Sing a Sad Song and Make it Better – The Photographs of Markèta Luskacovà

Markéta Luskacová is one of the finest exponents of one of photography’s trickiest arts – attempted by so many, achieved by so few. On the surface, what she does seems relatively simple, dependent largely upon subliminal reflexes and an abundant supply of film. She ploughs that furrow now generally termed ‘street’ photography from the principal arena in which it takes place, but which is practised anywhere that people gather together. It is the genre that used to be known as candid photography until the pejorative associations thrown up by the word ‘candid’ caused a general shift in nomenclature.

The idea, as I say, is simple. From the confused flux of movement, incident and social activity before one’s eyes, select an instant and freeze it for posterity, or at least for one’s own gratification. It is almost the first thing any photography student tries. The first week in college finds them rushing out on to the street, stalking the quarry, then making the kill. Voilà! – they have a decisive moment, a slice of life on the wing stored safely in the little black box, pinned down like a butterfly in a lepidopterist’s cabinet.

It is a crucial rite of passage for any fledgling photographer. The moment they achieve their first halfway successful street candid is likely to remain with them for a long time. The emotions felt are generally mixed, compounded of pride, excitement, humility (hopefully), guilt, and inevitably, a large helping of power. The hunting analogy is an apt one – ‘shoot’, ‘stalk’, ‘kill’ – the hunter’s sense of omnipotence is shared with the candid photographer. For in the taking of the image there is that similar feeling of transgression. The photographer has seized life.

And that, for most photographers, is where it usually ends. I do not mean that they cease trying to record life on the streets or wherever, but that their geometrically adroit images do not add up to much beyond a somewhat mindless five finger exercise in formal camera manipulation. Lincoln Kirstein’s indictment of such candid photography, written over sixty years ago, is as pertinent as ever:

The candid camera, with its great pretensions to accuracy, its promise of sensational truth, its visions of clipped disaster, presents an inversion of truth, a kind of accidental revelation which does far more to hide the real truth of what is going on than explode it. . . The candid technique has little candour. It sensationalises movement, distorts gesture, and caricatures emotion.’

Strong, but judicious words. Strictures which apply to many but certainly not to Markéta Luskacová. That is not what she is about, and besides, she is Czech, and one of the words in her native language for to ‘photograph’ is to ‘immortalise.’

Of course, to condemn a genre because most of its practitioners fall short is to say little, except that it is much more difficult than it seems. The problem, as with much in photography, is meaning. How are these almost random traces of subliminal sensation translated into a cogent message, given meaning beyond the mere fact of their existence and their geometry? Does this exuberant pointing of the camera, this constant machine gun clicking of the shutter by all those street photographers have meaning, or enough meaning beyond a kind of automatic writing, a stream of consciousness tracing of fleeting sense impressions?

These images cannot be foreseen. The motifs gathered together by the  camera do not exist prior to their presentation in the frame, and they do not exist afterwards.  They are sensed, felt . . . divined subliminally by the photographer and plucked, just as subliminally, out of a flux of shifting visual sensation.  Their only existence, their reality, is the picture. But a slice of life is not enough, it does not make a satisfactory meal. As the New York critic Max Kozloff has written, that single piece of sensation so intuitively frozen can hopefully be assigned a useful role within the realm of culture – a meaning:

To be swayed by photography, it must create a dialogue, that is, enter culture and be assigned mutually enhancing relationships with its own kind.  That desirable state, for all serious photographers, is embodied in the problem of recurrence, of recurrent imagery.’ 

This recurrence, spread over a large number of images, we may take to be the photographer’s theme – evidence of a consistent point of view that extends beyond geometry and striking composition. And since street photographers largely work in social situations, where people would interact with each other or with their environments, it would not be unreasonable to suppose further that their themes are social.

Broadly speaking, the bodies of work compiled by the most successful street photographers tend to fall into three broad categories – three kinds of story they wish to tell. All are important, and the very best, the most complex photographers will incorporate two or three kinds of story in the work at one time, though one propensity will tend to predominate. In the main, street photographers use their chosen arena and way of working either to talk about themselves, to talk about society, or to talk about humanity.

