THE PHOTOGRAPHER OF WORLD-FAMOUS MUSIC STARS
“Music is emotionally very close to me and enriches my life tremendously. I can’t imagine my life without music. I’m interested in people who are on a certain intellectual level. When my journey into the music world opened up for me, I wished to work with that kind of personality, with people who resonated with me through their music. Our mutual co-operation has always turned out great. I have no negative experience in this regard.”
A renowned photographer Marek Smejkal is undoubtedly one of the top music photographers in the world. In show business revolving around music, he has been able to build a career as a highly sought-after photographer since the early 1990s, literally since his first photo shoot, naturally and without any need to rush Fate. Actually, he never dreamed of becoming a photographer and, in fact, did not even try. He did not purposefully take the opportunity to photograph world-famous music icons which, in the end, he photographed extensively in the spotlight as well as many of them in private for nearly twenty years. He loved music from an early age and his favorite bands were Dire Straits and Pink Floyd. Luck was on his side even in his childhood and years of growing up. Even during the totalitarian regime, he had easy access to music records and tapes as his stepfather was employed as the head of Tuzex*. Shortly after passing the graduation exams, an attractive and adventurous journey to the world of globally known and iconic personalities opened up for him.
For Marek Smejkal, the beginnings of the career of music photographer are directly related to the coup d’état that took place in November of 1989. Then a mosaic containing a number of incredible stories and exclusive photographs was gradually created. Each part of the puzzle fits together and forms a meaningful whole, the value of which is incalculable not only for music fans, but also for photography lovers in general. His overall collection contains countless series of unique images which are a perfect combination of concert, art, and portrait photography of the highest quality. Marek Smejkal is endowed with everything an excellent photographer should be: artistic feeling, the right feel for beautiful compositions and capturing the right moment even in an environment with demanding and rapidly changing conditions. There is also the perception of concentration, and the ability to react quickly. All these factors are in perfect balance with the talent to master not only the artistic but also the technical side of photography.
Marek Smejkal’s extensive photo archive, enriched with his captivating personal memories and impressive insights, accompanies us through a historically significant and extremely exciting era that could symbolically be called a period of reincarnation in the region of former Czechoslovakia. Everything was actually at the very beginning and suddenly there were a lot of completely new unique opportunities opened up for the people of our country, impossible to experience up until then.
People didn’t take themselves as seriously then and the overall atmosphere was friendly and amicable. When we talked about the topic of music business, the words “for the first time” often floated in the air. The quotation marks are symbolic in this respect, as most of the artists who first rose to prominence in our country in the early 1990s, already had a successful career that at the time had been ongoing for several decades.
When meeting Marek Smejkal, you often hear the words about how incredibly fortunate he was and that all the events happened through a combination of happy coincidences. Therefore, it is sometimes impossible not to also repeat these words in the written form when mapping Marek’s unique path not only in the world of music. The overall story is based not only on meetings with stellar names, but also leads to thinking in terms of professional work in the music industry and the approach to and work with photography. Above all, it offers insight into the importance of fundamental life values, such as humanity, thoughtfulness, selflessness, humility, ease, authenticity, and friendship. His countless concert and personal experiences with artists of various genres could be released in several extensive books. The following and compelling story of Marek Smejkal, which I offer you in an abridged version, was created during our endless night phone call conversations and one weekend visit.
*Tuzex: A series of state-run shops in former Czechoslovakia offering inaccessible luxury goods from the West or goods made in our country intended for export to Western markets. Buying the goods was possible only with vouchers, which could be purchased from banks using foreign currency, such as West German marks, dollars, etc. However, ordinary citizens did not have access to the foreign currency.
THE ARTICLE IS ALSO AVAILABLE IN DIGITAL FORM (36 PAGES) AND IS ENRICHED WITH LOTS OF BEAUTIFUL PHOTOS. TO VIEW IT, CLICK ON THE BUTTON LOCATED BELOW.
STUDIES, BEGINNINGS IN PHOTOGRAPHY, AND THE VELVET REVOLUTION
I studied at the Jan Kepler Grammar School in Prague. This period had a massive impact on me in terms of shaping my overall personality. Our grammar school did not belong to the typical communist schools. It has been said that some teachers were actually posted to the school for “political punishment”. Most of them approached us, their students, openly and freely, which was of course great for us. In this respect, I had already been lucky with some of my teachers in elementary school, so this kind of attitude resonated with me immensely. The professor of the Czech language at the grammar school, for example, played us the music of Neil Young, Simon & Garfunkel or Vladimir Vysotsky. Such a thing was absolutely unacceptable in Bolshevism. He presented their lyrics to us in a version rewritten into the Czech poetry. I’ve never created any bigger plans in my life in advance, and that’s never bothered me either. The timing was absolutely amazing for me in this regard.
