In his basement studio in the Šelmberkovský Palace in Prague’s Malá Strana, Oldřich Škácha is visibly amused as he points out a shot he took in 1991. It features then finance minister Václav Klaus, grinning broadly, flanked by two bunny girls at a Playboy ball. Škácha says he likes to exhibit the picture today as a little jab at the president.
The photographer comes from a rather different political background from Mr Klaus. A signatory of Charter 77, he was part of the underground, dissident world during the Communist era, and is best known for the many pictures he has taken of Václav Havel over the decades.
Škácha was working for newspapers and magazines in the second half of the 1960s when he got to know some of the most significant Czech cultural figures of the era.
“In 1966 I met the novelist Pavel Kohout. In 1967 I was at the congress of the writers’ union. It was there that I saw with my own eyes how Ludvík Vaculík, Ivan Klíma, Alexandr Kliment and Václav Havel really had a go at the Communists. I didn’t bring any pictures back, because a photographer either listens or takes photos. It’s strange, but you have to concentrate on one thing – you can’t do both.”
That writers’ union congress was one of the harbingers of the Prague Spring. A period of relative liberalism, it came to an abrupt and brutal end when Soviet tanks rolled into the country in August 1968. Škácha captured some striking images of the violence on the streets of Prague at that time, before heading – briefly – to the West.
“After the occupation I took some pictures, before going to Saarbruecken to meet my girlfriend. We then went to Paris, where she had a study grant. But after a while I stopped liking it there and I came back. The only sensible person there was Jiří Mucha, the son of Alphonse. He said, don’t go back, you’re an idiot. But until 1969 we didn’t realise that everything was lost. That was a terrible mistake, of course. Everything was lost.”
In the 1970s the photographer found himself persona non grata. Editors refused to commission him and he ended up getting seasonal work as a gardener’s assistant. He wasn’t the only member of his profession to suffer in that period, of course. But some non-conformist photographers did manage to show their work, albeit behind closed doors.
“I think Bohdan Holomíček had exhibitions like that. He was an excellent photographer who did a lot of work with Václav Havel, because he lived in Trutnov. I think Ivan Kincl had a small exhibition, and Jindřich Štreit had something at that time too, I think. But everything was illicit, it wasn’t official.”
But Oldřich Škácha did have one notable photograph published in the 1970s. It appeared in the official party newspaper, but was not credited to him and he never got paid. The picture featured the writer Pavel Kohout in the bath with his wife.
“One beautiful day in 1977, about two weeks after Charter 77 was issued, there was a huge photo in Rudé Právo with the caption, Who bathes in champagne? They had confiscated it during a search of Vaculík’s place. They wanted to discredit all the signatories of Charter 77, from Havel to Vaculík…Then the intensive interrogations started. I had the honour of finding out what it was like speaking to an StB officer, which was no fun.”
Škácha’s small studio is in a grand building that once housed the German embassy and is now home to the headquarters of the Czech Red Cross. It is filled with files of negatives and overflowing with prints. But when I ask if there is any one photo which for him is particularly important, he immediately points to a black and white image of Václav Havel, cigarette in hand, sitting in front of a large old-style gramophone. It was taken just after President Gustav Husák signed the Helsinki Accords in 1975, at least in theory committing communist Czechoslovakia to respecting human rights.
“Václav Havel decided to write a letter to Gustav Husák. It was in Pavel Kohout’s flat. Kohout said to him, I’ll give you some advice: don’t write it, don’t send it, they’ll lock you up. And he wrote it, he sent it, and they locked him up! It’s the photo that I like the most of all the ones I did of Václav.”
The photographer has been taking pictures of the one-time dissident for several decades now. Indeed, a current exhibition of his in Prague is entitled Havel a ti druzi, Havel and Others. When the Velvet Revolution saw his friend became Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist president, Škácha could have become a full-time member of Havel’s entourage. But he declined the offer.
“They wanted a full-time photographer who would’ve had to have been there 24 hours a day, because it was chaotic in those days. It had just become possible for my work to be published again…so I said, give me an ID card and I’ll come along myself to whatever looks interesting. I didn’t want to be an employee…I’ve been taking photos of Havel from 1969 till the present day. When he stood down as president in 2003, I decided to continue. He just said, that’s up to you, do what you like!”
After all these years, the photographer says the 73-year-old playwright regards him almost as part of the furniture.
“I don’t bother him, thank God! He’s never kicked me out. So I keep on documenting him. I said to myself, such a person is worth photographing and photographing…right now I’m planning to go along to the shooting of his first film, which is drawing to an end. Basically as long as Havel is around, I’ll take photos of Havel.”
Havel and Others is on at the bar and gallery Krásný Ztráty in Prague’s Old Town. The exhibition, which began in March, is unusual in that it changes, with photos being replaced from time to time, and different themes emphasised. The whole thing will culminate soon, though not without a few more alterations.
“I’m currently preparing an exhibition of ‘two-somes’. It features people who have been of great importance to our culture: writers, painters, basically people from what was called the ‘grey zone’, people you couldn’t speak about in public, whose work couldn’t be published. It’s called Czech Bohemia and will feature 40 pictures. It’ll replace the photos that are up currently. They’re from August 21, 1968, and of course of Václav Havel.”
“We are preparing an auction of that three-metre photo of Václav Havel. The money we raise will go towards the foundation run by him and his wife Dagmar. As well as that, other pictures will be freely on sale to whoever is interested.”