Come and See How the Stars Are Turning. Antonín Kratochvíl and His Photo Essays Pavlína Vogelová

Every one of us probably experiences some break in our lives, a turning point that fundamentally alters our direction, that moves us forward, if we are in the right place at the right time. Every one of us probably experiences some break in our lives, a turning point that fundamentally alters our direction, that moves us forward, if we are in the right place at the right time. For Antonín Kratochvíl (1947), this fundamental turning point in his life and his career came in 1970, when his wanderings after fleeing from communist Czechoslovakia brought him to  Amsterdam.  There,  professor of photography Jaap d’Oliveira recognized Antonín’s visual and artistic talent and admitted him to the photography program at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie. Another important milestone in his life was in 1972 when Hans Albers, the artistic director of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, offered him the position of his assistant – thus opening the doors to the world of international photojournalism. Antonín immediately transformed this opportunity into his own professional success, engaging in a valuable photographic and historical exploration of the state of mankind and human nature at the turn of the millennium across the continents and reflecting the world’s diverse ways of life.

view to the exhibition of Antonín Kratochvíl: Photo essays, Stone Bell House, 2020. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view to the exhibition of Antonín Kratochvíl: Photo essays, Stone Bell House, 2020. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view to the exhibition of Antonín Kratochvíl: Photo essays, Stone Bell House, 2020. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view to the exhibition of Antonín Kratochvíl: Photo essays, Stone Bell House, 2020. Photo by Tomáš Souček
Antonín Kratochvíl, David Bowie, 2007
Antonín Kratochvíl, David Bowie, 2007

Pavlína Vogelová is the curator of film and photography at the National Museum’s Historical Museum and also a doctoral candidate at the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design’s Department the Theory and History of Art. In the past, she also worked at the Moravian Gallery in Brno. Her research is focused on documentary and experimental film and photography’s intermedia relationship with science, art, and education. As a curator, she has put together the exhibitions Antonín Kratochvíl: Persona (Brussels, 2019), Karel Kuklík: A Photographic Dialogue with the Landscape (Prague, 2017), Milena Dopitová: My Body Is a Temple (Taipei, 2016), Viktor Kolář (Bratislava, 2011; Prague, 2013) and Jan Calábek: Science, Film, and Art to the Delight of Bees, Poets, and Botanists (Brno, 2013).

Antonín Kratochvíl is a reportage, portrait, and war photographer, a world traveler possessing an immensely sensitive ability to perceive and depict the world around him. The predominant, highly authentic, characteristics  of  Kratochvíl’s photographs are the visual resonance of this sensitivity and the magical use of light and expression. These elements are found in his portraits of international celebrities as well as in his photographs from war zones. The drama and rawness of the image produces a strange reflection of the human soul, of its essence. Photography has helped Antonín to process the personal situations and traumas that he himself experienced in the past. He is a former refugee who subsequently drew on his status as outcast to produce an authentic photographic testimony about other people’s life stories. The subjects of his photographs represent a broad range of social strata and situations. The circumstances of their lives are positive, negative, extreme, and tragic. The human stories that Kratochvíl tells take place in many places across the globe.

The exhibition’s broader perspective enables a clear report on the confused state of human value systems. Where previously, in primitive societies, it was enough to give one’s word and shake hands, today’s society is drowning in a sea of broken relationships, in conflicts, wars, and an unsustainable approach to nature and the landscape. You will believe Kratochvíl’s photographs; they share the atmosphere of real experiences through their distinctive style, looseness, tension. But they also contain a carefully targeted critique, for they call attention to serious questions of human troubles and catastrophes.

The exhibition is symbolically divided into four areas: people’s relationship to nature, human conflict, and the individual in the midst of war, but also people with all their dreams, hopes, and fulfilled meaning of life. Like an underground river, these themes disappear, reappear, and become intermingled, just like real human problems, actions, or situations in various parts of the world. Relationships, conflicts, and dreams are something shared by us all.

