The title of this project pays tribute to Rene Magritte and his famous painting Treachery of Images, a banal rendition of a pipe with the inscription Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is Not a Pipe). Magritte’s piece asks the viewer to contemplate a paradox: While looking at what plainly is a (picture of a) pipe, the observer is reminded that the painted image is not, in fact, a pipe. At first glance, it might seem that the sixteen pictures of the White House in this series—one for each block of the coveted 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue address—are what they appear: photos of the White House. In their repetition and similarity, they pay homage to the typologies of industrial structures photographed by Bernd and Hilla Becher. However, after looking a little more closely, the viewer realizes that these are, in fact, “photos of photos” of the White House. When Richard Prince created his Marlboro Man project, he took photos from cigarette ads, removed the accompanying text, and thus appropriated images that play on the familiarity of omnipresent ads, using the beauty and romance of the American West. The White House project works almost oppositely. Instead of removing information, telltale signs that give clues to these photos’ origins are “added.” These hints serve to paraphrase Magritte’s inscription—to inform the viewer, while looking at photos of what seem to be the White House, that This Is Not the White House, and that these images are an approximation or substitute for the White House. For those who can enjoy the seemingly impossible endeavor of holding two opposing ideas at the same time, these photos remind us to question what we are looking at. And to appreciate the irony of it, not unlike the impossibility of solving a zen koan.
After the Czech Embassy offered me the opportunity to exhibit my photography as a part of the festival of Mutual Inspirations, which is dedicated to Franz Kafka, I intended to make arrangements to travel to Prague to take pictures for this show. I started thinking about places and scenes in Prague that would capture the spirit of Franz Kafka. But then, I put the project on backburner for a bit, as I needed to prepare for another photography event. So, with Kafka at the back of my mind, I began going through the years of photographs I took in the past for that event. In the course of editing those photographs, it dawned on me that I didn’t need to go to Prague to take any more pictures. I had more than enough material for this show. Apparently, I have some Kafka in my DNA, at least as I view him. Somehow, I try to appreciate with my camera things that are seemingly obvious, but yet multilayered, absurd, and surreal. Which brings me to the story that gave me the idea for the name of this exhibition. It’s a story that I think Kafka would have appreciated. In 1980s, when I lived in Prague, I worked as a freelance interpreter. I got a job assisting a Swedish writer who was writing a book about Prague. One chapter of his book was dedicated to Franz Kafka, and as part of his research, we went to the insurance company where Kafka had worked. I asked the watchman on duty where Dr. Franz Kafka’s office was. (These days, such people are described as receptionists, but the title “watchman“ befits the spirit of Kafka much better.) The watchman checked one list and then another. He asked me to repeat the name, and checked his lists again. Finally, he told me in exasperation: “You’ll need to go upstairs and ask them where he sits. I can’t put up with this place much longer. They never update the lists!”
