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Matinee: 'Jan Lukas: Manhattan Is The World' Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

26 October 2019

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the 315th in our series of Saturday matinees today: Jan Lukas: Manhattan Is The World.

In this 5:23 video, A.M. Lukas presents the work of her grandfather Jan Lukas in three distinct periods. But they all begin with a common perspective.

"Reality is so interesting," he said, "that I want to add nothing to it."

It's the perspective of a modest man, you might say, or that of a person who saw what most of us miss.

She begins her appreciation of his work with his most well-known image. Before Transport is the portrait of a 12-year-old girl in 1943 standing next to the polished woodwork of an upright piano with a mercury thermometer on the wall behind her. The familiar and comforting details of daily life contrast with the numbered tag thrown over her head and the yellow Star of David sewn onto her coat.

Lukas's career spanned the entirety of the 20th century.

The girl is looking away, already disengaged from life, already gone. It is immensely disquieting given that we know her fate. Especially in today's political climate where it is no longer enough never to forget.

He and his group of Czech avant-garde photographers described themselves as amateurs, she says. But they have come to be considered pioneers of modern photography.

Lukas's career spanned the entirety of the 20th century. The first of the three periods of his work was that avant-garde period between 1930-1948 when he photographed beautiful things. Flowers, girls, people at play.

But then he felt the need to document the "reaction of human beings" to the world around them. From 1938 to 1965, the second period of his career, he clandestinely covered political unrest. It required him to hide his work from the authorities to avoid prison.

That led to a new focus. "Probably his primary obsession was freedom," she says.

After he obtained U.S. citizenship in 1971, he moved to Manhattan for the third period of his career from 1965 to 1995.

He admired the illustrator Saul Steinberg's way of "reasoning on paper" and devoted himself to creating a photographic equivalent of Steinberg's intelligent but witty images that appeared regularly in the New Yorker.

He wanted to be known as a "professional amateur," she tells us, rather than an artist. Not embellishing reality but recording it.

So we might finally see what we had missed.

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