At first, I was more interested in making movies, but we’re talking here about the 1980s. The technical possibilities in the professional movie industry were impossible for individuals to attain. In photography on the other hand, it works exactly the other way around. This is a much more individual field. With a relatively simple and inexpensive device, you can take photos that are technically comparable to the best ones in the world. Something that is absolutely unreal with movies, or rather, it was definitely not possible in 1989. So, I enjoyed the photo shooting as well as a lot of other things. Certainly, I had no ambition to become a professional photographer.
I was of course interested in events related to the Velvet Revolution. I took pictures of the protests following November 17. At that time, statues of communist leaders still “decorated” all the squares in the country. I photographed an event in the village called Bezpráví, the aim of which was to re-locate some of the statues of communist leaders into the field there. In the end, however, the footage did not only end up in the home archive. Coincidentally, the images appeared in a magazine. One opportunity led to another. The photos impressed a close friend of mine who, like other people, automatically considered me a photographer. With the help of his mother, who still works in the newspaper’s editorial office, he arranged an invitation to Frank Zappa’s press conference for me.
I was not a photographer, and I didn’t study photography either. I’m a self-taught photographer. I proceeded intuitively during photo shooting. I did everything the way I thought it should be done. It usually worked out for me. If some mistake occurred, I only found out after the film was developed. I somehow immediately knew how to make it right next time. Suddenly, for some reason, people started asking me to take pictures of various events, thinking I was a photographer. I did not consider myself a photographer. I just responded to the stimuli, coming out of the blue. It is necessary to point out that, at the time, there were some very exciting events occurring. The very first personalities I photographed in the early 1990s, were Frank Zappa, The Cure, The Rolling Stones, Suzanne Vega and, for example, B. B. King.
WHEN A PASSION COLLIDES WITH BOTH POSITIVE INTENTION AND ATTITUDE
Music is emotionally very close to me and enriches my life tremendously. I can’t imagine my life without music. I’m not genre specific. I listen to a variety of music. I am a major fan of rock music, but I also like to listen to traditional folk music from the Moravian Slovakia region, music by some tribe from Brazil or classical music. I like being surprised, and I enjoy it when something can pull me out of my own expectations. The song doesn’t always necessarily need to be played brilliantly. I need to trust the artist that they take it seriously and have something to say. In music, I’m interested in authenticity, not the calculus which is, in many cases, given top priority. I can’t take pictures of an area I’m not touched by or connected with. I am bothered by artificial clichés created mainly to attract the widest possible crowds, primarily for financial profit.
Now that I think about all of it in a deeper way, I feel there is an advantage in my practical photographic story too. I’m interested in people who are on a certain intellectual level. When my journey into the music world opened up for me, I wished to work with that kind of personality, with people who resonated with me through their music. Our mutual co-operation has always turned out great. I have no negative experience in this regard. On the other hand, I think that if I listened to music aimed primarily at financial profit, the reactions of this kind of personality would be appropriate for their intentions. I certainly wouldn’t experience much friendliness towards my work. I would almost certainly run into their reluctance to devote some time to me for a private photo shoot, as something like that would not be in their best interest.
I haven’t encountered any problems. From my point of view, it was precisely because I always chose a personality whom I musically got along well with, one whom I was actually working on the same wavelength. Then it was not such a big surprise that our mutual relationship worked, even when we met face to face. I can’t imagine that I would like an artist and then, when we meet, suddenly I find they are arrogant and do not want me to take personal pictures of them. Nothing like this has ever happened to me, but I don’t doubt that something like it could happen. One goes through different moods and life stages.
I got offers from people based on the fact they knew me or offered me events that they thought might be of interest to me. At the beginning of the process, there was always my wish to photograph a specific personality or band. Subsequently, someone from the recording company had made sure that the photo shoot took place. It wasn’t until the end of the process that the media published my photos. It was just like that and not the other way around. I never got hired for a photo shoot for the reason just to have a deal. I loved music from an early age, and I enjoyed concerts as well. I am interested in their complex processes and the performances of the musicians I am relating to. I’m glad that throughout my time in the music industry, I kept the principle that I only took pictures of events or personalities I personally wanted to. I did my job my own way and didn’t let anyone else interfere. It rarely happened that someone else interfered. Another thing is that a concert show is visually a very attractive experience. Even though the spectacular lighting is not always necessary. Sometimes, it is better to take an emotionally strong photo with one dimmed spotlight than with a battery with dozens of lights. Of course, it also depends on what kind of music we are talking about. It cannot be generalized. It is also not necessary to disguise the fact that it is pleasant when it comes to well- known personalities. Everyone knows this aspect always increases the attractiveness of the photo.
