It’s heavy, but it’s worth it.
Maybe California isn’t the best place to house irreplaceable archives. The revelation that thousands of master tapes were destroyed in a fire on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood is just the most recently publicized West Coast loss to history; the renowned library of photobook editor and designer Manfred Heiting went up in smoke last year after the California wildfires. Which makes Czech and Slovak Photo Publications, 1918-1989 that much more valuable. Heiting’s latest doorstopper isn’t as focused as The Soviet Photobook, which covered propaganda publications released between 1920 and 1941. But while the selection may flag somewhat in terms of arresting visuals, this book provides a broader survey of a nation’s history.
Released last year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Czech Republic, the book’s breadth is a fascinating opportunity to compare publications made during wildly different political regimes. While the period from 1918-1939 was one of freedom, the country subsequently underwent four decades of oppression, from Nazi annexation to a communist regime, with a new era of freedom emerging in 1989.
Hence the book’s cut-off point; as Heiting explains in an interview with the British Journal of Photography, “In some way the photobooks published there after 1989 became like all Western photobooks, and lost most of their local identity and quality – they may have been made more for ‘us’ than for ‘them’.“
What made the Czech photobook so distinct? One factor was a thriving infrastructure thanks to expert printers like V. Neubert and Sons, who opened up shop in 1877. Photographer Josef Sudek (1896-1976), who gets his own chapter, is one of the best-known Czech photographers, and his mysterious images of the city and its people make him the equivalent of French chronicler Eugène Atget. If Atget’s subtly eerie work has a different tone, some of that can be attributed to another element that distinguishes the Czechs: the backdrop of Prague and its jagged, centuries-old architecture provides an old-world vista like no other European city.
The trouble is, because many of these publications rely on landscape and architectural photography, the reproductions of page spreads makes it harder to get a sense of their quality; this wasn’t as much of a problem with The Soviet Photobook, which documented a propaganda machine that, like a good comic strip artist, could get their message across even on a smaller scale.
Yet like all of the books in this series, Czech and Slovak Photo Publications captures the essence of its sources, even in miniature. The curious sense of humor particular to Czech art comes through in commercial publications like meat catalogues. And even in periods of repression, artful nudes with sensitive shading lent a dignity and elegance to exploitation. During World War II, publishers responded to Nazi occupation with more propaganda and war documentation, including horrific Holocaust journalism that brought atrocities to light. Photographer Zdeněk Tmej documented a labor camp in Poland, and found a terrible poetry in the assignment, which led to the landmark 1946 publication The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness.
After the war, the Czech Republic was the only country whose printing infrastructure remained intact; unfortunately, communism put an end to that. But even before the Prague Spring inspired ever more experimental, avant-garde approaches, photographers—and designers—made bold work. City guides, even of foreign locations, were a surprising source of invention, such as a New York guide released by Mladá fronta publishing house that put a distinctly alienated Czech spin on Gotham City. The 1960 tourism book Mariánské Lázně, with photographs by Erich Einhorn, is particularly dynamic thanks to design by Pravoslav Sovák, who printed black and white photos amid bright color blocks that made the destination that much more inviting.
From crimes against humanity to books about cats, Czech and Slovak Photo Publications is a survey not just of a nation’s image infrastructure, but of the full spectrum of experience. It’s heavy, but it’s worth it.