Jaroslav Prokop

Portrait of a Music Festival

Pezinok 1976

7. 4. — 18. 6. 2017
Portrait of a Music Festival is a visual map of an event that took place in the summer of 1976 at Pezinok in western Slovakia.

This summer it will be forty-one years since that memorable open-air concert in the Pezinok amphitheatre, ridiculously dubbed the Festival of Youth by Ladislav Snopko (‘Agnes’ to his friends), who after the division of Czechoslovakia served as Slovakia’s minister of culture. Jaroslav Prokop liked to photograph musicians and had already worked with many of those performing: Vladimír Mišík and his band ETC…, Marsyas, Vladimír Merta, Vlasta Třešňák, Petr Lutka, Marian Varga, Marika Gombitova and Modus, Jaroslav Hutka and jazzman Gabriel Jonáš. To call the Pezinok venue an ‘amphitheatre’ is a slight exaggeration, as is Martin Věchet’s claim that ‘his’ festival was a Slovak Woodstock. Still, it was a big event back then in Czechoslovakia, attracting lovers of rock and folk from far and wide – a crowd who could equally well be called opponents of the regime (a fact that did not escape the communist authorities), so it is a wonder the organizers were able to put it on at all, even under the obnoxious banner of the Socialist Youth League.

There the twenty-six-year-old Prokop took a large number of photographs, some of which he included in his diploma portfolio at Prague Film Academy. Looking at them now over forty years on, I am aware of a series of highly plastic images as well as other, accompanying sequences that Prokop’s camera never managed to capture. I believe that’s what good documentary-making is about: evoking memories of places you once visited, bringing back old friends and fellow-travellers on life’s journey and, at least for a moment, beating Time at his own game. It’s about recreating before our eyes the prevailing social climate of a time past, and doing so on black-and-white film without recourse to elaborate illustrative attributes. But a genuinely creative documentarist is also able to take viewers to places and countries they have never actually seen, among people they have only heard tell of (and perhaps not even that), and give them a kind of déjà vu feeling, making them wonder: Was I really never there? And if so, how is it possible? I mean, I wasn’t even born! That’s the reason (but not the only reason) why Prokop’s photographs of the Pezinok festival can so forcefully remind those of us who were there of that forgotten atmosphere of communal defiance in a hostile world and, for the rest of us, conjure up a vivid picture of what those days were like and what was at stake.

When Jaroslav Prokop and I were putting this exhibition together, our primary source was his diploma album of forty-two black-and-white photographs, which in turn had been selected from a large quantity of negative material. From those we made a further selection, leaving us with thirty-two pictures, most of them presented in the extra-large format 180 x 110 cm, which we grouped into four sections: Audience, Musicians, Backstage and Night. Both the format of the exhibits and the way they are installed can be seen as a paraphrase of Luděk Marold’s famous panoramic depiction of the Battle of Lipany – the difference being that in Prokop’s case the battle ended in victory. We who were there could not yet know that. You, who for one reason or another were not there, now have a chance to relive with us those distant emotions, hopes and dreams. 

Karel Haloun a Luděk Kubík
exhibition curators

Jaroslav Prokop (b. 1950)

studied photography at Prague Film Academy (FAMU). While still a student he attracted attention with his pictures of local Czech rock and folk musicians who were not on the official tour circuit, and in the course of the 70s and 80s his extensive archive came to be a kind of visual record of suppressed music in Czechoslovakia. His work from the 80s is closely associated with the Prague rock venue Junior Klub Na Chmelnici, whose atmosphere, fans and musicians he captured on many photographs.

In the mid-1970s Prokop’s work also began to appear on record sleeves. His interests ranged far wider than the music scene, however, and he was equally in demand as a stage and portrait photographer. It is this versatility that makes him so exceptional: his ability to move between genres without sacrificing his own personal style – a style characterised above all by a visible dislike of pretension, a sense of detail, and the knack of portraying his subjects in such a way and in such surroundings as to make the perceptive viewer aware of much more in their expressions or gestures than he or she might otherwise have noticed. We should also mention Prokop’s fascination with black-and-white, which he always preferred to the more spectacular medium of colour (which, in the age of ‘Real Socialism’ was practically the automatic choice for other photographers whose work appeared in the public domain). While the musicians of the ‘internal diaspora’ that Prokop photographed were not strictly speaking members of the underground, they made it perfectly clear in their songs that what they saw around them – apart from their own very private and carefully guarded worlds – was not a pleasant sight.

In 1984 Prokop created a large body of work based on stage productions by the well-known HaDivadlo of Prostějov, Moravia (later of Brno), some of which appeared in the theatre’s 10th anniversary bulletin Ha-Di 1974–1984. In Prague’s Junior Klub Na Chmelnici he shot an important cycle of photographs documenting three visits by Japanese performance artist Min Tanaka (1985, 1986, 1988). In the 1990s he regularly photographed theatre productions and took portraits of actors and other theatre professionals for the magazine Svět a divadlo, and of the acting ensemble for the Divadlo v Dlouhé. A major strand of his work, from the mid-nineties to the present, is his photo-documentation of the Pilsen Theatre Festival.

Jaroslav Prokop has exhibited his works many times, both in solo shows (Prague, Tokyo, Avignon, Moscow) and in group exhibitions at home and abroad. On the theme of music, we should mention in particular two exhibitions in the mid-1980s at the Junior Klub Na Chmelnici, as well as an important group show hosted by the club, 37 Photographers at Na Chmelnici, and organised by Anna Fárová, who provided an exhaustive catalogue – a rarity in those days. Post-1989 Prokop exhibited in a number of prestigious venues, many in Prague, such as Divadlo Archa, the British Council Gallery on Národní třída and, most recently, in the Czech National Bank building on Senovážné náměstí, where – you guessed it – he presented portraits of musicians. 

Since 1999 Jaroslav Prokop has been head of the department of commercial photography of the Faculty of Multimedia Communications at the Tomas Bata University in Zlin.

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