The Photography of Jan Saudek

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Copyright © 1999 by David Steinberg. All Rights Reserved.

Jan Saudek. Photographs by Jan Saudek, introduction by Christiane Fricke. Taschen, 1998, 200 pp., hardbound, $29.95.

"Yes -- it's a theatre -- and we are viewers and actors at the same time -- and it's a funny and sordid performance!" -- Jan Saudek

Jan Saudek is back.

German publisher Benedikt Taschen has put together the first major collection of the provocative work of Czech photographer Jan Saudek in almost a decade, since the 1991 publication of "Saudek: Life, Love, Death and Other Such Trifles" by Art Unlimited in Holland. While Taschen's edition does not match either the reproductive quality or the emotional depth of the earlier work, it is a serious and thoughtful retrospective of Saudek's work, including a number of Saudek's early photographs from the 1960s and early 1970s, and a section of his work over the past decade.

Given the breadth of Taschen's distribution network and its affordable price, the new collection should give Saudek's work, already becoming well-known and appreciated in both the U.S. and Western Europe, a major boost.

As always, Saudek's work is a complex, dark, disturbing look at the ways that major issues -- sex, desire, death, innocence, yearning, beauty, aging, the body, sexual politics -- mix and compete in the untidy, arational realm of unfiltered emotion. Spending time with Saudek's images is an unsettling experience, a roller coaster ride of attraction and repulsion, confirmation and confrontation. There is the gratification of discovering images that speak many truths that are deftly avoided in polite conversation. Yet coming face to face with these truths, particularly through the lens of Saudek's often bitter perspective, is no laughing matter. We are shown images of tenderness and vulnerability, only to be brought up short by the images of cruelty and alienation that follow immediately behind. Photographs of youth and beauty alternate, often in matched pairs, with others of age and grotesque extremes. Images of joy and hope conflict jaggedly with those of tragedy and despair, sometimes in a single photograph.

The combination is relentless, and the conflict and internal division we feel under Saudek's direction are painful. He repeatedly calls forth our deepest desires for touch, tenderness, nurturance, beauty, and pleasure, but never lets us move very far from remembering, equally vividly, the world's ugliness, distortion, pain, and meanspiritedness. Yes, Saudek seems to be saying, beauty, love, compassion, and healing exist in the world, but they are illusory and transient, and rarely powerful enough to save us from the inevitable ravages of pain, loneliness, age, despair, and death.

At the left edge of a two-page photograph, a couple makes love in a verdant field. It is a lovely moment of passion and tranquillity until we notice that on the far right side of the image, a body hangs with a noose around its neck from the branch of a tree. In another photograph, a woman has committed suicide inside a dark, gray room by hanging herself from a peg in the wall, the stool she was standing on dramatically kicked to one side. Outside the room's single window, a freespirited vagabond strolls unaware through a sunlit field, without a care in the world. In yet another photograph, two hands -- a man's and a woman's -- reach for each other unsuccessfully across the hard wooden floor of a dark room. The photo is titled "Hungry for Your Touch."

Saudek likes to tell stories with his photographs -- "If a photograph doesn't tell a story," he declares, "it's not a photograph." -- and the stories that interest him deal with the existential dilemmas of being alive. He frequently highlights polarities by putting matched pairs of photos together. Sometimes he presents a group of photos in sequence, documenting a progression of events over time. The emotional impact can be powerful.

The six photos in "Maid's Evening," for example, are remarkably tender and poignant, although they do nothing more than document a woman undressing as she gets ready for bed. In the disturbing six images of "Target (Death of a Soldier)," we begin with a heavily clothed soldier who stands, arms extended, against a stone wall. As the series progresses, his clothes disappear until he is completely naked. Gradually we see that he has been shot in the stomach. In the final image, the soldier is gone, leaving only a persistent blood stain on the wall and the wooden cross of a grave marker.

Saudek paired images often present us with a familiar scene before repeating the image with an unexpected twist that shatters the familiarity, and with it the complacency that familiarity allows. In the first image of "The Wedding," for example, we see fifteen women and girls posing for the sort of breezy group portrait so common to wedding albums. In the second image, all of the women and girls are in the same poses, except that now they are naked. In "Those Ollöck Charwomen," two heavy-set women stand wearily with mop and pail, first clothed, then nude. In "Boys and Girls (Gabrielle)," the first image is of an androgynous figure dressed in sport jacket, shirt and tie. The second is of the same person, now obviously a full-breasted woman, naked but for some gauzy fabric draped across her shoulders. Remember, Saudek seems to be saying, that beneath the covering of our daily routines we are all naked and unprotected, and not necessarily who we outwardly appear to be.

One of Saudek's most persistent themes is the inevitability of aging, the wilting of the beauty of youth with which he is clearly intrigued. In his "Love Story" sequence, a snapshot of a young girl lies discarded in front of a glass of water that holds a single, beautiful rose. As the series progresses, the rose gradually drops its petals onto the photograph until it is completely covered and only the stem of the flower remains in the glass. When the petals and the dead flower are removed, the girl has disappeared. Finally, even the empty glass of water is taken away.

