When Bohdan Holomicek gave up “the poetry of the darkroom” to shoot photos using a digital camera, he was already well into a ripe old age—ironically around the time when normally one stops trying to keep up with technology. Despite criticism from his colleagues for being a traitor, the veteran photographer used the step to renew and intensify the vigor of his already obsessive creative process.
Holomicek, 67, teems with an energy that could outperform any young contemporary photographer. He did not see why the purism of film should prevail—digital cameras allowed him to shoot more photos in less time. Most importantly, it was way cheaper.
Perhaps Holomicek’s unflagging reputation for thumbing the establishment is in his lack of official training in photography. For Holomicek, the art of taking pictures and his daily life has been the same thing for the past 40 years. He has intertwined the mundane scenes of ordinary existence into his art-making process.
Holomicek’s ability to pair art with life began when he was working at a factory starting at 6am, and every day went out to shoot photos when he wasn’t working. He had no one to push him but himself; a rare obsessive personality took form, and he began producing thousands of photos. He took photos originally just for himself, his family, and his friends—it was a way of preserving his memories, pure thoughts in tangible form, a way for him to string his life together into one long pictorial story. Soon they formed into complex storylines and documentaries, growing almost organically off one another. The photos, when placed together in a film-like sequence, captured universal feelings—they grew to become more than just personal, private memories for one man.
Even today, Holomicek firmly avoids expensive film techniques. “The question of technique is not as important,” he said. It’s more about the content, and what the viewer sees in the photo—technique is secondary. Perhaps because of this, and because he never saw himself as a “professional photographer,” Holomicek’s focus is on the ordinary scenes of life, rather than those that cry out with drama, blood, and social justice issues.
Photography as time as value
The first were black and white film photos, portraying day in and day out of a lost age of the 1950’s and 60’s, and, like many famous Czech photographers, the Prague Spring of 1968, all the way up to the Velvet Revolution in 1989. In between these defining moments of Czech history, Holomicek met and befriended former dissident and President Vaclav Havel. Photographing the president with his family led to a friendship between the two.
“These photographs will gain value in time,” Holomicek said as his images flashed before us on his Powerpoint (which he later told us he had compiled into a slideshow an hour before class, at a local pub. I could imagine him, sitting at a bar table with his laptop and a beer, joking with the bartender, sorting quickly through his photo archives like a pro.) “At the time, little things like shoes or fashions or the way a street looked are so ordinary, they are invisible. But in 50 years, the value of those things will have increased, because they are no longer there.”
Vaclav Koubek, a traditional Czech musician, is playing on his iTunes as he goes through the photographs of the lost decades of the 50s and 60s. Holomicek’s words about the value of time ring true as the slow, nostalgic sound of Koubek’s accordion waltzes along to the passing images. “This is the type of music they used to play on the radio all the time in those days,” Holomicek said.
The value of time applies to the people Holomicek photographs as well—ordinary people, mostly his friends and acquaintances, or strangers on the street going about their daily lives. “People will die and vanish; all that will remain are images of them,” he said. An image of Holomicek, a self-portrait, appeared on the screen; he was surrounded by his close friends, perhaps his wife, a sister, an old friend. He stares fixedly at the viewer, resolution etched into his face, the same expression that is so prevalent in his self-portraits.
Start of a new era
“My first digital camera was the start of my new era,” said Holomicek as the accordion-heavy music of Koubek switched to more upbeat, contemporary hits on his iTunes.
The new photographs, taken by cheap digital cameras or even with his iPhone, are moving films in themselves. They are stop motions of certain scenes and events—a whirling bar filled with smiling drinkers, people walking across the street, views from a moving car—every picture taken half a second before the next. They are fast-paced and energetic, and the viewer feels as though he/she is in a dance club with a strobe light chopping up actions and colors into dizzying patterns.
The digital era allowed Holomicek to take more pictures more quickly of strangers on the street, too. He has hundreds and hundreds of them—people he’d never seen before and would never see again. “Taking a picture of someone is a give-and-take,” he said. “You take a picture of someone, but you also bring something to their day, because you let them know they’re worth being photographed and recorded.”
One fascinating sequence was of dozens of photos taken from the window of a moving car of the exact same road and tree. Holomicek must have driven past that spot hundreds of times, with different seasons changing the horizon, and different people behind the wheel or in the passenger seat. The tree and the line that creates the path from the window never change, but the sky and the colors of the grass are always moving.
One more face in a sea of images
“I don’t care if you’re the president or just someone on the street—I photograph all.”
Holomicek’s personality face-to-face is far more genial than his earlier somber, thoughtful self-portraits may depict. While he speaks to us in person, his eyes crinkle in well-worn laughing lines when he grins.
It is impossible to not feel a sense of his fun-loving nature in the humor of his newer images: a woman takes shots in a slow-motion scene; an old woman is surprised by his lens on the street and breaks into a hearty laugh; friends wrap their arms around friends; lovers embrace, and Holomicek often photographs himself in these scenes, soaking up the warmth of every moment.
“There are other people who are concerned with images of poverty, war, blood, violence … but that’s not what I do,” Holomicek said. Quick, colorful, easy-going images fluttered past us—some superficial, some shots of social outings, but most of his contemporary images concern smiles.
As what I presume is a tradition, at the end of the lecture Holomicek gives every semester, he stands at the front of the class with his camera and takes a photo of us at our desks. I was sitting in the third row, and at the last moment raised my arm up in a wave as I smiled at his lens. He took the photo and nodded to me. “Thank you for waving,” he said.
Thank you for letting me be a part of your memory, Mr. Holomicek. That image—a classroom of foreign students, hungry to learn, one student in the middle back row bridging the gap between photographer and subject with an acknowledging wave—that image will gain value with time.