Josef Sudek. He saw poetry in the simplest of things

Sudek, by Sonja Bullaty. New York: Clarkson N. Potter Inc. 192 pp. $35. THIS is not the flashy photography of advertising, nor the sensationalistic stuff you sometimes see in newspapers. Czech photographer Josef Sudek's work has a spiritual quality. His Prague streets are the simplest, most penetrating images. They startle and reassure - as if you, too, could turn on the cobblestones and see the light hitting a far wall in just that way. As if you, too, could learn to focus and to see.

Born in 1896, Sudek was no longer able to work as a bookbinder after he lost his arm in World War I. His interest in photography became a vocation. Although not as well known as photographers Man Ray, Atget, and Steichen, Sudek is considered one of the 20th century masters. This book is the first collection of his work to be published in the West. Assembled by Sonia Bullaty, who worked for a time as Sudek's assistant, the volume was published in 1978 and is now reissued with nine additional photographs. The demand for it is no surprise.

The images here are nostalgic and avant-garde at once. To some, photography is still a handmaiden to painting, but Sudek's work opens up the world itself as the finest of art. His method had something to do with that. In his own words: ``I came across a photographic reproduction from around 1900 that fascinated me through its texture and excellent quality. It was 30 by 40 cm and showed a statue in Chartres. On closer inspection, I established that it was a contact print. From that day on - it was 1940 - I never made another enlargement.

``I printed my photographs exactly the way a graphic artist prints the engraving or the etching on his printing press. I want nothing else but that the camera with its lens delivers what I myself put in front of it.''

Ah, but this tells us nothing about Sudek's capacity to know what to put in front of that lens. Painter though he may seem, music was the major influence on him. He explains: ``This listening to music shows up in my work like a reflection in a mirror. I relax and the world looks less unpleasant, and I can see that all around there is beauty....''

Leafing through the pages of his photographs, we feel the same thing. We look up, and all around there is beauty.

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