August 29: Fervour

Date #29Markéta Luskačová born in Prague on this date in 1944, is a Czech photographer whose interest in the medium grew out of her anthropological studies with a thesis on religion in Slovakia, Poutě na Východním Slovensku (Pilgrimages in East Slovakia).

Despite being so early in Luskačová’s oeuvre, her 1960s photographs of the pilgrims are among her most beautiful; simple but sensitively recorded. They are intended to convey sociological information, but are also poetic.

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Markéta Luskačová (1967) Procession, Čirč

The events she photographed are clearly intensely-felt for those taking part, full of meaning for them and requiring considerable effort in preparation and participation, but for those of us with no religion (30% of Australians, or 22.8% of the U.S. population, for example), they are mysterious.

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Markéta Luskačová (1967) Mr. Ferenz singing,  Obišovce, Sumiac

John Berger, in writing about Luskačová’s Pilgrims, connects the devotion to worship of the dead, a manifestation of religious fervour by peasants whose experience over the centuries has been rarely understood by other classes, and certainly not by those socialists like himself for whom the church is an oppressor, an exploiter or the peasant class.

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Markéta Luskačová (1967) Reading The Holy Gospel, Čirč

Čirč, where the Procession above took place is a village in north-eastern Slovakia, on the border of modern-day Poland, was historically inhabited by ethnic Rusyns, or “Little Russians,” while Obišovce is a village and municipality in the Košice-okolie district in the Kosice Region of eastern Slovakia. It is only a 70km journey between them; three days walking, but in Čirč more than 90% of the small population of 480 in 1960 were Greek Orthodox, while in Obišovce, nearly all villagers are Roman Catholic and its Church of Our Lady of the Rosary has been the focus for pilgrims since the 16th century. Yet in  Luskačová’s photographs, to our eyes, there is no difference between the two settlements and their religious observances. Given the almost perpetual political and social upheaval experienced in this region over the centuries, something more powerful than allegiance to a particular brand of religion perseveres. She says;

My early Slovakian photographs should be viewed within the frame of time and place in which they were taken. In communist Czechoslovakia the expression of faith of any kind was against official Marxist ideology and was oppressed.

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Markéta Luskačová (1970) Women resting on confession benches, Levoča,

Luskačová continued photographing in the region until the mid-1970s, taking in Levoča (above), which is within 50-60km of Čirč and Obišovce, to the west. Her photographs, taken from 1967 to 1970, belong to two extensive series, Pilgrimages and Villages, made during her own, photographic, pilgrimages to the easternmost part of her country, known as Slovakia where within the rural traditions of the people Luskacova found a spiritual community

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Markéta Luskačová (1968) Men with a cross, Kalvaria Zebrydowska.

Photography and photojournalism have a long tradition in the Czech Republic (and former Czechoslovakia). Its development after World War II (WWII) was interrupted after the communist takeover in 1948 by two decades of restricted production limited by strict ideological adherence to Socialist Realism. New publications and new generations of Czech photojournalists appeared during the 1960s, such as Josef Koudelka (the only Czech member of Magnum Agency), Pavel Dias, and Leos Nebor amongst whom Marketa Luskačová was counted. After the Prague Spring in 1968, Czechoslovakian media and photojournalism remained restricted until the end of the 1980s.

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Luskačová’s photographs have the same granularity and high contrast as prints the better-known Koudelka made of his contemporaneous series on the Roma, largely dictated by the limited range and quality of materials available to Czech practitioners, such as Foma‘s budget 100 ASA panchromatic black and white film that competed with other Eastern Bloc film supplied by Orwo (East Germany) and Svema (USSR), until they could afford pricier films from the likes of Kodak and Ilford.

Beyond their technical and stylistic similarities the two photographers’ series have divergent motivations; Koudelka, however powerful his imagery, remains an outside observer, while in Luskačová’s pictures one senses a stronger empathy, a spiritual presence. She recounts how once, in Prague, when she was printing, she heard her neighbor’s little girl crying outside;

Her mother was not at home, so I invited her to wait in my darkroom. She was watching me dodge the prints under the enlarger and then put them in the developer, when suddenly she said: “Markéta, you are a witch.” And I said, “Of course, didn’t you know?”

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Luskačová was permitted to display the Pilgrims cycle for the first time in at Za branou theatre (the Theatre Behind the Gate)  in Prague where from 1970 to 1972, Luskačová photographed stage performances before the director Otomar Krejča was banned by the communists in the spring of 1972. Curator of the exhibition in 1970 was Anna Fárová, a Czech art historian who specialized in and catalogued Czech and Czechoslovak photographers and the introductory catalogue text was by Josef Topol, who linked the photographs with the play then being performed in the Theatre,  Sophocles’ Antigone:

People in a file kneeling in a bare land close to the sky, rising, proceeding in song, bending their knees in prayer, rising, and like the chorus from a Greek tragedy, treading their pilgrim’s way-to what Delphi? The proud humility of these pilgrims might speak the words of Oedipus as Sophocles had spelt them: “And Time, my brother, who knew me when I was small, now knows me in my greatness too. I was born thus, nor shall I change any more.” Luskačová’s photographs  present the spiritual image of man, our contemporary, and of a pilgrimage so rare in our place and time.

When, in 1971, Luskačová married Prague poet Franz H. Wurm who had British citizenship, he left the country out of fear of the  “Normalization”.  She managed to get permission to visit him and in 1975 she joined him to stay in England, though she claimed: “Bohemia, Prague and Šumiac have never ceased to be my home.” However during the 1970s and 1980s, communist censors concealed her growing international reputation. Her works were banned in Czechoslovakia, and the catalogues for the exhibition of Pilgrims in the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1983 were ‘lost’ on their way to Czechoslovakia.

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Markéta Luskačová, (2006) Dragon, Death and Other People.

Since 1975, living in England, as well as her commercial work for graphic designers, Luskačová mainly devoted herself to photographing London’s markets of Portobello Road, in Brixton and Spitalfields, street musicians and girl jazz bands in North-East England, British children from various social, ethnical, religious backgrounds and their first year at school, choristers’ school at Durham Cathedral.

She was then able to return to the Czech Republic over 2000–2014 to photograph children in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, especially minority and disabled children, as well as carnivals in Czech Republic.

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