Life's Focus

Frank and Jana Rehak see photography not as pretty pictures but as reality itself. They're bringing their humanist view to a new school in Baltimore.

October 23, 1999|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When Frank Rehak and Jana Kopelentova got married in 1994, more than the traditional pledges of affection and loyalty bound them together. They also had a shared devotion to a specific mode of photography that, for them, nearly amounts to an ideology. They call it documentary photography.

It has other names: humanist or social photography. It is more than pretty pictures, which is not to say aesthetics don't matter. But in documentary photography, content rules.

It is political in a broader sense, in that it searches out and responds to people who bear most of the weight of society's imbalance. But it also seeks to capture images of people in their intimate moments, to reveal their humanity in its most transparent expression.

The Rehaks intend to bring this form of photography here in a formal way when they open the School of Photographic Studies in Baltimore sometime next year.

The model they have in mind is the Photo League of New York, created in the 1920s and brought to a sad end in the 1950s by the McCarthy-inspired anti-communist blacklist. "We want a place like that," says Frank Rehak. "Not just a school, but a place, an atmosphere, with a gallery, where photographers can come, be with others, have a home."

But the couple is not starting from scratch. They already run a similar school in Prague. They spend each summer there instructing a new batch of students, most of them Americans, teaching the routines and techniques that will enable them to document the motley life of the venerable Czech capital.

Students are sent out to photograph housing projects and orphanages and the children therein; they shoot the city's lavish palaces, the Gypsy people who wander its streets, its moody cafes. They record the textures of the day-to-day as written in the creases and lines of the faces of its people. What students do there, the Rehaks hope, they will do in Baltimore: explore and map the physiognomy of the city.

Documentary photography discourages disinterest. The idea is for the artist behind the camera to become a committed witness, determined to capture only the most truthful and essential images. A witness, by definition, tells what he or she sees.

This description of documentary photography may be imperfect, but you will know it when you see it. The images, when they succeed, are invariably distinctive. Many are suffused with a strange mixture of melancholy and furtive happiness.

A good example is a study, made by Czech photographer and Prague faculty member Marketa Luskacova, of people together in a British pub. In this picture the nature of human conviviality is manifest, the happiness that people can gather to themselves when together in benign circumstances. Their faces, though smiling richly, reveal a faint and poignant knowledge of the limits of their happiness. It is the tempered joy of a time-knowing people who realize that soon enough it will all vanish.

The aim of social and documentary photography is to bring images like these before a public. They help inform the viewer, and the witnessing photographer, of what a rich and complicated undertaking life is. And occasionally, they effect social change.

This is the most desirable outcome one can hope for. And it can happen, though when it does it usually does so indirectly. Ken Light, a San Francisco-based documentary photographer and faculty member at the Prague school, explains: "I would be naive to think my photos could change anything. But the photos are also used by magazines and other media outlets and other [agencies] dealing with the problems they illustrate." Circulated widely, the images can raise awareness of problems, an essential first step.

Light says documentary photography encourages the photographic artist to go into the community, to dwell among his subjects.

"It is more extensive than photojournalism," Light says. "A magazine or newspaper might send a photographer to such places for three or four days. I spent four years photographing rural Mississippi."

Light will be on the Baltimore photography school's faculty, and Rehak hopes to gather others with similar experience. "Anywhere in the world where there is a photographer/artist, he is potentially a faculty member -- from Mexico, Europe. That's the great potential gift this school can bring to this community, this international flavor."

Faces of Hampden

Jana Kopelentova Rehak moved to Baltimore in the fall of 1994 from Prague to marry Frank. Among her earlier projects here was a series of portraits of people from Hampden. Her subjects -- the people who live in the block of 34th Street between Keswick and Chestnut streets, famed for its lavish Christmas decorations -- confront her camera without expression, or self-consciousness. The honesty in the pictures suggests a meeting of minds between the subjects and the photographer, a collaboration.

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