication dating from the late eighties, I think. Not to bad is the Keyahoff-publication (a large folio). Altough some of his smaller photos are reproduced much to large.

But as a book you can't beat his 1956 monograph. About 10 years back I was able to find it for a very reasonable price. Content, printing and - very important - the format make it one of the top 5 books in my library.

Still I'am wondering how some of his photos look like in reality. Now it's sometimes a bit like seeing Stieglitz photogravures printed on newspaper.

robert said...

a true master of images worthy of significant and triumphant PRAISE !!

Dan Otranto said...

I saw about 100 of his pictures at the Boston MFA a couple years back and they were probably the nicest, most beautiful prints Ive ever seen. I believe they were mostly contact prints of various sizes, Sudeks pictures of his workshop and window and back yard were just amazing.