Photography’s Spring

Posted May 6, 2009 at 4:54pm

Two years ago, Matthew Witkovsky, the National Gallery of Art’s assistant curator of photographs, produced a terrific show focused on the explosion of photography from 1918 to the end of World War II in Central Europe — Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Austria.

Now, Witkovsky, who has since become the photography curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, has returned to the National Gallery with a far smaller and quieter exhibit built around one prominent Czech photographer, Jaromír Funke.

The three-room show in the Gallery’s West Building highlights the concept of serious amateur photography — high art, in other words — but by photographers who did not make their living shooting pictures.

Conventional amateur photography, which started in the 1890s, emphasized balance, harmony and superb craftsmanship. Members of the amateur photography movement formed a series of photo clubs where the latest developments in processing and printing techniques could be discussed. They had juried exhibitions and lectures and workshops.

Most serious amateur work was artistically conservative, however, existing apart from the fast-paced developments in the avant-garde that were simultaneously taking place — in particular, cubism and surrealism.

Funke, who lived from 1896 to 1945, was able to bridge that gap.

He was born into a middle-class family who lived in a small town near Prague, and he intended to study law. But he got the camera bug in his early 20s, and in 1924, at the first nationwide amateur photography salon in Czechoslovakia, was widely recognized as a significant emerging talent.

Later that year, Funke, along with his close friend Josef Sudek and two other photographers, founded the Czech Photographic Society and moved quickly into the avant-garde.

“Setting and mood, the guiding principles of the amateur photography movement — Funke decides this is not what interests him,— Witkovsky explained. “It’s like a painter trained at the academy who breaks away.—

For the rest of the 1920s, Funke concentrated on still lifes of the type of ordinary objects that would surround a photographer: bottles of developer chemicals, an enlarger’s light bulb, glass negatives, and the sinewy, shadowy lines of a ribbed, slightly coiled hose used to wash off a gelatin silver print.

Like cubist art, these objects were self-consciously framed, but when seen in the black-and-white hues of Funke’s low-contrast photography, they are stark and sparse and reflective.

Members of the Czech Photographic Society eschewed the often-tinted, heavily atmospheric shots of much amateur photography taken at the time; their icon was American Alfred Stieglitz, a groundbreaking photographer who did much to bring photography into the realm of fine art.

In the early part of the 20th century, Stieglitz had published Camera Work, an influential magazine that, along with members of the Czech Photographic Society, insisted on the sanctity of the negative — no cropping and no retouching, or at least as little as possible.

Though it broke off from the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, the Czech lands retained strong ties to Vienna, which in the period between the wars was a great center for high-quality lens and paper. This, combined with Czechoslovakia’s strong industrial tradition, all helped promote a strong photographic culture in the country, which was one of the richest in the world in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1931, Funke became a teacher at the School of Applied Arts in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. (Since Czechoslovakia split in two in 1992, the city has been the capital of Slovakia.)

By the 1930s, the Czech amateur photography movement had become “modernized.— Box cameras were being replaced with faster, hand-held models; close-up views with tight perspectives and more exotic shots were becoming commonplace.

There are a half-dozen other mostly Czech photographers in the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 9. And the several dozen photographs, which are all vintage prints, extend from the early 1920s to the mid-1940s, from abstracts to landscapes to industrial scenes, from rooftops to portraits to a rain-shrouded view of a city street.