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Jan Saudek: The Body Beautiful

written by: Zoe Van-de-Velde•edited by: Tricia Goss•updated: 8/14/2011

Jan Saudek is a Czech photographer who has focused on photographing the body since the 1950s. His images of people are aesthetically beautiful but they can also be funny, disturbing, sentimental, apocalyptic or very simple. Saudek explores relationships between people, objects, nudity and dress.

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    Bare Walls and a Flexaret

    Jan Saudek 1 

    Jan Saudek was born in 1935 in Prague, Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia). As children, Saudek and his twin brother Karl were put in a concentration camp by the Nazi’s. They both narrowly escaped being experimented on by Josef Mengele.

    Saudek got his first camera, a Kodak Baby Brownie, at age 15. He studied Industrial Photography in Prague and became a photographers’ apprentice in 1952. In 1959, his wife gave him a Flexaret 6x6 camera. He still uses this camera today.

    Saudek started creating his staged photographs after he had seen a catalogue of “The Family of Man" exhibition in 1963. The images inspired him to use photography as a means of artistic expression. When he began his own art photography, he photographed mainly in black and white. He always stages his shots, often using the bare, mottled, damp walls of his rooms as the backdrop.

    Saudek worked in a factory until 1984. Saudek’s work was becoming quite well known in the West during the 1980s and this made the Czech government suspicious of his activities. He became a freelance photographer when he finally received a membership card from the Czech Visual Arts Fund. Since the 1980s, Jan Saudek has become well known all over the world and has even received the “Artis Bohemiae Amicis," the highest award you can achieve as an artist in the Czech Republic.

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    Staging the Nude

    Jan Saudek 2 

    Saudek has always concentrated on taking pictures of the body, juxtaposing the nude with the clothed, the fat with the thin, children and adults. The images explore relationships, whether between men and women or objects and people. Saudek's photography has stuck to his simple formula of photographing his subjects against his bare walls, although he has experimented with how he uses the space between people, how he poses his models and what people wear.

    In Temptation, 1965 Saudek uses a naked child holding a stuffed toy at one end of the image. The child looks like she is wearing a wig; she has a mass of blond thick hair that covers much of her face. She looks across at a man seated on the floor, clothed with his head down resting on his arm. The backdrop is a wall that resembles ragged rock. This wall has a car license plate inexplicably stuck into the surface and what looks like a small toy solider sitting on a small crevice. The faces of both participants are mostly obscured, but deep emotion is portrayed through the posing, staging and use of clothes and nudity.

    Whether Saudek concentrates on a close up of a body part, such as the lips shown here, or whether he is encompassing several people, there is a palpable relationship created between them. Here, the lips and the droplet of water have a sensual charge that hold the viewer’s attention.

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    Marking the Image

    Jan Saudek 3 

    During the 1970s, Saudek started to create and use backdrops that placed the participants in fantastical scenery. He also began painting colors on the images; he painted directly onto the prints. Originally, this was due to the difficulty in obtaining color film.

    An example of his technique can be seen in the image I would like to carry you in my arms, 1983. This image depicts a strong man in a ghoulish mask, lifting a young nude woman. The strongman looks directly into the camera, but the woman stares down toward the floor. The backdrop is a bare and damaged wall. Saudek photographed the image in black and white and then painted over to give it sepia-like tones. The image, as many of Saudek’s images, has a sense of play. The animality of the male figure and the setup give the image the sense of an old-fashioned circus.

    Another image that is not only colored but has a fantastical feel is Purgatory 354, 1987. This image is akin to a Michelangelo biblical scene. Four figures appear to be floating in the air. On each side of the image, a man and a woman are in a form of embrace. The wall behind the image now has been transformed by the over-painting of what looks like decrepit clouds. Between the two sets of figures, golden paint has been added to look like silken cloth that entwines the male participant on the left of the image covering his stomach and pelvis.

    These types of labor-intensive images show the detail and the uniqueness of Saudek’s work.