October 20: The self-taught and amateur photographer raises the question of whether it is possible, or necessary, to teach art.
Auto-didact photographer Karel Kašpařík, who died on this day in 1968 (born 1899) was for many decades known only to a small circle in Olomouc (a city in the eastern province of Moravia in the Czech Republic) and by his few photographs from the legendary Olomouc exhibition catalogues Photogroup 3 in 1935 and Photogroup 4 in Prague in the year of 1939.
Tonight, Friday, Oct 20, 7 – 11 pm, Urban Spree Gallery at Revaler Straße 99, 10245 Berlin, holds an opening reception tonight for Primitive Acids, the first German solo gallery show of the French experimental analog photographer Thomas Gosset a.k.a. Toums at which the artist will be present. Born in Bordeaux and sharing his time between France and Berlin, Toums is also self-taught and a comparison of the two photographers, prompted by this coincidence of date, joins in this post the ongoing question of the value of photographic education.
Kašpařík’s rediscovery is due largely to photohistorian Antonin Dufek (*1943) and his collaborators for their survey of his work Karel Kašpařík 1899–1968: Photographs from the collection of the Moravian Gallery in Brno, September 14–November 26, 2000, Olomouc Art Museum (and Brno: Moravian Gallery, 1999) that focused on the 30’s, the period of the formation of Kašpařík’s mingling of rational constructivist photos with documentary and surrealistic impulses.
Kašpařík became a member of a camera group, one of the many established at almost every industrial plant and ‘Palace of Culture’ throughout the Soviet Union, and similarly in the Central and Eastern European countries of the Communist Bloc. As Alise Tifentale points out, in late totalitarian society, these were places of a “cultural” pastime. Workers could access and learn the basics of photography between the mandatory lectures on Leninist ideology. In Kašpařík’s Czechoslovakia “the totalitarian period with its escape areas and unbelievable extent of free time made photography something of a national hobby”.
Czech photography as a result developed a muscular energy and vitality that is rare in the West and it well deserves the international attention that it is now receiving.
The leading avant-garde photographers, including Karel Kašpařík himself, Jiří Sever (1904–1968) and many others were self-educated, with minimal photographic training and no artistic education, and they did not make their living from photography. Most important for the politically safe dissemination and reproduction of their work was Fotografie, published in Czechoslovakia as a special edition in Russian for distribution within the Soviet Union. Its competitor Sovetskoe Foto, was propagandist. In Fotografie magazine could be found an amalgamation of Pictorialism, Surrealism, Bauhaus, Czech Avant-garde, and German postwar Subjektive Fotografie and reproduced nude photography in a manner ideologically acceptable for the Soviet regime.
Thus Karel Kašpařík brought to his candid images of the environment of Dolan the artistic avant-garde photography that he himself was encountering through his group and later through Jaroslav Nohel (1914-1977). His sympathetic images filled with visions of social justice are not merely descriptive but consistently creative and metaphorical.
This is manifest in Why, below, in which he deploys a dynamic, untraditional composition of diagonal line through a ‘dutch tilt’, and a view from above. One would hesitate to call this a portrait. The subject’s collars and dress form a geometric and patterned background, emphasising the symmetric qualities of soft features, leaving just the interaction between appraising eye and smiling mouth by which we might determine the meaning of the enigmatic expression.
His image of a woman working in the field is cropped so tightly that detail essential to our understanding of where she is and what she is doing is all but severed. What does remain; the calloused skin of her soles which are furrowed like the row she is working, the edge of the cheap material of her skirt, a beetle traversing the shadow of late sunlight on her left foot, and a newly planted seedlings which appear against the darker soil.
In the male counterpart, depicting the Labour of Capital or Vassal Kašpařík constructs angled positive and negative forms from sky and the weary bone and sinews of his subject, but leaves in the detail of worn, dust-clotted corduroy which betrays the man’s scrawny physique, and a glimpse of hoe handle in the worker’s bare, grubby fist.
Kašpařík was dubbed the ‘Jiří Wolker’ of Czech photography by his friend, the librarian and translator Otto František Babler (1901-1984) in Babler, O. F .: ‘Photographic art and photographers’. Index, 8. 1936, p. 3 .; of Encyclopedia of Czech and Slovak photographers, one of the few contemporary articles on Kašpařík. Jiří Wolker was a poet and national hero who died young, leaving verses crowded with the overtly poetic passion we witness in Kašpařík’s following untitled image, also from around 1935. Again the tilted frame reinforces the muscularity of this embrace and the tight cropping leaves no escape for the contrasting patterns of dress fabric, rye stalks and seeds, and unfurling cumulus.
