Czech photographer Josef Sudek (1896-1976), known as the ‘Poet of Prague’, was drawn to desolate landscapes, simple, solitary objects and the quiet, unpopulated street scenes of Prague, a city to which he dedicated his whole life. He was the first photographer to be honoured by the Republic with the title of ‘Artist of Merit’ and in his 70th year, his life’s work was recognised by the ‘Order of Labour’.
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Josef Sudek was born in Kolín, Bohemia on 17 March 1896. His father was a house painter, who died when Sudek was three years old. In 1915, he left to serve in the First World War as a soldier for the Austro-Hungarian Army. Having fought on the Italian front for a year, he received serious injuries, resulting in the loss of his right arm. He spent the following three years in various hospitals, and began to take photographs out of boredom.
In 1922, Sudek finally decided to pursue his dream of becoming a photographer, and enrolled at the School of Graphic Arts in Prague, where he studied for two years. In 1924, he founded the Czech Photographic Society with photographer friends he had met at school, such as Jaromir Funke. His army disability pension gave him the leeway to make art without worrying about an income. During the decade, he photographed the restoration of St Vitus Cathedral in Prague, which earned him a reputation as the official photographer for the city. He created many night-scapes of the city, as well as photographing the wooded landscapes of Bohemia. From 1927, he worked for a number of magazines, co-publishing and illustrating both Panorama and Zijeme.
Sudek didn’t let his disability get in the way and, despite having only one arm, he used very heavy and bulky equipment. Due to his love for still life compositions and detailed landscapes, he needed the image quality that large-format cameras offered. He often photographed his own garden and the interior of his studio. Despite the movement from Pictorialism to Modernism throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Sudek stayed true to his original vision. He preferred to shoot dream-like scenes, with soft light, diffused through a foggy window or an overcast day. His photographs are like the sun breaking through the clouds on cold, rainy days. He was drawn to desolate, gloomy landscapes, simple, solitary objects and the quiet, unpopulated street scenes of Prague, a city to which he dedicated his whole life.
In 1949, Sudek started experimenting with a Kodak panoramic camera, capturing Prague and the surrounding landscapes. The camera would produce 3 1/2 x 12 inch negatives and would capture an angle of 142 degrees. Over a ten-year period, he produced 284 of these panoramic landscape photographs, eventually publishing them in a book called Praha Panoramatická.
Often known as the ‘Poet of Prague’, Sudek never married, and was a shy and retiring person. He never appeared at his exhibition openings and there are few people that feature in his photographs. In 1974, Sudek had a large exhibition at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. He died two years later in Prague, on 15 September 1976, when he was 80 years old. Later, larger retrospectives were mounted in his honour in both Prague and Brno, in the Czech Republic.