Czech-born photographer Werner Forman dies in London

The widely respected Czech photographer Werner Forman, who settled in Great Britain in the late 1960s, died in London on Saturday. His work took him to many parts of the globe and reflected the best and worst of the world around him – from atrocities committed in concentration camps to precious works of art. He wrote about 40 books on ancient and oriental cultures and his archive contains some 15,000 photographs of archaeological sites, architecture and art from the great museums and private collections from all over the world. Ruth Fraňková spoke to Werner Forman’s long-time colleague and friend Martin Heller:

One of the books by Artia illustrated with Forman's photographsOne of the books by Artia illustrated with Forman's photographs “I met Mr Forman in Artia in 1955. Artia was a foreign language publishing house in Prague and a year earlier Mr Forman published a book on Chinese art in Czech collections. The Chinese government was so impressed that they asked the Czech government to allow Mr Forman and his brother to come for two months to travel around China and give seminars to their own photographers and tell them how they should photograph Chinese art objects.”

How did he become a photographer?

“Werner Forman was not very academically gifted. He was very interested in aircraft and before the war he took some unusual pictures of aircrafts which made such an impression on the publicity department of the Czech Airline that they gave him a job as their official photographer.

“During the Second World War Werner joined an illegal resistance group and they asked him to take pictures at Terezín concentration camp and Werner produced this documentation which was supposed to be sent to Switzerland and I believe it was but very soon afterwards the group was caught by the Gestapo and Werner managed to escape by joining a transport to Germany of people who had been conscripted to work in German factories.”

Werner Forman, photo: CTKWerner Forman, photo: CTK How did he become preoccupied with Oriental art?

“I think that that was a reaction against the excesses of the European civilisation. He worked for a time for the United Nations’ relief organisation UNRA after the war taking again documentary photographs of atrocities of concentration camps and he was very deeply affected by that. So he rejected the European civilisation and concentrated initially on Oriental art and then he became very friendly with various important collectors like Lubor Hájek, the editor of the New Orient Journal which still exists today and together they produced a book on Chinese art and then many others.”