The flatness and visual design supports Kašpařík’s closely observed and sympathetic social document of the disappearing peasantry in the country village in Dolan, near Olomouc, in which he spent his life. Images from this essay were included in Fotografie 1934-37 and issued in a book after the war entitled Dolansky Paradise. However he did not flinch from its harsh realities as the image of the postman’s suicide below will attest. He was also responsible later in his career for a number of portraits of celebrities of the Olomouc Theatre (including Natasha Gollová, Oldrich Stibor, and others) mostly through his theatre contacts.
There were interruptions to his career as a photographer which account for the scarcity of his prints. Having attended primary school in Hodolanech he then studied at business school, then at seventeen he joined the army and fought on the Italian front, where he was captured. After the war, he completed his studies at the Business Academy in Olomouc, where he graduated in the year.
From 1922-1949 he worked (with the exception of the years 1940-1945 during the German occupation, when he was interned in various prisons and concentration camps) as an official with the State Railways in Olomouc. After retirement he was inspector at the Auditorium Theatre Oldřicha Stibora.
The first collective exhibition of Avant-garde photography was not held in Prague, Brno or any other large city, but in 1928 and 1929 at two exhibitions of the Amateur Photography Club in the (then) provincial town of Mladá Boleslav. Kašpařík was a member of the Olomouc KFA and Fotogroup 3 (F3), which exhibited in 1935, an avant-garde group of photographers, which he founded with Jaroslav Nohel and Otakar Lenhart (1905–1992). Later, he exhibited with Fotogroup 4 in the forties and fifties, which first exhibited in Prague in 1939.
The influence of surrealism through Henry Štyrský (1899–1942) and others can be seen in these last images seen here in chronological order, which are both in-camera photomontages (as evidenced by the highlights cancelling blacks, while in darkroom enlarger montages it is the blacks which override highlights).
There is this strong surrealist impulse also in the work of the contemporary artist Thomas Gosset a.k.a. Toums (*1982). He finds inspiration in the end of the 19th century when photographic technology had reached a degree of simplification sufficient for amateurs to devote themselves without much hindrance to amusing photographic experiments. Like the output of obscure literary movements of the fin-de-siècle, the Hydropates, the Incoherents, the Zutists and the Jemenfoutists, playful, provocative and iconoclastic, photographers desiring to break the rules prepared the ground for the avant-garde of dadaism and surrealism and even influenced them with their inventions.
The cover drawing of Bergeret’s and Drouin’s 1891 Les récréations photographiques hints at possible approaches; comic exaggeration of perspective through the use of a wide-angle lens, distortion achieved in printing by tilting the enlarger easel, the use of spy cameras and so on, all being carried out under a benignly smiling sun, and inside the book, they inspire the inventive amateur to try the pinhole camera, ‘freezing motion’, night photography, anamorphics, phosphorescent photographs, photo-microscopy, Kirilian ‘electric’ photography, suspending a camera from a balloon for aerial shots, photography without a darkroom, composite printing, extreme telephoto, photo-phenakistoscope animation, and all sorts of illusionism and trick photography.
Gosset embraces the spirit of such practices in his chemical (non-digital) photography and adds the techniques of dissolving his negatives with acids and bleach, scratching and drawing on them with ink and paint, and making other physical alterations as only traditional ‘analog’ photography will enable.
In publicity for this, his first one-person show in Germany, he elaborates on his reasons for such an iconoclastic, apparently destructive approach, which he admits he shares with Joel-Peter Witkin, Roger Ballen and Pierre Molinier whom he admires;
I destroy my own films with the intention of entering in the very heart of the photosensitive material, which allows me to have a direct control over the frozen reality that I destructure at will. The goal being to understand this matter as painting with the intention of pushing back the normal process of photography to expand my own field of investigation and thus regain an imaginative and narrative freedom. For years I wanted to freeze absurd moments in reality.
His subject matter is mostly the portrait, removed from mundane reality into “a cruel dark surrealist tale of raw and informal beauty” through his manipulations, inviting the viewer “to confront his/her own primitive imperfection.”
In some cases the photographic element is a mere trace, transformed beyond appearances through the tortures of reticulation of the emulsion and with added cliché-verre etching, painting and drawing.
The subject is the portrait, presented as ‘graven idols’ wrested from an often very fierce reaction to his fragile state after the theft and the destruction of all his negatives, drawings and notebooks in Paris in 2013.
This personal tragedy, which he felt deeply, is now the driving force for an approach that relies not on recapturing images irretrievably lost, but focussing on a sense of having been freed to construct completely anew.
The amateur, the autodidact, both are in a position to act, in naive brashness or out of ignorance striving for knowledge, in a manner that the photographer educated in the ‘correct’ procedures and techniques might find hard to do.
However it is unlikely, in either case, that Kasparik or Gosset could achieve these remarkable and original images without, first, their own passion and unique life stories, but also, essentially, their admiration for the work and example of others.
Is that not where, and how, the real photographic education takes place, whether one is in an dedicated institution or behind the camera alone, or with like-minded enthusiasts?