Jan Němec, born in 1981 in Brno, received his MA degree in Religious and Social Studies from Masaryk University in Brno, and in Theatre Dramaturgy from the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno. He wrote a book of poems První život (First Life, 2007), followed by a book of short-stories Hra pro čtyři ruce (Playing Four Hands, 2009) and a biographical novel about renowned photographer František Drtikol, called Dějiny světla (A History of Light, 2013). Němec works as an editor for the monthly literary magazine Host, and as a dramaturgist for the ČT Art TV channel.
A novel about the photographer František Drtikol.
Have you ever wondered what a story written by a beam of light would be like? Firstly, the story would be ordinary but the course of events extraordinary; secondly, its hero would be a photographer, a guardian of light; thirdly, naturally, it would be full of shadow. So who was František Drtikol? A dandy from a small mining town, a world-famous photographer whose business went bankrupt, a master of the nude who never had much luck with women, a mystic and a Buddhist who believed in communism, a man of many contradictions. The conception of Jan Němec’s extensive novel is very unusual for contemporary Czech prose – fresco-like, it is an artistic and spiritual Bildungsroman that covers over half a century, bringing to life the silver mines of Přibram, Jugendstil Munich and First Republic Bohemianism, with naked models wandering along the lines and light merging unobserved with knowledge...
The man with the round face and the short hair touches the mid-point of his spectacles above the bridge of his nose and looks around a group of nine boys. Then he says: My name is Georg Heinrich Emmerich. Welcome to the Photography Training and Research Institute.
I came across an engraving in an old book, which showed an old sage receiving inspiration through rays of light. And indeed history is full of such inspiration, knowledge without light is unthinkable and light itself has become its symbol. Particularly over the last few centuries, we have learnt to tame light and to harness it for our grand scientific tasks. The telescope and microscope have expanded the world's boundaries in both directions, revealing undreamt of dimensions of reality. Our fellow countryman, Wilhelm Röntgen, recently discovered rays that penetrate matter. And, likewise in the fields of art and entertainment, there are countless aids and devices that take advantage of the interplay between light and the human eye: for instance, I might mention at random the lanterna magica, camera obscura, camera lucida, diorama, kinetoscope, praxinoscope and magic drum. Gentlemen, I could pile up example upon example, but this might well be needless, as I do not at all doubt that you are aware why you are here: photography is nothing more than another fascinating manifestation of what light can do in man's hands. But this time, of course, we have not expanded space by using a telescope or a microscope, we have actually stopped time. At last we can immortalize transient existence, just as whole generations of poets have tried to do before us.
Emmerich looks out of the window and undoes his jacket buttons. He is just thirty-one-years-old, but his hair is already receding. As he returns his gaze to the classroom, an imperceptible smile seems to pass his lips. Some of you have only been in Munich a couple of days, he says, so perhaps you don't know there is a bohemian quarter here called Schwabing: you will surely soon get to know the local hostelries there. A couple of days ago I went there to visit a painter, and as chance would have it, he was already entertaining another of his friends, a poet. And when this young man found out I was a photographer he admitted to me: Just once I would like to hold a ray of light right there in my hand and to write with it – just once! I cannot tell you this young man's name, but I do understand him very well. Photography does have its pathos. This is partly reflected directly in the etymology – the term photography is made up of the Greek words for light and writing. We photographers might be said to be writing down the world with light. And our aim over the next two years will be no less than to teach you, if you will, calligraphy with light.