Review: Josef Ehm

Combining avant-garde creativity with technical brilliance, this Czech photographer's artistry rivals that of friend and contemporary Josef Sudek

Josef Ehm: Fotografie z 30. a 40. let
(Josef Ehm: Photographs From the 1930s and 1940s)

Among the cobblestoned streets that wind around Malá Strana and Hradčany lies a hidden gem -- the Decorative Arts Museum's Josef Sudek Gallery. Bearing the name of one of Czech photography's most important figures, the cozy gallery actually occupies Sudek's former apartment.

The gallery's temporary exhibit, featuring Sudek's contemporary Josef Ehm, presents a range of the photographer's characteristic styles.

The essence of the exhibit is a coupling of avant-garde creativity with technical brilliance. The subject matter includes nudes, documentation of other art, everyday scenes, portraits, and classic images of Prague.

Observing Dialogue with a Statue (1939), you witness a silent conversation between a statue of a boy and a woman in a giant fur coat. At first glance, the statue appears real. His mouth is slightly agape, lips pursed for talking. His position on a ledge is one of relaxed engagement, with his shoulders a little forward as if to show interest in his onlooker. You begin to wonder if the woman realizes that the boy is only a statue. The surroundings are old and crumbling. We know it's Prague, but it could be any dilapidated building in any city.

Ehm touches the senses in a gentler way with Couple in Open Air (1937). Two lazy, lounging bodies are shadowed with patterns by the late afternoon sun.

Your eye starts at the top of the image, in a patch of light, snakes down around to the young man's head, then to a beach ball, then over to a pair of sun-splattered legs and up again to the girls umbrella-shadowed face.

Foreground objects create linear movement, allowing the eye move around all the objects in the photograph, and to end in the same place it started.

Nude (1934) displays Ehm's talent for the avant-garde. The viewer sees limbs and hands and feet, with no sign of a head. The skin shines in slick black and white, while the body parts create triangles and squares.

The effect is the body's transformation into something sub-human. Body parts displayed without eroticism, without a head and face -- how can we relate to it as human?

The question floats out from the image, and what the viewer sees becomes something other than what is truly real. Ehm has created something strangely alien from something so simply human.

On opposing walls lurk two portraits of Sudek himself, like a showdown between the gallery's ghosts.

Jan Sudek in St. Vitus's Cathedral (1948) is an image of a haggard man weighed down by sadness. Seated in a decorated pew, with a faraway look in his eyes, his hands loosely clutch his eyeglasses. The image evokes a sense of mourning.

Jan Sudka at My Place (1959) portrays an opposing view of the man. His direct gaze and secretive half-smile captures the intimacy of the friendship between the two artists. Sudek reclines in a decorated chair, at ease with Ehm's photographic gaze. The viewer gets the feeling that life is good again for Sudek.

These portraits display the complexity of being human, showing the different dimensions of Sudek's personality. From one photo to the other, the subject shows such contradictory emotional states, that he gives the appearance of being two separate people.

The exhibit also includes Ehm's images of other Czech artists' work, including a sculpture by Vincenc Makovský, and a tomb designed by Josef Malínský.

In the realm of Josef Ehm's images, one walks into the past. A slice of history lives in Sudek's old flat. His friends are there in the photographs. Through these images the viewer is privy to the friendship between these two influential photographers of the interwar period.

Josef Ehm supposedly never had his own studio, instead capturing his subjects in their natural element. In Sudek's gallery, however, you can enter Ehm's domain and stand in the studio of his minds eye.

Featuring sharp black-and-white prints, restored to perfection, the exhibit clearly portrays Ehm's technical brilliance.

His talent for composition, capturing his subjects in their natural state, and his flair for the avant-garde image make Josef Ehm a rounded talent and an influential photographer in his own right.

Josef Ehm: Photographs From the 1930s and 1940s was at Galerie Josefa Sudka between October 12th, 2006 and January 21st, 2007

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