1918 – 1938: Formation of Czechoslovakia

The establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia, a new union of two states, in 1918 required the creation of a complete infrastructure of culture and its institutions as well. In 1923 – 1924, the Amateur Photography Club YMCA was founded in Bratislava. This and many other clubs and individuals contributed to a firm basis for an amateur and professional photography. The more advanced Czech culture and photography also affected this development.


Karel Plicka, originally a teacher and musician, was invited in 1923 to leave Prague and come to Slovakia to work for Matica slovenská (“Slovak Foundation”) in the field of ethnography: his task was to collect and write down folk songs on his many travels around Slovakia. Although Plicka collected and even published the folk songs whilst travelling, he made a major contribution to photography and film production. The “quiet celebration of Slovakia”, the name given to his photographic and personal style by the Slovak theorists and historians Aurel Hrabušický and Václav Macek, consists in the fascination for rural life, its religiousness and modesty, evident in the material culture and folk costumes. The first photographs by Karel Plicka are still direct, reportage photographs, but his style gradually changes and he is very cautious about light, monumentalizes the people in his photographs depicting them in a greatly positive way as heroes reconciled to their fate. His most famous sound film, Zem spieva (The Earth Sings, 1933), depicts life in a rural setting. Apart from the postcards from 1925 – 1938, his photographs were published in several books, e.g. Slovensko (Slovakia, 1937), Slovensko vo fotografii Karola Plicku (Slovakia in Photographs by Karel Plicka, 1949). Karel Plicka began photographing Slovakia only five years after the fall of the Habsburg monarchy and the birth of the Czechoslovak Republic which needed to establish new models of identity for its citizens. It is worth mentioning similar efforts to capture the idyllic rural life, union with nature – the so-called Heimatfotografie – homeland photography in the German-speaking cultural circle. In the regime that came to power shortly afterwards, the works by Karel Plicka, analogous to Heimatfotografie, were viewed in an ideological context of aggression.


A lot of technological innovations (including the development of the film camera and others) directly affected photography. In the 1920s, the European authors as well as theorists realized that their means of expression in the field of photography reflected the state of the society and that they were not obliged to imitate painting in order to earn the artistic recognition. Furthermore, such an effort was wrong and did not meet the requirements of that time. László Moholy-Nagy, a photographer, typographer, theorist and experimenter, speaks about the “objective perception” of not only the technical perfection but also optical distortions or imperfections. Photographers do not have to be artists, but rather photographic workers. Modernism sees photography as a documentation of a new vision. The New Objectivity, a realistic representation of the form without manipulation, yet aiming at the technical perfection, may also be classified as a modernist movement.


Due to the requirements to depict the present-day reality, the social documentary photography, depicting social relations of human beings so far without a critical attitude or humanistic undercurrents, came to the fore. The first Slovak social documentary photographers were Sergej Protopopov and Irena Blühová. The first organized group of social documentary photographers was formed with the foundation of the Sociofoto association in Bratislava in 1933. The social motif, in which the picturesqueness was not a decisive factor any more because the emphasis was now laid on the quality of being photogenic, was represented by a solitary individual living on the margins of society. The social documentary photography began to adopt a critical approach and aimed to give a visual evidence of the oppression of the weak, e.g. through the depiction of the economic situation. It was part of a mass movement in various European and North American countries (e.g. the documentation of the Farm Security Administration by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange). In the 1940s, photographers gradually abandon the social and critical approach. A special example of the social documentary photography is represented by François Kollar (František Kollár), a Slovak photographer who emigrated to Paris, with his documentary collection La France travaille (France at Work) where he celebrates the work through the visual language of modernism.


As the primary institutions were being established in Slovakia, question arose regarding the arts education. A survey revealed that the majority of the respondents were in favour of a practical school that would collaborate closely with the industry. The founders of the School of Arts and Crafts in Bratislava, historian and folk art theorist, ethnographer and pedagogue Josef Vydra and Antonín Hořejš (secretary of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry) intentionally built the school policy on modernism represented by German Bauhaus and Vkhutemas in Moscow. The school came into existence with the 1928/29 school year. The photography classes were introduced into the curriculum in 1930, the first head of the photography department (specializing in the promotion and advertising) was Jaromír Funke, a renowned Czech avant-garde photographer. The department was later headed by Ladislav Kožehuba. Within the aesthetics of the New Objectivity, the central core of the studies included the photographic exercises consisting in the faithful depiction and technical perfection. In his lectures, László Moholy-Nagya presented the aesthetic means of a new vision in the form of collage, montage and assemblage applicable to the promotion (exercises with materials, though not so rigid, are still part of the photography studies at the Josef Vydra School of Applied Arts, which is the current name of the school). In 1937, Karel Plicka founded the first film school at the School of Arts and Crafts in Czechoslovakia.
The first School of Arts and Crafts graduates were photographers Tibor Honty, Miloš Dohnány (member of the photography club YMCA, organizer of the photography training courses for amateurs), social documentary photographer Irena Blühová (who also studied at the Bauhaus), and others.