Markéta Luskacová can be placed, I would suggest, in the third category. In her photography, she talks essentially about humanity, she is exploring what it is to be human. This does not mean that she is uninterested in the workings of society or that she is sublimating her own psyche, but that the primary tenor of her work is the everyday business of how people live and interact with each other, how they face the livelong day and get on with the often painful process of ordering their lives. Like André Kertész or Robert Capa, and others who are part of the Central European tradition she is one of the great humanist photographers – to use a word which has become unfashionable recently on the grounds that it represents a somewhat sentimental, slightly diffuse notion in this hard-headed era of post-modern ironies.

Luskacová’s work is neither diffuse nor sentimental. It is not however, culture specific – tied tightly to ‘critiquing’ a particular society. It is not rigidly programmatic in concept, but is generated by an intuitive way of working and a relaxed, unhurried sensibility – all of which seems out of step with the frantic certainties required in today’s photographic climate. It is affirmative rather than negative, though clear-eyed and abundantly realist in tone.

Her concerns remain basically the same whether she is photographing in Czechoslovakia or England, although her innate sense of theatricality announces her as definitely a Czech and not an English photographer – despite her domicile of many years in the latter country. Her images have a specific sense of place and national identity in each and every case, and they are naturally informed by her upbringing and culture, but their essence is something we all recognise, from whatever background. She is, in short, concerned with eternal verities, another notion which has become somewhat unfashionable in recent years. However, for Markéta Luskacová that most decidedly does mean some vague and reactionary notion of a ‘universal condition’ wholly divorced from society and history, but the depiction of human character as it moulded and framed by the perennial problems of living, both with ourselves and others, within the context of society.

In this, and in other ways – her preference for monochrome rather than colour, for instance – she can be seen to be somewhat at odds with the relentless contemporaneity of so much of today’s photography. Much of her work seems concerned with tradition, with investigating areas of life that are under the threat from the forces of ‘progress’ – like the ancient religious festivals of Slovakia, or the traditional London street market of Brick Lane – subjects to which she has returned again and again for many years. She does not do this, one feels, for nostalgic reasons, or that fact that these subjects might be considered ‘quaint’, but because she feels this is an important and relevant issue within society. These ways of life are under threat, and such communities – which exhibit a singular and particular sense of community –can offer valuable lessons about living together in a world where human beings are becoming increasingly isolated, their primary values reduced to corporate capitalism, their ‘community’ emanating from an electronic box in the corner.

If one area of concern, however, is rooted in the past, or what is about to disappear, another is firmly in the future, with those who will eventually prevail. Markéta Luskacová is particularly good at photographing children, largely because she does not patronise them, photographing both their seriousness and with a seriousness of her own. Her photographs of children have genuine gravitas, which, as Colin Osman has written, stems from the fact that she ‘does not treat them as young adults, nor does she treat them as immature children but simply as human beings in their own right.’ In a photographer that is, as Osman adds, ‘a rare and precious gift.’

Her work is psychological rather than sociological in tenor, describing individuals and exploring feelings before anything else. This is why I would describe Markéta Luskacová as a portrait photographer, even when she is photographing groups of people. Her sympathies, like those of Cartier-Bresson or Dorothea Lange – two photographers in whose company she certainly belongs – are with the individual and not the sociological type, be it the stereotype or the archetype. To be sure, in her oeuvre there are memorable, frame-packed images illustrating the general huddle of social activity – pilgrims in a Czech country church, disconnected travellers on the London tube – but the essence of Luskacová lies, it seems to me, in her single and double figure portraits.

The portrait by its very nature is – or should be – an intimate mode, and intimacy is what Luskacová would seem to embrace in her imagery.  This results in a picking out, an isolating of her subjects from the crowd, and a concentration, a heightening of their singularity as ‘characters,’ as definite individuals. These individuals have been selected by the camera and persuaded to ‘tell’ their stories. They are rather select stories, it would seem, for the act of discrimination exercised by the photographer – still the person in charge, after all – has tended to stress their isolation, hinting strongly that many of the stories are not altogether happy. A distinct feeling of alienation, sadness and loneliness pervades the work, although the frequent shafts of humour, aided by Luskacová’s own finely tuned sense of psychological balance, ensures that this never becomes overplayed or maudlin.

