by Polina Shubkina

© Libuse Jarcovjakova, Berlin, 1985

Tell us about your approach to photography. How it all started? What are your memories of your first shots?

Libuse Jarcovjakova (LJ): My parents were painters, true bohemians. Prague under communist propaganda in the '50s was a very dark and frightening place. Political trials were in full swing, and everyone was afraid of everyone. Nothing about that felt like home. My world was full of books, my parent's paintings, and colors. My sensory triggers remain keen. Even now I love the smell of turpentine - it immediately brings me back to my childhood. I grew up, in the fantastic '60s – a time full of new culture and also of great relief. When I was thirteen, I got my first camera. My first shots were rather ordinary – my sister, trees, the Vltava river. But the decision was born, I got a goal to become a photographer.

Tell us about your educational path. Where did you study photography? What are some best memories from that time? What was your relationship with photography back then?

LJ: First, I attended some photographic workshops for children where I learned the mysteries of the darkroom and gained some basic technical knowledge. When I was fifteen, I started to study photography at the Graphic School in Prague. We had almost no math - instead of that, we had around twelve hours of photography weekly. The technical equipment was obsolete, we developed the glass plates (9x12cm) manually in the darkroom without any timers, we used the old wooden large format cameras with porous film holders. I was all thumbs, and my results were horrible. But at the same time, I learned how to understand the photographic language and how to express my vision.

At the age of twenty-five, I finally started to study photography at the Prague Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), I spent five years there. The period between high school graduation (1972) and the Academy (1977) I spent in the factory. At first, this was a disagreeble choice for me. At age nineteen I haphazardly left the safe world of school for night shifts at a factory, on the suggestion of the regime. But I found myself drawn in, liking it, fraternizing with my coworkers and realizing the flat, dirty, polluted and dishonest face of real socialism. In the end, it was a blessing in disguise – for the first time in my life I started to photograph people close up. And because I was a part of that unique community I could accomplish my first photographic cycle, 'Night Shift'.

© Libuse Jarcovjakova from the series 'Night Shift'

Any professor or teacher that has allowed you to understand your work better?

LJ: My most influential tutor was Anna Fárová. Her books on Josef Sudek and František Drtikol were published in many countries. During the '80s, because of her uncompromised political attitude, she became “persona non grata”. She had to leave her prestigious position as curator of photographic collections of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague and retreat into privacy. I started visiting her and was overwhelmed by her rational and unconventional way of thinking and seeing. For example, she was the person who mentored and tutored Josef Koudelka’s work, at the very beginning of his Gypsies project. She gave me much valuable advice. She helped me to understand my authenticity and to obtain the courage to follow my inner vision, no matter what was happening around me was the best way. For the most part, it was a lonely path that I was walking, and it wasn't bringing me any outstanding success. But it was my way, and I am happy I didn’t make any compromises.

You started photographing, making more and more images, they were accumulating. When and how did you decide to separate your material into the bodies of work?

LJ: It happened naturally during my school years and especially in FAMU. We were obliged to work on long-term photographic projects. A school assignment was sometimes the beginning, but my personal preference was to photograph what I knew, where I felt “at home.” My advantage was that I made my living at several odd jobs, and I didn’t work as a professional photographer who was pushed to take pictures for money. I had the privilege of photographing in my rhythm, according to my plan, elaborating my favorite topics.

The 'Ziellos' portfolio consists of the imagery created between 1978 and 1990 and includes pictures from Berlin, Tokyo, and Prague. What else were you doing at the time, apart from the world of the pictures?

LJ: My life during the early 80s was pretty intense. During the day, I studied at FAMU and taught a Czech language course for Vietnamese laborers (in the 80s Czechoslovakia became home for many Vietnamese people, because of the international agreement). At night the scene was entirely different, a friend of mine introduced me to the Prague's gay scene. There were two gay clubs back then, and I became fascinated by the lifestyle of its visitors from the first moment I came in. It took me a while before I gained the confidence to photograph there, mainly I could take pictures of the balls, carnivals, and special events. My life was full of parties, binges, superficial sex, yet I had a feeling that I existed in the cage, and that is why I made a crucial decision to leave Prague.

© Libuse Jarcovjakova from the series 'T-Club (1983-1985)'

It’s a long story how I managed to escape the communist Czechoslovakia, but I managed, and it was a beginning of a new chapter. I spent five years, mostly in Berlin, partly in Tokyo. I was documenting my journey through these difficult years in photographs and diaries, part of which is in the portfolio 'Ziellos'. I am hoping to publish a monograph about my time in Berlin between 1985 and 1990. It will be a dark and vulnerable book.

