In 1984 the Arts Council exhibited the photographs of Josef Kouldelka at the Hayward Gallery. This drew attention to the fact that some of the most expressive still photography of recent times has come from Central Europe, which is already well known for its contribution to world cinema. We are now pleased to be able to tour in this country the work of another Czech photographer, Markéta Luskačová, who has produced a remarkable series of images called Pilgrims.The photographs, taken between 1966 and 1974, show the traditional pilgrimages of Slovakia and the life and customs of its mountain villagers. The images are borne of a great tendemess and the pain of acute knowing, quite rare in the repertoire of documentary photography. The photographs were first shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1983-4. We are indebted to the Director and Trustees as well as to Markéta Luskačová for lending the photographs for the exhibition.
We are also grateful to John Berger for his text for this publication J.D.
PILGRIMS — MARKÉTA LUSKAČOVÁ
I try to imagine how I might describe these photographs of Marketa Luskačová to somebody who could not see them. An obviously vain exercise in one sense because appearances and words speak so differently; the visual never allows itself to be translated intact into the verbal. Nothing I could say would enable the reader to imagine a single one of these pictures. Yet what of those who, finding themselves before the photographs, still have difficulty in seeing them? There are good reasons why this might happen The pictures are of peasants whose experience over the centuries has been very rarely understood by other classes. Worse than that, the pictures are about the experience of religious faith when today most city dwellers — at least in our continent —have become accustomed to living without any religious belief. Finally, even for the religious minority these pictures may well suggest fanaticism or heresy, because priests and the Church have for so long oppressed peasants, and this oppression has encouraged on both sides the recurring suspicion that principles are being betrayed. The Christ of the peasants has never been the Christ of the Papacy. How, then, would I describe these photographs to somebody who could not see them?
I will speak first of some of Luskačová’s other assignments… After 1976 she worked during four years with the agency Magnum in Paris, later she was commissioned by the Side Gallery, Newcastle, to photograph the people at the seasides of the north-east Between 1970 and 1972 she worked as a house photographer for a theatre in Prague. (This was an apprenticeship, like that of her fellow countryman Josef Koudelka, but the two photographers are distinctly different: he makes the world speak in his pictures: she, in hers, listens to its silence.) In 1970, although half the pictures in this exhibition had already been taken, she received a scholarship from the Czech Union of Artists to photograph traditional religions in Slovakia, and the resulting pictures were exhibited in Prague in 1971.
I’m inclined to believe, however, that, much earlier, Marketa Luskačová had a secret assignment, such as no photographer has had before. She was summonsed by the Dead. How she joined them I don’t know. The Dead live, of course, beyond time and are ageless, yet, thanks to the constant arrival of newcomers, they are aware of what happens in history and sometimes this general, vast awareness of theirs provokes a kind of curiosity so that they want to know more. Their curiosity might be the highest form possible of nostalgia. Or is that muddled thinking? Anyway, their curiosity led them to summons a photographer. They told her how they had the impression — and it had been growing for a century or more — that they, the Dead, were being forgotten by the living to an unprecedented degree. Let her understand clearly what they were talking about: the individual Dead had always been quickly or slowly forgotten: it was not this which was new, but now it appeared that the huge, in faet countless, collective of the Dead was being forgotten — as if the living had become — was it ashamed? or was it simply negligent? - of their own mortality, of the very consanguinity which joined them to the Dead Of this, they said, they needed no proof, there was ample evidence. What they would like to see — supposing that somewhere in the heart of the continent in which she lived they still existed — were people who still remembered the Dead. Neither the bereaved, (for bereavement is temporary) nor the morbid (for they are obsessed by death, not by the Dead), but people living their everyday lives whilst looking further, beyond, aware of the Dead as neighbours.
“We would like you,” they told her, “to do a reportage on us, in the eyes of the living: can you do that?” She did not reply, for she already knew, although she was only in her early twenties, that the only possible reply could be in the images developed in a dark room.
Soon after, Luskačová found herself in the village of Šumiac. Before beginning her assigmnent proper she took some pictures to remind the long departed of the earth on which everything happens. A woman and a horse, with the grass cropped and the footpaths going as far back as living memory. A man sowing, striding slowly through the field he has ploughed, the gesture of his arm like that of a cellist. Three children asleep in a bed.
The she moved on to the unprecedented challenge of her commission. The people she was photographing trusted her; more than that, they allowed her to become intimate. This was a pre-condition for her assignment, for she could not photograph the presence of the Dead in the lives of the living from afar; a telescopic lens in this case would have been useless. Nor could she be in a hurry because the project demanded isolating an instant filled with the timeless, and isolating a set of appearances containing the invisible. These were not impossible demands, since the human eye and the human face are windows on to the soul.
In some pictures she failed: failed for a simple and understandable reason. Sometimes the people being photographed were aware of her being there with her camera, they trusted her completely, and so they appealed for recognition. In a ﬂash they imagined how: Take Us Now = We’II See How We Were At This Moment. (For example, the image of the man carrying the statuette of the virgin. For example, the three women sitting on the confession benches.)
In other pictures she succeeded; she carried out the assignment and she produced photos such as nobody had ever taken before. We see them photographed in all their intimacy and they are not there: they are elsewhere with thein neighbours: the dead, the unborn, the absent For instance, her extraordinary photo of the Sleeping Main might be a companion piece to a poem by Rilke:
. . .
You, neighbor god, if sometimes in the night
I rouse you with loud knocking, I do so
only because I seldom hear you breathe
and know: you are alone.
And should you need a drink, no one is there
to reach it to you, groping in the dark.
Always I hearken. Give but a small sign.
I am quite near.
Between us there is but a narrow wall,
and by sheer chance; for it would take
merely a call from your lips or from mine
to break it down,
and that without a sound
The wall is builded of your images . . .*
I might end there, but it would be too resolved, too “transcendental” for the peasant experience which Markéta Luskačová has interpreted so faithfully. The peasant, within the secrecy of his own mind, is independent and he projects this independence on to those he worships. Nothing is ever quite arranged.
Italo Galvino has recorded a story from the countryside near Verona, and I think of it when, for instance, I look at the picture of the builders at Šumiac eating a meal:
Once there was a farmer who was devout, but who prayed only to St Joseph. When he died, St Peter refused to let him into Heaven. “No question,” said St Peter, “you forgot about Christ, God the Father and the Virgin.” “Since I’m here,” replied the man, “could I have a word with Joseph?” Joseph appeared, recognised the farmer and said: “Come in, make yourself at home.” “I can’t” complained the man, “Peter here has forbidden me to enter Heaven.” Joseph turned to Peter and angrily remonstrated: “You let him in here, or I’ll take my son and my wife and we’ll go somewhere else to build paradise!”
* The Book of Hours by RM. Rilke, translated by Babette Deutsch. New Directions Book. New York 1941.