They visited America right after the time that the mass demonstrations were going on in Wenceslaus Square (1989), and just after the new Czech nation, decided on a playwright as its first post-Communist president. It was an exciting time to be alive in Eastern Europe, for the Berlin Wall had been successfully breached and Communist governments in Eastern Europe were falling like dominos. In March 1990 there were a handful of Czech photographers who arrived in Houston, Texas for the citywide, photography extravaganza called the Fotofest. The trip to America was unplanned, but their participation in the main forum of the popular photography biannual event was not.
As a volunteer working with Fotofest in Houston, I remember these extraordinary times very clearly, for one day a group of young men who could not speak English were dropped off by a couple of cabbies at the large exhibition hall with their small bags of personal belongings. They sat in a small group busy talking among themselves, as everybody else was scurrying about preparing the exhibitions for the grand opening which was just a few days away. By plane they had come from Prague, which now for several months had Vaclav Havel, a playwright and former political prisoner, living in the Royal Castle, as the new president. The director of the Fotofest came over the P.A. system and asked if anybody could give these foreign visitors a place to stay. Within an hour the young men had left the premises and were guests of the good folks of Houston, Texas.
Exhibitions of Czech Photography had been in works for several years, results of a few extraordinary trips behind the Iron Curtain by staff members of the photography festival. As early as 1985 they had visited a small group of dedicated artists in Prague, supplied them with materials and arranged a showcase for their talents in the United States. It might have been a little bit more than just coincidence that the photography exhibit occurred at the same time that the massive outpouring of self-determination and independence erupted all across old Czechoslovakia. Today the old nation no longer exists, but in its wake, there are two new countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The House of Photography first opened its doors in Prague in 1989 during the days of the “Velvet Revolution”. It is located near the Old Town Square in the house, where Franz Kafka was born. It slowly grew in size until the flood of 2002 sent the occupants and artwork scurrying for higher ground. Since the flood the center has returned with a renewed vigor and vitality that has transformed the successful institution into one of the more important photography venues in Europe. After substantial fundraising activities, the house reopened its doors to the general public in 2005. The current scene consists of monthly exhibitions, workshops and a large array of challenging photographic publications.
Today, as tourists fill the bustling “City of a Thousand Spires” to stare at the beloved architecture of years gone by, the Prague House of Photography stands as a glimpse into the new enterprising spirit that is quickly growing within the old nations of the Warsaw Pact.
Here the old images of the past are treasured alongside the new, creative efforts of the artistic community. For a small step outside the world of cafes and tour guides, stop here, take a look, and if photography is your medium sign up for a workshop. Just the cultural exchange is worth the price of admission.