Work of an Amateur: Czech Avant-Garde Photography at the National Gallery

'Study_with_a_Cone', 1932. by Milo DohnanyThese days, everyone is a photographer. Pocket-sized cameras are ubiquitous; Flickr is a phenomenon; Facebook has reinvigorated the photo album and the self-portrait. Lest we forget that this was not always the case, a new exhibit at the National Gallery of Art in Washington looks at an early renaissance of amateur photography that developed in a country about the size of Virginia.

‘Jaromir Funke and the Amateur Avant-Garde’ honors the rise of photography in the former Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia) out of the amateur photography clubs that thrived there in the 1920s and 30s. Along with contemporaries like Josef Sudek (a photographer who lost his right arm in World War I) and Eugen Wiskovsky, Funke started out as a hobbyist with a surrealist slant, capturing the beauty and confusion of modern life through its objects. Influenced by American photographers like Man Ray and Alfred Stieglitz, Funke founded the Czech Photographic Society in 1924 with Sudek, and together they championed the potential of modernist photography.

To consider their photographs today is like taking a short tour through early 20th century European history (its art, inspirations and politics). At Europe’s cultural and geographic crossroads between East and West, the former Czechoslovakia was a breeding ground for burgeoning art movements. Its own avant-garde, known as Devetsil, involved poets, writers and photographers during the early 1920s.

But Funke and his fellows prided themselves on remaining amateurists — back when it was a point of pride. “A reporter photographs a given model,” Funke wrote. “But an amateur can artificially arrange and combine situations. This shows his taste — in the selection and arrangement of objects as well.”

As the avant-garde grabbed hold of Europe’s salons, photography followed suit. Funke relished playing with abstraction, adopting the cubist elements that were thriving in the Czech art of the time. His “Abstract Photo” series from the late 1920s transforms basic objects: a glass bottle, a window and a mirror into triplicate reflections of angles and images, so that the objects disappear and the composition becomes primary.

“The two things I appreciate about 1930’s photography are the geometry and the light,” said Nina Rozdobudkova, a young translator from Prague and a photography fan. “I like how Czech photographers focused on the human body and its shapes and angles.”

The angular nudes that Viennese artist Egon Schiele had painted in the early 1900s are echoed in the photograph “Roofs in Mala Strana” (1924) by Jan Lauschmann, with its diagonal edges. Painter Schiele had been fascinated by a similar collection of roofs in the Czech town of Cesky Krumlov.

'Portrait', 1935. by Eugen Wiskovsky[Click here to watch a slide show of images from the exhibit]

In 1931, Funke became a professor of photography at the School of Applied Arts in Bratislava, the Slovak capital. His teachings there were based loosely on Bauhaus, the German school of art which accented geometry, reflexivity and contrast. But Funke returned to Prague in 1935 to teach at the State Graphic School, co-editing the primer “Photography Sees the Surface,” and to slip back into surrealism, capturing the decaying urban landscapes around Prague and imbuing them with emotional appeal.

As World War II approached, the amateur movement began to stumble, as “social photography” and its accompanying political tenets gained traction. But the foundation laid by these amateur advocates would persist to influence later artists, most notably the Czech New Wave filmmakers of the 1960s (including Milos Forman, Vera Chytilova and Ivan Passer, among many others). The New Wave movement flourished during the period around Prague Spring, the government’s attempt to install “socialism with a human face.” Their films were often surrealist, with inventive soundtracks and a repertoire of irony, political satire and nonsensical plot developments.

Today, with everyone so well-equipped camera-wise, the line between artist and amateur can be totally blurry, the play between art shot and snapshot as smooth as the Velvet Revolution. The dedication of past amateur photographers to their avant-garde principles begs us to wonder next time we pull out a cell phone camera or upload images to Facebook: Is this what Funke had in mind?

“Jaromir Funke and the Amateur Avant-Garde” is at the National Gallery of Art until Aug. 19.

Here’s a clip from the opening segment of Chytilova’s iconic film, “Daisies”: