This week I’d like to introduce you to Czech documentary photographer Viktor Kolář. If you haven’t heard of him, that’s understandable. When I stepped inside FAMU and wandered up the stairs to my first seminar in documentary photography with him, neither had I.
According to Kant Books, “Viktor Kolář is the Czech Republic’s most important urban photographer, and is especially famed for his photo-chronicles of his hometown of Ostrava… [He] is the only Czech photographer to have received the Mother Jones International Photography Award (1991).”
Kolář became my favorite photography professor during my semester abroad. His classes were often filled with laughter as he shared stories in his unassuming and accurate English while insisting that a Czech-to-English translator be on hand. He didn’t actually need one but he thought he did so we played along.
I took copious notes in his classes because the words that came out of his mouth were wisdom-filled and almost poetic. Unfortunately now, 16 years later, I no longer have my notes. I do, however, still have some of his handouts. They convey his manner of speaking well:
“If I come to understand the mechanism of my motivation to photograph, my inner sensitivity towards certain themes, whether they attract or provoke or promise an experience, there is some hope that I can come to understand my own self in terms of inclinations and potentialities.”
“A documentarist’s work consists of 30% talent and 70% hard work. And ever-recurring doubts about the quality of what I am producing.”
“Every man is an independently existing, self-contained world, guided by an impulse to live. Besides biological aging, suffering, happiness leave their mark on him the same as the stereotypes of every day on his life. The lives of people around us reflect our own life with its desires, disappointments, fulfillment…
“The real masters of the document are at the same time masters of human typology. They know what becomes the face of man: ingenuity, dignity, joy, suffering, aggressivity. Motto: A face irradiated by real feeling is always beautiful.”
“As far as possible I do the photographing alone, completely on my own, without anybody else participating. Just I myself establish contact with people or the environment. Experiences and expertise gained by this strengthen my motivation and boost my confidence.”
It was because of Kolář that I embarked on my first documentary project. Originally I’d thought to do street photography, or rather, document people on the subway and trams, something I was too shy to attempt when the time came. Instead I photographed young dancers in training at a local studio. (More on that next week.)
For now, I’d like to close with a brief bio and some images of an amazing photo book he gave me:
From Fototorst: “A native of the coal and steel town of Ostrava, Moravia, Viktor Kolář (born in 1941) has been takingi photographs of his hometown ever since he was a boy. A brief period as an emigre in Canada (1968-1973) resulted in another group of photographs. Later, Kolář accepted the occasional commission, including one for a book on Prague, where, since 1993, he has been commuting to teach photography at the renowned FAMU film school.
“All his departures, however, are only digressions from his main theme, Ostrava. For Kolář it is not merely a strangely rough and ready, enthrallingly awful town, it is also his whole world, the place where he searches for universal themes.
“For about fifty years Kolář has been a shy yet tenacious observer of the highs and lows of human life in a single place, his universe, reflecting the changes in its landscapes and the faces and bodies of its inhabitants.”
For more of Viktor Kolář’s work, please visit his website.
Question for you readers: How are you liking the Artist of the Week series? Any special requests for my posts? Do you like to hear how I met or “found” an artist versus just hearing about their work?