Sestka - or "the Six" - is an ongoing series of exhibitions at the Prague House of Photography, featuring work by up-and-coming photographers from six of the country's most important photography schools, including AVU's New Media Studio and Prague's FAMU film academy. But, at the moment, the gallery is showing an installation by students and graduates from Usti nad Labem's University of J.E. Purkyne, in north Bohemia. The opening was held shortly before the start of the holidays.
The Prague House of Photography can be fairly easy to overlook, linked as it is by a passage off of the city's busy Wenceslas Square, but it's definitely worth visiting. Especially now, if you're interested in new photography. Since October, the centre has run the first few profiles of a number of Czech photography schools but the latest, from north Bohemia's University of J.E. Purkyne, is one of the more stimulating. Last week the opening was packed with young people as well as professors and members of the general public. The show was launched by the head of the University of J.E. Purkyne's Photography Department Pavel Banka. Afterwards, as guests milled around, he told me a bit about studies at his school, as well as about the show.
"There are other students who are doing things that are different but I would say that the range which is shown here describes what is going on in our so-called 'atelier'. The system here is a different, let's say, than in the US or Great Britain. They system here is that there is one head of the atelier, only about twenty students, and there is an assistant who is involved. We are trying to create a certain atmosphere to encourage students to grow in their artistic knowledge as well as abilities, and above all, courage. To have enough courage to take risks."
Risk, agrees venue director Eva Hodek, is what it's all about - and one thing she says she appreciates about Usti nad Labem's school is its sense of social context. Compared to some of the other schools featured in the cycle, she describes the "Usti" approach as focussed in terms of the individual.
"They are more focused on portraiture combined with landscape or let's say townscape photography, in terms of focusing on, or operating within, social or cultural context. The strong social aspect I see in the work of Daniela Dostalkova, who photographed 'company life', and there you can see interaction between representatives of the firm. There are of course, in diverse levels, social aspects in all of those works."
Daniela Dostalkova's images a good place to start - photos that are part of her final thesis work; they are quite engaging prints showing the typically ordered but arid spaces of what is probably a headquarters at some manufacturing plant. It may - or may not - be a car factory. It matters little, though, given the blandness of most of the spaces but what is interesting to observe is the relationship between impersonal and anonymous space and its daily actors: executives and workers who, most often, smile wanly at the camera. At times it is difficult to tell whether the prints are devoid of irony or just the opposite. There is also an inner tension, a kind of forced cooperation between the photographer and subject in front of the lens.
Other works in Sestka then play more of a 'game' with viewers, or at least more obviously so, some heavily blurring the lines of reality while not losing social scope. A case in point is a series of five holograph-like prints which are actually portraits of twins superimposed on each other. That is work by Marie Drabkova. The twins' faces, or elements of their faces, overlap and intermesh. Professor Pavel Banka again:
"It could have been a diptych but she put it in one. It's a special technique. They are all twins, as I'm sure you'll mention. When you see it from one side you see one twin, from the other side, the other. It's quite sophisticated. It's a game with the viewer if course, but it also has a social meaning. And, I like it when photos have both: strong approach but also social meaning without being a real documentary, which I think is typical for the approach of my students. A post-conceptual approach."
The departure from documentary is one that has been strongly reinforced in many ways by new technology, namely the rise of digital. Karel Knop, uses digital in his work to appropriate well-known images for uses of his own. Director Eva Hodek again:
"Karel Knop manipulated photographs by very famous photographers like Martin Parr or Philip-Lorca diCorcia and he 're-established' those images and actually added himself into this imagery. You can find him - the author - in each photograph, he digitally manipulated."
With the prevalence of digital has it in a way conquered a more classical approach?
"This is a good question: if we go six years back I remember at Photo Fest Houston 2000 we were discussing digital photography as a key issue and many were asking the same questions: what digital would mean for the evolution of the medium. What were the boundaries? What would digital manipulation mean for the history of photography? What then, would be the value of the 'original'. All those questions were asked and discussed and it was only six years ago. Now, nobody asks those questions anymore. Digital photography has found its way to approach people and professional. There is no longer any question of whether we accept digital photography or not."
Meanwhile, this is how Pavel Banka views the possibilities:
"The major thing with digital cameras and the digital way of working with the image is that there is much less authenticity of the original image taken. No one can be sure, that the image you see is a real image; it can be manipulated so easily that it is very hard to recognise it. On the other hand, the digital age brings opportunity: it's not only that it's digital, it's also that it's fully automatic and anyone can take pictures, anyone has at least a chance at becoming an artist. It's a great power of this medium that it's so democratic. It's the most democratic of any medium nowadays."
The balance between the fake and the real and artists' interests in unravelling or undercutting social layers and cultural patterns in the latest instalment in "Sestka" is what makes the exhibition. Though some of the work doesn't grab quite as strongly or even - in the rare case - suffers from shoddier installation, it is still worthwhile viewing. The exhibition captures how one school is trying to push young artists in new directions, before they become established and set in their approach. This leg of the series lasts into January.
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