September 30: We find it hard to look away from images of sex, birth, murder, death and madness, the more so because we still regard them as forbidden, or forbidding.
In a post a year ago I discussed an infamous photograph of an execution, that of murderer Ruth Snyder, at Sing Sing Prison on 12 January 1928, by press photographer Tom Howard (1893–1961.
Pavel Jasanský was born on this date in 1938 in Prague and is a Czech photographer, graphic designer and sculptor who thrives on his curiosity about the extremes of existence. Reluctantly, coerced by his father, he studied geology at the Faculty of Science of the Charles University in Prague and concurrently devoted himself to ceramics and painting;
I wanted to study art. I must say that when I went to one of the art schools, I realised it wouldn’t be the right place for me. So I gave up studying geology but it wasn’t easy to quit in those days due to the so-called location prescripts which meant that after you graduated you had to get a job for three years anywhere in the country where the communists sent you. They sent me to the mountains in Krusné hory [The ‘Ore Mountains’ on the NW Czech border with Germany, where the annual temperature average is 3ºC] and I thought I’d go crazy. I desperately wanted to leave the school so I stopped studying completely.
He was the head of the press department in public relations at Strojexport, a firm founded in Communist Czechoslovakia on 1 October 1953 as one of the foreign trade enterprises (PZO).
He then worked as graphic designer/photographer at Divoké víno (‘Wild Wine’), a literary magazine that was published in 1964-1971 and promoted Czech writers and poets for whom he also designed and illustrated books and pamphlets. These include photographs for an article on the greatest of the country’s poets Bohuslav Reynek (1892–1971) in old age.
His first large series, mostly street photography, was made in Paris in 1967/8 when he was twenty-nine, preceding, or following in the footsteps of other Czech photographers who flocked to the city including Jaroslav Rössler, Miroslav Hucka, Jan Ságl, Pavel Dias, or František Dostáland. He visited again in the 70s;
This first trip (1967) was better. I enjoyed it better, I stayed with some Armenians, which was great.
There, shooting with a 28mm lens or wider, his graphic sensibility guides him to the odd and surreal. The imagery is distinctly Czech, in contrast to the humanist vision of those working in The City of Light in the 1950s.
His street photography continues throughout his career with observations on our dependence on media (though unfortunately those not published in Divoké Víno are difficult to date).
Jasanský was devoted to documentary photography from the 1960s, with his main subjects being the extremes of society and of life and which included minorities such as the disabled or mentally ill, women in childbirth, old age and pain, our relation to death, the environment and the tension between man and technology.
He made several series on the mentally ill, visiting asylums and old people’s homes in the highlands and at Krásná Lípa
Thanks to a friend of mine I was able to visit an old people’s home for the mentally disturbed people. We used to go there regularly and spend the whole day there including holidays including Christmas, and I was allowed to take photos freely there.
None of the subjects’ distress is visible in these environmental portraits of these patients and residents in their institutional surroundings. A sense of camaraderie and fellow-feeling extends from the camera to the subject, who responds openly. Much has gone on before the picture was taken to ease the tension of an outside intrusion into their lives, and this can be read as an attitude that Jasanský possessed to his advantage as a photographer, that and a fearless sense of adventure that took him also to America for a month in 1991 (he was by then 53 and well practiced). There his enjoyment of photographing the disabled, both adults and children is evident in these quotations;
I could concentrate there on themes that interested me as you can see in the photos. I was allowed to visit the disable children in their families and I also took many photos at Berkeley University.
I visited them in their homes and mainly saw them during different activities. They were really very active, did exercises, played basketball for example. I used to visit them, which was great and I took photos of this little girl who wasn’t disabled.
I spent one month in America. They told me that when there was a demonstration disabled people, mostly in wheelchairs, are treated the same way as healthy people and that’s why you can see them in the first line during demonstrations and policemen hit them with truncheons the same as everyone else.
He spent some time producing a series on the Olsany cemetery in Prague;
I concentrated on the most devastated part, the part closer to the centre. There was an exhibition of those photos which I think wasn’t bad.
That part of the cemetery which I’m talking about, had its own special life. It was inhabited by the homeless but also by people from East Germany who use to come to Prague for the weekend and stay overnight in the tombs. Well, they are like tiny houses… I quite enjoyed working there, it was a nice change.
