What do we know about Czech photographer Jan Saudek? Everything and nothing it seems. A loveable rogue. A victim of circumstance. A born survivor. Saudek wants us to think that he’s all of these things and more – it’s all part of his cultivation of the mystique that has been a feature of his turbulent career since the early-1960s. Maybe he is all of these things, or maybe he’s none. At times it can seem that there are a multitude of Saudeks all vying for their position, and at others he’s invisible; Jan is simply not there. “How many Saudeks are there?” I ask him. and he’s quick to reply; Too many! – though he’s happy that the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs now considers him an important ambassador for the country (a tourist attraction even). “The problem with me is I'm a bad actor,” he points out, and there’s a sense that his position will always remain somewhat ambiguous – the eternal outsider, perhaps. Saudek prefers the term ‘underground’ however, for it is more appropriate to someone who has never been officially recognised by the art establishment in his own country, and clearly it still rankles. But is he an intellectual? “No! Jan Saudek is a primitive!” he shouts, referring to himself in the third person.
Now in his eighties, he claims he has no need of publicity and no need to court favour, too; although he’s clearly one of the Czech Republic’s best exports, he remains – to borrow that well-known phrase – a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Trying to understand the meaning of Jan Saudek requires that you research him like an archaeologist on a dig, picking away at the layers of evidence with a trowel, attempting to separate the myth from the rumour, the truth from the fiction, the apparently bald lies from the conditional half-truths – all of which are delicately layered and, of course, all part of the game. The life of Jan Saudek reads like a work by Franz Kafka, but what does it all mean? Is Jan Saudek misunderstood? “Good question,” he responds, “I’m misunderstood, absolutely! People think they know me but they just consider me as that ‘that dude who shoots fat women’. I make pictures of everything, but the market dictates how I’m seen – it requires special types of women… It’s bad luck, I guess, but it’s better to be recognised as a weirdo then not to be recognised at all.”
For the outsider Saudek is not easy to pin down in terms of his whereabouts either – he perpetually comes across as the man who wasn’t there – like Orson Welles in The Third Man, glimpsed in the shadows more than the light – and eventually you come to wonder whether he really exists at all. It sounds odd, I know, but it’s not far from the truth. As he once told his biographer, Daniela Mrázková, he’s been accused of being an agent for the FBI and the CIA, and of residing in numerous cities around Europe when all along he was in Prague. Most alarmingly for him, even his death has been officially announced, only for him to pop up in Prague a few days later! When the Ministry of Culture in the old communist Czechoslovakia was once approached by the Swiss to allow Saudek to attend a panel in Fribourg, in true Kafkaesque fashion, they were told (simply and politely), that there was no such person. More mystique? More Saudek spin? Again, maybe. Who can tell for sure? In the end you always return to the same point; the only thing you have to go on are the photographs, because everything else is a mere rumour. The photographs are true though, because they actually exist… Don’t they?
Well yes, and no. Even in his photographs, loathed by many, admired by countless others, Saudek is dissembling and playing with truths. Take his titles for a start: In so many of his prints he handwrites the titles and the dates around their margin like an archivist, but backdates them to the mid-to-late-1800s, or early-1900s in an apparently playful deceit. A print from the negative for On the Road (made in 1964) can appear dated as 1879, or 1886, dependent upon… well… who knows what? In other images his trademark hand colouring and tableauxesque antique scenarios are cunningly arranged to present us with the non-time of history-made-present. These images are obviously not daguerreotypes nor cartes-de-visite, though there’s a strange sense that, as photographs, they would have liked to have been, in another life. The deceit creates distance and asks us to willingly suspend our disbelief while the photographer gets on with his chosen business of, well, photographing what in any other form would be considered scandalous. In some images the full theatre of absurd cruelty is played out with a Sadeian passion that would not be out of place in a film by Pasolini, but Saudek gets away with it because it is rendered as antique and thus removed from ‘reality’ just that little bit further.
So, what do we know about Saudek and his life? That is, if it is all such a deceit? What we can be sure of is that most of Saudek’s family on his father’s side were murdered in Theresienstadt concentration camp, while Jan and his twin brother Karel did their best to survive in a work camp on the Polish border. What remained of his family after the war returned to Prague, where Saudek himself began working for a printer. The real impetus to take up photography, however, came after his military service when, in 1963, he saw the exhibition catalogue to Edward Steichen's seminal photography exhibition Family of Man that was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955. It was an epiphanal moment for Saudek who felt driven to create a single body of work committed to the expression of the “universality of human emotions” – something he has been pursuing ever since in one way or another. In the mid-1960s, he traveled to the USA where he was further encouraged to continue photography by the curator Hugh Edwards, but it was not until he returned to Prague that the political circumstances following the ‘Prague Spring’ conspired to force him to work in a cellar between those richly textured walls that recur so frequently in his later work.
