16. 9. 2021 - 21. 11. 2021
A retrospective exhibition of the Czech photographer Milon Novotny who would have celebrated his 90thbirthday this year. Novotny, who died in 1992, is considered a pioneer and outstanding representative of the 20th century Czech humanistic photography. Novotny was a photographic poet of everyday life, seeing and capturing deep human contents in seemingly banal scenes.
Milon Novotny (1930 – 1992) belongs to the generation influenced by E. Steichen’s legendary exhibition The Family of Man. Similarly to H. Cartier-Bresson, his photographs were exclusively black and white, he worked solely using a Leica camera and was a practitioner of the so called “decisive moment”. Although we can find photographs capturing the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia or the funeral of Jan Palach amongst Novotny’s work, his main focus was not reportage. Novotny was a photographical poet of the everyday, his photographs beam with empathy for the situation in front of his camera, with the ability to see beyond the seeming everydayness and his talent to rapidly identify the most fitting moment and detail.
Milon Novotny’s family of origin was a simple and rural one; his childhood was set in his hometown Stetovice in Moravia. Later he commuted to a grammar school in Prostejov. In his final year of high school he fell very ill with a lung disease and spent a year recovering in Novy Smokovec. It was in this period of existentialist uncertainty that he received his first camera; in that moment, his future was more or less decided. His first exhibition took place in 1956 in Olomouc. The young photographer travelled to Prague to ask the then sixty year old Josef Sudek for help with selecting photographs and writing Novotny’s exhibition a recommendation. A lifelong friendship developed between the two photographers and thanks to Josef Sudek, Milon met the prominent photography scholar Jiri Jenicek who immediately recognized exceptional talent in the young keen photographer. In 1957 Milon moved to Prague permanently, married the beautiful seamstress Alena and began collaborating and publishing in Literary and Theatre newspapers and magazines Theatre and Culture. He captured the beginnings of Laterna magika, photographed in the Na Zabradli theatre and later alongside with the painter and friend Libor Fara created an original and modern style to the Cinoherni (Drama) Club and its propagation materials. He published around five hundred photographs yearly with most of his royalties spent on travelling. Sixties were Milon’s most fruitful and successful life period that culminated in the now legendary publication London in 1968.
In the 70s and 80s, Literary newspaper to which Milon contributed for years ceased to be published and his photographs gradually disappeared from the pages of other newspapers and magazines. Milon Novotny was relegated to the sidelines like many other prominent figures of Czech culture and he was barred from photographing in theatres. Spending most of his time with his family in their Prysk dacha, he photographed the countrymen from this village in the north of Czech republic, which formed the focus of his work during the normalization period. He made a living by working with the Association of Czech Composers and Concert Artists, namely by portraiting musicians, which didn’t come close to fulfilling his creative ambitions. Nevertheless, even these photographs reveal a sensitive photographer’s touch. The extensive set of portrait negatives is currently stored in the archives of the National Museum.
After the Velvet revolution in November 1989, Milon Novotny was again travelling the world. He celebrated his sixtieth birthday and it seemed as if the upswing of his photographic potential was unstoppable. Unfortunately, he was only granted another two and a half years of life. The few magnificent photographs that he brought back from his last few journeys are a proof that he upheld the reputation as one of the most prominent Czech documentary photographers until his last days.
1930 Milon Novotny is born on the 11th of April in Stetovice in Hanakia. His father is a locksmith working all life for the sugar factory in the neighbouring town Vrbatky. His mother occasionally lends a hand with field work while raising a son and a daughter.
1948-49 After turning eighteen, Milon falls ill with an infectious joint rheumatism and a lung disease. Instead of completing high school he spends a year rehabilitating in High Tatras. He is enchanted by the surrounding literature and visual art. He begins photographing on a borrowed camera.
1954 Beginnings of serious work; Milon photographs the activities painters usually busied themselves with before photographic technology allowed for rapid exposure.
1956 Exhibition debut in Olomouc, the historical metropolis of Milon’s home Moravia. His work is an upsurge for the Gallery of the Union of Czechoslovak Fine Artists. The catalogue text is written by more than a decade older colleague Jiri Janecek, who considers Novotny a homo novus. Janecek also recommends Novotny to his peer Josef Sudek. This gives rise to a years-long friendship.
1957 The weekly magazine Culture publishes Novotny’s photograph on its title page. Novotny relocates permanently to Prague.
1958 On June 5th Novotny marries Alena Hronikova. He becomes a candidate of the Union of Czechoslovak Fine Artists. He switches from the classical Rolleiflex camera and the negative format 6x6cm to a film roll Leica. From late 50s Novotny photographs for a wide range of magazines and documents theatre for more than two decades.
1962 First son Marek is born.
1964 First short trip to London.
1965 Beginning of intensive collaboration with the recently founded Cinoherni klub (Drama club) theatre.
1966 Novotny is accepted as a full member of the Union of Czechoslovakian Fine Artists. He contributes substantially to the collective image book New York. Throughout mere three weeks he takes the majority of the London photographs.
1968 First publication of London. Expectations are high not only in London or Prague, where the work was initially published by the publisher Mlada fronta, but in other places across the globe. London soon disappears from the shelves of Czechoslovak bookshops and despite the high volume of initial prints – eight thousand – it can be found only rarely in the display cases of second hand bookshops. The work was not coveted only for its masterful photography; London was also a symbol of the free world. Novotny’s work on Prague Spring culminates with him graciously giving foreign newspapers the negatives capturing the August occupation of Czechoslovakia by communist armies led by the Soviets. The period of Novotny publishing more than 500 photographs annually is coming to an end.
1969 Novotny’s photographs from the funeral of Jan Palach, a student who burned himself alive in protest against soviet occupation, grow into a parable about the end of an extraordinary decade. In the 70s Novotny continues working with the Czechoslovak academy of sciences, and he photographs for the Union of Czech composers and concert artists. He mostly contributes photographs to the magazines Gramorevue and Musical Views. He is so self-critical that he destroys bespoke negatives after use.
1975 The album ČSSR (Czechoslovak socialist republic) is published, to which Novotny contributed with a multitude of black-and-white and colour photographs. The escalation of totalitarian repression following 70s and 80s means that London’s lightness and freedom cannot be repeated.
1989 Novotny finds himself in the streets of Prague again while photographing the Velvet revolution.
1991-92 Photographic journeys to the USA.
1992 After a brief illness, Novotny passes away in a Prague hospital on August 9th.
2000 The monograph Milon Novotny: Photographs arranged by Dana Kyndrova reminds Novotny’s flagship project London with more than a quarter of reproductions.
2010 The retrospective exhibition to what would have been the photographer’s 80th birthday is debuted in the Old Town Hall in Prague. Novotny’s creative humanism is demonstrated in the words of the critic Jiri Penas: “People captured in the photographs make one wonder what happened with their destinies, how did their lives unravel afterwards, what happened to them, if and how do they live.” (Where did all those people go?, Lidove noviny, 17. 4. 2010.)
2014 London exhibition in Leica Gallery Prague.
2020 The book Musicians 70s-80s containing previously unpublished photographs of important personalities of the Czech philharmonic is published by Kant.