Tag Archives: Counterculture

Torzo (1973-1989): Life was in Jecna Street! A photobook by Ondrej Nemec.

Torzo (1973-1989) is a facinating book about the life and the work of its author, Mr. Ondřej Němec.


© Ondřej Němec

First the life: Ondřej was born in 1960 in Prague as the fourth of the seven children of Jiří and Dana Němec, two bright philosophers. The couple had many contacts in the Prague artistic scene of the sixties. During the seventies, the Němec family belonged to the most important circles of Czech dissidents. Ondřej’s parental home in Ječná Street functioned as the epicentre of the underground opposition. Painters, sculptors, critics, playwrights, musicians or singer songwriters came over to their house all te time to meet, to drink and to plot. It was there where the Plastic People of the Universe rehearsed, where Havel discussed his “The Power of the Powerless“, where Charta 77 was first signed. The pun went that life was not eternal, but that life was in Ječná Street!


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© Ondřej Němec

Young Ondřej dreamed of becoming photographer but – for political reasons – he was barred from enrolling as a student. So, he worked as a stagehand and as a boiler operator. But the study ban did not stop him from covering the “magical nights” at home; the dissidents and their subversive activities. He was all the time around with his camera when his parents were hosting their friends or leaving town for an excursion. He knew all the dissidents and their children as his own family members. He attended their concerts, their performances. He was around when there was a wedding celebration, when they went picking dandelions in the forest, when there was a homecoming party for a released prisoner, when they were playing endless football games during the hot bohemian summer evenings.

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© Ondřej Němec

The tables in Ječná Street were always covered with gulash, pots of beer and ashtrays. Ondřej pointed his lens at them because he felt the relevance for his documentary in photographs. The so-called traitors, renegates, international adventurers and loyal servants of imperialism were not afraid to live!


© Ondřej Němec

Sometimes Němec published some material in samizdat. When the self-made photographer asked his parents’ friends for a portrait, his subjects  took the time to stare into the lens, calmly and with self-assurance. They saw the relevance for their young friend’s work about his life and surroundings but – look at Havel- they also knew that the photographer was recording the growing appeal of an intellectual movement, of a new counterforce to the regime.


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© Ondřej Němec

Then the work. Indeed, Torzo is not only a book about the life but also about the work of Ondřej Němec. In August 2002 (we are thirteen years after the Velvet Revolution now) the Karlín district in Prague was flooded after a week of heavy rains over Central Europe. Němec had meanwhile become a photographer for Pragues oldest daily newspaper and he anxiously rushed down the stairs to the flooded basement of the editorial office, where the depository was accomodated. Alas, he found the black bag with all his negatives from before 1989 bobbing up and down the water. On more than thousand cut films, there was even no emulsion left. He could save only two hundred film strips but they beared permanent stains and cracks. Can we possibly imagine the state of despair in which the photographer found himself?


© Ondřej Němec

Several years later Lukáš Volek, a friend from the old days, offered to scan the saved negatives. He managed to resurrect nearly a thousand shots. And some more years later, another friend, Viktor Karlík, convinced Ondřej, meanwhile collaborator at the Václav Havel library, to do something with his “photographs from the drowned portfolio”. First, a selection was published in the magazine Revolver Revue. In 2014, the truncated work was finally published as a whole with the help of Ondřej Přibyl (Revolver Revue) in the wonderful photobook Torzo (1973-1989).


© Ondřej Němec

The book is an account of the survival of the work of a young dedicated photographer. At the same time, the amorphous blots that are dispersed all over the photographs throughout the book have obviously become the sad but beautiful signatures of Time, the force that inevitably distorts, beautifies, purifies, relieves our memories of the past.


© Ondřej Němec

When we are young, we may be unsure about the future, but the beauty scars in Torzo have become the irrefutable proof that when we are old, we are also unable to be sure about the past. Does it matter? The past has fatally slipt away through our fingers anyway. We learn that it’s the way we treat our blurred memories that counts.


© Ondřej Němec

There is also something else that I have learned. The long-haired “renegates” around Havel and the Němec family were probably all coming from prominent, wealthy families from the Czech bourgeoisie. But under the communists, these privileged children found themselves all of a sudden on the edges of society. They decided to stay there and to expose themselves to hardship and suffering. Some were raided at home and never came back from prison. When I am looking at these photographs, I admire them for having found each other in perilous circumstances, for having forged a common and new ideology that was able to challenge the apparatchiks. They were able to come up with fresh and powerful ideas and to have them cristallized; they were able to find the force to unite in order to facilitate their liberty.



© Ondřej Němec

The photographs show that they were aware of their power -the power of the powerless- and that they enjoyed it. Their souvereignity is what predominates in the photographer’s memory, blurred as it is. I love it.

Thank you very much Mr. Němec.








Forcella is photobook by two photographers who have a history of working together on long-time projects and assignments: Valentina Piccinni and Jean-Marc Caimi. It was  first published in 2015 with Witty Kiwi as a 132-pages trade edition. The book takes us on a rough ride through the oldest neighbourhoods of Naples: Quartieri Spagnoli, Sanità, the city beaches of the Caracciolo broad walk and of course also Forcella,  an infamous quarter “stabbed in the deepest guts” of the city.




