Temptations of the photographer

“IT’S like from the movie Last Year at Marienbad,” says Yuri Dojc as, en route to an interview, he takes a picture of a courtyard covered with snow, unable to resist the temptation that a window at the staircase of a Bratislava gallery offers. Dojc, a prominent Canadian photographer with Slovak roots, was referring to the black-and-white movie from 1961.

From the Books series.From the Books series. (Source: Yuri Dojc)

“IT’S like from the movie Last Year at Marienbad,” says Yuri Dojc as, en route to an interview, he takes a picture of a courtyard covered with snow, unable to resist the temptation that a window at the staircase of a Bratislava gallery offers. Dojc, a prominent Canadian photographer with Slovak roots, was referring to the black-and-white movie from 1961.

Yet ‘Temptation’ is also the title of the exhibition that brings Dojc back to Bratislava two years after he presented his People, Cemeteries and Fragments display in the Slovak National Museum. This time, Dojc has brought to the Slovak capital over 60 images in seven series presenting the extensive scope of his work from Nudes, which secured him worldwide fame, via Portraits, Books, City Scapes, Rwanda, American Dreams, up to Surreal. Many of the exhibited photos have collected major awards, most recently the moving Rwanda series. Though Dojc visited Rwanda more than 10 years after the genocide there, his photos convey the continuing feeling of fear and loss.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Dojc about his work, the role of images, history and the involvement of the photographer in the affairs of the world.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why Temptation?

Yuri Dojc (YD): The name of the exhibition resulted from discussions with its curator, Marián Pauer. It was a sort of ping-pong. First we did not know what to call it and then we somehow settled for Pokušenie. However, the meaning of the Slovak word pokušenie has a more sexual undertone, while temptation in English is more general. Perhaps Slovak is a sexier language than English.

Most of the exhibited images are my latest works. Some nudes date back to the 1980s but, thank God, they do not appear that old. The series American Dreams are probably the oldest images exhibited here. I created these in a naive, playful way. The fact that I did them in an old-fashioned manner does not make them better or worse, but almost every image has to be done with a certain emotion, otherwise the whole work turns Salieri-like: which means that it is fine, though it misses the soul. The soul comes only with emotions when something is really pushing the man. Unfortunately, most photographs are soulless.

TSS: Why do you think that it is important to recall history, for example in the series Books, in which you depict old, crumbling Jewish books?

YD: But this is not history; it is the present since this is how those books look today. If I had wanted to remind people of history, I would have to be a writer. Almost everybody knows about that history and those who don’t can Google it or check it out on Wikipedia. But there must also be a different way to tell the story, a more universal one. And art should be a universal language, a non-specific and abstract language.

Even though the books are Jewish the project is universal. Actually, its biggest fans aren’t Jews but, for example, a Muslim Iranian writer. If this project was only Jewish, it would be very narrow. The books are Jewish but these are books nevertheless: a book is a book, it is made of a tree and the tree does not have any religion. The problem of loss and decay is universal. Those people have disappeared and when you talk about this loss you are very specific. Then you look at the books which are slowly dying, in the same way as people are dying, but when you show this decay you are more global. Those people perished in a different death than others. These are universal truths and it does not make any difference whether this happened during the Second World War or in Rwanda. But when you show the decaying books you are showing the mirror of decay.

TSS: Are you still working on the Books project?

YD: The Books project has led me to those Canadian soldiers, which was a fully natural transition. This is what I like the most about my work: that things start to intertwine. You are working on one project and then you start to think: Who were behind the salvation of at least some of those people? I live in Canada and there are still some people alive who helped to save those people. When I am portraying them I want to turn them into heroes, in a way I see them or want them to be seen.

TSS: In such portraits the photographer is often deeply ‘involved’. But in images from the City Scapes series you are a distant observer…

YD: Yes, the cities series is a sort of flying around the world while depicting the universality of world cities. It makes no difference whether you are in Paris or New York. It actually can be any city; they all are ‘human anthills’ where we all live. That’s why I am not saying where I took these photos. This made sense when people didn’t use to travel but today they travel a lot. These photos, where I am out of the crowd, are completely opposite to those from the Surreal series, where I am very close and involved. There is a sole individual in each photo and I am involved with that individual. There is a relationship there.

