Josef Sudek, the “Poet of Prague”, at the Jeu de Paume



The superb pictorial world of Joseph Sudek can be experienced in an exhibition of 130 photographs at the Jeu de Paume in Paris until 25 September 2016. « Le monde à ma fenêtre » is an opportunity to rediscover this highly singular and intensely discreet artist who nevertheless became Czechoslovakia’s most famous photographer.

Josef (Václav František) Sudek was born in Czechoslovakia on 17 March 1896 about thirty kilometers from Prague. Photography appears to have become a constant part of his life when he was just seventeen. In those early student years, he photographed the city of Prague, various landscapes and made a number of self-portraits, and then took a job in the bookbinding business. After the outbreak of WWI, he was sent to the Italian front in 1915 and lost an arm. During his three years in the army he still managed to take portrait-photos of injured soldiers with his left hand. After the war, his disability pension allowed him to devote himself to photography, exploring the romantic Pictorialist style in the 1920s and quickly becoming a reference in Prague’s photography milieu.
In 1924, he participated in the creation of the Prague Photographic Society. Acutely aware of the quality of his images, Josef SUDEK displayed prices five times higher than those of his fellow countrymen at his first group exhibition; but he kept away from the art world, preferring discretion to fame. In the following years he travelled extensively and then set up a studio in 1927, participating in a number of photography fairs in Europe and the United States. However it was not so much through these shows that he was noticed in America, but rather as a result of his assistant Sonja BULLATY (1924-2000) taking a selection of his works to the US after working with him for two years. Bullaty started showing Sudek’s photographs in New York and herself became a recognized photographer. She continued to show the work of her first mentor and dedicated a book to him in the 1970s. When the American market woke up to his work, Sudek was already the most famous photographer in his country, rewarded with several prizes and honoured shortly before his death (in 1976) with a retrospective at Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts (a show that subsequently moved to London’s Photographer’s Gallery).

Sudek on the market

Sudek’s market grew out of New York thirty years ago. At the time, American collectors were already paying an average of between $1,000 and $5,000 for his prints. Today his work is highly coveted by fans of beautiful photography and those inclined to contemplate the wonders of simple things. Following the general momentum of the photography market, his prices have climbed significantly in 30 years, but you can still acquire a Sudek photo for under $5,000, with seven out of ten selling below that price.
Although rare, a dozen of his photos have fetched beyond $50,000, mostly still-life pigment or silver prints. They crossed that threshold nearly 10 years ago, first in New York and then in Paris (another stronghold for the photography market). In fact, Sudek’s two best auction results were hammered in the French capital on 19 November 2010 at Sotheby’s at a time when Sotheby’s wanted to make Paris the capital of the global photography market, ahead of London and New York. Since then, that ambition seems to have been dropped… but Sudek received a significant boost to his market value with one period pigment print on soft chamois paper, Sans Titre (Vase Et Rose Morte), (1952), that fetched over $308,000 against a high estimate of just $24,000 and another period pigment print on hard chamois paper, Sans Titre (Étude de Nature-Morte) (1952), fetching a record price of $406,000… more than ten times the estimated range. The two results contributed to Sotheby’s best Parisian total for a Photography sale. For Sudek’s market, 2010 remains his record year with his works generating nearly $1 million worldwide… With approximately 70 thousand negatives to his name, Sudek’s works are regularly offered at auctions in New York, Berlin, London and Prague, and more than 50 have been offered since the beginning of 2016.