Tag Archives: USSR

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.

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© 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!

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© 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?

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© 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).

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© 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.

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© 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.

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© 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.

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© 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.

 

 

 

 

 

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Life of a bum and The End of La Belle Epoque

Misha Pedan‘s “The End of La Belle Epoque” offers us a remarkable testimony of life in Ukraine, during the last few years of the era of socialism.  The design of the book itself is quiet classical and gives it a solid feeling like the feeling of a traditional (pre-digital) family album. What makes its design extraordinary, is the way it is enveloped in a cardboard file, reminiscent of the burocratic files in which the Soviet regime contained the lifes of all its subjects.

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But, the real thing about “The End of La Belle Epoque” is the extraordinary way in which these subjects of the CCCP have been portrayed. We could learn a lot about this portrayal in an insightful essay by Irina Sandomirskaia that accompanies the book.

Irina Sandomirskaia notices that the pictures in “The End of La Belle Epoque” were made while the USSR was collapsing, while the empire’s grand aspirations, its striving after a brilliant future, its militant spirit of class struggle, had already long retreated from daily life. The social landscape was irreversibly decaying and evaporating. Most Westerners did not know it yet, but “the Reds” had relaxed their iron muscles on their own people for good.

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© Misha Pedan

And, what were the subjects of Misha Pedan up to in this end-of-times context? Sandomirskaia observes that they are surrendering themselves to a dolce far niente, to a sweet idleness of doing nothing. They seem not to hold themselves any longer accountable for or attached to anything. There is a sense of quiet contentment ruling. Misha Pedan’s heroes are giving themselves to those modest enjoyments which their grand epoch used to forbid them and which the time of stagnation is offering in abundance.

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© Misha Pedan

Sandomirskaia than lucidly outlines that Pedan’s heroes embody a soft kind of anarchism. She describes this anarchism as the subversive power of leading one’s life as a modest feast – a life that “has disentagled itself from the clutch of the historic law”. The Soviet regime was, according to her, completely powerless towards this bum like attitude of its subjects. She relates the powerlessness of the Kremlin towards Pedan’s heroes (or bums) to the powerlessness of the polis of Athens towards Diogenes, who was only looking for some bodily pleasures on the agora.

Pedan’s heroes are not traumatised by the catastrophe of the downfall of the USSR nor excited by the hot and revengeful spurs of the liberal revolution.  We believe that Pedan’s focus “on a festive mood laced with a slight hangover in an unpretentious enjoyment of the present” is truly something unique. It would have been far less surprising to our eyes to see only the miserable, grey and frustrated faces of a generation that has bitterly lost the cold war.

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© Misha Pedan

But, Pedan’s focus also raises another and maybe a more important question. Where are the Ukrainians standing now? After 25 years of exposure to neo-liberal temptations from the EU and after the raise to power of Russian oligarchs, who are even more cynically neo-liberal, it seems that the Ukrainians could not keep the spirit of soft anarchism. Lenin was downed in Pedan’s hometown last week! Today, we are witnessing violence, riotting, destruction and even war. Could it be that the current rulers, whoever and wherever they may be, have learned their lesson and have closed all spaces for soft and wise subversives like Diogenes?

We will not answer the question yet but, in a next post, we will come back to Misha Pedan’s noble bums and the anarchistic poetics by which he has portrayed them!

David Nollet