Photography is often discussed from its technical side, which is of course important for everything to be done in a correct way. The technical side is quite easy to learn and deduce, even logically deduce. Even more important is the emotion of the photo and the information it contains. As for the content component, it is not only a matter of just capturing something. There is already an important contribution of the photographer. The photographer’s job is to transfer the three-dimensional and multidimensional real world and create his own two-dimensional reality. From my point of view, the essence of photography is not to see the reality one photographs, but the final result. The final photos are different; it’s something else entirely. In practice, it means the photographer must have a real idea of what happens when one pushes the shutter button. What actually happens to that 3D reality through optical technology the moment that flattened 2D image is created. Not in a way the real world loses something, but in a way, it gains something else. Photography should not lose any dimension, but it should also create a new one. In my opinion, the content component is particularly important in terms of composing an image and how to transform it.
MAGICAL TIMES OF THE NINETIES
The peculiarity of that time for me really was the fact that people perceived me as a photographer. In addition, I had quite a few friends in various fields. Because I was extremely interested in filming, I had a lot of friends in the movie and TV industry. I have been building these relationships since I was 15 years old. The truth is, I had known how to work with a TV camera before a photo camera. At that time, large transmission vehicles were used. When the filmmakers left for lunch, I stayed there alone, learning to work with the camera. I was capable of finding my own way, without the help of anyone else. In some ways, I consider this as a part of that time in the list of peculiarities. It was the same when I got my first photo fee. At first, I didn’t understand why anyone was paying me for it. Second, why I was the one who was asked to take photos. Part of the story of the entire era of the 1990s were friendships that arose spontaneously. Wherever I went, the result was that we all always became friends. Whenever I brought my photos for publishing to any magazine, we all became friends. There were few major recording companies on our market, and I collaborated with all of them. Nobody had any problems with it. We all supported one another and worked together.
It felt as if we were living together in our own universe at the time. There weren’t as many photographers back then, and I became one by a combination of happy coincidences. We were 10 to 15 of the same people who took pictures of all the events of that kind back then, and we met together all the time. Coherence and collegiality worked among us. Nothing else occurred to us then. No one had ever let me feel like I didn’t belong as a young and inexperienced photographer. There was no animosity or rivalry between us. During the photo shoot, we not only concentrated on what was important for taking excellent quality pictures, but we watched over each other as colleagues and friends. There was no way anyone would intentionally get in front of someone else’s lens and ruin the shot or push them away. Not just among us friends, I wouldn’t do something like that, even if someone I had never seen in my life before, appeared among us. If you want to get the best shot, give someone else the same opportunity, and then it works for you too. If you ruin a photo for someone, you have to reckon with the fact that someone else will treat you the same way. It really didn’t work that way among us. We were happy for each other when someone managed to take beautiful photos. We also recommended one another to the media in case we didn’t have their required photo, and we knew about someone who had one. We helped each other, and I as well helped some of my colleagues to have a career. It was perfectly normal.
I would like to mention one experience that I remember very fondly. The Rock Pop festival that took place in Bratislava lasted several days. I used to travel to Bratislava quite often and gladly. I really had a lot of good friends there. After one of the festival days, my friends and I went for a drink to the wine bar. I left my photo bag in their car, so that I wouldn’t have to bring all the equipment with me. The next day, the band Les Rita Mitsouko, led by the singer Catherine Ringer, performed there. I really like francophone artists and I was especially looking forward to seeing the band. My friends stayed somewhere during the trip, and I had nothing to take pictures with. My colleagues immediately and selflessly helped me and lent me a camera together with films. It was a very intense time, and I am very glad that I was fortunate enough to be a part of so many wonderful and unforgettable moments.
MAJOR CHANGES LEADING TO THE ROLE OF TEACHER OF THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY AND ANALOG AND DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY
After 2008, it was practically impossible to make a living out of photographing concerts. Working conditions have changed rapidly. Recording companies began to collapse because of the bad album sales. Although I wasn’t paid directly by them, they were an important part of the overall functioning of the music industry. Some media have completely stopped or changed radically and have had to cut their budget significantly. Due to the Internet, companies lost a lot of money. People began to download and steal photos in various ways. No one dealt with it because they knew very well that people would not sue them for the low fees. The existing media went even further and started using photobanks for a monthly fee, for which they could download photos and use what they wanted. Although they saved money for photographers, this kind of strategy led to the same photos being published everywhere. Therefore, it was not realistic to make a living out of it. If there was a fee, its amount was many times lower compared to what we had received before.
It wasn’t just about the financial side, in fact, no one even cared about taking photos. I noticed certain changes around the year of 2000. Suddenly, a huge space was devoted to our local stars. It became a problem to find a use for unique material that no one in the world had. In addition, multi-page interviews with people, for whom I did not understand why such attention was given to them, began to appear. I experienced it, for example, in the Czech version of the Rolling Stone magazine, where I would not expect something like that at all. A similar situation occurred on television, where they stopped bringing exclusive footages from the concerts of world-famous stars in the form we were used to. It was more interesting for them to catch a local celebrity and ask about their opinion and feelings from the show. The enthusiasm of the 1990s, when there was interest in the work of photographers, suddenly disappeared.
