Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Anton Podstrasky

Tono Podstraský sits in the early evening light with his eyes closed lost in reverie. Casting his mind back some forty years to recall names, places and dates most of them long gone for his up coming exhibition. A negative from what remains of his perfectly preserved archive held carefully between his nicotine stained index finger and thumb. “Wait, wait ’67 a restaurant called Hron that’s it”. He smiles, gently puts down the negative and takes a long drag of his cigarette.

Born on 1st of April 1939 he was brought up in Pružina along with his ten brothers and sisters, his mother worked hard on the land and his father was a door-to-door salesman. Originally wanting to become a painter he moved to Bratislava to study art at high school and under the guidance of his adopted older brother Milan Sládek he became a photographer, making portraits of famous people for his final exam. During his career he has worked as a stills photographer on many films, published thousands of photographs in the newspapers, made two books of film stills and his photographs have illustrated three books on gypsies. He’s also had half a dozen solo exhibitions the first in 1969 organized by the chief editor of the newspaper Smena.

My first introduction to Anton Podsraský was at the beginning of this year when a friend called me up to watch a video of the photographer, made in 1994 by Slovak T.V. The video a shot from the hip style documentary follows Podstraský on foot from his flat through the streets of Bratislava to the market at Miletičova. Podstraský darting about erratically with his bad leg sticking out straight as a ski pole pulling him along, clicking his shutter at unsuspecting passers by. Occasionally pausing to speak to people, not really to ask them for permission but to compose them for a better shot. His face a multitude of expressions as he waves his hands and literally barters with people on the market for a picture. Watching this combination of energy, tenacity, courage and decision all rolled up into some kind of crazy dance was hypnotic.
But the real power of Podstrasky is in his images. Here in black and white old men play like children pulling faces for the camera while others stand gracefully, eyes filled with pride. Podstraský focuses his camera on the forgotten and the ignored, on the poor, homeless and alcoholic. He doesn’t render them as hopeless, lost or downtrodden but shows us a celebration of life without riches or fortune and in doing so he finds both poetry and comedy with his camera.
Today though the years have taken their toll Anton is warm, entertaining, witty and generous with his compliments.

“I started taking street in ‘65” he says. “Before that I was working on films”
His street photos tell you a story of the time, from the 1967 picture of a man selling ice cream from a bicycle in front of the castle to a working horse pulling a plough in front of panel flats. But the pub was his studio and its there that he captured people more intimately.
Getting closer and taking greater risks to get the picture. He was attacked and beaten many times suffering broken fingers, a broken nose and having his teeth knocked out. “ I had about 24 cameras smashed or stolen but when I was on the ground getting kicked I usually managed to save my film” He laughs.

Anton Podstraský s photographs capture the heart and soul of the street, the shared human experience. They are photographs by a man who was in the right place at the right time.

Ponorka 1966 Anton Podstrasky

Ice-Cream 1967 Anton Podstrasky

Monday, February 19, 2007

Purple Fields

The light is falling
The colour is fading
Time is scratching away
We are here just a moment
But gone so very long.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Abandoned Gas Station

Still thinking about connections.

Friday, February 16, 2007


There is a theme tying everything together a connection no matter how small.
She holds a framed family portrait her eyes are closed she is enraptured
In the portrait she has two small boys in her arms. She is younger, she is happy.
The boys live in Canada and they have for the last thirty years.
The years she hasn't seen them.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Liquid Tear

It flows, like a sweet liquid tear across the landscape. Constantly changing yet still remaining in essence the same. The river.
In the deepest winter, parts of the river are frozen solid like glass that children skate on, men over decades and plum brandy recall such times with fondness. People come and people go but the river remains long after the party’s over. The action of the river is simple it is eating away the land slowly, methodically, relentlessly from Germany to Romania.
When I think of the river I think of infinity, of inspiration and of adventure.
Though the river to some in the not so distant past was an obstacle to be traversed to freedom. Many died trying to cross its icy quickness.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Lost Treasure