The photographs of people’s relationship to nature paint a picture of the current state of the Earth: In some places, social and environmental degradation is truly extreme. We can compare and contrast: In the 1970s in the Galápagos, Antonín photographed the last remains of the rich symbiosis of nature and a holistic ecosystem. By comparison, his images from Ecuador taken just twenty years later show the devastation and logging of the country’s rainforests, black lagoons of oil and

contaminated rivers, and the helplessness and poverty of the local people. Guyana in 1997 was suffering from the long-term effects of rapacious gold mining; the terrifying shadows of an isolated tree paint a suggestive picture of a landscape suffering from malaria and contaminated by cyanide. That same year saw the plundering of blood diamonds in Angola’s recently opened Catoca mine, where the luxury of diamonds and giant prawns contrasts sharply with the helpless locals in an otherwise pillaged land with no birds or other animals. A similar situation can be found in the Congo in 2002, where poachers run wild, engaging in illegal hunting and trading in ivory.

Antonín’s photographs show humankind’s harsh impact on nature, the conquest-like expansion of human society, and a devastated and disappearing countryside, but also nature’s strength and its ability to resist human influences. Nature confirmed its dominance through the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka at Christmas 2004. Another important subject is Chernobyl, where political conflict is mixed with people’s lack of sensitivity towards the landscape as embodied by the construction of a nuclear power plant and the subsequent environmental catastrophe resulting from the 1986 accident that affected a large number of people. Antonín Kratochvíl first photographed the region in 1996, by which time the dead urban landscape of Pripyat had been conquered by a wild, irradiated nature and an invisible danger still lurked at every step.

Antonín Kratochvíl, David Bowie, 1997

Antonín’s photographs  capture  scenes from local, European, and world history and conflicts. His images from Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and ’90s, which offer a unique and comprehensive photographic overview of this region, were published in his first book, Broken Dream: 20 Years of War in Eastern Europe (1997). They reflect Antonín’s subtle sense of nostalgia and the scars that opened up when he, as an émigré with an American passport, began making repeated visits to his original home after 1976. Above all, however, these visits produced an indelible photographic record of the atmosphere of and life in the neighboring communist states. His images from Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Soviet Union are dominated by two subjects: the impact of industrialization on the landscape and life in the poverty-stricken, forgotten countryside. Antonín was strongly attracted to the question of people’s roots, moral codices, religious ceremonies, weddings, and funerals, and so he explored and documented in depth the rituals that people had maintained despite poverty and communism – in Poland, Hungary, and especially Romania. These places never lost that munificence of humanity and the sense of pride one feels from being a part of it.

Another of Kratochvíl’s grand themes is the question of endangered children. In Mongolia, Guatemala, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Pakistan, the urban labyrinth of sewers belongs to gangs of children. Abandoned and orphaned, left to fend for themselves on the streets, they easily fall into the machinery of crime and brutality. Hunger, drugs, money, prostitution, prison, and death are the specters of the uncontrollable roulette of their lives, often with no possibility for change. In 1988, Antonín’s photographs of this immense problem made as part of a reportage about children in Mongolia earned him the prestigious Alfred Eisenstaedt Award.

Antonín’s photographic adrenalin has also offered us insight into some of the world’s worst prisons. In 1997, he photographed Venezuela’s El Dorado prison, which is ruled by drug gangs and gold. Ten years later, he visited an unguarded prison in Guinea-Bissau from which there is no escape, and in 2002 he took a famous photograph from a prison in Myanmar located at the center of the opium triangle on the border between Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. This picture showing dozens of drug dealers sitting cross-legged in wooden cages won first place in the most prestigious category, General News, at the 2003 World Press Photo competition.

War represents the escalation of human conflicts. Antonín Kratochvíl has documented numerous modern wars and genocides in Rwanda/Zaire, Guatemala, Congo, Haiti, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and the former Yugoslavia. His records of reality are a source of information on and direct witness of the current state of civilization. The desacralization of all areas of human existence has taken on genocidal dimensions, leaving behind a trail of death, slavery, environmental devastation, and subverted and deformed moral principles and values.

What, then, is the outlook for the future? We will probably have to dream up a new, different, better world. This change can be realized once we are sure about what we want and how we want it. For now, we can find inspiration in the last section of Antonín Kratochvíl’s exhibition, which looks at human dreams, hopes, and prospects. Come and see how the stars are turning! By mixing portraits of completely unknown and anonymous people with photographs of celebrities such as Jean Reno, David Bowie, Billy Bob Thornton, Willem Dafoe, Debbie Harry, Patricia Arquette, Amanda Lear, Mejla Hlavsa, and Pavel Landovský, the exhibition offers an allegorical celebration of humankind. Antonín captures their state of mind: His photography is his way of understanding people, his non-verbal witness of empathy and the relative nature of beauty, fame, and success.