If I wanted to continue photographing musical events at that stage, I would have to leave everything that made me happy. I would have to give up my own freedom, which I always appreciated while working. The feeling of inner joy when something went right, was a huge motivation for me, but suddenly it stopped working. I felt frustrated and disappointed by the overall development and the certain decline of professionalism. I would be forced to take pictures of parties or weddings, for example, and had to literally beg to get a deal. From my point of view, I would become a photographic prostitute, and I would do exactly what anyone else said. Something like that didn’t appeal to me at all. I would hardly be happy in such a position, and I would bury everything I had built so far.
No matter the fact there have also been major changes from a technical point of view. The way of concert lighting and projection have rapidly changed too. Nowadays, no one would take the photos the way they could have been taken at concerts in the 1990s. Restrictions of all kinds are constantly growing. Taking photos closer to the stage is currently exceedingly rare at the big concerts. The situation was completely different back then. In my era, I have experienced something like that only rarely, but now it became the standard. Apparently, it is assumed that professionals have long-focus lenses at their disposal, so it is possible to take pictures from further away. In reality, this is not the case, because the overall perspective of the shot changes. The correct concert photography should be taken under a lower ceiling so that you can work with the lights above the band. With a long-focus lens, you can zoom in on a photographed scene or subject from a distance, but nothing remains in the background. Personally, I don’t like it when someone limits my work. Fortunately, I have experienced something like this on a relatively small scale.
As I currently go through my post-2009 archives, it occurs to me that there are a lot of events, of which none of the photos have been processed at all. On the one hand, I was in a situation where everyone told me how beautiful my photos were and that I should continue. On the other hand, almost no one was willing to pay for them. It became a popular opinion that when photos are created digitally, they should be provided for free, which is absolute nonsense. In general, the level in the media began to decline. More and more often there were people among accredited photographers at the events whose photographic equipment was more suitable for taking photos from family vacations. Quantity has replaced quality, and personally I do not understand why such an approach is accepted. Especially when it comes to prestigious media with high ratings. In the case of some online magazines, I am struck by published reports, containing up to 150 photos from one event, which I find completely useless. Probably no one will ever look at all of them. In addition, 80 per cent of the images look the same. Many quality photographers and journalists left their positions because they could not make a living out of taking photos and their attitudes were not welcomed either. I’m a lifelong optimist, so I still hope this situation doesn’t stay the same forever. Maybe something new and interesting will come out that will make sense again.
The role of a teacher fulfills me precisely for the reason I see the effect. On the one hand, I am in daily contact with wonderful and extremely creative young people who value our connection. There is even more that means so much to me. I can also pass on something to my students. It is a mutual process between us. I’m giving something to them, and they in return are giving something to me. Being part of this kind of background is nice, and it definitely makes sense. As a teacher, I’m not trying to make any differences between analog and digital photography. They stand side by side and there is something in both fields. There is no need to go one way and doubt the other. The fact that the students are so young is a great advantage because no one has yet deformed their personalities enough for them to prefer an easier path to the more difficult one. Fortunately, they aren’t thinking that way. It is a fact that they are at a school they have already chosen voluntarily, a school which focuses on the complex concept of photography. There is such an enormous interest in studying at our school because we have the great privilege of choosing our students. Indeed, the admission criteria are becoming increasingly demanding.
I introduced analog photography at school only a few years ago. At the beginning, I was a little worried that I would have to explain indefinitely why they should do it in analog, if it’s not obsolete, when it can be done digitally. I didn’t have to explain it once. The only thing that surprised the students was that analog photography had not been taught there since the school was founded. Interest in analog technologies is generally growing. There are reasons for it; maybe there is already too much digital photography around. That doesn’t mean you can’t take a great digital photo, and a bad analog one. I don’t want to seem to prefer analog. I would be contradicting myself because I use a digital camera every day. The difference is that in analog photography one needs to be perfectly skilled. It is a complex process and involves manual work in which technology itself cannot be relied upon solely.
It is not possible to take an endless number of photos and then trying to find a great one among them. There are a limited number of images without a preview. When students manage to create a photo themselves, they are very happy and, of course, their relationship to it is completely different than when someone pushes the shutter button and immediately sees the result. They are aware that they can do something not everyone is capable of. In addition, it helps them build their self-confidence and self-trust. There are a lot of photos from iPhones and mobile phones, edited by using filters. The experience and habits gained thanks to analog will also help them when working with digital photography. Even if they didn’t continue with analog later in their lives. They will know that a few good photos are enough for them, and they don’t need to have hundreds of bad ones. The analog forces you to think and teaches you how to take a photo so that the editing adjustments are minimal. I don’t think a photographer who edits one photo in Photoshop for three hours to make it look good is a good photographer. I also don’t want to say that photos should not be edited. That has always been part of it. But sometimes I feel that some people presenting themselves as photographers fit more within the field of computer graphics. I can’t generalize about our students because they study at an art school. They are not a typical example of a population of their age.