What do carps in the Japanese Garden in Buenos Aires, a bench on Lafayette Square in front of the White House in Washington, a pile of rocks in somebody’s garden in Unětice, a little village in the Czech Republic, and a small country cemetery near the Texas bordertown of Presidio have in common? Many photographers are attracted to certain subjects without even realizing it. That includes me. My subjects are chain link fences — which also happens to be the answer to the question above. For years, I have been taking pictures of chain link fences. Many times, I was not even aware they were my subjects. They just happened to be part of the scenery that attracted me, or they were “supporting actors.” But after editing these photographs, I realized that these fences tend to be both supporting and leading actors, not unlike the Rubin Vase (which is the familiar drawing that can be perceived as a vase or as two faces), and that all of these photos with chain link fences have something in common. Apart from the obvious — the utilitarian diamond-shaped pattern of the wire — most of them can be viewed as something that dominates and separates those of us who are “here” (in the world accessible to us) from what is “there” (in the other world, where we are not allowed). The division is not necessarily only a physical one. It may also symbolize a barrier that separates us from what we are searching for. Many times, the users of chain link fences cover them with a translucent material, apparently to make them blend better with their surroundings or to prevent the overly curious from peering into what is going on behind them. Sometimes, these sheets are painted with idealized renditions of the construction project they are obscuring. Since one can simultaneously see both these protective veils and their backgrounds, these sheets can transform an otherwise boring view into a multilayered scene, in which the “there” becomes confusing and even mysterious. However, in other cases, the fences have large holes in them or are otherwise damaged or gaping open. Some even seem to be erected on only one side of the “there.” They still feel menacing, and it’s clear that one should not go “there.” But nevertheless, getting “there” suddenly seems achievable by simply walking around them or passing through their opening. As if there were no “here” or “there,” and the separation has become a harmless and imaginary construct. A revelation not unlike the one that dawned on Dorothy and her friends — who realized, when Toto tore down the curtain, that the Wizard of Oz was only a pathetic little man who had tricked them into thinking that he was all-powerful. Not all the fences are like these, though. Perhaps the photo of the tree growing through the chain link fence sums it up. There might have been an easy way to get behind that particular fence. But the tree did not find it. And even if it somehow had been able to do so, it would not have been able to use that path, because its roots hold it back. Still, the tree seems to be very gradually getting from “here” to “there,” but it is not clear whether it will make it. That process is plainly very slow, takes patience and pain, and the result is far from certain.
When I was a teenager growing up in Prague, I used to see a one-armed man in a shabby coat schlepping a tripod and a large-view camera. A friend told me that it was Josef Sudek, a famous Czech photographer. I—a young and fledgling photographer—bought a book of his pictures and immediately fell in love. I was smitten with the photographs Sudek had taken through the windows of his studio. They were simple and beautiful. I wished I were able to take such pictures. But I felt that Sudek had a competitive advantage. While I lived with my parents in an anonymous, uninspiring, Communist-built housing project, Sudek’s surroundings were clearly poetic. He had only to point his camera and release the shutter to create his beautiful art. Many years later, when I finally visited Sudek’s studio, I realized how wrong I was. This place was not at all poetic. No photographer would be inspired to take pictures there. At least, not before Sudek did it so masterfully. Sudek had an unmatched ability to notice sublime details, to include what is important, and to eliminate what is not. He created his own world in which the surroundings are only supporting actors. Now, many photographers imitate his style. Even though I borrowed his name for the title of this project, and as a Czech photographer I may have a little of Sudek in my DNA, I hope that I am not one of them. Rather, this is an attempt to inspire viewers to reflect on the beauty that can be found in the places they see every day and to which they no longer even notice. Or, to borrow from Thoreau, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” So whenever I end up in seemingly uninspiring places that feel visually dull, I think of the old maestro’s dilapidated studio, open my eyes a bit wider, and ask myself: What Would Sudek Do?
In May 2002, in the middle of a shift, the last 50 employees of Scranton Lace Company were sent home, and the factory closed. This day came 105 years after the company was founded in Scranton, Pennsylvania. At its heyday, in the early 20th century, Scranton Lace employed over 1,400 people. What remains now feels like a museum of lace-making with a surreal twist: magnificent old Nottingham looms; not-so-magnificent looms from the 1970s; old Singer sewing machines; enormous sheets of punch cards hanging from racks, predecessors of now-obsolete computer punch-card technology; personal belongings left behind by workers after their last shift...
The bridges of Montgomery County, Maryland, are not as traditionally photogenic as their more famous cousins in Madison County. While few of these bridges are rustic and poetically simple, most of them are functional and utilitarian (at times, eerily so). They often seem to be the symbols connecting—or trying to connect—two opposing worlds, nature and technology, day and night, consciousness and subconsciousness.
When a business heads south, one of the first things to go is the name of the establishment. Often, the removal of what previously was a dull sign with a generic lettering reveals a completely new sign or the imprint of the sign, decorated by holes, screws, scratches, old paint, and rust. A new word-object is born.