The world as seen by an enterprising Czech photographer
Bohumil “Bob” Krčil was a nomad who photographed cultures around the world. Born in 1952 in Prostějov, south Moravia, Krčil left Czechoslovakia in 1969, living in exile until his death in New York City in 1992 and capturing his life’s journey in exceptional photographs. Before this retrospective organized by the Prague City Gallery, his work was almost unknown in his homeland.
During Prague Spring in 1968, Krčil played in a rock band and had applied to FAMU, the film academy in Prague. But when the Soviet Union and other Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia in August, everything changed: A friend was shot and killed by Soviet troops.
In August 1969, when Krčil laid flowers in a park in Prostějov to honor his friend, he was promptly interrogated and beaten by the police. A little more than a week later, he took a bus to Vienna as a tourist, with no intention of returning. Months later he landed at a refugee camp in Sweden, where he eventually was granted citizenship and remained for eight years. In 1980, Krčil went to the United States for the first time on a tourist visa. He ended up staying in Manhattan for the rest of his life.
The exhibition opens with the farewell letter Krčil wrote to his parents at the beginning of his life in exile. “Please try to understand me and do believe me that I am not leaving you,” he wrote. Throughout his life he continued to send letters and photos to his family, many of which are included in this show.
His earliest photographs (in predominantly black and white) are of hippies, pretty girls and long-haired intellectual friends in Sweden and France. There are also photos of Krčil looking young and happy in exile. Displayed beside these is the decree (issued by the Czechoslovak government in 1970) calling for the criminal prosecution of Krčil for “deserting” communist Czechoslovakia.
A series of photographs from the mid-1970s is titled “The Spaces Between.” Most of these are from his travels in France, and at their best are similar to the work of Joseph Koudelka, capturing human moments in an atmosphere of life on the margins. A photo of a midget hurtling down a dark corridor is a standout.
In 1972, Krčil took his first trip to Asia and to Herat, Afghanistan. He did not work on that trip, but returned in 1978, after the communist takeover, to take more than 1,000 photos of one of the greatest cities of the ancient world, which the Soviets had bombed into a barely recognizable moonscape.
Amid a selection of photos taken in India is one of Krčil’s very best: Welcome to India (shot in Punjab in 1978) shows a man standing in a field in front of the rotting carcass of a water buffalo. A huge bird (perhaps a vulture) is partly visible behind the man, making him look like an angel with just one wing.
A trip to northern India soon after this resulted in Krčil’s only color photo series, titled “Hashish — in the Home of the Gods.” These photos show the everyday life of “the oldest existing hashish culture in the world,” in the remote Himalayas. Huge marijuana plants abound on the mountainsides, and men are rolling it and smoking it in a variety of methods (many of which seem crude by Western standards). Krčil returned to this region several times, and photos from his journeys to north India were finally published in High Times in 1987.
The last section shows photos from New York City. There, Krčil befriended other Czech émigrés, including photographers Antonín Kratochvíl and Josef Koudelka. He produced a samizdat journal of Czech émigré art and culture in New York from this era, which is also on display.
Like his work from other points across the globe, the photos of New York mostly capture people on the streets or in shops, all of whom seem to radiate the special energy of the city. Even his cityscapes without people are full of life.
The best photo from this series is The Twins in the Wind (1983), showing the towers of the World Trade Center rising above a mound of earth and utterly isolated against the sky, almost as if they were alone in a desert, touching the clouds.
In the last room, there is a videotaped interview with Krčil, partially shot on a rooftop on
New York City’s Lower East Side, where he lived. And there are two final photos. One is part of a farewell letter to his family and friends (written in Czech), sent with a cheery picture of him with a shaved head. He died shortly after this photo was taken (in 1992) of a brain tumor.
The other, undated, shows him sitting on some steps in New York, selling his photographs from Afghanistan. He appears calm and content, not likely to be planning another long journey. He looks happy just to be able to share his photos with anyone interested in seeing them.