© Valentina Piccinni & Jean-Marc Caimi

In its introduction the authors write: “In Forcella time is suspended, frozen in a undefined era that holds the breath from postwar to the Eighties; modernity and globalisation didn’t make their way through the daily life of common people.”

The authors could not have given us a better lead to their work. Indeed, Jean-Marc’s and Valentina’s Naples is far away from bling-bling Italy as it is stage-managed by Silvio Berlusconi on his television channels.  We are far away from temptation island where the grass is green and the botoxed girls are pretty. We are are also far away from urban, progressive but alltogether petty bourgeois subcultures. Forcella is presented as a rather uncomfortable setting, frozen indeed in cold and hard contrast B&W’s. We see tough plants resistent to the leaden sun on the city, tough animals showing their teeth, and tough folks in the austere conditions of their bare appartments.




© Valentina Piccinni & Jean-Marc Caimi

The people of Forcella seem to be enjoying the nearness of the sea and the coolness of a shadow in town, but it is also clear that a walk and a talk is all they really have. Their skins may be elegantly tanned by the sun, our attention is only drawn to the moles of imperfection or to tattoos showing enigmatic messages. The looks in their eyes are not seducing the reader not even pleasing the photographers.



© Valentina Piccinni & Jean-Marc Caimi

In an interview Jean-Marc Caimi explained that the neighbourhoods they photographed harbour a unique way of living. “A pure, old fashioned humanity is reigning, instant friendship is offered, derived from a widespread and unconscious awareness of all being in the same boat.” It is suggested that the locals are living along ancient mediterranean rites and codes of friendship, politeness, honour and hospitality. They seem to be leading their lifes as it was taught by their mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles and aunts. The loyalty to their traditions makes them resilient against economic and cultural transitions that are making the powerless even more vulnerable.



© Valentina Piccinni & Jean-Marc Caimi

But places like Forcella are also notorious enclaves in modern Italy; homes to the fiercest mafia groups of the continent. Their feuding is ruthless. The list of victims of extortions, crossfires or brutal targeted killings remains always open. When the state comes to find the perpetrators, codes of silence keep all mouths closed.


© Valentina Piccinni & Jean-Marc Caimi

Jean-Marc and Valentina write about the neighbourhoods of the camorristas and their victims that these are “places where poverty is the queen and camorra the king.” The book is following a trail through these quarters, from beach to square to church and back. The social reality over there is evoked by details. We often find cheap, kitschy objects that are most probably “Made in China”: The only products of globalized culture that wash ashore in such environments. On the same trail that we follow,  we discover also effigies of the Madonna or parafernalia of SSC Napoli, highly valued objects that can offer hope and redemption.




© Valentina Piccinni & Jean-Marc Caimi

Remarkably, the Neapolitans that we see, show themselves without any reservation. Sometimes they expose us their bodies, languorously. The looks at the camera and the bodies make me wonder who is leading the dance in Forcella. Is it “the queen” (poverty) or is it “the king” (traditional culture)?




© Valentina Piccinni & Jean-Marc Caimi

Maybe “the unique way of living” is only a weak bid against a society where wealth and power are concentrating in ever smaller circles. Mental or emotional attachments to the codes of the past are maybe the last  straw for people that – in our challenging times- have been deprived of a proper education system. Maybe the barbaric vendettas  are only weird relics of the past, cultural fossils. Maybe they are practised only for the sake of local culture, maybe they are harmless for those who live outside Naples.

Let’s read the baffling but beautiful quote by Pier Paolo Pasolini about the Neapolitans at the beginning of the book: “I have realised this: Neapolitans are today a big tribe who, instead of living in the desert or in the savannah, (…) live in the belly of a great port city. This tribe has decided (…) to die out, by rejecting the new power, that is, what we call history or modernity. (This rejection) give a profund (sic) melancholy, like all tragedies that take place slowly (…). Neapolitans have decided to die out, by remaining until the very end who they are, that is unreachable, irreducible, and incorruptible.”


© Valentina Piccinni & Jean-Marc Caimi

Pasolini is apocalyptical and hypnotising as ever. But we can also see the old, popular cultures of Naples as a fertile soil for a positive solution to the eternal conflict between the powerless and the system. Apparently, Naples has become “one of the most important examples of a European ‘rebel city’, in which municipal power is shared with social movements and civil society organisations to further the commons and innovate new forms of democratic participation“.

Anyway, Forcella’s trade edition is sold out now. Luckily,  the “binomial production team” self-published a “special dummy book edition” (30 copies) in June 2016. This second version is a 90-pages spiral bound notebook with a new selection of the images, xeroxed on French Lana Paper. It is presented as “the photographer’s cut“. And the photographer’s cut is even more uncompromomising than the trade edition. Against all the odds in Italy’s post-Berlusconi surreality, the authors clearly side with the rebels. Good stuff!

Thank you very much Mrs Piccinni and Mr. Caimi!