BITS OF MEMORIES RELATED TO PHOTO SHOOTING OF WORLD-FAMOUS MUSIC STARS
Frank Zappa had no idea of the impact he had on our people. He came to a country where none of his records ever came out. In addition, he arrived at the time when his music wasn’t played in the United States for various reasons. The airport was completely crowded as he was welcomed by hundreds of people. He was actually the first famous personality of the Western world who visited our country after the revolution. Moreover, he was the embodiment of freedom for our people. His reception was absolutely fabulous. Frank Zappa did not hide his emotions. In fact, he was moved and impressed during his whole stay in Prague. He didn’t expect anything like that at all. For the complexity of the story, it is important to perceive the whole event from the point of view of the early 1990s, when the Bolshevik era was still changing. Everything we currently take for granted, was not a matter of certainty back then. At that time, a wide range of goods of all kinds was not commonly available. For example, it was not easy at all to get a decent quality camera color film with higher sensitivity. From today’s point of view, something like that seems very trivial, but at the time, it was hardly possible to get one. If anyone wanted to have the photos done, they had to wait for them all week long.
I was very fortunate. Thanks to a friend of mine who worked at the first Minilab, I had photos from a press conference ready on the same day. I also wanted to have other shots of Frank Zappa. Not far from I.P. Pavlova was the Hotel Kriváň with a smaller hall inside. The famous Czech guitar player Mejla Hlavsa with his band performed that evening there. It happened Frank Zappa jammed with them on stage. It was on the day of his arrival. I was there too, but it was so crowded that it was impossible to get closer to him and take pictures. I can’t say the circumstances hit me in any deeper way. At that time, I had no idea I would become a photographer. Coincidentally, from one person there I had gotten to know about Frank Zappa’s private party, which took place the next day at the U Bílého Koníčka club on the Old Town Square. I went there, but security immediately fired me out because I didn’t have an invitation. In addition, they told me that I would not be allowed to take pictures at this private event, even if I had an invitation. As it turned out, I was invited by Frank Zappa himself, I managed to get to the party and even take pictures. The whole situation turned in my favor at a time when it seemed that there would be nothing from the next photo shoot.
As it happened, I was walking down the famous Pařížská Street in Prague towards the Intercontinental Hotel, where Frank Zappa was staying, and where I honestly hadn’t really planned to go. I never intended to follow anyone like a paparazzi kind of person or disturb someone’s personal privacy. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go to the hotel because I suddenly saw Frank Zappa heading to the club. I approached him and gave him photos from the press conference. With his permission, I took more pictures right away on the street. Eventually, I dared to ask the artist if it would be too bold to want to go to a party with him. Friendly and in good spirits, Frank Zappa hugged me and said, “Dude, if you’re not audacious enough, you’ll never achieve anything great,” and urged me to go with him. Everything happened nearby the club. Frank Zappa and his crew were in front, I walked behind them. As we approached the club, security guards felt like I just wanted to take advantage of the situation and slip through. Of course, they remembered me well, and one of them grabbed me and slammed me against the gate. I even hung in the air for a while. Frank Zappa turned and punched him in the arm. With the words, “How dare you! He’s my guest,” and he stopped the aggressive guy. After that, there was nothing to prevent me from properly enjoying the party and taking completely rare photos, which were subsequently of great interest to various parties. He returned to Prague once again in June of 1991 to perform on the occasion of the departure of Soviet army. Unfortunately, this was his last public appearance. I was fortunate enough to be a part of both of Frank Zappa’s visits to Prague and had the unique opportunity of capturing the rare moments that could never be repeated.
The Cure performed in our country as one of the first big foreign bands in the summer of 1990. I had several friends who loved The Cure. Of course, I knew who they were, but I wasn’t exactly their biggest fan. My close friend Pavel Kracík, who is unfortunately no longer among us, started an agency. He planned to create a publication of The Cure’s visit and concert, and he approached me to take pictures of their whole visit. He teamed up with the then promoter of the Pragokoncert, Ivo Letov, who was very accommodating with us. Since then, I started working closely with the Pragokoncert agency and our mutual collaboration lasted for a long time.
The Cure were perfectly fine from a human point of view, which was a huge advantage in the whole process. They did not suffer from any stellar manners. A photo shoot was arranged in various parts of Prague. It was very funny. I have a photo of Robert Smith looking out of the window of an old bus, typical of the communist era in our country. The band got out of the bus at the place called Pohořelec where a tourist guide was waiting for them. During the guide’s tedious interpretation, everyone suddenly escaped to the picturesque pub U Černého vola in Hradčany. A really funny story happened there. Robert Smith wondered what kind of beer he was drinking. They had a beer called Kozel and someone translated it for him as “Goat Beer”. It is necessary to mention that the taste of the beer had nothing to do with the taste of goat. There is just some parallela in its title. They said that goat beer sounded very funny, and they made a lot of fun about it. He noted that it tastes good and even better than German beer in general. Then we went with the band to the center of Prague, and of course we couldn’t miss the Prague Castle. We spent a very pleasant day with The Cure.
