Markéta Luskačová: A Photographic Pilgrimage
One of the Czech words for photography is “zvecnit,” which literally means “to immortalize.” Although old fashioned and colloquial, it’s somehow appropriate when discussing the photographs of Prague native Markéta Luskačová. Since taking her first pictures in 1963—inspired by a chance meeting with pilgrims traveling to the medieval city of Levoča—she has devoted herself body and soul to documenting cultures and traditions under threat of being consigned to history. Another, less welcome influence on her photography was the 1968 Soviet invasion of Prague, a brutal expression of state power that enhanced her empathy for those living outside the boundaries of government approval. For the next several years she concentrated almost exclusively on photographing religious pilgrimages. While not exactly banned under communist rule, they were characterized by a kind of semi-legal status, in which participants were directly and indirectly persecuted by the state. When Luskačová emigrated to London in the mid-’70s, however, she expanded her focus to include religious pilgrims in Ireland, the homeless, children from various walks of life and, most evocatively, London’s Brick Lane Market, a Dickensian enclave teeming with gritty atmosphere and hardscrabble realities. Yet Luskačová strives to highlight basic human values like compassion, tolerance, integrity and solidarity. Such values may seem out of place in our impersonal technological world, yet her work suggests that they hold the greatest (perhaps only) potential for personal salvation.
I first came across your work in the August 1969 issue of Camera magazine, in which the writer Anna Farova, described you as an autodidact. She also wrote: “Marketa Luskacova is not in the least concerned about the traditional rules of photography and she unashamedly neglects the technical side in her pictures.” Looking at your images, however, it seems that you are very much in control of photographic technique. Do you know what Farova meant?
I met Anna Farova for the first time in 1965, when I was a student of sociology. I was writing my end-of-year essay on the link between sociology and photography. She had an extensive library and kindly lent me books on the Farm Security Administration, Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis. On that occasion, I showed her my photographs, and she understood that I could expose the film, develop it and print pictures, so she could consider me an autodidact. But in 1969, when she wrote the piece for the Camera, I had already graduated in sociology of culture at Prague’s Charles University, and I was a second-year student in a postgraduate photography course at Prague FAMU. I am not sure that she knew that. She also wrote that I was a student of political science, which I certainly was not. But I remember that she wrote quite nice things about my photographs.
Men with a cross, Kalvaria Zebrydowska, 1968
Can you talk a little about your beginnings as a photographer?
During my first year at Charles University I took part in a field exercise, the aim of which was to assess the cultural awareness of the residents in a small village near Prague. Each student had a questionnaire to fill out with 10 different people. One villager I questioned was a young girl, a factory worker. I was showed her five postcards as part of the survey: a still life, a 19th century portrait, a landscape, a kitsch birthday card and a modern painting. I then asked her which she liked, disliked, objected to, etc. She looked at the postcards for a very long time, then she laughed and she said she liked them all very much. And she had such a beautiful smile and such an amused expression that I wished I could photograph her—I felt that the photograph would be far more valuable than any statistics I could come up with. I wanted to be a photographer. Later that year I was hitchhiking in Slovakia and I met pilgrims going to the medieval pilgrimage city of Levoca. Then and there I made the decision to become a photographer and to photograph these pilgrims. In communist Czechoslovakia the pilgrimage was something very rare and contrary to state ideology. I wanted to record the pilgrims’ way of life, because I thought that it would not survive for much longer.
Funeral of Janko Adam, shepherd, Sumiac, 1971
Did your childhood and/or the political and cultural environment of Prague have an impact on your photographic concerns?
When communism began in Czechoslovakia there was a big upheaval in my family, during which my grandfather broke both of his hips. He and my grandmother became homeless and went to live with my parents. My grandfather became a housebound invalid. As a young man he was an artist, and art remained his lifelong love. I was his only companion, and he very generously shared this love with me. What was a sad ending of his life for him was a very good beginning of life for me.
You photographed the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968. What effect did the invasion have on you personally?
My photographs of the Soviet invasion in 1968 are a very personal testimony, an expression of bewilderment, despair and unspeakable sadness. When I decided to go live in the West, I left my best negatives with a friend in Prague, because if the negatives were to be found in my luggage at the airport, I would not have been able to leave the country. I also left with this friend my negatives of the Soviet invasion. Unfortunately, his home was raided by the secret police, who were looking for anti-government documents. They did not find my negatives. However, after the police left, my friend, out of fear that they might return, burned my best negatives of the invasion.
