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Leading light

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review - Jaroslav Rössler: Czech Avant-Garde Photographer Edited by Vladimir Birgus and Jan Mlcoch. MIT Press, 2004. 164pp. £22.95

Following on from Czech Photographic Avant-Garde 1918-1948 (AJ 24.10.02), also edited by Vladimir Birgus, this excellent, beautifully illustrated book further develops our understanding not just of Czech Modernist photography but of Modernist photography in general.

Jaroslav Rössler (1902-1990) was one of the leading lights of the New Photography in Czechoslovakia between the wars, but due in part to his reclusive nature and a paucity of surviving prints, his work has not commanded the attention it deserves. Trained in the studio of Franti?ek Drtikol, Czechoslovakia's most prolific professional photographer of the period, Rössler combined work done purely for his own satisfaction with commissioned assignments undertaken largely for a variety of firms in Paris, where he lived briefly in 1925-26 and then again from 1927-35.

Much of Rössler's imagery, which displays a willingness to experiment with photograms, photomontages and photocollages, bears the hallmarks of Modernist photography. Thus his often highly contrived and complex compositions reveal a fascination with new technology (for Paul Strand's lathes and typewriters read radios); a concern to marry photography and printing as in Lßszl¾ Moholy-Nagy's concept of typophoto and proselytised by the leading Czech critic Karel Teige; and an emphasis on the dynamic interplay of light and shadow, thrusting diagonals and the bold exaggeration of details.

That much of Rössler's work was directed to advertising, extolling products such as Lux soap, Gibbs toothbrushes and Bakelite switches, is also symptomatic of the New Photography. What sets it apart, however, and gives credence to Teige's claim that he was 'better than Man Ray', is the series of photographs - many of them significantly untitled - that he took of ordinary objects, abstracted to the point where the medium itself has almost become the message and the real subject seems to be the evanescent nature of light.

Unlike the contemporary hard-edged compositions of, for example, Margaret Bourke-White or Rössler's compatriot, JaromÝr Funke, which were concerned to delineate form, these 'liquid' images dissolve it, making it ethereal and insubstantial.

As Matthew Witkovsky observes in his thoughtful essay, they have the hallucinatory quality of the photographic experiments of the medium's pioneers and seem similarly imbued with a sense of wonder at photography's potential. Composition with candle (1923), for example, looks as if it could have come from Wiliam Henry Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature (1843-46).

The tenebrous aura of these photographs, and the fact that Rössler chose not to use the hard, glossy gelatin print then becoming the norm but opted instead for bromoil and other pigment processes - techniques favoured previously by Pictorialist photographers to achieve more painterly effects - provides further evidence that the New Photography cannot be seen simply as a rejection of Pictorialist values.

Rather, as Rössler's work so compellingly demonstrates, both movements shared an overriding concern to transcend the sterility of mainstream photography through a more creative use of light.

Robert Elwall is curator of the RIBA photographs collection

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