THE ROLLING STONES
The same summer of 1990, The Rolling Stones happened to come to Prague for the first time in their career, and it was truly the very first spectacular event of its kind that took place in our country. In some way, the story is a bit connected to The Cure visit. The publisher wanted to release the report from their visit of course, but he was mainly interested in having The Rolling Stones in the publication. Thanks to that, I got my chance to also document their visit. In the end, one publication capturing moments from the visits of The Cure and The Rolling Stones in Prague, was released. I was at both the concert which I immensely enjoyed and at the Rolling Stones meeting with President Václav Havel. Of course, there was a huge interest in this event, so the conditions for taking photos were quite chaotic. The Rolling Stones show was highly symbolic for a lot of people here. Many people even said they did not consider a change of the regime to be connected with the Velvet revolution, but with the fact that the Rolling Stones finally came to our country made them understand something big had happened. It was the important moment when they fully realized it was reality. Thanks to the connection with President Václav Havel, The Rolling Stones visit in Prague transcended the meaning of the concert and is written down in history as a symbol of breaking barriers between the East and West.
Erasure was one of the bands that had performed in our country already during the communist era. It wasn’t that no one came here at all. Depeche Mode and Ray Charles, for example, performed here too. In 1991, Erasure came to Prague to promote their new album. It was funny how the then manager of the Czech band Oceán, drove the band around Prague in an old car called Žiguli*, and they were absolutely thrilled about it. If he drove them in a luxury limousine, the effect wouldn’t have been the same because they were used to that. The guys of Erasure were enthusiastic about everything and were extremely humble.
A press conference was held not far from Národní třída Street. After it was over, I asked the guys if they would go out for a while so I could take some photos of them. After all, there was not much inspiration for the original photo shoot at the location of the press conference. They were incredibly willing and down-to-earth people. We went outside, and they sat on the bench at Národní třída Street where the homeless used to sleep. I didn’t have to ask them for anything. The whole thing was their activity, including the gestures on the photo. Erasure was really a very famous band. But when they returned after a few months to play concerts in Prague and Ostrava, they were even more famous. At that time, they released an album of Abba remakes, called “Abba-Esque”, and they were true mega-stars. They still had no exaggerated requirements and did not rely on any kind of luxury.
They had no problem eating at a regular roadhouse, for example. There is one story attached to that memory. After the Prague concert, a press conference took place the next day at the Panorama Hotel, where there was literally a load of food. We didn’t have a single sandwich. Because there was always something to do, there was no time to eat. The moment we wanted to start eating, we were told that we had to go to Ostrava immediately. We could not take risks due to the traffic situation, which was normally problematic on the route from Prague to Ostrava. Since the boys from Erasure were up for every adventure, and even more so because they had no clue about traveling on the D1 motorway, they had rented a red BMW and drove on their own. We drove in the second car and the journey took us a really long time. We had to drive at walking pace because there were slow trucks that were constantly overtaking one another all the time. We didn’t have cell phones back then. Eventually we stopped somewhere and agreed to go to a well- known roadhouse located on D1 motorway, called U Devíti křížů to have something to eat. Andy and Vince were already very hungry.
We went in, there were no guests, and no one even noticed us at first. It felt like if we weren’t even there. Suddenly, a strange guy in jacket made of tesil fabric** appeared and, with obvious annoyance, asked us what we would like to order. We wanted to speed up the overall process so we wouldn’t have to wait for them to cook food for each of us individually. We asked for one large bowl with ham, cheese, and eggs for everyone. But the waiter told us that they don’t have big bowls, only small breakfast ones and that they don’t even have a calculation ready for something like that. Then we said that adding up the individual items couldn’t be such a problem. He mumbled something for a while, but in the end, we got what we had asked for.
Andy was a heavy smoker, and it was quite a while since he had had his last cigarette. He asked Vince for one and lit it up with gusto. In a second, that strange gentleman was at the table. He didn’t actually point out that smoking was forbidden there. He yelled at Andy like he was a brat, and so Andy finished his cigarette without saying a word.