Equally forcefully, as indeed she does in all her work, Luskacová leavens the isolation and alienation with a social instinct that never loses sight of the ties that bind individuals together, not simply the fleeting, mercenary transactions of the market place, but the more immutable necessities of social intercourse and community. She stresses the strong sense of community in areas that have changed much, whether found in the gathering of country pilgrims or street musicians, in the pub or market stall, even in the shared, or perhaps fought over bottle of cider round an open brazier in the snow. She continually seeks incipient signs of community, people’s recurrent need to touch, to eye each other, to pair, to act in groups. The little, unnoticed rituals of daily life, one feels, are as sacred to her as the country church rituals of Slovakia, threatened with extinction, which she has documented so assiduously. Even her memorable image of an apparently screaming man is not – as one might suppose at first glance – an image of alienation but self‑expression. What might be taken as a picture of a demented dissident, babbling incoherent defiance at the world, is in fact a street opera singer in mid‑aria.

But song itself is frequently an act of defiance in the face of our cruel lot, so the image retains an edge, displaying the sharp ambiguity of mood that is seen in much of Markéta Luskacová’s work. One can never be quite sure whether the emotional tenor of a particular picture is bleak or uplifting, humorous or sad, whether it describes community or isolation, hope or despair, culture or counterculture. Yet one feature remains absolutely constant ‑ her  warmth towards her subjects, which is quite palpable. However direct, oblique, unflinching, paradoxical or ironical the particular cast of her gaze in an image, we are almost always overwhelmed by a sense of the photographer’s integrity. In picture after picture, one suspects that she shares with us only that which her subjects would wish her to share. Unlike so many projects in the so‑called social documentary vein, she chooses honest revelation rather than unremitting exposé. Luskacová would seem always to declare her respect for the ultimate privacy of those lives she has chosen to reveal something of in public. She accomplishes this by demonstrating a sense of reserve, the feeling of a sensibility held unselfconsciously in check, or rather ‑ for I would not suggest that this precludes passion ‑ maintained in equilibrium by a scrupulous sense of fairness and even handedness. The result is a vision refreshingly free from either cynicism or gratuitous idealisation. Of course, such a balance is difficult both to achieve and then to maintain. Photography so often is crudely practised, yet at its best is a medium of the utmost delicacy. The line between success and failure, between profundity and superficiality, between the artificial and the authentic, is demonstrably thin, and so often in the eye of the beholder. Nevertheless, there is, I hope, a world of difference between the subtle, balanced delicacies of Markéta Luskacová and the tendentious crudities of so many street photographers.

By virtue of the gravity, sobriety, and patent dignity of her imagery, I am  reminded of E. J. Bellocq, whose portraits would seem similar in spirit, though very different in style and technique to those of Luskacová.  His  pictures, to my mind, demonstrate the same rare combination of reserve and revelation, the same potent mix of almost brutal honesty shot through with an absolute, illuminating warmth. But much more obviously close to Luskacová in both style and subject matter, is Helen Levitt, who is best known for her chronicle of a disadvantaged New York neighbourhood and its children.

Levitt photographed with a similar, carefully considered  balance of empathy and detachment, a balance described most perceptively by the American  critic, Ben Lifson, in a sentence that might have been written about Markéta Luskacová:

Levitt’s style respects it all and tactfully keeps its distance, neither permitting an emotion to overwhelm the world of a picture nor the world’s loveliness or  shabbiness to trivialise an emotion.’

Where the two differ is that, in the work of Levitt, her empathy is perhaps ultimately overshadowed by her detachment, although that said, it really is, in the words of Max Kozloff, ‘an extraordinarily affirmative’ detachment. In Luskacová’s case, the opposite pertains. Her warmth finally overcomes her reserve, resulting in portraits of Slovakian peasant festivals, of the Brick Lane market in London, of inner city children, that are extraordinarily affirmative in all senses, far more upbeat than downbeat in character. So we should stress vulnerable kinship and community in the face of adversity, vitality before the cares and pressures engendered by the stresses of living. That possibly makes Markéta Luskacová something of an old fashioned romantic, or at least a realist-optimist, but perhaps that is no bad thing. Optimism springs from a reserve of dignity and pride, which is often all that is left to the disadvantaged – and too many so-called documentary photographers have contrived to strip them even of that.