“I turned up in Prague some two months later… from that time on, I never went anywhere, anymore and I never will. What would I be looking for when I didn't find what I wanted to find?"
- Sudek, quoted in Sonja Bullaty, Sudek (Paris, 1986), page 27
Although Josef Sudek was born in 1896 in Kolín on the Labe in Bohemia, he spent most of his life in Prague, a city he was completely devoted to and which he knew intimately, taking thousands of photographs of its architecture and inhabitants over many decades until his death.
Sudek’s fascination with light – and its absence – led him to create some of the 20th century’s most haunting images of nature, monuments, city streets and objects, all of which were transformed by his sensitive understanding of light’s power to reveal how darkness renders all impenetrable. To achieve these effects, he used simple and highly poetic devices, raising dust to reveal the light or using mist from a garden sprinkler, for example.
Initially trained as a bookbinder, it is said that Sudek may never have become a photographer if he hadn’t been injured in WWI. In 1915, he was drafted and sent to the Italian front. After being seriously wounded – he lost his right arm – he was discharged from the veteran’s hospital in 1920, and settled in Prague, considered then to be the jewel of Europe.
In 1922, Sudek enrolled in the School of Graphic Arts in Prague and undertook a formal education in photography. In 1924, he helped found the Czech Photographic Society, an avant-garde group of photographers dedicated to freeing their work from the painterly tradition.
In 1926, he briefly returned to Italy, travelling with friends from the Czech Philharmonic. It was at this time that he seems to have experienced a nervous breakdown, staying in the farmhouse where he was cared for when he was originally injured. When he returned to Prague two months later, he vowed never to leave again.
Despite his disability, Sudek worked with large, bulky cameras with the aid of assistants, one of which was Sonja Bullaty, who answered an ad for an assistant in the newspaper after being released from a Nazi concentration camp. Bullaty went on to become a successful photographer in her own right and continued to work with Sudek, later publishing several catalogues and helping to arrange retrospectives of his work.
Sudek visited and photographed places that held either personal or spiritual significance for him: the landscape along the Elbe River, Invalidovna, St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague’s complex streets and open squares, the majestic Prague Castle, the city’s surrounds, and Frenštát pod Radhoštem where he spent summers with friends. His studio also held a special significance for him. It was from his studio window, a visual metaphor that divided his private studio-home from the exterior world, that he created extended visual explorations of what he viewed.
No place was more sacred to him than where he lived and no other photographer was so devoted to the task of portraying a city as the “Poet of Prague.” Sudek only stopped taking pictures at the end of his life, when he was so elderly that moving around his beloved city became too difficult.
Sudek died of a heart attack on 15 September 1976, aged 80. At the time of his death, Sudek had published 16 books and monographs in Czechoslovakia and left thousands and thousands of prints and negatives in his studio.