After about five minutes, waitresses began to gather around, staring and wondering if they were the real Erasure there.When they found out we spoke English at the table, they sent their annoying colleague to get some signatures for them. The same guy who had torn Andy down now stood with three A4 format papers and a pen. Andy had a mouth full of ham and asked him what he wanted. He spoke Czech to him, and when Andy repeatedly asked him “what?”, he answered in Czech and continued slower and slower he wanted Andy to sign the pages, thinking he would understand. We told him we’d make a deal. Andy would give him the signatures, and in return he would bring an ashtray and let him smoke. The ashtray was on the table in a minute, so everyone pulled their cigarettes out and suddenly there was no problem. There were other funny episodes happening at the roadhouse, such as running out of bread rolls. We asked our “friend” for more. He turned quickly and picked them up from the people who were at the same moment eating at the next table. At first, we were ashamed of his behavior and tried to apologize to the band. But they didn’t care at all and said it was okay. Andy totally got us by saying they were used to it. We wondered how they could be used to it. You can’t get used to such behavior. He explained to us that they were used to people who did not like Erasure so they assumed the waiter’s attitude was related to his dislike of them as a band. It never occurred to them that the man was just rude. Or that such behavior was something common in our country at that time. Of course, we arrived in Ostrava late that day, anyway. The last time I met Erasure was in 2011 after nineteen years. I gave them some photos from our time together in the early 1990s. They remembered everything well. When Andy saw the photo from a bench on Narodni trida square, he started laughing and said that the flashy shoes he was wearing were stolen from him back then in Prague.
*Žiguli used to be one of the most common car brands in the Eastern Block in the times of Communism. It was produced in Russia.
**Tesil is a kind of hard and uncomfortable fabric, that trousers and jackets were made of. In the times of Communism, the cloth was primarily worn by clerks or waiters.
My very first experience with photo shooting abroad took place in 1990 in what was then still called West Berlin, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At that time, the American rockabilly band Stray Cats performed there. Because some of my friends adored the band, they planned a trip and persuaded me to go with them and take pictures of the show. Even though I did not have any accreditation or photo pass arranged in advance, I let myself get carried away. For some mysterious reason, I didn’t have a photo bag with me, but I had all the photo equipment in a metal suitcase.
We walked around the city and stopped for a while on a small square. I put the suitcase on the floor and sat on it. When we left, after a while I realized that I had left the suitcase there. The square, meanwhile, was evacuated and surrounded with police tape. My metal suitcase caused a little stir among the locals. They were afraid there was an explosive inside. It was at a time when Desert Storm was about to come to the Persian Gulf, so security measures were tightened everywhere. I explained to them that I had forgotten the suitcase there and that there was a camera and lenses inside. The cops were very nice, and the whole situation obviously amused them. The onlookers of Berlin laughed and even applauded.
Then I, together with my friends, headed to the concert where another adventure awaited me. As I mentioned, I did not have any accreditation or photo pass confirmed in advance. All my friends had bought tickets. I joined the line in front of the accreditation point where two girls were in charge. Of course, when it was my turn, my name was not on the list. Unfortunately, they told me they couldn’t do anything about it. I tried to convince them repeatedly that I was a journalist and that I came over from Czechoslovakia for the concert. I guessed it was possible something could have been done about it. At that moment, however, the situation was not resolved for me. I sat on the lawn wondering what to do. I didn’t want to give up when I was already there. My friends were all inside by then. I joined the line heading to the entrance, wondering what to say. The moment I found myself face to face with the security official, with my metal suitcase, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and the lady from the accreditations was behind me and handed me a photo pass and a ticket.
In connection with The Cure, I have already mentioned the name Ivo Letov, a promoter at the Pragokoncert agency. For some mysterious reason, he liked me very much. I must say that the man helped me a lot, and at the same time he had not the slightest reason for it. He once asked me if I was coming to a Laurie Anderson concert, that he had written me on the guest list and that he had a photo pass ready for me. I didn’t know her music at the time, but I wondered who she was when he cared so much. Plus, I didn’t want to turn him down or disappoint him.
I find it incredibly lucky that I got to that concert. It was one of the most powerful musical experiences of my life. I know I’ve said something like that before, about other shows. At that time, the shows were happening almost every day, so I have seen many, many shows, and it would be no exaggeration when I said something like this in relation to more than one or more other shows as well. Laurie Anderson is an absolutely amazing human being who makes an impression like she’s from another planet in the best sense of the word. A One Woman Show, where there is no one else on stage except herself. She had a grandstand with several microphones on stage as she changed her voice. It was an incredibly powerful experience for me. From the first moment of her concert, I felt something special or uplifting that is hard to describe in words. Laurie Anderson is an experimenter in every sense of the word and an extremely kind lady. There is something in her work that one has never heard anywhere else in one’s life, something which opens the gates to a completely different world. There is simply no template for something like that. She is one of the originals and visionaries who define their own style and do not copy anyone else.
Laurie Anderson’s work has a major impact on me. I had the opportunity to experience and photograph several of her live performances. I wished to meet her in person with the opportunity of taking a picture of Laurie other than on stage. I wanted to have it arranged in advance. By no means did I want to chase her anywhere. I asked for help from my friend from Warner Music. I selected a few photos from the archive that I intended to give to Laurie as I usually did it that way. My biggest motivation has always been to create beautiful photos of the personalities I highly appreciate. There was never any calculation behind it from my side. That’s why I wanted artists to know about my work. I saw the overall process as a mutual collaboration. They passed on something valuable to me, and I also wished to give them something in return.
