Saturday, 22 February 2014

Jan Saudek

The life and work of the great Czech photographer

Jan Saudek is today one of the best known photographers in the world, with major exhibitions and many books published of his work. As in the above photograph, he never uses professional models and will frequently include himself as part of the composition

He remains, at the age of 76, very active and invariably controversial. Only recently a portrait of a mother and daughter was banned from a major exhibition after complaints that it depicted child prostitution

Hey, Joel - 1959

Jan Saudek was born in Prague in 1935. His father was a Jew and the family was therefore persecuted by the Nazis. Many of his family members died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp during World War II. 

Jan and his brother Karel were themselves  held in a children's concentration camp located near the present Polish-Czech border. He survived the war and according to his own biography got his first camera Kodak Baby Brownie in 1950.

First Steps, 1963

In 1952 he was apprenticed to a photographer and started working as a print shop worker, where he remained until 1983. In 1959 he started using more advanced camera Flexaret 6x6. 

After completing his military service, he was inspired in 1963 by the exhibit catalogue of Steichen's Family of Man to try to become a serious art photographer.

Pieta No. 1, 1970

Returning to Prague after a short visit to America in 1969, he was forced to work in a clandestine manner in a cellar, to avoid the attentions of the secret police and the Communist authorities. His work explored  themes of personal erotic freedom, and used implicitly political symbols of corruption and innocence. 

When his first marriage collapsed he lived in a basement flat in Prague. Its only window looked out onto a blank wall.

It was this bleak image that inspired a series of photographs of increasing  complexity and imagination.

Deep devotion of Veronika, 1984

Very early on he developed a technique that came to characterise his work, namely hand-colouring of black and white or sepia prints

This was partly prompted by the difficulty of obtaining colour film stock at that time but it also allowed him to create images of great originality, rich in colour and texture

This star is mine, 1975

Although he invariably depicts women nude or partially clothed, his eroticism is often tempered with a subtle romanticism - a yearning for escape or transformation

As a set designer and artist myself, his textured backdrops and superb lighting are partly what attracts me to his work

I first discovered his photographs in a massive exhibition in Prague sometime in 1996. Room after room was filled with wonderful images. Each print was enormous and displayed in old fashioned  frames

I was hooked!
Total marriage, 1987

Since Saudek never uses professional models but friends and associates, he is never afraid to depict the human body with all its faults and blemishes.  In this regard he belongs to that school of naturalistic art that Lucien Freud explores in his large oil paintings

Shy Congratulators, 1996

Many find these photographs uncomfortable but in my view it is the role of art to push barriers, explore areas that others fear to tread and to expand our awareness of what constitutes art itself

This Saudek has never stopped doing

Kisses in the moonlight, 1986

Clearly some find Saudek's work theatrical and overly contrived. In his 'window-in-a-basement' series referred to earlier in this article, he creates a wonderfully erotic, Surreal world of the imagination that is equal to anything  Max Ernst, Salvador Dali or Magritte ever produced

Victory on the sea, 1996

He is also witty and manages to combine eroticism with humor - a natural development from earlier satirical or semi-blasphemous (in the broadest sense)  images created under the oppressive Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in the 1960's

The Puppet, 1996

His incredibly bold use of colour - perhaps partly inspired by Magritte or Dali, as in the example above - stamp his work with his trade-mark qualities

His eroticism is also derived from early 19th Century pornographic postcards and also the erotic drawings and paintings of Hans Belmer and Balthus (both of whom are featured elsewhere on this blog)

Pimp and hooker, 2001

In recent years his figures have become more theatrical and with a strong narrative component - hinting at relationships and subtexts that extend back from the superficial image to a darker, more subversive

Ballerina, 2006

He is also now using more elaborate compositions. In the above image it is based on a playing card format

Jan Saudek remains a significant artist who has brought to photography a unique imagination. The number of photographers who imitate his work is a measure of his global impact

Mike Healey


The images shown above have been taken from Saudek's official website. 
Click on the link below for direct access:

Jan Saudek has published a large number of books of his work. These are listed in the column on the right
 of this blog.Click on book title for direct access to the publisher

For a YouTube film of Jan Saudek with interviews and more details of his life, click on the link below:


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