Mr. Ferenc singing, Obisovce, 1967
Have you ever shown those pictures?
For years I searched in vain, trying to find at least some prints. Only recently did I find some photographs from the 1968 invasion in a box of my letters to my father, which his second wife gave to me after he died. He lived in the country, and I had sent him some photographs so that he could see how it looked in Prague in those days. I had totally forgotten that I sent them. About 20 of them were exhibited for the first time in the spring of 2009 at Michigan State University. Four photographs were exhibited and published in a catalog of a large show mounted to mark the 40th anniversary of the Soviet invasion in Prague.
Czech photography has a rich history of innovation. Do you feel kinship with other documentary photographers like Josef Koudelka or Milon Novotný? And did you associate with any Czech photographers?
I used to visit an old and famous Czech photographer named Josef Sudek. He described my questions about his photographs as “picking his cherries.” Josef Koudelka is an old friend. We became friends in 1963, when he was working in a Prague airport designing aircraft. Milon Novotný was a friend of my husband, and once a week we would go to the pub together.
On death and horses and other people, 1998
Is there such a thing as a “Czech” photographic aesthetic?
I don’t think so. But Czechs and Slovaks take photography very seriously. The Czech avant-garde art groups in the early 20th century included writers, painters, photographers and sculptors. And even during communism the official state body “The Artists Union” had departments of painting, sculpture, printmaking and photography. I became a member of The Artists Union in 1969, and in my identity card, in the column “profession,” was written: “visual artists—photographer.”
What year did you leave the Czech Republic, and why did you settle in London?
I left very late; I think it was seven years after the Soviet invasion. My reasons for settling in London were several. Let’s name one: I love London.
How do you typically choose your projects?
There is no typical way in which I choose my themes. Sometimes it almost feels as if the theme chooses me, sometimes irresistibly so. Sometimes one theme leads to another, or evolves. For example, when photographing the pilgrims in Slovakia, I noticed another, very distinctive group of pilgrims coming from the mountain village of Sumiac. When I went to visit them, somehow the theme of the traditional mountain village took over, and for the next seven years I photographed that village.
Two women with a cigarette, Chesire Street, 1977
You seem drawn to marginalized groups of people.
I am quite often photographing people with a way of life that I think might not last for much longer. I want them and their way of life to be recorded. Photography is a great tool for remembering.
Do you spend a lot of time with your subjects before photographing them?
I spend a lot of time with people while I am photographing them. This is because I almost always take a very long time. By the time I finish photographing them, they are my friends. Take the picture “People around a Fire, Spitalfields.” I regularly stopped there for a month, and only took pictures when those men invited me to.
People around a fire, Spitalfieds, 1976
I’m struck by the graphic power of your work, especially the strong contrast and pronounced grain. How did you arrive at this visual aesthetic?
In Czechoslovakia in the 1960s high-speed 35mm photographic film was not available. We used high-speed cinematographic film, which we bought on the black market from film cameramen. When pushed, the film was quite grainy, and I liked it very much. The style was born out of necessity, but I like the grain, I like the texture, even the faults in the emulsion. I don’t mind them; I consider them part of the image.
Do you enjoy working in the darkroom?
I consider photography pure magic, and I enjoy working in the darkroom very much. Unfortunately, in the past few years I get sick when printing for a long time and inhaling the chemicals. So I do work prints and the first print, which is used as a guide. My modern prints are usually made by a professional printer. My early vintage prints were all made by me. Once in Prague, when I was printing, I heard my neighbor’s little girl crying outside. Her mother was not at home, so I invited her to wait in my darkroom. She was watching me dodge the prints under the enlarger and then put them in the developer, when suddenly she said: “Markéta, you are a witch.” And I said, “Of course, didn’t you know?”
Man singing in Brick Lane, 1982
There’s an artlessness, or perhaps an innocence, to the way you frame your images that almost seems to transcend the notion of composition. Do you find yourself in a particular mood or mindset when you press the shutter?
I often stay in one place for a long time, or I walk for hours on end. Hours, days, even years. You cannot take a picture unless you are there with the camera. It is very lovely to find myself in a particularly exalted mood when pressing the shutter, but this is the reward, not a vantage point. From Josef Sudek and Josef Koudelka I learned how long it takes to get a good photograph.
Do you find that the apparent visual simplicity of the images better serves to amplify their emotional complexity?
