Common objects, uncommon light

On Josef Sudek's sensuous images, defined by a beguiling intellect

I remember seeing Josef Sudek’s gelatin silver prints for the first time at the National Gallery in Ottawa, still an important place to me, for its expanse more so than any other feature. The large, oblong windows made for great viewing, and wondering, and made me feel safe in spite of the fact of windows: that they let light in just as they let light out. It was winter, and I walked the lit path home on a foggy evening.

Sudek’s photographs call to mind a stranger’s brush against your coat on the bus. His way of seeing reminds me of a framing I used to use, at my teacher’s encouragement, in ninth grade: “It can be seen that…” And his still life, of an egg, triggers the memory of my mother telling me how my grandfather, in a nursing home, gave my uncle and his wife a tea egg that he had saved from that morning.

Born on March 17 in 1896, Sudek is best known for his photographs of still lifes and interiors of Prague, many of which were taken from his studio. The image, “The Window of My Studio,” which can be viewed online at the New Orlean’s Museum of Art, recalls the fact that the German philsopher Immanuel Kant, born a century and a half earlier, never left the outskirts of his hometown of Königsberg. He enjoyed his solitary walk each day. “Rain or shine, it had to be taken. He went alone, for he wanted to breathe through his nose all the way, with his mouth closed, which he believed to be excellent for the body. The company of friends would have obliged him to open his mouth to speak.” writes John Merrick for Verso.

Sudek photographed everyday objects in different lights, on different days, at different angles, an example of which could be, “Untitled (pear on crooked plate),” or “Glasses and Eggs.” He believed in the way images could be transferred through diararistic ambition and a curiosity about the way light refracts. His is an intimate collection of publishable unpublishings, that deserve to be seen even if they were not meant to be. Other works, landscapes like Paesaggio, take a wider, panoramic and more global view of intimacy. They stay grounded in his point of view while taking on a stony silence that is estranged from the energy of his other works. In his still lifes, taking into consideration his quotidien subjects, Sudek’s photographs are varied and more experimental than they even appear at first glance. He deeply abides the interior monologues that exist to distinguish what is inside, between and outside the window, the fog that settles on it as if on the camera lens.