elementary tears

The Czech photographer Josef Sudek left behind a body of work in which the poetics of the window takes on its full intensity. A poetics of the window, but also of the pane, of the clouded pane. At issue here is not simply a journey around his room, but an immobile journey across this vaporous and peacefully lachrymal veil. Sudek photographs branches, trees, barred fences, and houses, each glimpsed from the window of his studio. The focus is on that which veils, the cloud upon the pane of glass, and what one glimpses behind this veil reinforces its indefiniteness. Sometimes, these are only incoordinate fragments. But at other times, the landscape, instead of dissolving into evanescence and blur, is simplified into masses worthy of an energetic charcoal drawing, and takes on a paramnesic force of affirmation, as if we had already seen these trees and these houses, as if we too lived day in day out in front of them and with them. 

Because the frames and sills of the windows do not appear, but only the pane, with its tears tracing their streaks sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, the pane itself becomes like a photographic plate, a photograph to the second power. The minute precision that the vapor confers upon the vision of the plane of the glass gives the photograph a certain mural-like aspect, and the depth beyond that is guessed at is denied as much as affirmed. Does the clouded pane show us a fragment of landscape become simpler and more sober, or is it rather the cloud that shows us the pane, which is to say, shows us that which normally one does not see? The pane of glass itself becomes the site where light and shadows write themselves, and it manifests itself as such. The means of vision becomes the object of vision. And, in certain of Josef Sudek’s shots, he alone is given to be seen. 

The relations of interior and exterior are thus powerfully disturbed. As a general rule, the function of a pane of glass is at the same time to unite and to distinguish interior and exterior: it allows being inside and outside all at once, seeing the exterior while remaining in the interior. The vapor veils this transparency, makes a curtain of the pane, and thus, in a certain way, closes the interior upon itself. But in Sudek’s work, nothing of this interior space appears, not even a sill or a frame, and the interior is no longer a dwelling place, but only a wide-open gaze, pure vision. And the veiled exterior, glimpsed with difficulty, is laden with a patient, slow secret. Hasn’t the exterior become intimate, while the interior is no more than a gaze outside of itself, passed entirely into what it sees? Sudek shows tears that unveil, tears belonging to no one upon the humble surface of windowpanes. These are not yet elementary tears, cosmic tears. Is there such a thing?

Jean-Louis Chrétien, Hand to Hand, pp. 153-4
photo: Josef Sudek



  1. isn't this the perfect Tome-post? every time i see Sudek, i ask myself why i keep on photographing, as he has everything i long for in terms of "vision of the world"... and now with this text together... i would have loved to write such a book :-)

  2. ah, but all the more reason to keep photographing! and you can still write such a book, Chrétien's essay shifts to a more theological tone and leaving you with lots of territory to cover. :)