I met Laurie Anderson during her second performance in Prague, when I had the opportunity to take a photo of her in her dressing room. I have to say a very nice photo came out of it. She was standing by the wall, where a poster with her name hung on it right behind Laurie, so the sign looks natural as a part of the photo. I had a few photos for her, two of which were damaged by all criteria. On one photo she shook her head and the other lacked proper sharpening. Because I had already known Laurie Anderson’s work well, I felt that both photos corresponded to her music.
At that time, the photographs were processed in a laboratory where all my colleagues also used to go. When they saw my photos of Laurie Anderson, they mostly praised them, but specifically identified the two as a mistake and decided that I probably pressed something I didn’t mean to. I explained to them that I didn’t. Apparently, I seemed to be pretending some strange sort of art in front of them, and for a while I was in doubt myself. I thought maybe they were right that I had probably succumbed to an illusion. They certainly didn’t mean it badly towards me. We really were friends who mutually respected each other.
Since the photos had already been ready, I decided to give them to Laurie, all of them. She thanked me, and while I was preparing for the photo shoot, she looked at the photos and spoke highly of them. Suddenly she pulled out the two of them, squeezed them to her chest, and said, “These are truly beautiful”. Those were the same two photos that seemed to be all wrong. Apparently, I really felt the connection with her music in a right way, and Laurie’s reaction made me beyond happy.
I had the opportunity to take photos of David Bowie’s first two concerts in Prague, which by the way were both fantastic, and took place shortly after each other. The first was in the Sports Hall and the second was more intimate in the smaller hall of the Palace of Culture. On his first visit, he shot a video in Barrandov’s studios. It was a video clip he did together with the Pet Shop Boys, but they were not present on this occasion. Everyone filmed their parties separately. An informal, friendly gathering with David Bowie, attended by musicians, journalists and some other people involved in the music show business, also took place at Barrandov, with the musician Ivan Kral acting as interpreter. Such a fortuitous accident happened there. I don’t use flash when taking photos. I wasn’t using it on this occasion either, but all my colleagues did. I took a photo of David Bowie exactly when he nicely grinned and was lit by a side light. Right in the moment he grinned, a colleague standing near me, took a picture of him too, using a flash. It was a huge coincidence that I at the same time managed to synchronize my shutter with the colleague’s flash. Usually something like that doesn’t happen and a dark stripe remains in the photo. If I take pictures with my camera and use the flash, the camera automatically synchronizes it with the shutter. In my collection, I have number of interesting shots that have come out from such strangely random situations.
We agreed with friends that we would celebrate the arrival of the year 2000 somehow differently, because how many times in a lifetime does one have the possibility of experiencing a change of the millennium? We decided to welcome the New Year in Paris, where I also saw billboards announcing the TINA TURNER 24/7 MILLENNIUM TOUR which was supposed to happen in the summer of 2000. I thought it would be great to get to that concert in Paris. I asked my friends from EMI to try to get me a photo pass. It turned out to be unrealistic, as the France is among the countries that prefer their media only. Tina had a total of seven shows in Germany, so there was a much better chance there. Months passed and nothing particular happened to fulfill my desire to get to a concert in Germany.
Suddenly, one evening, when I was going to a concert at the Lucerna Music Bar in Prague, a friend from the recording company called me to say that she had a photo pass for me for the show in Berlin. The thing was that the concert took place the next day. I wasn’t ready to go at all. I had neither the films ready nor the money at the moment, but I knew I had to make it somehow. I just couldn’t miss such an opportunity. I mainly asked her to send me all the communication regarding the photo pass and the phone number of a contact person by e-mail, so I would have something in my hands in case there was a problem. And of course, the problem appeared, and there was no mistake on the side of the recording company. The photo pass wasn’t ready for me at the venue. Even the director of the promoting agency, with whom I directly communicated, didn’t seem to help me either. The situation changed rapidly when I showed him the name David Russell and his phone number. David Russell turned out to be the personal assistant of Tina Turner. Only really a few people had his personal phone number.
It was David Russell himself who, in the end, approved my photo pass. I have no idea how my friend from EMI got his contact. And that was not all! Five minutes before Tina Turner’s show started, and when I was already enjoying feeling how great it all turned out for me, and I was ready to take pictures together with other colleagues from different media, a lady from the German EMI came in. She pointed directly at me and told me to go with her. I was a little scared I would end up somewhere on the other side of the stadium. Surprisingly, she took me straight to the stage via backstage, from where I photographed the first three songs. I had a fantastic place. I wouldn’t have taken the pictures I was able to take otherwise, because the stage was about two meters high. The experience was indescribable. I was on the stage with such a mega-star, and a perfect show woman as Tina Turner undoubtedly is, looking at the stadium from the artist’s perspective. By a combination of many happy coincidences, I was truly fortunate. I am extremely grateful to have been able to be a part of so many extraordinary events and to have the chance of meeting so many interesting and unique artists in person.