Antonín Kratochvíl is one of the greatest contemporary Czech photographers. Known for both his celebrity portraits and photojournalism, he is said to have won World Press Photo awards in more categories than anybody else. Much of his work is informed by his own tough experiences, starting with the Communists’ persecution of his family, who owned a photography studio. At his apartment in New York, where he has been living for three decades, I asked Antonín Kratochvíl when he had first begun to feel his family was being treated harshly.
“When I was a little kid we spent some time in a labour camp, outside of Prague. My parents lost their citizens’ rights. They were restored after Stalin died, so we moved back to Prague. But at that time we lived on this estate where my mother worked in the fields and we lived in the pig stalls.
“So I knew something was wrong already, because we went from this relative opulence into sleeping in this really sordid place, the rain got in and rats were biting us, so I knew…since I was three, my mother was crying and everything, so I knew it.”
Also I read that your father had to work in a factory and the other workers put him through something called ulička hanby, alley of shame.
“Yes, it’s true. Actually I found this out maybe five years ago – my dad was already dead a long time but my older sister talked about it, because she remembers better than me. Every morning he had to run through this gauntlet of shame. He was cursed and spat on and kicked.”
How much do you feel that the experience of growing up in that environment impacted on your personality, on your character?
“For sure, you know, there was this strong sense of right and wrong. Because I was just a victim of this, like the family of Borgia, sort of cursed.
“I couldn’t really get a better education, I only had elementary education and I went to work in a factory at 15. So I had a sense of injustice and that’s what I actually do in my work now.”
At the age of 19 you left Czechoslovakia, in 1967. What was the immediate impulse to your leaving at the age of 19?
I understand also you took a souvenir of the barbed wire on your way out?
“No, no, I didn’t actually, on the way out it would have been too insane. I have it there on the wall…I returned there in 1998 to the same sector and the soldiers cut it for me.”
I thought took you were really brave and took it on the way.
“No, that would have called the guards. Because if you cut the signal wire it rings at the guard post.”
You were then at a refugee camp in Austria – what was that like?
“It was tough going. Basically you had to always fight for your life and always be on your toes, because there was a lot of animosity between, a lot of ethnic…problems. My cousin was killed by the Albanians in that camp in Traiskirchen.”
After that you ended up in Sweden you were put in prison for a while for the smuggling of soft drugs…
“It was never proven, it was never proven. I was convicted on the testimony of somebody else.”
“That’s right. I was actually in prison in the south of France for being in the country illegally. And this guy came around and that’s the choice I had to make.”
For me the French Foreign Legion is a kind of image of horror, something I could never survive – how hard was it?
“I’d lived through some hard times before that and I was in really good shape, so for me it was not really that hard. But just the…obeying…they try to break your will, they try to make you into a fighting machine. So I resisted that and I deserted.”
This is after you were injured in Chad, was it?
“Yes, during the campaign in 1969 I was injured and I was rotated back to Marseilles and from there I escaped.”
Another thing I’ve always believed is that if you desert the French Foreign Legion they come and get you, they find you.
“For the first 48 hours they look for you, the legionnaires, the police, and then they give it to the civilian police. But by that time I was already in Belgium, and I crossed illegally to Holland where I got refugee status and political asylum.”
If we can back for a second to your family, how long was it after you left at the age of 19 that you saw any of your family again?
“I saw my father and mother in 1975 when I was already living in the United States”
And your dad died in America, is that right?
“Yes, he died here a few months later.”
Was his profession what led you to become a photographer?
“No, absolutely not. My father always told me not to be one, he said, it’s a shitty profession. He wanted me to be an engineer.
“But I never really thought I was going to be a photographer. I was busy surviving, basically, and this came as an opportunity, to try to get into the academy [in Holland] so I did, and I seized the opportunity.”
I believe when you first came here to America you were on the West Coast, in Hollywood, and you were working in the music industry, taking photographs for music magazines and album covers. My impression is that it was a wild era, lots of cocaine and so on. Was that your experience?
“Absolutely. Still Hollywood is very hedonistic…It was exciting in LA in those days. But you had to rethink the whole thing – it [work] was not about social commentary, it was about the fluff, the colour, the palm trees, the blue sky, a la Guy Bourdin.”
These days I think you’re less interested in celebrity photography, and you’ve described celebrities as all being desperate. But of the celebrities that you have photographed were there any who made a particularly strong impression either way, good or bad?
“I don’t want to make some sweeping statement about celebrities being desperate. Some of them are, sure, like anybody.
“But there are a lot who were really cool, like Bono, Willem Dafoe, David Bowie, Keith Richards – they were people I photographed and spent some time with and they were pretty interesting people.”
In the second part of our interview on Tuesday, Antonín Kratochvíl discusses the effects of working in war zones, the influence some of his pictures have had, and why he despite spending over half his life in the US he does not consider himself a “Czech-American”.
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