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Local traditions

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Czech Photographic Avant-Garde 1918-1948 By Vladimir Birgus et al.MIT Press, 2002. £33.50

Photographic history is a relatively young discipline with great swathes of territory still to be explored. In particular, one feels that the gradual opening up of archives in eastern Europe and Asia will engender a muchneeded corrective to the predominant view of photography's development, centred as it is on Western Europe and America.

While the role of Soviet photographers in the establishment of photographic Modernism has been well documented, the Czech contribution, despite excellent parallel studies of its Modernist art and architecture, has been largely ignored.

So this book is an important addition to our knowledge, but unfortunately it resembles all too closely one of the photomontages it illustrates, the keynote of which is dissonance. The beautifully reproduced images jar with a text that has all the literary merit of a Google page translation, surreally leaves sentences suspended in mid-air, and even omits an entire page of the original Czech.Whatever happened to proofing and sub-editing?

Despite this shoddiness, however, the book rewards perseverance, introducing the work of hitherto little-known photographers to a wider audience. It provides a wealth of detail about Czech photography in the period between the formation of an independent Czech state and the establishment of a hard-line Communist government, and serves as a reminder that, for all its aspiration to be an international aesthetic, Modernism was subtly transformed by local traditions and practices.

Thus, while Czech photography owed important debts to the contemporaneous work of German New Objectivity and Bauhaus photographers, but more especially to developments in France (the Czech artistic avant-garde having traditionally gravitated towards Paris), a distinctively Czech Modernist photography gradually emerged in the work of photographers such as Jaroslav Rössler (1902-1990), Jaromír Funke (1896-1945) and, best known in the west, Josef Sudek (1896-1976).

A transitional figure in this process was Frantisek Drtikol (1883-1961), whose preFirst World War work of romantic landscapes and Art Nouveau-style portraits slowly gave way in the mid-1920s to a new emphasis on geometry and strongly cast shadows, especially evident in his nudes, which were notable for their dynamic energy and lighting.

As elsewhere, the emergence of the socalled New Photography was fuelled in part by the demands of companies for advertising material (Drtikol's former assistant Rössler proving particularly adept in this field), and resulted in increased attention being paid to the man-made environment of machinery, engineering and architecture.

Here Funke, influenced by Constructivist photographers like Rodchenko, was preeminent, employing the diagonal compositions, bird's- and worm's-eye views, and teasingly enlarged details that were characteristic of the Modernist photographic interpretation of architecture.

His photographs of the Masaryk Student House complex in Brno (1930), commissioned by its architect Bohuslav Fuchs, and of the power station in his home town of Kolín (1932), give the lie to critics who have argued that those countries in the van of architectural Modernism failed to conceive a suitably Modern means of photographing it.

Running in parallel with this functionalist photography was a strong Surrealist movement, heavily influenced by the work of Man Ray and the newly discovered Eugène Atget, but given a specifically Czech flavour by the continuing legacy of the Poetist movement whose chief theoretician, Karel Teige (1900-1951), embraced Surrealism in the mid-1930s.

Given the wealth and vitality of Czech photography which this book displays, it is all the more sad that the exhibition on which it is based has found no British venue.

Robert Elwall is curator of the RIBA photographs collection

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