Frozen Faces, Frozen Light

Tanya Silverman

Amidst the pedestrian layout of Prague, perpendicular to the winding cobblestone footpaths, busts are inlayed into the streetscapes of the city. Out of the building walls, metallic heads of figures from prominent poets and illustrators to scientists and activists protrude onto the sidewalks, introducing frozen avatars of contributors who stand memorialized amongst the fluid mosaic of passersby. Below the slopes of Petřín Park, one subtle facial lieu de memoire of the Malá Strana district alludes to what functioned as an artist’s space encased in a courtyard between several apartment buildings. Affixed to a smooth, rectangular plaque juts a craggy, low-eared, periorally furrowed bust of a late Josef Sudek. The monument to the Czech photographer indicates not only his mortal timespan, but also a place whereby an extant individual could pace a few steps northward and ring a buzzer. A reciprocal buzz welcomes the pushing of a door, the passing over a threshold, and the strolling down a pair of dim corridors before stepping upon the stone-tiled ground of an outdoor enclosure lit relative to whatever level of natural light the firmament permits at that very moment.

Inside the edificial well and behind bounds of shrubs sits a diminutive wooden structure that evokes a single-story cottage: Atelier Josef Sudek, the former darkroom and domicile of the local artist largely known for his depiction of light. Sudek portrayed a Prague in greyscale, arresting the brilliance of rays beaming through naves, the incandescence of street lanterns cutting through fog.

Within the small, twentieth-century pavilion in which he rendered the chiaroscuro effect, the biotic buzzer who commands the interior button circuit is never staffed by the same person, yet she or he programmatically adds the same value upon greeting: “Deset korun.” Ten Czech crowns: the price to pay to view photographic specimens in printed form.

Two Spartan gallery rooms showcase rotating exhibitions: Central Asian rodeo games in action, contemporary pictorial commentary on data collection, overexposed white light obfuscating facial profiles. Sometimes Sudek’s prints furnish his old darkroom’s space from whose steamy windowsill he captured a glass-cum-vase holding a rose triad leaning leftward.

Other Prague places besides the Atelier Josef Sudek pay homage to him and his oeuvre. Across the river Vltava, the Prague House of Photography periodically exhibits his work (not to mention pictures of him at work). One such instance encompassed Sudek’s recordings of WWII destruction circa 1945 in parallel to Timm Rautert’s portraits of Sudek active during the pre-Prague Spring atmosphere of 1967. Rauert, then-student, showed Sudek, one-armed veteran photographer, lugging his large-format camera across the footpaths of Petřín Park’s hills, as well as sitting in his still-functional studio, crammed with lit lamps shedding light on boxes of photo paper lodged in disarray, curios around jarred chemicals and flash bulbs weighing down the shelving’s capacity to maintain its horizontal integrity.   

A peculiar mystique had magnetized me to study and stay in Prague for over two years. The hands-on experience familiarized me with the vital personalities of the endemic culture together with how their creative manifestations reflected the charming location and its mysterious layers. Josef Sudek was a permanent fixture in the artistic canon, referenced in university seminars and included in museum bookshops for his spectral, black-and-white images of lonely streets, bare branches, and still lifes. 

Monuments and mementos pervade Prague. Although aging and temporality inform the evolution of reality, a certain agelessness of the cityscape’s spirit may be articulated via the language of light.