Britain pays last respects to Czech-born theatre photographer Ivan Kyncl


On Tuesday, theatre directors, actors and playwrights gathered at the Royal National Theatre in London to pay their last respects to the Czech-born stage photographer, Ivan Kyncl, who died of a heart attack aged 51. Ivan Kyncl was one of many Czech artists whose work is better known abroad than at home and the Czech Republic still owes him an exhibition of his photographs.

Ivan Kyncl was born in Prague, the son of Karel Kyncl, a Czechoslovak Radio broadcaster who lost his job and was jailed after the 1968 Soviet invasion. As a result Ivan was denied a university education. He earned his living as a commercial photographer but at the same time kept on documenting the lives of members of the persecuted anti-communist opposition. He took photos of political prisoners, members of the Charter 77 human rights movement, the so-called "living-room" theatre of the black-listed actress Vlasta Chramostova and he was also at the funeral of future President Vaclav Havel's father.

Ivan Kyncl was repeatedly arrested by the communist secret police and humiliated. He finally left Czechoslovakia in 1980, with just his camera in his bag. He was given asylum in Britain and knowing no English, he started from scratch.

Through hard work he became the Royal Shakespeare Company's house photographer and worked for other theatres as well - the Almeida, the Royal Court and the Royal National Theatre. Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Tom Stoppard and Andrew Lloyd Webber all asked him to be their personal photographer.

Ivan Kyncl was a workaholic. He would take photos at evening performances, develop them overnight to have them ready in the morning. But he never forgot to find time to do something for his old homeland. For example, he took photos of the Czech-born exile poet Ivan Blatny who died in a psychiatric institution in England.

After the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989, Ivan Kyncl stayed in Britain. He had married Alena Melichar, the daughter of Czech émigrés, and had his job he loved. And his father, Karel Kyncl, was working in London as Czechoslovak Radio correspondent.

Since 1989 Ivan Kyncl has not had a major exhibition in his native country although his work from the so-called "normalisation" period of the 1970s portrays the lives and fates of a whole generation.