Josef Sudek, (1896-1976), Czech photographer, known for his black and white photographs of Prague and the surrounding area, and for his incredible use of light. Josef was born on 17 March 1896, the first surviving child of Václav and Johanna, in Kolí, a town on the Elbe River, about 20 miles east of Prague. When Sudek was two, his father, Václav, died, and his mother, Johanna, moved with the two children to Nové Dvory, her hometown. Sudek had a great love for books, which were very expensive, so, in 1908, he enrolled in the Royal Bohemian School of Crafts, in Kuntá Hora, with the intent of becoming a bookbinder. In 1910, he went to Prague to apprentice with a bookbinder. He received his certificate at age 17.
At this time, he acquired his first camera, a simple box design. In the next few years, he put together a portfolio of 156 photographs of Prague and the surrounding area. Sudek was drafted to serve in World War I in 1915. In 1917, he lost his right arm. Even with this injury, Sudek produced three portfolios of photographs during the war. Sudek received a small pension because of his injury, but not enough to live on.
A year or two after Sudek returned to Prague, he met Jaromír Funke, a fellow photographer who would become a life long friend. Funke helped Sudek in his daily life, as well as encouraging his photography and providing advice on business matters. Sudek was very active in the arts community in Prague, providing money to other artists and as a result, collecting a large quantity of art. Sudek was admitted to the State School of the Graphic Arts in 1922. He graduated in 1924, proficient both in the technique and business of photography.
By the mid 30s, Sudek stopped doing enlargements, and made only contact prints from large format negatives. After World War II, Sudek became more comfortable with working slowly, taking photographs that showed more consideration of the light and the location. It was also around this time that it became more difficult to display his works. The socialist publishers, at first, would not publish his books. In the 50s, however, the Sudek was able to convince the state press to issue his books, including the important Prague Panoramas (Praha Panoramatika).
Sudek was awarded the title of Artist of Merit in 1961, the first photographer to receive this high honor from the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. In 1963, the first major public exhibit of Sudek’s work was held, at the Czechoslovak Union of Writers Bookshop. The public reaction was generally negative, as the public were not used to seeing his work as original photographs, but as reproduced in books. They were also not used to seeing such personal photographs. As a result of this reaction, Sudek was both discouraged and motivated to work harder on his next group of photographs, Labyrinths.
Beginning in the mid 60s, Sudek began to receive international attention. The first major show outside Czechoslovakia was at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1968. In 1974, a retrospective of Sudek’s work was held at the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, New York, which traveled to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. In 1976, a major retrospective of Sudek’s work was held in Prague, in honor of Sudek’s 80th birthday. Sudek died in late September 1976.
Josef Sudek is best known for his black and white photographs of Prague and the surrounding area. His use of light, capturing the magic of light itself, is unlike any other photographer. He is perhaps best known for his panoramas and still lifes, but has also created many photographs of people in and near Prague. The most readily available work on Sudek’s photography is Josef Sudek, Poet of Prague, A Photographers Life. Other important books include Prague Panoramas (Praha Panoramatika), 1959 and Sudek by Sonja Bullaty, 1989.