March 31: Forgetting

Date #31March 31: The photographer who vanished.

Karel Hájek (*1900), journalist, photographer and typographer died on this date in 1978 in Prague in Czech Republic, but before that he disappeared from a photograph, victim of his country’s political volatility.

Klement Gottwald, Chairman of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and Prime Minister of the Czechoslovak Goverment Speaking to the Participants of the Historical Meeting in the Old-Town Square In Prague On Feb. 21, 1948.

The man in the picture at right is Klement Gottwald who, after the banning of the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia, had emigrated to the Soviet Union in November 1938. During the war, Soviet leadership saw opposition to Fascism as an opportunity for them in Czechoslovakia and in 1943 Gottwald agreed with President Edvard Beneš of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile located in London to unify domestic and foreign anti-fascist resistance and form the National Front. This was the opportunity that would help secure Communist influence in post-war Czechoslovakia through a coup organised with clever machinations by Gottwald who created a crisis which saw non-communist ministers and President Edvard Beneš resign, and Gottwald, in accordance with the 1920 Constitution, formally elected as President on 14 June 1948.

He nationalised industry and collectivised farms despite considerable resistance to Soviet influence within the government to which Gottwald respond with brutal purges, first to remove non-communists, later to remove some communists as well, including Foreign Minister Vladimír Clementis and Gustáv Husák (the leader of an administrative body responsible for Slovakia), who was dismissed from office for “bourgeois nationalism” and jailed. He was rehabilitated in the 1960s and became the leader of Czechoslovakia in 1969.

The photograph is from 21 February 1948 and Milan Kundera describes it in his magic realist The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, recording how Foreign Minister Vladimír Clementis, who stands next to Gottwald on the left, gave Gottwald his fur hat because it was cold. When Clementis was charged in 1950, then executed on 3 December 1952, his face was erased from the photograph, and photographer Karel Hájek obliterated completely, by the state propaganda department. For Kundera, the episode serves as an example of forgetting in history.

Is it because the retouching was made easier by the erasure of Hájek the photographer, since he is just in the way, or because of his beliefs?

On 13 June 1950 the Interior Ministry seized 80,000 of Hájek’s negatives, his entire life’s work, from his apartment and loaded them into a truck. Prior to the seizure a search of the apartment was made in Hájek’s absence and without the permission of the prosecutor, but witnessed by his wife, the dancer Slávka Procházková, who was ordered to maintain silence with the promise that after examination for politically sensitive materials everything would be given back.

Hájek had moved to Sokol to work from 1918-1926 as a tram driver during which, around 1920, he began to photograph the city from his tram cab using his 9x12cm plate camera, as well as enthusiastically recording his family life with his first wife Vlasta. By 1925, now equipped with a Rolleiflex he had become prominent in the Czech Amateur Photographers Club and began having his work published in tramway publications and picture magazines including international editions.

Hajek minerIn 1932 he was the first to join the Union of Czechoslovak reporters when he became a reporter for newspaper and magazine publisher Melantrich, working under the name Lesík, photographing industry, agriculture, sport, socio-cultural events and politics and portraying actors, painters, writers, musicians and statesmen including President TG Masaryk. His greatest scoop was to cover a mining disaster, though in the process he fell from a roof and smashed his elbow and his Rollei.

Karel Hájek Demonstrace proti fašismu na filosofické fakultě 1936
Karel Hájek (1936) student demonstration against Fascism.

His first comprehensive solo exhibition in Prague in 1935, with a catalogue by Jiri Trnka attracts thirty thousand spectators, after which he travels to to Turkey, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania and Austria.


During 1936-1939 he was producing up to ten daily reports and was a central figure of Czech photographic reportage whose reputation attracts Pavel Barchan, commercial director of the American magazine LIFE and the owner of a Paris picture agency who engages him in April 1939 as a LIFE magazine reporter, for which he delivered reports on the Sokol meeting (1938) Pardubice races, funeral of President Masaryk, the Carpathian government headed by Voloshin and the first meeting of the Slovak parliament.

On 15 March 1939, the Ides of March, he positioned himself on the platform of the traffic policeman in Prague’s central Wenceslas Square to photograph the arrival of the German occupying forces, immediately sending the negatives to LIFE. The pictures are credited worldwide to news agency ČTK, rather than to him.


Throughout the war he continues to produce photo reportage which was published in the Czech weekly magazine Pestrý týden (Colour Weekly) which after the war became Svět v obrazech (The World in Pictures). In 1944 his brother John was arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned in České Budějovice, Tabor and Theresienstadt.

Karel Hájek Po výslechu gestapa 1944
Karel Hájek (1944) Po výslechu gestapa (After Interrogation by the Gestapo)

On 4 May 1945 he photographs the Prague revolution from a studio apartment on the 1st floor with an excellent view and has it immediately processed by a photographer on Old Town Square. Arrested and taken to Gestapo headquarters, Hájek is able to avoid imprisonment by showing he is a LIFE reporter. After the war, he is the only Czech reporter able to photograph the court proceedings of the Nuremberg trails and continues with a series for The World in Pictures on human characteristics and emotions (laughing, crying, hands, sleeping).

Karel Hájek U bunkru 1939
Karel Hájek (1939) Children playing ball against a bunker.

Up until his retirement in 1963 his photographs of collective farms and industry and his travels in Bohemia, Moravia, Slovak and abroad are tendentiously pro-communist, sufficiently so that he received an award for outstanding work from the President of the Republic. Nevertheless, his attempts in 1958 and 1960 to retrieve his seized archive failed.

His work won international awards at Photokina and the Chicago photo salon, he held his second comprehensive exhibition in Prague tours Brno, Ostrava, Karlovy Vary, Martinique, Bulgaria and Germany and published his book “Hunting Beauty”, promoting the idea of hunting without guns.


However it was only in 1965, after greater recognition brought an invitation to lecture at the Vienna school of photography and after his solo exhibition toured South America, that the Interior Ministry finally returned about 16,000 of his negatives, and in the next year he was anointed ‘deserving artist’.


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