Jaroslav Michalik walks with a stick. He has 17 stitches in his hip from a recent operation to fix an old climbing injury. Though his face is a mask of discomfort he manages to mutter something to himself that brings a faint laugh. It’s just before eleven and he is opening the two brass padlocks that secure the big iron barred gate to the door of his bookshop. As we step from the cold frosted street into the gloom a new combination of smells fill my nose. Of old dust and paper and the sickly sweet cure of stale sweat and cigarette smoke on wet clothes. Jaro locates the light switch with timed precision in the near dark and after a couple of sputters the room is washed in fluorescent light. Adjusting to the light you see a thirty square metre room with about eight square metres of space left usable. Everywhere the eye can see books. Books of all description known piled up from floor to ceiling, half in bookshelves the room bisected by a wall of books to create a small corridor, piles of books almost obscuring the windows where the desk and chair at which Jaro spends his working day until six in the evening sit. The desk too is a patchwork of piled books, old playing cards, ashtrays, photographs and scraps of paper with names and numbers scrawled on them.
The used bookshop is known as an antikvariat in Slovakia and of the handful in the city of Bratislava Jaro’s has to be the smallest. Sitting at the foot of a row of panel flats on a quiet side street almost obscured by the cars in the car park a small brown metal door with Antik and Variat stencilled in two lines with white tape are the only visible clues. Inside the bookshop Jaro is small, strong and straight faced sitting at his desk greeting all with a “Good day” and sometimes a calculating look. Somewhat like an ice berg only one third of the books seem visible at any one time and if you know what you are looking for Jaro can usually tell you within a few seconds whether he has it and can bring it to hand in anything between two minutes and half an hour depending on how many walls of books it is necessary to move. From classics to comic’s, old vinyl to chipped plates, autographs to photo albums from the late 1800’s among the necessary ballast there are gems: A first edition Somerset Maugham, hand drawn German maps from the thirties, a rare Russian edition of Bob Dylan's Slow Train A Comin’ and the odd daguerreotype of families in their Sunday best staring out with frozen silvery eyes into the now ghost world of a Budapest photo studio.
“ Interesting things “ Jaro says. And you know by the break in his expression, the crows feet fanning out from his eyes that a few words are his way of conveying a deep interest and connection to these mementos of crumbling history. The bookshop is two years old the space was previously home to an internet café and a communal cellar for the dwellers of the nine floor flat. He built up his collection over a period of years before the realisation of the bookshop, travelling to villages and towns to buy from people’s houses sifting through the rubbish in basements and attics for treasure, thousands of conversations and amateur history lessons later the shop stands as a living tomb, as fragile and somehow temporary as memories themselves.
“ Little people “ Another of his English phrases though not meaning children or dwarfs but few customers, both a sad reminder of the decreasing literacy of a generation addicted to disposable entertainment and the reality of a business quite literally faced with a shelf life. “ People do not buy old books, they give new things as presents “ The majority of buyers tend to be of the older generation with little money to spare. There are artists, philosophers, professors and collectors that routinely visit exchanging books and opinions. One day I was introduced to Julius Koller a famous Slovak artist, slightly built and hawk eyed with wild unkempt silver hair and a beard from the bible, he suggested I make a portrait of him orchestrating a scene where he was outside behind the barred gate of the bookshop as if incarcerated, frustration on his face from as he said “ Not being able to get to my favourite bookshop “. There is Tony in his sixties who travels from a nearby flea market on Fridays pushing an old bicycle laden down with plastic bags full of books his thick tinted glasses reflecting a perfect inverted amber version of the interior. Guidos an ex- gymnast from the 1940s Czechoslovak Olympic team smartly dressed in shirt and tie back from a seminar in Chicago where he was a guest speaker on the development of gymnastic technique. A glass of wine and a piece of his sisters cake along with the usual inquisition albeit in flawless English on why I am here in Slovakia. Guidos as sharp and strong as many a man half his age.
“ If you’ve seen the smallest then you have to see the biggest “ And so one Saturday we took the car a hundred kilometres to Leopoldov the home of Central Europe’s largest old book shop. Though Leopoldov is more famously known for its prison and the town has a reputation for alcohol and crime. It’s a one street town with enough elements to quicken your pulse. And arriving outside the bookshop you see it shares part of a building with a pub full of mean drunks, the smell of beer and urine sharp in the air. Ring a bell and from behind a door a well built bearded man with a sport coat and some type of captains hat appears at the kind of barred gate usually seen in old prison films. Inside in a room the size of half a football pitch are 250 thousand old books lined up in tall shelves that give the appearance of book monuments towering over small patches of threadbare carpet. In fact when viewed from above on the second floor the carpet appears like small brown valleys dwarfed by the steep cliffs made by the books. A solid silent mass of words.

“Coffee” Says the man in the captain’s hat. The man in the hat happens to be called Tibor and as well as being the owner of the bookshop he is also a keen fisherman and an excellent accordion player. As well as 250 thousand books, dozens of typewriters, electrical goods and crockery he also has a collection of around 100 accordions and some very nice homemade apple brandy so let the entertainment begin. Tibor sits behind his desk and holds court with whoever is in front of him listening. He sends out for beer and soon after picks up a beautiful old Italian harmonica and starts to play “We’ll meet again” the Vera Lynne classic apparently for me, he follows this with some folk and gypsy standards all tunes played with great gusto and comedy asides. Tibor is a born entertainer and clearly appreciates being the centre of attention. He shows me his visitor’s book with signatures and comments from the various domestic and foreign dignitaries, politicians, professors and public that have visited his bookshop. Photographs of him with old Russian and Slovak presidents. Tibor always in a sport coat and hat of some description. He too is suffering from loss of business due to “little people” though with his location and size it is more understandable. He has some gems but a lot more ballast and I can’t help thinking that through time the good stuff will be picked off leaving behind a paperback carcass of books that are all but redundant. Still the experience is worth the trip and though a couple of T.V and newspaper articles give Tibor a reason to brush down a sport coat and don a different hat it’s the support of “Little people” meaning people in general, for them to renew an interest in things old and lend some support to these musty old bookshops and maybe find themselves some lost treasure or at the least a piece of plain and simple history.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Six Young Men

The celuloid of a photograph holds them well,-
Six young men, familiar to their friends.
Four decades that have faded and ochre-tinged
This photograph have not wrinkled the faces or the hands.
Though their cocked hats are not now fashionable,
Their shoes shine. One imparts an intimate smile,
One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful,
One is ridiculous with cocky pride-
Six months after this picture they were all dead.

