This is my favorite photograph in the world. No, it’s not the most visually stunning plein-air masterpiece, competing with those of Stieglitz, Sudek, or Ansel Adams. It tells a seemingly straightforward story, but on a closer look, it’s pregnant with the unseen and unknowable. What we see, is a photographer, his head hidden under a focusing cloth, a man behind him looking in the direction of the scene being shot by the master, a woman, most of her body hidden under a large winter coat, is watching the photographer. What we don’t see, is where the interesting story begins. And since I am the only person still alive who’s privy to the concealed elements, here’s the layer beyond the shades of black and white:
It was taken by my Dad, in Prague, one autumn day of 1958. Dad was an avid amateur photographer, who almost always had his twin-lens Rolleiflex with him, so that he could capture his life’s fortuitous moments of importance, which thanks to his acute sense of self, occurred daily. For those singularly grand, but by no means infrequent special occasions, he’d hire a professional photographer or two.
Mother was less enthusiastic about photography, euphemistically speaking. In many photos, you can see her eyes rolling, her breath held. In tense moments, she always held her breath. It was her anxious response to stressors. She was categorically not breathing in this picture. How do I know Mother is holding her breath in a photo taken nearly 60 years ago? I know, because I was there, about minus six days old, deprived of oxygen temporarily. My enormous birth weight of over eleven pounds also explains her overcoat’s immodest size.
The venue is not an ordinary park, it’s the über romantic Chotkovy sady, a pearl of an English style, wooded park founded in 1832 by Count Karl Chotek. The colonnade seen in the background belongs to the adjacent 16th century Summer Palace of Queen Anne. There are tiny ponds, marble statues, majestic linden trees and almost never any visitors. The park’s serenity and charming simplicity, not to be found anywhere else in this prominent neighborhood of Prague Castle, always intrigued me. As a small child, I used to play here in a sandbox, almost every day. Later, I’d ride my bike on the park’s asphalt paths day in and day out. I became something of a regular.
Another regular of this locale was an old, disheveled and unshaven, one-armed, vagabondish character, who always carried a large bag and a massive wooden tripod on his shoulder. Walking slowly, he observed his surroundings intently and at length. Strangers might have mistaken him for a bum, or given him a few korunas to spend
in a barbershop. But, us in the know, we greeted the World War I wounded veteran with reverence.
Well, bum he was not, just a bohemian, and from Bohemia at that. He was actually a wealthy man, but spending money on himself was at the bottom of his priorities. At the top were imagination, composition and light, for those were his paper, pen and ink he needed to create poetry in silver gelatin. His ability to personify the inanimate was legendary. For the beauty he could find in a discarded piece of paper, crooked tree, slice of bread or glass of water, Josef Sudek was often called “Prague’s poet of photography.”
Today, he is considered one of the world’s greats of photography classical era, his evocative images of streets, trees, windows and still lifes hang in art galleries around the world. I’ve seen major exhibitions of his work in Prague, Paris, New York, and elsewhere. One of his beautiful Roses in a glass even hangs in my bedroom, but have I seen the Chotkovy sady photograph? Maybe, or maybe not. I’ll never find out. Where in the world or whose wall adorns the nature scene Sudek shot on this particular autumn day of 1958 will remain a mystery.