TSS: Your way into photography was not straightforward. You attended secondary technical school in Bratislava and then studied psychology at university. Would you have become a photographer without all the random chances which directed you to photography?

YD: Absolutely not, it was completely unthinkable; there hadn’t been even a crack to get close to becoming a photographer. If one believes in fate; then it was the work of fate. My parents picked the secondary school for me and at that time I did not care, I was too young. I did not have any clue what I wanted to do with my life. At that time there wasn’t much choice: electro-technology, chemical engineering or machine engineering. I didn’t even know that there was a school of applied art in Bratislava. If you did not move in certain circles, you simply did not know.

During my university years, I went for a language course to Great Britain. After the invasion [of Czechoslovakia] by Warsaw Pact troops in August 1968, I did not return and went to Toronto. Here, by mere chance, I walked into the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute and I met a guy there while I was observing the photos. He told me I had an accent and asked about the invasion and [Alexander] Dubček, and nothing about photography. Today, I cannot even recall our whole conversation, only that I asked him what kind of school it was because I did not know where I was. He told me it was a photography faculty. Then I thought I could actually study there. I did not even have a camera. But the guy decided to accept me.

At that time I had not had the urge to find myself; I wanted, in the first place, to survive, which actually meant to have a job that fulfilled me. It came only much later.

Yet, nowadays a photographer can give a man only a bit of joy, or move or stop a man for a
while when seeing an artwork in a gallery; all the people are so busy and hanging on mobile phones most of the time.

TSS: Do you think that the time when photos were able to change the world is over?

YD: There are iconic photos, which changed the world by conveying certain messages. Nowadays we know that many of them are actually ‘fakes’ and that somebody was playing on our emotions. The images of the Flag on the Reichstag, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, the Kiss in Paris, all these are actually staged photos, not real snapshots. But it does not matter at all. We want to believe that those important moments existed. In my photos I try to pay tribute to important moments or recall them.

TSS: In the past you did a lot of work for advertising agencies…

YD: Yes, my poster bestseller from the 1980s comes from that time. It was one of the most successful posters at that time. A simple image; I do not say it was art; I did it for a company as a shoe ad, but in the end the client did not want it. I took it and made it into a poster.

It turned out a huge commercial success and I sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The poster was even taught at universities as subliminal seduction. When you look at it from a certain angle, it reminds the observer of female genitalia. But I did not think about the image that way; all I was doing was an advertisement for shoes. Later on the client deeply regretted the rejection.

But the times in advertising have changed completely. In the past it was about total freedom. For example, I got two models and the product and went to Hawaii and did what I wanted. The 1980s were such a creative era: advertising companies completely trusted people like me; that I would return with good photos. There were also a lot of photographers able to follow precisely the given lay-out, but the companies gave me the work and said: he will certainly come up with something. This has completely changed and everything is planned. I do not say that this is bad, but this is not my style.

TSS: What do your photos say about you? It is said that photography speaks more about the photographer than about the depicted object…

YD: Probably yes, and this is very scary for many photographers. I had a classmate and he was incredibly dull. His photos were incredibly dull as well. In fact I considered him an artist because his work was a true reflection of the dullness that resided in him. I can tell about myself whatever I want; but it does not matter. What my photos tell you is the true mirror. Perhaps in the world my photos are seen as quirky. Humour is very important in both life and photography. If I cannot laugh, what is it all about? Then there is surrealism, which in fact works and an unfinished sentence which invites people to walk further. A nice photo is a completed sentence. You see a postcard of Bratislava with the bridge. It is a completed sentence. There is nowhere to walk further.

Yuri Dojc was born on May 12, 1946, in the eastern Slovak town of Humenné. In 1954 he moved with his parents to Bratislava. There he studied first at secondary technical school and after completing it, continued his studies at Comenius University, where he took psychology. In 1968 he went to England and stayed there after Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968. After relocating to Canada he studied photography at the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto between 1971 and 1974. In 1975 he opened his own photography studio and launched a successful career working for major companies and advertising agencies around the world.

The exhibition in the Bratislava City Gallery at the Mirbach Palace, Františkánske námestie 11, lasts until the end of January. On February 1, at 18:00, the gallery will hold, in cooperation with the SOGA auction house, a charity auction of 22 images by Dojc. The bid price for an image is €500. Money raised will be donated to people who suffered damage during the 2010 floods in Slovakia.

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