Magazine article Tate Etc.

Lives of the Artists

Magazine article Tate Etc.

Lives of the Artists

Article excerpt

Bêla Koláfová was an unassuming but quietly influential figure in former Czechoslovakia's Cold War-era avant-garde. While a lack of formal training excluded her from the communist regime's official art circuit, her work was celebrated in many of the key counter-cultural exhibitions of her day.

Koláfová took up photography in earnest in her thirties, when a bout of tuberculosis forced her to leave the Prague publishing house where she had worked for 15 years. With her Flexaret camera, she captured scenes of children playing on the capital's streets - karting up roads, skipping, sliding down concrete handrails - for her first series, Children's Games 1957.

While these candid snapshots of urban life invited associations with street photography and reportage, she would later distance herself from these labels, citing a more modest, original ambition for her own art. In the only known comprehensive statement about her work, she recalled her distaste at reading a bombastic declaration by 'Cartier-Bresson or some other photographer', which asserted: 'The entire world has been photographed!' In response, she resolved to use the medium to focus on more intimate subject matter overlooked by others, 'a world so negligible and everyday as if past the merit of being photographed'.

Koláfová began to experiment with camera-less photography, customising techniques pioneered by Man Ray and inter war exponents of the New Vision movement such as László Moholy-Nagy. In 1961 she made her first 'artificial negatives' by placing small objects between two cellophane sheets or lodging them in a layer of soft paraffin wax spread on the surface of a celluloid sheet. Projecting these directly on to light-sensitive bromide paper, the subsequent images (which she labelled 'vegetages', 'photo-collages' or 'traces') sought to capture the unique qualities and textures of anything from bean pods to loose cotton threads: 'All those bits and scraps from dining tables and desks... a ticket after a completed journey or a piece of wrapping paper from a sweet we've just eaten.'

Her Roentgenogram of a Circle photograms from 1963 saw Koláfová attach sheets of photographic paper to a rotating device before focusing beams of light on to them through a sieve, resulting in the registration of spectral circles reminiscent of X-rays. …

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