Graduates of the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava
Over the past seventeen years the Institute of Creative Photography has changed beyond recognition. When the Silesian University was founded in 1991, many were sceptical, given that the Institute had for twenty years been part of the Association of Czech Photographers and that the method of study was distance learning.
Today, however, the university is among leaders of six Czech further education institutions that offer photography as an independent field of study. During the past fifteen years the ICP's teaching staff has grown considerably, and the current nine permanent and ten visiting members of staff include a number of eminent photographers and photographic theorists. In the early days of the Silesian University none of the staff members had achieved senior academic qualifications, but the teaching staff now numbers one professor and three associate professors. Students used to have to provide all their own photographic equipment, but they are now able to use well-equipped studios, dark rooms and a computer room, and can also borrow professional cameras. There has been a sharp increase in the number of course applicants - this year almost three hundred applicants took the entrance exams, a record in our short history of photographic education. While at the beginning of the 1990s ICP students were almost all Czech and Slovak, today almost a third are foreign. Most are Poles and Slovaks, but there have also been students from Germany, the US, Italy, France, Croatia, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. The most important thing, however, are the results of study, and what graduates go on to achieve. This exhibition is designed to provide something of a survey in this regard. Although it is the largest exhibition ever mounted by the Institute of Creative Photography, it is one of a number of public displays of the work of ICP students and graduates. It follows on in particular from two extensive exhibitions, ICP 25/5 in 1996, and ICP - Degree Work 1998-2003, which after premiering in Opava were shown in a number of Czech, Polish and Slovak cities.
The study programme at the ICP is extremely wide-ranging compared to some other schools. It does not use the studio system of teaching, where students are guided by one teacher the entire time, but allows all students to come into contact with a wide range of creative styles and opinions, as represented by various staff members. What is important is that students have a free choice in the supervisor and subject of their degree work. The credits system allows them to choose subjects in accordance with their interests, particularly in the higher years. Given that photographers' work is predominantly individual, combined distance-learning and on-campus study is proving to be a suitable method for those who, for various time- or work-related reasons, cannot travel to school daily. It is thus being introduced at an ever-greater number of schools, and the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan recently modelled its system on that of the ICP. Although combined study offers a limited amount of time for lectures and consultations, this is at least partially compensated for by an ever-greater number of creative workshops, long-term photography projects (over thirty students are currently involved in a project entitled Opava on the threshold of a new millenium) and an original system of evaluating photographic work by means of the internet - although there is still much to be done in making full use of the internet as a medium. Independent work and practical exercises in all the main areas of photography forms an important part of the ICP's study programme, as do theoretical subjects. We believe it is important that graduates should not only be creative and inventive, but that they should be proficient in all the main areas of photography at a practical professional level, be skilled in the use of photographic and computer technology, and have a good understanding of the history of and current developments in photography and fine art. No other Czech photography school except for FAMU in Prague puts such emphasis on theoretical work. At the end of their bachelor's or master's degrees, ICP students not only have to produce an explanation of their work or a short theoretical essay, as is usual in most Czech art schools, but an extensive thesis - in some cases as long as 150-200 pages - which is often a valuable contribution to the study of the history and theory of photography. All these works can be accessed by researchers in the faculty library in Opava, while many can also be found in the library of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague or on the ICP's website, www.itf.cz. A number of seminar works by ICP students are also published in the ICP's internet magazine, www.photorevue.com, which is the only one in the Czech Republic focusing on current photographic work.
Many ICP graduates and students are among the leading members of the younger generation of Czech photographers. They include Dita Pepe, Ji?? K?enek, Jolana Havelkov?, Tom?š Posp?ch, Evžen Sobek, V?t Šim?nek, Barbora Kukl?kov?, Jan Schejbal, Vojt?ch V. Sl?ma, Milan Blatn? and many others who are significantly enriching the Czech photographic scene. Many have independent exhibitions to their name, and have had work published in important magazines - in some cases even their own books of photographs. Likewise, Polish graduates and students - the largest group of foreign students - have had a very notable influence on the radical changes in contemporary Polish photography. The work of Rafal Milach, Szymon Scześniak, Kuba Dąbrowski, Mariusz Forecki, Andrzej Kramarz, Agata Kubień, Grzegorz Klatka, Adam Tuchliński, Grzegorz Dąbrowski and others is attracting considerable attention in Poland. Indeed, they are even referred to as the 'Opava School,' noted especially for their work in documentary, portrait and advertising photography, fields which in Poland were until recently overshadowed by conceptual work. It is also difficult to imagine present-day Slovak photography without former and current ICP students - Lucie Nimcov?, Jozef Ondzik, Andrej Balco, Viktor Szemzö, Pavel Smejkal and others. The current ICP staff also includes five former students - Tom?š Posp?ch, Dita Pepe, Evžen Sobek, Ji?? Vot?pka a Karel Poneš.