During the 70s, Jasanský was much sought as a photographer of stars in all types of music, classical, jazz and popular, whom he has sign the margin of his black-and-white prints.
Quite early in his career after producing a surreal documentation of a carnival in the 60s, he had become the photographer for Viola Theatre founded by George Ostermann in 1963 in Prague, which housed a jazz lounge. Jasanský produced posters for them for over 25 years, and his pictures are reproduced with those of Viktor Kronbauer in Miluše Viklická’s 2002 book Divadlo Viola – 40 sezon (‘Viola Theater – 40 seasons’).
However, he feared that this specialisation, photographing for Supraphone record company, was distracting him from the work he loved, producing stories ‘on spec’, developing documentary projects for himself.
…I soon realised it wasn’t possible to continue in that way otherwise everyone would think of me just as a photographer of celebrities. But to be honest, there were a few advantages. First of all, I got a chance to travel abroad with them, which wasn’t easy in those day, to Cuba or Siberia. I met all those singers – Vsek Neckar, Zich, Cernoch, Zelenkova, Zagorova and many others. But then I felt it wasn’t the right thing and I gave it all up. I apologised to them all, including the company Supraphon.
During the eighties, Jasanský ramped up his already frenetic activity still further, branching into avant-garde installation work, film and video, and one of the first multimedia installations in the Czech republic, which combines large-scale photographs painting, and life-size figures.
…it forms a separate space, which reminds us of a kind of painted chapel in the middle of which there is a life-sized figure sitting on a chair, with a monitor in front instead of a head, showing a film made in the locations shown in the paintings. A video projector is hidden in the box, showing a nine-minute film on a black-and-white screen, which I shot together with Honza Vanis, called The Viewer.
Bodies initially originated as photographs of movement [by] a pair of talented dancers. At home in the basement I created an improvised scene made of hardboard with a tile imitation of 5×3,5 m including the floor. I initially photographed a couple, then added others: professional and casual actors who were willing to work naked.
To the finished photographic images I then added Chinese ink or black cement that I myself mixed. Although the resulting images are interpreted differently, I was particularly interested in highlighting the efforts of individuals and the whole group. I tried to strengthen through brush strokes aggressiveness within the group or, on the other hand, its coherence, which is evident in the photos.
The series Pyramids of 1986 derives from and extends on the installation work. It is a set of four photographs now in the collection of the Olomouc museum, a collage with human figures and the background of all four is the same;
The allegory of interpersonal relationships, especially careerism, can be considered a smaller cycle of the Pyramid , which is actually a collage of many “bodies” created earlier.
The figures climb over each other in order to get to higher, as far as the parliament for instance.
The chaos of climbing, fighting male and female figures, overpainted in an ‘actionist’ expressionist style not dissimilar to contemporaneous work of Austrian Arnulf Rainer (*1929), is held in check by the grid pattern of their background. It is a pattern that harks back to the institutional interiors of the maternity hospital delivery room and the asylums in which a similar high drama of emotion is being played out.
The sequence Car deals with the same theme of consumer aspirations and ambition against the background of post Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia.
Without directly documenting violence, Pavel Jasanský presents a compassionate account of the extremes of human existence. Though it is held in collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris; The Art Institute of Chicago; Museet for Fotokunst Brands Klaedefabrik, Odense; International Centre for Photography New York; Ludwig Museum, Cologne; and the Musée Nicéphore Niépce, Chalon-Sur-Soane, his work remains largely unseen beyond Czechoslovakia.
During a major retrospective at Galerii U Bílého jednorožce (White Unicorn Gallery), Klatovy, in February 2009, Jasanský, then aged seventy-one, was asked by critic Jiří Zahradnický about his attitude to digital imaging;
…as a graphic artist for years, I got to computers relatively early. Many years ago, I had a simple computer and tried to make graphic designs on it. In the mid-1990s, when I was conducting a multimedia production course at Prague’s FAMU, the computer was becoming a regular tool for students as well. I do not use the digital camera…[he explains that the images for the exhibition were scanned for printing]…most of my photos were made with Nikon and Contax…and Technoram 6×12 cm. The joy of taking pictures, as you can see, has not left me yet.
Jasanský’s energetic, wide-ranging practice, independence of thought and adventurous experimentation deserves much better attention!