© Libuse Jarcovjakova from the series 'Ziellos'

The 'Ordinary Life' series tells us a story of the everyday life of Gypsy (Roma) families. What are some of your memories from the time when you've been photographing them?

LJ: In January 1977, I accidentally came across to one special event – The Gypsy Ball in Prague. Many Gypsies came there to dance and celebrate, dressed up in their best clothing. Everyone wanted to be photographed, and I ended up with the dozens of addresses of Gypsy families in Prague. Later I distributed the photos I made, and I was invited by some of them to come again to document their important family events – weddings, christenings, funerals. Step by step I befriended with some of them and later I started traveling to visit their relatives in the eastern part of Slovakia. Work on this project taught me about the importance of spending enough time to blend in with the environment. After hours and hours of communication, I would finally stop being recognized as a foreign element, and I could start the serious work – without having to posture.

© Libuse Jarcovjakova from the series 'Ordinary Life'

Do you have any preferences regarding cameras and format?

LJ: My favorite format from the very beginning of my work has been 6x6. I am not very interested in the technical aspects. I love experimenting. The sky is the limit.

How did your relationship with your visual diary change after you dived into the world of color digital phone photography?

LJ: I always kept the diaries, one notebook after another. Later, in the 80s, when my photographic language became more subjective and introspective I started to use photography as an auto-therapeutic tool. It was a more or less unconscious process - I wanted to know who I am and what kind of world surrounds me. I wanted to find out what happened to me when I was desperately in love or felt totally lost. I kept my visual diary in Berlin and Tokyo when I found myself in an entirely unfamiliar environment. "People are strange when you are a stranger” – these lyrics from the Doors seemed very close to me at that time.

I began photographing with an iPhone much later, when I was taking care of my paralyzed mother at home. After few months, I felt completely exhausted; the days were all the same; no progress was possible. I was trying to give her all my love and patience, and I was pretty good at it. But I was caged in, cornered. And then I had the idea to transform this utterly tragic event in an artistic achievement. I started to photograph her with Canon Mark II but had to stop, because the pictures were too realistic, almost objective – I was too far. That is how I found my tool – an iPhone and Hipstamatic application; it changed everything. I discovered the higher sense of this difficult period. During almost two years I collected over 8000 photos. Always the same situations, day, after day. My mom was very cooperative. As a visual artist, she was interested in the process, and she was curious to see what was coming out of it. It was a part of our daily communication. And as the audience reactions show – I managed to capture something that’s important to many of us.

© Libuse Jarcovjakova from the series 'MUM'

Could you please tell us about your transition from black and white to color photography?

LJ: From the moment I started to work with some digital cameras and in particular with an iPhone it became difficult to come back to the black and white photography. But sometimes I feel almost "homesick" about the film; I miss the mystery of black and white process. I'm having a problem with the excessive precision of digital photography. I am not very interested in postproduction which might weaken and transform the realism. Currently, I am working on the "Demiurges" series, shooting it with Sony A7s, almost makes me feel like working with my favorite Contax G2, almost...

© Libuse Jarcovjakova from the series 'Demiurgs'

What do you think about photography in the era of digital and social networking?

LJ: The freedom and richness of various photographic tools that are available for use nowadays are fascinating. On the other hand - a tool is just a tool. It’s our vision which makes the difference. Loads of digital trash is here and at the same time, you can come across some fantastic work made by amateurs without any formal education.

Is there any contemporary artist or photographer, even if young and emerging, that influenced you in some way?

LJ: I love the work of Michael Ackerman. I love his books ( for example 'Half Life'). I met him at a workshop in Lugano two years ago, and I was touched by his warm personality and humanity and his approach to the personal narratives. Recently I started to follow the work of a young photographer from Berlin: Alisa Resnick.

Three books of photography that you recommend?

LJ: Robert Frank’s 'The Lines of My Hand', Robert Frank’s 'Story Lines' and Alisa Resnick’s 'One Another'. 

Projects that you are working on now and plans for the future?

LJ: Right now and for the next several months I am fully submerged in the editing and preparing my first book which should be published this October. It is a very emotional and painful process. The title is 'Black Years' and there are my photos, diaries and other personal texts from 1970 to 1987. Being confronted with the personal authentical material, meeting myself as an immature young person, who strayed life, who made the same mistakes again and again – I deeply hope that at the end of this process I will be able to move further to some new projects that I have already pampered in my head.

© Libuse Jarcovjakova, Prague, Early 80's


Libuse Jarcovjakova 
Czech Republic