This exhibition of ICP graduates is dominated by new work, which means it provides a relatively vivid picture of current creative trends. One thing that is clear straight away when comparing it with the ten-year-old ICP 25/5 is that there are many more colour photographs, which now clearly dominate over black and white photography. This is true not only of artistic, but also of portrait and documentary photography, areas in which it used to be rare to see colour used in an inventive way. There has also been an increase in emphasis on work in extended series (indeed, it is now almost impossible to find individual shots that do not form part of collections ordered by theme or style in the work of current students). These collections are also becoming conceptually stronger. There is also a stronger accent on personal views, feelings and opinions, apparent above all in the fieldof subjective documentary and in various visual diaries - a form which has become very fashionable among students in the last few years, and which has led to originally personal attitudes, themes and motifs becoming thoroughly shaken up. Another field which is currently particularly strong is the portrait, an area that ten years ago was not paid much attention. However, these are not classical representative portraits of celebrities or well-groomed portraits of professional models, but sociologically-inspired comparative portraits of people from various social groups, professions and ages. The way they look directly into the lens and the central compositions are reminiscent in style of the monumental sociostructural work of August Sander, or even more of the fascinating frontal portraits of Rineke Dijkstra. A major role is played by the functional use of colours, as well as skilled technical treatment using medium- or large-format cameras and computer editing.
A new type of photography, not found at all in the graduate and student work that was on display ten years ago, is staged documentary work. Although we know that the authors of some famous war photographs and humanistic documentary work used to stage some of their scenes without admitting it, it was contemporary artists like Jeff Wall, Philip-Lorca di Corcia and Tina Barney who first started to deliberately mix fact and fiction and create openly-arranged works which actually look as if they are authentic moments. ICP students use this approach particularly in diary-type work, but it can also be found in collections showing the feelings annd visual experiences of foreigners living in Prague, the gradual changes in identity and blending of two women, and in idealised pictures of life in the vibrant Bratislava suburb of Petržalka (which in reality is almost empty during the day) skilfully composed in the computer from a number of shots. The inventive use of computer technology is in itself something new, which would not have been found at an exhibition ten years ago. It should be emphasised that in all their practical and degree work, ICP students have complete freedom in deciding whether to use classical or digital technology. In this exhibition there are also many more conceptually-oriented works, exploring the possibilities of the photographic medium, showing the passing of time or the imperfection of human memory, but also seeking to provoke by, for example, replacing the faces of holocaust victims with the faces of famous showbusiness celebrities. Although it is sometimes said that ICP students focus above all on documentary photography, the exhibition shows that their range of interests is much wider, and that they are reacting with increasing intensity to current photographic and artistic trends.
Some creative tendencies and types of photography do not change much, however, even over many years. This is true of sociological documentary work, depicting the lives of particular people or precisely-defined groups of people. There may have been an increase in the use of colour photography in this area, but the traditional humanist impact and the emphasis on clarity of meaning and composition remain. Other types of photography have, however, taken something of a back seat. While the ICP 25/5 exhibition had a large number of still lives, there are far fewer of them in this exhibition. There has been a similar retreat for the classically-conceived nude, which has now been largely replaced by a more symbolic, and often more natural, depiction of the naked body. Traditional landscape photography, showing the beauty of a particular scene, has noticeably given way to a more modern conception depicting more generally-interpreted details in the landscape, the relationship between man and nature, or environmental themes. There are also some types of photography which are almost completely absent from the work of ICP students and graduates. One of these is something of a Czech speciality, 'non-photographic photography,' consisting of the depiction of banal subjects in a visually unattractive and deliberately unskilled manner, adored by some Czech art theorists but completely removed from the precise and pictorially-strong work of Andreas Gurski, Cindy Sherman, Edward Burtynsky, Jeff Wall, Rineke Dijkstra and other leading lights in contemporary photography.
The exhibition of graduates has its strong and weak points, but aims overall to lead to the conclusion that after fifteen years at the Silesian University, the Institute of Creative Photography is a well-established and respected school of photography at which a number of prominent individuals have studied. We can only hope that this will continue to be the case.