Vladimír Birgus: Photographs 1992-2002

When gazing at the photographs by Vladimír Birgus we cannot but recall all his activities as a professor in the Department of Photography of the Film and Television Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU) in Prague and the head of the Institute of Creative Photography of the Silesian University in Opava, the curator of dozens of notable exhibitions or as the author of a number of books about photography. It is by no means simple to combine the profession of a photographer, a pedagogue, a theoretician and a curator in such a way that the author’s work as a photographer does not succumb to the influences and trends about which he writes and which he encounters in exhibition halls or during his pedagogical activity.
Vladimír Birgus has devoted his attention to subjectively orientated documentary photography since the first half of the 1970s. He gained the strong impulse which directed him to an ever greater extend to the documentary sphere during his sojourn in Great Britain as a student in 1975. By that time he had already acquired experience in the fields of portraits and staged photographs and, as regards nudes, from his sophisticated series entitled Counterpoints. Similary as many other documentary photographers, Vladimír Birgus found his motifs in the streets of towns and in the course of the most varied festive occasions. In former Czechoslovakia he ranked among the few photographers who for many years photographed with unconcealed irony and sarcasm the obligatory May Day celebrations and other communist festive events and drew attention to the discrepancies between the official optimism and bombastic slogans and the devastation of the people and the living environment. However, above all he centred his main interest on documentary photographs of metaphorical nature which seemingly portrayed ordinary moments of everyday life in which, by means of visual symbols depicting unusual pictorial compositions, he revealed a special mysterious atmosphere which could be expressed in words only with great difficulty. During nearly three decades there thus originated his series entitled “Something Unspeakable” without the use of any arranging.
From the 1980s the photographer began to give preference to colour. The range of colours which he uses in his photographs is very often reduced to subdued shades of blue and almost black-and-white. On the other hand, we can often come across a striking, dominant use of a red or yellow surface. Just as in modern painting, when colour is frequently not intended to precisely portray deeply-rooted reality of our world, Vladimír Birgus chooses only a part of the colour spectrum. A red area contains strength and a glow and a loud signals is revealed by colour. In a photograph taken in Paris in 1990 we can decipher the torso of the Eiffel Tower against the background of a blue sky and also the neighbourhood of dominant ochre wall. The seemingly flat composition acquires its mysterious character by means of thrown shadows (perhaps during the early dawn or at the end of the day) in which an important role is played by shadow-indicated moving figure opposite which there emerges from the depth of the dark area a contrasting, small red area of a realistically portrayed figure. It seems that it is an unimportant figure, but in actual fact it is the important central point of the whole picture which fills it with restlessness and, in the composition of the photograph, creates the so necessary colour counterbalance to the rest of the monochromatic areas.
A similar parallel can be seen in a photograph which was taken somewhere in the streets of Manhattan in New York in 1995. Nothing points to a concrete place in wealthier or poorer quarters. Here we see a conspicuous red area of a newspaper stand, which figuratively looks like an enormous technical monster, as well as figures moving against a huge wall. The first, attired in a red coat, expresses hope, the way ahead, while the smaller black figure in the centre, receding into the distance, is quite possibly a metaphor for sorrow.
The example of the two incidentally described photographs indicates that the photographer is fond of working with symbolic meanings. Naturally, he doesn’t forget the careful composition even though considerably remote from the classical rules. He uses tonal and colour contrasts, but in the final tenor he leaves the viewer the so important free scope for his or her own interpretation of what is intimated. He is indifferent to the questions of whether his photographs originate here or there, because he doesn’t provide full/value information about a concrete place. In the present rapid course of the world every passing second has its own importance and climax.
It is quite possible that viewers will find in Vladimír Birgus‘s photographs a number of other ties and symbols and consequently also episodes. It can be said that his photographs are about emotions, moods, hidden desires and experiences. He disturbs us with an indicated happening which everyone can perceive in his or her own way. With an abundance of everyday situations he shatters our restless and hectic era into thousands of fragments and reverberations in our own selves.
In the first plane of observation Vladimír Birgus’s photographs present miniepisodes taking place in the most varied places of our planet, while in the second they mainly inform us about the present hurried process of globalization of society, loneliness in the middle of a crowd, the contrasts between dreams and reality, the not fully said and the suspected. Thus about the inner state borne with various degrees of intensity in our souls.


Vladimír Birgus (born 1954) is Professor of the Department of Photography of the Film and Television Faculty, Academy of Performing Arts in Prague and Head of the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava. He is the author and co-author of 25 books, including František Drtikol (Prague 1988), Czechoslovak Photography Today (Heidelberg 1990), Encyclopedia of Czech and Slovak Photographers (Prague 1993), The Photographer František Drtikol (Prague 1994), Jindoich Marco: The Bitter Years 1945-1947 (Prague 1995),Certainty and Searching in Czech Photography of the 1990s (Prague 1996), European Photography Guide 6 & 7 (Göttingen 1997, 2000), František Drtikol: Modernist Nudes (San Franscisco 1997), Czech Photography of the 1990s (Prague 1998), Photography in the Czech Lands 1838-1999 (Prague 1999), Czech Photographic Avant-Garde 1918-1948 (Prague and Stuttgart 1999, Cambridge and London 2002), and Jaroslav Rössler (Prague 2001).
His photographs have been exhibited in over 45 one-person exhibitions in Prague, Brno, Olomouc, Ostrava, Opava, Plzeň, Bratislava, Salzburg, Tours, Amsterdam, Poznan, Kaunas etc. He has curated and co-curated number of exhibitions including Czechoslovak Contemporary Photography (Museum Ludwig, Cologne 1990 and ten other venues throughout Europe and the United States), Czech Photography of the 1990s (exhibited in twenty European and American cities, 1993-1999), Bitter Years -Europe 1938-1947 Through the Eyes of Czech Photographers (Prague, Edinburgh and London 1995, Berlin and Moscow 2000), Modern Beauty: The Czech Photographic Avant-Garde 1918-1948 (presented in Barcelona, Paris, Lausanne, Prague and Munich, 1998-99), The Nude in Czech Photography (Prague, 2000, Olomouc, 2001, Moscow, Paris and Aachen 2002) and Jaroslav Rössler (Prague and Madrid, 2001, Brest 2002).