All are trimmed for a Sunday jaunt. I know
That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall,
Which are there yet and not changed. From where these sit
You hear the water of seven streams fall
To the roarer in the bottom, and through all
The leafy valley a rumouring of air go.
Pictured here, their expressions listen yet,
And still that valley has not changed its sound
Though their faces are four decades under the ground.

This one was shot in an attack and lay
Calling in the wire, then this one, his best friend,
Went out to bring him in and was shot too;
And this one, the very moment he was warned
From potting at tin cans in no-man's land,
Fell back dead with his rifle sights shot away.
The rest nobody knows what they came to,
But come to the worst they must have done, and held it
Closer than their hope; all were killed.

Here see a man's photograph,
The locket of a smile, turned overnight
Into the hospital of his mangled last
Agony and hours; see bundled in it
His mightier-than-a-man dead bulk and weight:
And on this one place that keeps him alive
(In his Sunday best) See fall war's worst
Thinkable flash and rending, onto his smile
Forty years rotting into soil.

That man's not more alive whom you confront
And shake by the hand, see hale, hear speak loud,
Than any of these six celluloid smiles are,
Nor prehistoric or fabulous beast more dead;
No thought more vivid than their smoking-blood:
To regard this photograph might well dement,
Smile from the single exposure and shoulder out
One's own body from its instant and heat.

Ted Hughes The Hawk in the Rain 1957

Heavy Metal Lifestyle

Its noon, 35 degrees Celsius in the middle of a field, Jano and his son are working, stuffing the rusted skeletons of two cars with metal wire, cables, steel plates, refrigerator and cooker parts: basically anything made from metal. Their day consists of metal and their survival depends on finding, transporting and selling it. Jano is stripped to the waist talking philosophically, making graceful gestures. Around two metres tall strong in arm and body with deep set eyes. He cracks a surprisingly warm smile as he talks of the how much the city has changed and how never drinking alcohol has kept him clear and strong. His eighteen-year old son stands astride old car tyres folding strips of rusted metal and stuffing them into the burnt out skeleton of an old car. He works without words, complaint or pause appearing to take no notice of me or the intense heat.

Wreckage is strewn over a half-mile radius. Of the many dead and dying autos an old Trabant filled with hay is home to a family of rabbits, I’m not sure if they are pets or food. A makeshift curtain pulled across the open end of a cab-less bus makes do as home and Janos’ wife prepares lunch at an improvised outdoor kitchen. A small white dog watches me carefully.

His mornings are spent sifting through junk and construction site debris usually collected the day before. Freeing metal rebar and reinforcement from old concrete with a sledge hammer. In the afternoon he rides his bicycle and trailer five miles into the city to scour the streets and numerous construction sites for scrap metal.
Bratislava is a city riding a wave of reconstruction as old buildings are being torn down weekly to be replaced by shopping parks and business centres. A full bicycle trailer of scrap metal will buy Jano and his family enough food for two days. But although he’s a man carving out his daily existence from scrap metal he seems both at peace and content with his world and how many of us can say that?
more photos from heavy metal lifestyle

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Museum of the Mind

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Walking through the neighborhood with my camera one day someones curiosity sparked a conversation. Seasoned with the usual whys? what fors?etc. In reply I said I'm collecting memories. This is not such the throwaway statement as it appears. We are so busy these days chasing down one success or another, building ourselves bigger, better homes, putting a little by for the winter of life. We hardly have the time to stop, sit and think where its all going. In our hurry we lose track of time and we tend to notice things only by their absence. When they are gone.
My instinct pulls me to the soon to be absent. To what will eventually be relegated to the museum of the mind. People become abstract; a line in a newspaper column, a headstone, a faded photograph. A memory.
The achievements of a person the measure of a persons toil, the mark, the footprint is not left by only a few but by all. If we could slow down, look and appreciate the marvels that exist in the everyday it just might be possible to fill up the museum of the mind.
Everday I passed through some garages near my house and saw this old Skoda sitting there with bust tyres and thick peeling paint. A throwback to the past. Once someones pride and joy; now abandoned, exhausted and unwanted. Whenever I tried to photograph it if the light was good there was always something else in the frame to spoil the harmony. Day after day throughout the summer I walked through the garages. Enclosed on three sides by apartments and usually filled with the residents new cars. I felt it was hopeless, I would never take the picture. Then one day I passed through and there it was alone with just enough sunlight coming through the branches to make the scene flicker and dance. I ran home picked up my camera and managed to shoot one frame before a new car pulled up and parked directly behind the old Skoda. The next day I walked through the courtyard only to find an oil patch on the broken concrete next to the tree where the car once stood.