Karel Cudlín: PASÁŽE / PASSAGEWAYS
Karel Cudlín (b. 1960 Prague) is at the forefront of contemporary Czech photography. Graduating in 1987 from the Department of Photography at the Prague film school, FAMU, he has worked as a photojournalist for a number of magazines and newspapers (Mladý svìt, Lidové noviny, Prostor) and for a short time for the Czech Press Agency. He is best known to the Czech public as one of President Václav Havel’s personal photographers as well as for his inimitably expressive photographs of various ethnic and social groups: Czech and Slovak Romani; Ukrainian laborers; Red Army soldiers leaving the former Czechoslovakia.
Cudlín’s photographs of Jewish communities — primarily from Prague, the post-Communist countries, and Israel — have also brought him deserved acclaim. Clearly discernible in his work is a natural duality of vision; it is the vision of an insider who has learned from visiting diverse locales over the course of many years how to share a space with its inhabitants, the gaze of the eternal visitor who keeps his critical distance to avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping. This detachment (determined to some extent by the “mode” of the apparatus he is operating) opens up a space for subtle irony while furthering Cudlín’s natural inclinations toward personal, tersely formulated anecdotes.
It would seem that Cudlín’s “Jewish photographs” (and likewise his photographs of other minorities) have sprung from an intrinsic need to confront the Other. Originating and existing outside the economy of his Self, they make no claims on either gratifying any measure of emotion or on discovering a satisfactory definition for his own identity, and they are free of that folkloric aspect of voyeurism whereby ones interest in Otherness becomes an obsessive search for quaint anomalies.
The majority of Cudlín’s photographs have been taken on his frequent travels, “journeys of initiation” that start at his home in the Prague district of Vinohrady, where he lives with his wife, Marketa. He usually heads east, whether it be to the nearby districts of Žižkov and Karlín or to eastern Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Romania, Moldavia, the Caucasus, Israel, or the Far East. Yet a recent series of photographs from New York suggests that the focus of his present interests has shifted in the opposite direction as well. As a freelancer, these trips are undertaken on his own initiative, though Cudlín also works and travels on “commission” (e.g., the series of portraits of Ukrainian Holocaust survivors, one of which is presented in this exhibition, was initiated by the American Joint Distribution Committee).
Perhaps the best way to characterize Cudlín’s photographs is by simply stating that they are, in effect, “photographic images;” they represent a kind of residual value of a gaze which is in continual flux, the gaze of a “wandering nomad.” This does not imply, of course, that the image recorded on the sensitized surface lacks complexity. The converse is true: the image carries the force of its own autonomy and points to the basic conditions of human existence (in essence the same anywhere in the world). It matters very little in what place and under what conditions the photographs were taken as they are neither prosaic documents of static situations nor an arrestment of time. What they represent instead is the extension of time beyond the borders of physical measurability. Human desire, not actual time and space, is the principle element that constitutes Cudlín’s photographic image. Desire is what gives these quantities meaning and it is the photographer-as-nomad, the flâneur, who is the bearer of desire, which keeps him in a constant state of flux, just as it does with everyone whose presence meets his gaze.
In this respect, it could be said that Cudlín’s work is marked by a continual interaction of movement and an uninterrupted stream of evanescent points of contact, boundaries made ephemeral by fluctuating identities, through which desire is formed. These photographic images, which are but a fraction of the ever-changing constellation of the outer world, carry a greater significance than we might at first suspect. They show us the extent of our own freedom and the value of our own ethnic, social, and sexual diversity; they reflect the weight of our political gestures and they communicate to us what meaning the ornament, the word, and the image hold for the construction of our own identities; they show us that we are all on the way and that such “wandering” is unavoidable, whether the original impetus is voluntary (tourism, a thirst for adventure or knowledge) or involuntary (forced migration as a result of war, famine, natural catastrophe, etc.).
Karel Cudlín’s exhibition is titled Pasáže / Passageways (borrowed from Walter Benjamin). What these twenty-five photographic prints seek to convey can be summed up as follows: the correct path is the one that leads us to accept our nomadism. To do so would naturally entail disabusing ourselves of the stereotypes and prejudices still lingering in our society. Nomadism is a positive condition and a possible strategy of survival, not an obsolete form of cultural and social community, and it does not deserve to be stigmatized and scorned. This is more or less the definition put forward by the French sociologist Michel Maffesoli: “The dynamism and spontaneity of nomadism lie in its contempt of borders (state, civilization, ideological, religious) and in the real experience of the Universal . . . this is not something egoistical or self-centered but instead a surge of the spirit carrying on its way primal anthropological values and sowing a particular unease in the womb of everything that has a tendency to become firmly anchored.”
The current exhibition is part of the ongoing cycle Jewish Presence in Contemporary Visual Arts and it is supported by a grant from the European Association for Jewish Culture.
Cudlín, Karel. Fotografie. Torst: Praha 1994.
Select Solo Exhibitions :
Lažanský Palace, Prague, Czech Republic – 1987
Since 1960 Karel Cudlín has participated in more
than 60 group exhibitions
Representation in Public Collections:
Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK
Karel Cudlín’s work is found in a number of private
collections in Europe, USA, and Israel.
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