In "Five Years in the Life of My Veronika," and "Ten Years of My Girl Markéta," Saudek shows us images of beautiful young women, paired with photographs taken later in which that beauty has distinctly faded. Ironically, even in the later photos, the women are still quite young. Another image ("Two Women") shows a beautiful young girl running animatedly down a street, passing an elderly crone who hobbles painfully in the opposite direction. A more optimistic dichotomy ("My Mother") shows an amused elderly woman, naked except for a fur stole, holding a small, contrasting photo of herself as a young woman.

Saudek is fascinated with youth, and many of his more controversial images include nude images of children and pubescent girls. Some are conventional, if poignant, nudes. Others are decidedly erotic. In one image, a pubescent girl stands before us, nude except for some fabric tied around her waist. Her shoulders are drawn back, her stomach drawn in, her nipples colorized a bright vermilion. A wreath of colorized flowers adorns her slightly bowed head as she looks shyly up at the camera. The photo is unabashed titled, "Oh, That Virgin, Els!" In a most provocative pair of these photographs, we see a mostly nude girl on her hands and knees, her bare butt raised expectantly. In the second photo, a man is penetrating her from behind, lost in the throes of ecstasy while both the girl's bored expression and her pose remain unchanged. The photos are titled "Jan's Heaven."

One wonders why, in these times of national outrage at any sort of nude photography of children, the relatively innocent photography of Jock Sturges provokes the likes of Randall Terry and Operation Rescue to acts of civil disobedience, while photos such as these -- equally valid, but far more controversial -- are published and sold without so much as a murmur of protest.

Some of Saudek's most telling and bitter images deal with what he calls "The Battle of the Sexes," the power dynamics between men and women in the arena of sexual attraction and pursuit. Saudek's one sentence introduction to this section of the book is telling. "There is the world of men and that of women, and war is raging between them," he says. "There'll be no end to it as long as planet Earth keeps turning."

The first of these photographs poses the issue decisively. Two naked torsos face the camera: an attractive, powerfully muscled man (Saudek), and a lovely, lithe, young woman. The two are shackled together, wrist to wrist, with heavy iron manacles. Both the man's penis and the woman's vulva are swollen with desire. The photo is titled "Chains of Love."

The power of male sexual desire, and Saudek's distinct bitterness at the consequent power of refusal that women hold over men, is one of his most persistent and most disturbing, themes. In one series of photos, a young man courts a beautiful young woman. In the first image, the man is clothed protectively in leather jacket, boots, gloves, scarf, and so on. He has brought the woman flowers and holds her hand in both of his own, plaintively appealing to her naked beauty. In the companion photo, it is the woman who is protected and clothed. The man, now naked and exposed, still woos her hopefully, but she looks down at him with cold disdain, a cigarette dangling from her lip. Here is the vulnerability of sexual attraction, the pursuer inevitably at the beck and call of the pursued. But the power battle does not end there. On the next two pages, we watch as a woman puts the barrel of a gun to her wide open mouth, ready to pull the trigger. On the facing page, a naked man nonchalantly lights a cigarette and turns away.

There is also tenderness in this collection, although for the most part it offers little more than temporary respite from Saudek's overwhelmingly dark worldview. Much of the tenderness involves the innocence of young children.

A tiny baby lies naked on its naked mother's belly, one nipple in its hand, the other in its mouth. The photo holds all the serenity of a classic Madonna and Child. A young girl lies under an open window, naked and unprotected, with outstretched arms, inviting the sky into her barren room. A child in profile reaches with pursed lips to kiss the swollen, naked belly of its pregnant mother. A strong man holds and protects the vulnerability of a naked newborn, its body barely larger than his hand. One of my favorite of all Saudek photos shows an elderly man tenderly kissing the nipple of a young woman, his hand resting gently on her belly, while she looks down at him affectionately, her arm draped around his shoulder.

There is humor to lighten the weight of Saudek's predominant outlook as well. A thin naked woman with elaborate eyeshadow picks her teeth as she stands ready to be photographed in some more glamorous pose. An attractive, nude woman stands with one hand on her hip, the other raised behind her head -- an alluring pose but for the fact that she is licking her armpit with her extended tongue. Yet another woman lifts her exposed breast with one hand, while with the other she sprinkles it with powdered sugar. In "2 Big 4 You," Saudek aligns the white roundness of one woman's large breasts with another's equally pale, equally large buttocks -- four globes of flesh contrasting sharply with the uniform blackness of the women's clothing.

For all its difficulty and darkness, there is something profoundly moving about Saudek's work -- the issues he addresses, the images he uses, his fascination with the body in all its forms, even his recent use of vivid colorization to emphasize and dramatize his prints. Much of his outlook is disturbing, but it is precisely his unwillingness to avoid, compromise, or apologize for his emotions and drives, however dark they may be, that empowers his work, and makes his images so truthful and compelling. That Saudek's creative energy has survived decades of repression in both Communist and post-Communist Czechoslovakia, as well as the continuing disdain of most critics in the West, is a testimony to the power of his commitment to himself and his work. After some thirty years of grim survival, it seems that this unique visionary is now, finally, achieving the public exposure he deserves.

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

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