a studio in Prague

I’ve been looking at Josef Sudek’s photographs for a year or two now, those collected in Josef Sudek 55, a small book published in 2001 by Phaidon Press; and Mionsi Forest, the fifth volume in the Torst series, Josef Sudek: Works.  Sudek was a Czech photographer, born in 1896 in Kolin, best known for his melancholy images of Prague. He photographed its streets, its buildings, and a remarkable series focussed on restoration work at St. Vitus’ Cathedral. There’s one of a wheelbarrow waiting on a pile of sand, the inner structure of the cathedral framing this interior landscape, all of it illuminated by shafts of light. I love the Mionsi Forest photographs because they take me into the ancient forests which shadow the village where my grandmother grew up. The shade, the light, the iconic trees against dark skies — I imagine my grandmother in these spaces, a girl among trees, maybe with the sweetheart who became her first husband.

I’ve just read John Banville’s wonderful Prague Pictures: Portraits of a City, published by Bloomsbury in 2003. His Prague is Sudek’s to some extent (as well as Tycho Brahe’s, Kepler’s, Kafka’s…). In fact, he writes of the moment he first sees Sudek’s photographs, a sheaf he is shown in a private home, prior to helping to smuggle them out of pre-Velvet Revolution Prague: “All day I had been walking about the city without seeing it, and suddenly now Sudek’s photographs, even the private, interior studies, showed it to me, in all its stony, luminous solidity and peculiar, wan, absent-minded beauty. Here, with this sheaf of pictures on my knees, I had finally arrived.”

Josef Sudek’s studio is open to the public (and I hope to visit in the spring):


And for those in Ontario, there’s an exhibit of Sudek’s which opened on October 3, running until April 7, 2013.



The year after

A year ago, I published a memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees. Of all the books I’ve written, this one is perhaps the most personal. I trace significant moments and patterns in my life set against a larger arboreal canvas. Trees are the equivalent of Cicero’s architectural spaces. In thinking about them, their natural history and the human history associated with them, I discovered that they have guided me and sheltered me in ways I hadn’t even realized. I write this at my pine desk, looking out the window to a cascara, some firs, an arbutus, several cedars, a mountain ash. Every view from every window of my house is framed by foliage. In some of those trees, I see my children at play, building a fort, or simply climbing for the challenge of reaching a half-way mark. At the back of the house is a copper beech I planted to commemorate my parents and the little bits of grit at its base are their remains, still not completely washed into the soil.

In many ways, the past year has been shaped by this book. I travelled a little to read from it – Vancouver Island, the Okanagan, Kootenays, even to Alberta. I read from it in Brno, Prague, Olomouc, Ostrava, Ceske Budejovice, meeting fascinating people along the way and hearing their stories of trees. I saw the spruces lining the road leading to the house my grandmother was born in which in turn have led me to the work of the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek – he photographed the Mionsi Forest in the Beskydy Mountains just above my grandmother’s village of Horni Lomne. All of this is contained in my current work-in-progress, in some ways simply an extension of Mnemonic. Maybe that’s the best way to look at my writing in general: a single ongoing work.

The other day I saw a child walking with his mother near Sechelt. He was trailing a huge maple leaf while his mother pushed an infant in a stroller. It reminded me of the day a young neighbour showed my children how to run with a maple leaf against her face like a mask. She raced along the trail with such energy and joy while the sun filtered through the bigleaf maples, part of this grove of trees, children and parents, the living and the dead held together by the intricate lattice of memory.

Remember us

I was awake in the night, trying to puzzle my way through my current writing. I am hoping to explore the trajectory of my grandmother’s life, from the small house in Horni Lomna (there are photographs of it in my posting on February 26) to Drumheller and then to Beverly. There’s so much I don’t know but I’m learning how to read the maps at least, learning the names of the places she lived, understanding (from the road in front of her house in the Beskydy Mountains) what trees she would have seen, the animals and birds (thanks to Petr and Lenka who scanned a document on the Mionsi Forest which has the names of flora and fauna in Latin which I can figure out, rather than in Czech which would present difficulties…Rana temporaria, Aruncus vulgaris, Accipiter gentilis, and Corvus corax – already it sounds like home. Not that we have that particular frog but at least I’d know what I was looking at…).

As a result of an afternoon at the British Museum a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about the Fayum portraits from the Coptic period. These were usually painted on wood panels – oak, lime, fig, cedar, acacia, among others – in tempera or encaustic, with bright pigments, and in a naturalistic style. They were portraits of the dead. Tucked into the folds of the wrappings around mummies, they provided both (it seems to me) a sense of identity as well as a commemorative function. After two thousand years, the faces still look directly at the viewer. There is so much to be learned from these portraits. Loving attention was paid to hair styles, jewellery, clothing. Remember us, they ask from eternity.

I have photographs of members of my own family and wish I knew more about them. They look out from their moment on paper – a funeral, a posed shot of young girls (and I can tell which one is my mother because I know how it feels to hold her mouth—my mouth – that way), two plump women with arms linked, one of them with the same features as my grandfather from Bukovina (and in fact the photographer’s information is printed on the back: Photograph Atelier “Riviera”, Inh. Ferd. Straub, Czernowitz, Hauptstrasse 16), never suspecting that they will end up haunting a woman in the next century.