Here opinion begins to differ on what it was that led Saudek to work in the cellar in the first place, however. The official story is that his clandestine studio practice was largely essential to avoid the attention of the secret police, who were hell-bent on exposing him as a pornographer, a homosexual, of having sex with minors even – and of course, an enemy of the state! The other version is less scandalous, although equally ‘unfortunate’; that on return from the USA he came back to a broken marriage and children who didn’t recognise him, a life in ruins and hard toil in a factory ahead. Whatever truth gets privileged over the other, it is generally accepted that both versions are more or less correct. In fact, he sums it up thus; “For a very long time in Czechoslovakia, we lived in sort of prison behind that huge wall that was the Iron Curtain – we weren’t allowed to be free. But there's also another wall inside many of us, and in me especially. The prison of my anxieties, my fears, and taboos.” It’s a striking feature of so many tales about Saudek from this time, that they concern the advanced state of paranoia that his experiences had brought him to, helped on by what he consistently frames as the envy of other artists and photographers, as well as the wrath of public opinion. These were ugly times, clearly, though they gave rise to those keynote themes of innocence, betrayal and personal freedom that are today so celebrated in his work by those for whom he remains in favour.
It was around this time (the mid 1970s) that the German-born photographer Gisèle Freund gave Saudek a Rolleiflex (“the one she used to photograph Eva Perón” he boasts) and he still uses it to this day I am told, but this is no mere sentimentalism. For many Czech photographers of a certain age, great value is placed upon equipment and materials following the austere years of communism that consumed much of their creative life, simply because equipment and materials were always so scarce. I relate a story to him about my contact with the Czech photographer Pavel Stecha who, during the lead up to the collapse of communism and Czechoslovakia’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ would send me prints in exchange for a roll of 120 or some photographic paper. Smiling, Saudek trades memories; “In the early-70s, I exchanged my prints with a lot of foreigners for photographic material. Especially with Phil Condax from Eastman Co. Those were the days!” The cameras on which those prints were shot are still highly valued by Saudek, too, and still used. “I work with an old Pentacon Six, but times have changed. I’ve worked with a Canon EOS 5D for some time, too.” In the 1980s he shot a great deal on a professional Polaroid camera he tells me, “but it’s all history now.”
Saudek’s first camera had been a Kodak Baby Brownie (given to him in 1949) he says, though he learnt how to use a real medium format camera ten years later when his wife bought him a Czech-made Meopta Flexaret with its sharp lens and ever-reliable shutter. On the box brownie was composed his first picture (now lost, he insists) but it led him to be labeled as utterly kitsch by a visitor to the family home – a criticism that he took to heart and that nearly led him to give up photography after just one shot! Kitsch is a label that still rankles today, but when I make the same accusation he is philosophical; “Kitsch is the right word. I can take it.” He is clearly aware that Kitsch is the cross he has always had to bear from his ‘babe in arms portrait’, Life (1966), that was so easily parodied by poster-shop snappers in the early-1980s (it’s still his most popular image) to the gauche hand-tinting and watercolouring of his own prints from the 1970s and 80s in which he himself so often appears. And there you have it: in which he himself so often appears – the key to unlocking the meaning of Saudek is to look upon his work as primarily autobiographical.
Saudek’s photography is autobiographical in a way that few photographers are autobiographical today, creating a sense of aura around himself, and most notably his sexuality, his passion, and his desire. But that’s not to ignore the fact that his photographs are also, in many ways, a direct result of life’s horrors too. Let’s make no mistake about that. During the war (and immediately after it) Saudek saw violence and atrocity for sure. In the work camp as a child he saw atrocity and, he claims, later as well when Czech’s strung up “the innocent” and murdered them in acts of revenge. “In 1943,” he says, “I saw my dearly-loved father beaten on the street by Czech guys for the Star of David that he was made to wear, and I'll never forget it. Of course, I was beaten many times, too – but it's horrible to see how your father is slapped and kicked, innocent and weak, vulnerable and unable to fight back.” It is partly for this reason that Saudek has not been as politically active as some artists in a country once renowned for the activism of its cultural elite. “When the communist regime fell”, he reminds me, “the people on Prague’s Wenceslaw Square came out in force, but some decades ago those same folks swore their fidelity to Stalin, and in 1942, they raised their arms in the Nazi salute.”
During the course of our conversation, I am constantly uneasy with the reputation of the photographer and many of his photographs too, which following the rise of the #MeToo movement can be easily reconfigured to be read as something they are not. I increasingly feel that when you look at the photographs Saudek has produced over the years, there’s invariably a sense that he is running headlong and fiercely towards physical affection and instant sexual gratification; as though he is trying to use his subject matter as a means to blot out the memories of those depths to which human beings can sometimes descend, or possibly recreate such moments as a cathartic process, but perhaps this is wide of the mark. He certainly wouldn’t be the first artist to connect sex and death in their work, and he’s certainly not the only person to attempt to assuage trauma with physical affection either. When I suggest this might be the case, Saudek thinks for a moment and then sits forward as if to confess: “I think that it's physical love that attracts me… but you're right… sexual intercourse can remind you strongly of death.”
He is alarmingly frank, but with the interview nearing its close, I press him further, aware that he has explicitly addressed violence in his work on many occasions. “Is there anything that you just wouldn’t turn your lens towards and shoot?” I ask him, figuring that I might get to probe the darkness of his psyche, but his reply is now measured and honest; “Anything that shows the loss of human dignity,” he says. “I could not shoot that.” It’s a reply that should perhaps stand as his epitaph one day, preventing him from being as misunderstood in death as he has been in life – and, of course, he is now reaching that age when interviewers have already begun asking him how he would like to be remembered. Instead I try a different route, aware that he is a keen gardener. When he must go, would he prefer it to be behind the camera or in his garden? “If I die”, he says, “perhaps on a bench in the garden would be the best place to leave this beautiful world, don't you think so?”