Jan Saudek. Life isn’t black and white

This photographer, is a brilliant artist and living legend to some, and a hack and poseur to others. His severe frankness, which irritates some people, always evokes discourse. Here are some of his views on society, photography, and his life.

You’re perceived mainly as a creator of staged photographs with motifs of naked bodies erotically arranged in front of characteristically cracked masonry. Why did you choose this style instead of, say, news photo-graphy?
I can’t work outdoors, I can’t work anywhere but within my walls, of which I now have five. Also, I’m too slow for news. I’m too slow for everything. In my youth I tried boxing and got knocked out cold immediately. My main reason was the money, I won’t lie to you. And I really made it, so now I don’t work for the money. I see photography with a capital P as fraud. With all due respect, the camera, lighting, optics, and chemicals do the work. It’s fraud, but I’ve done it all my life with enthusiasm.

And you color your pictures. Isn’t that even greater fraud?
It’s the greatest fraud. But long ago when I asked friends which pictures they liked best, they didn’t choose black-and-whites or sepias. They preferred pictures that had been colored in. True, it’s kitschy, but it’s the closest to how we see the world.

You’ve said you aren’t recognized here. But two million of your books of photos have been sold, and your shows always draw great attention. So aren’t your complaints about not being understood something of a pose?
I take pictures for regular people, and I always get the most joy from a Gypsy ditch-digger greeting me or a mother pushing a baby carriage saying, “you have nice photographs.” Official critics ignore me completely. Taking good pictures is what matters to me. Now I have one with a dog that’s extremely successful. A homeless man asked me to photograph his dog. Anyone would drive him off, but I took it as an obligation. That dog’s already made hundreds of thousands of crowns. Collectors abroad buy it at auctions, and postcards with it are selling surprisingly well. One thing is clear: I’m the most famous living Czech photographer. Maybe I’m popular with the common people, but the elite don’t like me. It doesn’t matter to me, because it doesn’t affect my account balance or the speed of my sports car (laughs).

Photographers of the younger generation have differing opinions of you. Some say your pictures express feelings and conditions, others like your early works and say you’re just repeating yourself. But all agree that you came up with an original idea and are successful at making money. Would you comment on these views?
Everyone has early works. Look at The Rolling Stones – you can’t top “Lady Jane” or “Satisfaction”. It’s clear that people have amazing power when they’re young, so I recommend acting when you can, not waiting for your retirement, for your children to grow up, or for your wife to give you some peace and quiet… every man’s dream (laughs). And money? My pictures sell well, but I don’t force them on anyone.

How would you rate current photography here? Do you follow the young generation?
They’re doing well, but I think they’re doing what I did at first, trying to become rich and famous. They’re acting without deep belief. I don’t see what I look for in photography in the work of any of today’s young photographers. There has to be a life-long commitment.

In 1998, following your last exhibition, you donated the proceeds of CZK 7,200,000 to the Plzeň Bone Marrow Transplant Foundation. Why?
I wanted to make a grand gesture. After their victory in Nagano our famous hockey players each donated five hundred thousand, but then it turned out that Český Telecom paid instead of them. If they’d donated it out of their own pockets their wives would have killed them! I paid it myself, but nothing happened anyway. One critic viewed the show and wrote that it was trash.

Which collections that include your works do you value most highly?
I most appreciate being in the collection of the Chicago Art Institute in Illinois. Black-and-whites, yet!

Besides taking pictures you paint and have written a book. Was it successful?
There were four seven-thousand-copy printings of “Single, Married, Divorced, Widower”. Some people praised me for writing real literature, but the experts took no notice. Mladá fronta Dnes panned it mercilessly. Only the publisher was happy, because it was profitable.

A life in numbers
1935 born on 13 May in Prague
1950 – 1983 worked at a printing facility
1963 first one-man show in Prague
1963-2004 approximately 300 individual exhibitions all over the world, many unsanctioned
1980 – 2003 published 16 books, mainly in foreign countries, two in the CR: Love on Three and Single, Married, Divorced, Widower.
1983 was accepted as a member in the Union of Artists, which allowed him to begin work full-time as a professional photographer.
1990 decorated with the French Order of Knights of Arts
1995 published first book, Letters
1998 photographic retrospectives in Los Angeles and Prague

Why are you constantly starting new things in your old age? What drives you?
Desire, sex, the basic primal urges. That’s what drives me. It’s strange. I exercise with old sports champions of the republic, and they tell me they’ve lost interest in women, they mean nothing to them! No way I’ll be like that. I’m still fascinated by women, although I can’t perform as athletically as I could at age thirty. On the other hand, fortunately I’m no weakling who just blabs on.

Your way of life sets you apart from most of society. You admit to lovers; for 12 years you lived with your girlfriend Sára, who now has two children with your son Samuel. In the end, you’re alone. Didn’t you ever want a traditional family?
Of course I miss a family. About 25 years ago I built a house – I had seven children and some grandchildren, and at the time I thought we’d all live there. It never happened, because I’m an untrustworthy, cheap, ladies’ man, and I’m always in hot water. It’s not possible that all my wives and children were bad! It’s inside me.

You’re very outspoken. Didn’t that straightforwardness hurt you under communism, when people couldn’t freely express themselves? How did you react to being recruited for the communist party?
Not only did they try to recruit me, they wanted me as an informer. I told them straight out I’d rather hang myself. It was a strange time. People weren’t informers for money, they just did it. I hope it never happens again. My representative in Germany comforted me a bit by saying in 1989 that I shouldn’t worry, that “the train had already left the station.” Nice, huh? But I’m still a bit afraid.

Would you like to go into politics and actively affect what’s happening?
No. In this country fools go into politics to get rich. It’s bad. When the wealthy Mr. Fischer tried it he wasn’t successful. I like Václav Havel, although he was weak for not banning the communist party. But otherwise he contributed greatly to the country.

In under a year you’ll be seventy. Do you think wisdom comes with age?
Not wisdom, but shamelessness, impertinence, and experience. I remember being in the States for the first time in 1968 – they put me in front of the camera of a local TV station, and I couldn’t get a word out. Today I frankly say anything, anywhere. Every age has huge advantages and drawbacks. Recently, with more freedom in our country, I feel better than ever before.

What are you proudest of, and what would you like to forget?
I’m very proud of my gardens. I started them and I take care of them. They’re romantic, filled with nooks, shadows, and hidden places for birds. My garden gives me a lot – it doesn’t demand or say anything, and it doesn’t bother me. What would I rather forget? The war. I lived through it as a child and still see it as a horrible experience. Seeing innocent people dying, children buried in the rubble of bombed-out buildings, it’s awful. But it’s unforgettable.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?
It won’t be any fun any more in ten years. I’ll age and my muscles will melt away. So I live for the present.

How would you describe yourself in three words?
Is two enough? A charming fraud.

How would you like people to remember you?
As a photographer.

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