I like the simplicity of the images; that way I can say things more clearly. But not all my pictures are simple.
You have a way of confronting your subjects directly, but making it feel like a collaboration rather than a challenge. They don’t flaunt their emotions, but they don’t hide them, either. Moreover, the almost stylized intensity of their expressions and gestures sometimes makes it seem as if they are performing for you, even if they’re unaware of doing so.
The art of posing the photograph is different from that of taking things as they are. I think my best pictures are not a result of a “decisive moment,” they are done in a “moment of trust.” No picture of mine was staged or posed by myself. Sometimes people spontaneously posed for me and I simply took the picture, which they offered.
Sclater Street, London, 1975
You often group subjects in threes. Do you attach any significance to this number?
Good spotting! I never thought of it. Three is a beautiful number.
Your work is rooted in documentary tradition, yet the emotion and visual drama take it into another realm beyond documentary. How would you describe your photography?
I never liked the label documentary photographer. In a visual arts context the expressionist style is the one I feel closest to. But I consider myself simply a photographer.
There is something strange and familiar, comforting and disturbing about your photographs. Are you aware of this dynamic?
Yes. I like the tension, the ambiguity, the mystery in the pictures.
Your work has a visual poetry that seems perpetually balanced between light and dark.
Since childhood I have been an ardent reader of poetry. In London, in order to keep my Czech language, I would read Czech poetry every night before dropping off to sleep. If you sense it in my pictures, it comes from inside. Yes, I very much try to achieve a certain balance.
Edward with clock, off Cheshire Street, 1978
Even the objects in your photographs are weighted with character and significance, like the clock in the image “Edward with clock, off Chesire Street.” There’s an ambiguous yet tangible relationship between man and machine. He seems to be holding it up for inspection to an unseen customer, yet the gesture can also be read as if he were acknowledging the passing of time, or contemplating his irrecoverable youth. Is this an intended effect or the result of serendipity?
Sometimes it is intended, and sometimes it is a lucky accident, spotted only in the darkroom.
So much of your work has focused on religious rites, and how they emphasize a recognition and acceptance of mortality. Why are you drawn to religious imagery? Are you a religious person?
Yes, it appears that I am drawn to religious imagery. But my early Slovakian photographs should be viewed within the frame of time and place in which they were taken. In communist Czechoslovakia the expression of faith of any kind was against official Marxist ideology and was oppressed. In my childhood the communists raided the monasteries at night, arresting nuns, monks and priests. They spent their prison sentences working in uranium mines, which destroyed their health. People who practiced religion were called “reactionary elements.” They were often able to work only as unskilled laborers, even if they were university-educated. Their children were often denied education, being labeled “undesirable backwards elements.” My photographs are not only of people practicing religion, they are a testimony to human integrity.
Funeral, Sumiac, 1970
One month after the democratic revolution in December 1989, the director of the Levoca Museum called me in London and offered me a show in the summer of 1990. He had been aware of my photographs of pilgrims from 20 years previously, but told me that his museum would have been closed had he exhibited them. When I went to the opening, the curators recalled how they used to attend such pilgrimages late at night, wrapped in black scarves for fear of being discovered. Had they been recognized by the communist secret police, they would have lost their jobs.
You also focus on people living outside of the mainstream—mountain villagers, homeless people, battered women, disabled children, street musicians and peddlers. What kind of universal qualities do you try and capture in these diverse subjects?
I just try to photograph people as individuals, rather than universal qualities and subcultures. Sociology is gone from the radar.
Close to Prague, 2009
Have your thematic intentions changed at all over the years?
I think the mood of my pictures is changing. I would like my photographs to be more upbeat. I am not sure that I am succeeding.
What projects are you currently working on?
I take a terribly long time with my photographs. I still photograph in Brick Lane when I am in London. I have not found in London any other better place to comment on the sheer impossibility of human existence. In Prague I still photograph carnivals. The photographs are part fairy tale, part horror story. I have photographed them for over a decade. The carnivals were banned during communism, because they were considered part of the Catholic calendar. There was a certain Renaissance when democracy returned to the country—many of the old customs were resurrected. At the moment I am calling this series “On Death and Horses and Other People.” I think it will be good.
The widow Ila Krivanova, sumiac, 1972
[I wrote about Luskačová’s work in issue #73 of Black and White magazine. Check out more of this extraordinary photographer’s work at: www.marketaluskacova.com.]