Main exhibition

Red and blue | Vladimír Birgus

19. 4. 2024 - 9. 6. 2024

The immersive and wide-ranging photographic world of Vladimir Birgus opened its doors to colour back in the 1980s, that is to colour in its full saturation and evocative messaging, during a time when inventive use of colour was highly unusual in the context of Czech documentary photography. His colour configurations were since the beginning deliberate, conceived almost like a painting. Birgus’ often ghostly scenes not dissimilar to staged modulation despite not being conceived as such were conceptualised with careful attention to colour and specific lighting which supports the tones and plasticity of the visual work. Earlier photographs were laden with yellow, blue and black, with the later emergence of increasingly intense red coupled with a gradual near disappearance of yellow. Red is an extroverted colour, commanding attention and rousing emotions. The same can be said of Birgus’ work generally, although it is also headed towards calm and a certain type of visual contemplation. We realise this most clearly when examining photographs that don’t capture people, surprisingly to some. Here colour intensity reaches its maximum, the empty, almost abstract spaces are however charged with emotion and concealed explosion of possible interpretations and mental narratives. Red and Blue, an almost Stendhalian paraphrase, draw us into the photograph to the point, where we viewers become another actor in the photographed reality, not in the least indifferent to the event photographed. Somewhere in those moments, art is born.

The beginnings of Birgus’ work date back to 1972. From his then-black-and-white photography, we can see the photographer’s intentional search for situations which outgrow humanistic documentaries towards a subjective visual narrative open to individual interpretation. With the advent of colour photography in the 1980s, this quality in Birgus’ photography deepened. It is safe to say that moments and situations unfold slightly differently in colour as opposed to in a monochrome photographic world. If classic black-and-white photography tends to work with a snapshot of a very short time and with a certain form of aesthetic composition often leading to a condensed visual shortcut, colour, particularly in Birgus’ work, expands the mental field of the image. Time expands and stretches out, colour doesn’t rush, and components rarely included in black-and-white narrative come into play or have life breathed into them, as they might seem banal or uninteresting in the black-and-white composition. The photogenic nature of colourful scenes evokes a sense of theatricality, stagendness and unreality which is paradoxical since the truthfulness of colour ought to be more complex. I believe Birgus knows in which emotional and compositional plane colours work. He doesn’t rush to make a point – after all, he resisted this even in his black-and-white work. He knows how to condense and lighten an image while maintaining visual intensity and narrative expressivity. His work can then have many points, or hints of meaning. He likes to ‘compose’ in planes, drawing on the geometry of shadows and surfaces. Surfaces and planes naturally divide and give rise to space; sometimes we must wonder if it is no longer about abstract hints, about emptying or the autonomy of colourful narrative. Sometimes when I gaze at Birgus’ photographs, I feel a comforting warm touch of sunset’s rays and the pulse of the day quieting and slowing, with contours sharpening as the day passes by. I notice the shapes and am warmed by the possibility of imagining narratives and events. Yet Birgus works masterfully with dark and the harshest of lights as well. He has an eye for situations where characters are in shadows or their fragments seem motionless, yet so much is happening narratively. I’m glad Birgus detests the haze and insists on firm demarcations. The bounds of light and shadow seem acceptable only when contrasted to the maximum. The humour of Birgus’ photographs remains in the distinct smile of colour where composition, clustering, shadow and gesture are definitive in a way only colour photography can present. And Vladimir Birgus as well.

Martin Dostal, curator


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