A Czech rebirth

Matthew Monteith’s iconic images suggest the emergence of softer edges in a severe Czech republic.

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Matthew Monteith’s monograph Czech Eden has been described as lonely, a study in alienation, “post-Soviet.” I prefer the photographer’s own comments as they appeared in the Prague Post: “The original title of the book was Český ráj, which I know is usually translated to Czech paradise or heaven ... paradise and heaven are destinations, whereas Eden is an origin.”

And from this origin comes an emerging – not only from the subjects but from Monteith himself. These photos are original, crafted from a distinct vision by a new talent. Celebrated Czech writer Ivan Klima warns the viewer in his introduction that Monteith’s work does not represent a travelogue, but rather a state of mind. His subjects express an otherworldliness accentuated by an unusual glow of pale skin. People float up from the compositions as if waking from a deep sleep, still dreamy – amused and perhaps a touch annoyed at what their opening eyes see.

In one photo, a couple chats in an empty cafeteria. The eye lifts from the lower left corner of the frame where they sit to follow a diagonal cut of light leading to an unseen window in the upper-right corner. Apart from their two soft, slightly rounded bodies, the image is full of sharp corners and angles from squares of tiles, pillars, and tables. The couple lingers in that protected space, not yet ready to engage in activity outside these protective walls.

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Though there is a tentativeness emanating from the subjects, the photographer’s eye is keen. Monteith’s colors have a distinctive quality. His greens (and there are many) are almost edible – deep and lush, like collards in a pan just as the heat touches them. The warm hues are pale but unusually bright, giving the images their vibrancy. As the warm tones bump against the cool ones, sharp lines emerge, creating an unusually crisp depth of field.

Monteith shows his heart without being sentimental. He first visited the Czech Republic in the early 1990s, returning for a two-year stay through a Fulbright grant in 2001. Inspired by old postcards and Czech photography from the 1920s and ’30s, Monteith created an intimate world where people exist singularly or in twos and threes. Though not a travelogue, the photos encourage a feeling of traveling. At first the people and places seem odd and unfamiliar. Empty landscapes suggest vulnerability. By the fifth or sixth browsing, the faces become more friendly, the landscapes less eerie.

His humor peeks through in “Sasa, November 2001.” A woman stands in front of a bed. Behind her a bare wall has a scuff mark. She is bundled in a dark sweater, scarf, and hat, standing stiff before the camera, her face pale. Across her shoulder and torso is a hot pink pocketbook. It could be comical except for the severe look on her face. The incongruous pocketbook is worn like a shield to battle the drab interior. It is at once tender and telling.

Another photograph shows an old communist metal sculpture of a male and female worker, bending over a smelter pouring liquid into a mold, stands in a park. The bodies are caricatures – rounded, short, slightly awkward and featureless. The foliage encroaches on this concrete and steel symbol of industry, softening the scene.

Monteith’s photographs take us to a point between Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. In that moment, when a choice has not yet been made, people consider their options, uncertain, not yet trusting, but still hopeful. Therein lies the sweetness of these pictures – that stubborn and guarded hope.

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