The mysterious vocation of the poet-photographer from Prague

Josef Sudek (1896-1976), known as the “Poet of Prague”, lost his right arm in World War I and, during a 65-year vocation, wandered the streets of his hometown beloved, taking evocative photographs of cathedrals, deserted plazas, and her own gloriously cluttered studio.

“Josef Sudek, Poet of Prague: The Life of a Photographer” (1990), by Anna Fárová, tells much of the story. Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, Sudek began experimenting with a simple camera in his late teens.

Of the World War I incident that marked his life, he wrote: “I lost my arm in the Eleventh Offensive…as we were loading our own artillery we started shelling each other through the back… I felt like a rock had hit me in the right shoulder. . I started to look around but all the guys that were up were now dead. I crawled to our own lines, and as I got into a dugout, I slipped and it started to hurt. Then I lost consciousness. »

After several unsuccessful operations, doctors were forced to amputate. Fárová notes, “It is easy to speculate, impossible to know how hurtful the loss was to his psyche, its effect on his art and his physical sense. He is not known to have had any romantic attachments in his life, he never married.

Back in Prague, he was accepted at the brand new school of graphic arts. He graduated in 1924, with a solid technical and economic foundation in photography.

Nevertheless, his views were controversial. He claimed, for example, never to use a light meter and insisted that photography cannot be an art “because it depends on things that exist without it and outside of it, that is- i.e. the world around us”.

But what a world. And with what beauty, care and love Sudek recorded it. “Luminous”, “mysterious”, “spellbinding”, “ethereal”, “otherworldly”, “timeless” and “romantic” are some of the words regularly applied to his work.

He started contributing to his work internationally, traveling and even achieving a certain level of fame.

But in 1926, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra invited him to accompany them on tour. Traveling in the Italian boot, he later wrote: “One day we came to this place – I must have disappeared in the middle of a concert; in the dark I got lost but I had to search. Far from the city towards dawn, in the fields bathed in the morning dew, I finally found the place. But my arm was not there, only the poor peasant farm was still standing in its place. They took me there the day I was shot in the right arm. They could never put it back together again. »

He had dreamed of finding his lost arm, and he couldn’t. He disappeared for two months: no one ever knew where, although his worried family and friends called the police. He finally resurfaces in Prague. “From then on,” he reported much later, “I haven’t gone anywhere and never will.”

He would never go anywhere else and yet in Prague he had found his vocation and his destiny.

He rented a small studio at the back of an old building at the foot of Petřín Hill, which he filled with records, paintings, statues and drawings, and where he would live for the next 30 years.

His personality was strong, brusque and in many ways contradictory. He haggled ruthlessly with creditors, tax advisers and patrons, often falsely crying out for poverty. He also supported his mother and sister and often gave extravagant sums of money to friends, charities and the poor.

His patience was legendary. He sometimes waited weeks or months to print a negative and took four years, from 1924 to 1928, to produce an album of 15 photos of Saint Vitus Cathedral: “a whole kingdom of light and shadow”, as he described it.

The photographer’s restored studio in Prague. (Wikimedia Commons)

In his studio, described by a friend as “a spooky mess”, Sudek had friends over for classical music evenings selected from his collection of gramophone records, stared through rain-streaked windows in his small garden and composed still lifes: a single pear on a striped white plate, a white rose in a thick-stemmed glass, a broken eggshell on the windowsill.

In 1940 he discovered contact prints and began lugging around a heavy camera, propping it up on his lap and sometimes using his teeth to help operate it. He published a collection called “Prague Panoramas”. His subjects included ruined estates, cemeteries, gardens, statuary. Paved squares, slippery with rain, at dusk. Blurry characters, in overcoats and hats, huddled under a tree in conversation. Secret, snow-covered eaves visible only to birds. Carriage lamps at dusk. Lampposts strung like a necklace along the river.

He finally moved to another studio (now open to the public as a museum), a former jewelry store where he spent his years, dying at 80 and leaving 16 books of photographs.

“What would I be looking for if I couldn’t find what I wanted to find?” he once wrote of his work.

What we are all looking for: our truest, whole selves, lost in the Garden of Eden. And to be found — after the Resurrection.

Berta D. Wells