The period following the violent suppression of the Prague Spring by the armies of the Warsaw Pact, has been recorded in the history of Czechoslovakia under the cynical term “normalization”. That period of repression was not over until the end of the Cold War and the fall of the communist regime in 1989. In masterful black and white images, Jaroslav Kučera provides touching insight into the barely comprehensible conflicts between outer and inner reality. On the surface, his work appears to be about people’s everyday lives, moments and mundane situations; but with his precise eye, the interplay of the motifs also reveals the heaviness that lay over his homeland in the seventies and eighties. We talked to the chronicler about his own journey through time.
Your new photo book also documents your own history as a photographer?
I was already studying at the Faculty of Civil Engineering in Prague; but after founding a student photo club, I started thinking about a career other than being a civil engineer. The definitive decision came only a year later, when I was arrested and subsequently imprisoned while photographing an anti-occupation demonstration. I wanted to finish my studies and then emigrate like my sister did. In the end, not a single one of my friends was successful at emigrating, and I took photographs in a country where the slogan was: “With the Soviet Union forever and never otherwise!” To this day, I’m grateful to fate that I stayed with my parents in our country, and lived to see November, 1989. The book also expresses my coming to terms with the communist regime and the memories of my youth.
Was the title, Calm before the Storm, set from the start?
From the beginning, I knew clearly that the subtitle of the book would be: How we lived at normalization. Photos from the 70s and 80s. With art historian Daniela Mrázková, we first considered the title Silence before the Storm Together; but in the end, Calm before the Storm won.
Was it difficult to choose the images for the book?
That was a beautiful job. 80% of the photos were obvious, and then I looked for others among my old negatives. This meant that I rediscovered what I had long forgotten, and it was mainly these photos that revived those memories.
How did you experience this immersion in the past?
It was rather like a therapeutic treatment for me, as I was recovering from a pretty severe illness at the time. I would not have published the book without the help of my wife Markéta, daughter Mariana and friends. They set up a crowdfunding account and eventually hundreds of enthusiasts contributed to the release. I sat at the computer, put information together, posted photos on Facebook, wrote stories, discussed everything with my closest friends, and also scanned negatives and retouched photos. And before the book was published, I had an exhibition with the same title at the Leica Gallery in Prague.
The finished book was a success.
Probably the most pleasant and greatest surprise was the speed with which the book sold out within a month, so we had to do a reprint. People were incredibly interested in photographs from that time, though I was simply showing them “ordinary life”, rather than political and social events. On the last day of the exhibition, we had a wonderful meeting with three, now elderly, ladies who recognised themselves as young girls in the book.
When did you buy your first Leica?
As early as the 1960s, there was a small shop selling used cameras on Melantrichova Street in the centre of Prague. It was run by the legendary Mr. Havlík, whom I visited as a student, asking him if I could buy an old Leica that he had in the window for 1,500 crowns. Mr. Havlík ceremoniously took it out and told me that Dr. Čumpelík had travelled the whole world with it. I had no idea who Dr. Čumpelík was, so I asked if I could borrow it to take some pictures on the street. I left my ID there and went to the Old Town Square where a wedding was taking place. I took pictures of the bride and groom and returned the Leica to the shop. In the evening I developed the film and made a 30x40cm print from a small excerpt. The result was fantastic. So I bought a Leica with a Summar 2/50mm lens and also a Russian-made Jupiter 2.8/35mm wide angle lens. Thanks to LFI and research at the Leica Archives, I now know that the Leica III dated from 1935.
Which film material did you prefer to use?
In the 1970s we used communist East German ORWO 400 DIN film, which we exposed as 3200 DIN. Later I was able to buy Ilford films 200, 400 and 3200 ASA, and finally Kodak 400 and 3200 ASA.
You also got a digital Leica recently…
Yes. After the publication in LFI magazine, where I also mentioned my dream of owning a digital Leica, it was a real shock for me to learn that the great British photographer Adam Hinton wanted to give me a Leica M-P 240. We met in the summer at the beautiful Augustiánu Hotel in Prague Castle. Adam’s only modest wish was for a copy of my book, which I was very happy to dedicate to him with thanks.
A wonderful act of providence. What are your plans for the future?
Apart from publishing books, the most important thing for me is to go on expeditions to the Czech borderlands, to photograph people and life now, 30 years after I was there in the nineties.
Jaroslav Kučera was born in the Czech village of Ředhošť in 1946. In 1967, he began studying at the Faculty of Civil Engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague. After graduating as a civil engineer in 1973, he immediately started working as a “freelance” photographer. However, it was only in 1989 that he was able to begin publishing most of the pictures he had taken in previous years. He was a founding member of the Signum Photo Group and, in 1996, became a member of the Hamburg Bilderberg Agency. In 2006, he established Jakura Publishing. Kučera is the recipient of numerous awards and international recognitions, and lives in Prague. Find out more about his photography on his website.
Jaroslav Kučera: Klid před bouří. Jak jsme žili za normalizace. Fotografie ze 70. a 80. let | Calm before the Storm. How we lived at normalization. Photos from the 70s and 80s. 334 pages, 280 black and white pictures, Czech/English, 26 x 30 cm. Jakura.
A comprehensive portfolio of Kučera’s work appeared in LFI 5/2023.