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Kratchovil's Incognito


Incognito. 2001

Kratochvil, Antonin. Verona: Arena Editions, $60. ISBN: 1892041456.

Antonin Kratochvil's Incognito is a coffee table book of black and white portraits of American celebrities. Kratochvil is most recognized for his photojournalism in Eastern Europe (he was the first recipient of the Eyewitness Essay Award), and celebrity portraits are presumably a different challenge for the photographer. Experienced in capturing the harsh reality of war and human suffering, Kratochvil now cuts through the make-up and glamour of the entertainment industry in order for us to see celebrities for who they truly are: Bill Paxton in a gritty urban landscape, Kevin Bacon obscured by shadows. Kratochvil's celebrity photos are billed as a spontaneous alternative to Annie Leibovitz's elaborately arranged portraits of the stars, or as Kratochvil explains in the interview in the back of the book, "I'm trying to work on the other side of the spectrum of [Leiboviz]... I'm always trying to deliver something real... I try to cut through the bullshit" [1 ].

Of course there are few qualifiable differences between Leibovitz and Kratochvil's portraits of celebrities, or for that matter between photos of celebrities and photos of Eastern European war victims; without a doubt, Kratochvil's intention is to further dissolve the distinction between these two subjects, and in this regard Incognito is highly successful. Kratochvil sees his work as revealing celebrities as the humans they actually are: "They are people, and they work for a living. They are people, working, like carpenters, except they're paid more" [2 ].

In fact Kratochvil's photos replace the typically unknown, and therefore irrelevant, human subjects of photojournalism with familiar faces that we have a vested interest in viewing, although even here he is not blazing trails. No matter how stark the lighting or accidental the image, photojournalism is as much a part of the entertainment industry as any Leibovitz spread in Vanity Fair magazine (as exemplified by Vanity Fair's formula of Hollywood gossip mixed with exposes on corruption in the sugar cane industry). The very fact that photojournalism and entertainment are so closely aligned is why Incognito could be made. An off-center photo of David Bowie walking through a generic warehouse district, smoking a cigarette, signifies starkness because, thanks in great part to photojournalism, that is what off-center, out of focus black and white photographs have come to represent. Similarly, a photo of a distant, unidentifiable figure standing in what appears to be a basement would hold what interest to us if the corner of the photo didn't explain that the figure is Celine Dion at the Oscars? Kratochvil borrows from photojournalist traditions as well as the star system, but which is he really challenging?

The idea of a "real" Bowie who can be revealed to us is the very basis for the star system; it is the premise on which all concerts, interviews, recordings and other products are billed: "Being a star means specializing in the seemingly lived." [3 ] Kratochvil's portraits are no different, nor are the contact sheets of Liv Tyler modeling in a Toscana vineyard, which "reveal," seemingly in real time, the application of make-up by the model as well as the photographic process of the photographer. But we already understand this exercise in as much as we need to in order to enjoy the viewing of celebrities; we understand, as Bernard Stiegler suggests, that were it not already done for us, we would edit the photo shoots and polish the images because we are not interested in the banality of a real-time experience: "the Hollywood star becomes a star only by making possible a play of haunting in which reality and fiction, perception and imagination conflate." [4 ]

To be fair, Kratochvil acknowledges that his job is that of a highly selective editor: "Mostly, the job of a photographer is to edit out reality. Because to me, not all reality is so totally fascinating." [5 ] However, even if judged only by the criteria of its own genre of celebrity portraiture, Incognito is boring (has Paul Bowles ever been photographed in anything but a white suit on the streets of Tangier?). It is as a contribution to the general collapse in a pragmatic interest (if not empathy) in the suffering of other humans that Kratochvil makes great strides. The problem with photojournalism as entertainment is that often the subject matter is a bummer, and despite allowing us to witness the pain of war, hunger, or disease from the comfort of our living rooms, we still have to admit that person and their pain did in fact exist at one time, in real time. If only we could view the simulation of suffering by say, a Hollywood actor versus the actual suffering of for instance of a prisoner of Auschwitz. Working from the premise that whatever difference exists between photos of celebrities and photos of war victims lies in the way we view them, Kratochvil challenges us with photos of celebrities playing war victims. For this reason, his photos of Willem DaFoe playing a prisoner on a movie-set in Auschwitz, result in mildly interesting images despite the fact that the photos fail to show either the reality of war or the "real" DaFoe. Kratochvil achieves the same effect with the blurred photos of a movie-set in Prague where the subjects (a camera crew) look hassled and hurried as if they are experiencing the 1960s Soviet take-over instead of simply moving camera equipment.

If nothing else, Kratochvil's photos provide us with strong evidence that any interest we once had in the everyman, the anonymous subject of countless street photographers, is completely spent. Kratochvil seems to blame the communists for this due to the fact that as a teenager in Czechoslovakia, he spent time in concentration camps for the purpose of reeducation; Hollywood movies were never permitted in the camps but Italian films about the common man, especially the day laborer were shown. Of course here in the States, we've achieved our current disdain for Joe Nobody by following a different path but we no doubt appreciate what Kratochvil is offering us: all the thrill of the poorly lit, off-balance photojournalist snapshot with the extra bonus of the familiar face of a celebrity, a person whose suffering we can truly empathize with.

Kathleen McConnell


[1 ] Kratochvil, Antonin. Incognito. Verona: Arena Editions, 2001. [^]
[2 ] Ibid. [^]
[3 ] Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black & Red, 1983. Paragraph 60. [^]
[4 ] Stiegler, Bernard. "The Time of Cinema." Teknema: no. 4, spring 1998. p. 80. [^]
[5 ] Kratochvil, Antonin. Incognito. Verona: Arena Editions, 2001. [^]