Vladimír Birgus

Life in dates

Taken from the book of Štěpánka Bieleszová "Vladimír Birgus: Photographs 1972—2014", KANT, Praha 2014.

Photo: Viktor Chlad


Vladimír Birgus was born in Frýdek-Místek, on 5 May 1954. He spent his youth in Příbor, Moravia. No one in his family was particularly involved in the fine arts. His father, Josef, worked in the Department of German Studies, at Palacký University, Olomouc. His mother, Jarmila, was a teacher in Příbor. His brother Jan became a doctor. His sister Jarmila graduated from university with a degree in linguistics. From childhood onwards, Vladimír was drawn to writing; even in elementary school he liked to write.


Made his first attempts at photography. As a pupil in grade four, began to take photographs with the family camera, a Flexaret. Also began to go to a photo club at the elementary school in Jičínská ulice, Příbor, run by a local photographer, Rudolf Jarnot (b. 1934).


At the age of eleven, won a prize in a state-wide photographic competition for children. Together with other prize-winning child photographers, was invited to the Children’s Centre (Dům dětí) at Prague Castle. Here, he participated in seminars on children’s photography. A rite of passage was his meeting with the historian of photography Rudolf Skopec (1913–1975) and the photographer Karel Hájek (1900–1978).


With his parents, moved from Příbor to Olomouc. Attended the Olomouc Hejčín secondary school. In 1971, had his first solo exhibition in the Galerie v podloubí (Gallery in the Arcade), Olomouc. In subsequent years, presented his works here several times and organized a number of photographic exhibitions. In addition to staged photography, made his first documentary photos with social subject matter (for example, from a retirement home). Was a member of the ARS klub, Olomouc.


With Jana Ployharová and Pavel Danel, exhibited works in the Rokoko Theatre, Prague, and Fotochema, Ostrava..


Began to attend the Literature, Theatre, Film programme at Palacký University, Olomouc. At the same time, began to commute to Prague to attend Professor Ján Šmok’s classes, nicknamed the ‘kindergarten’. This was the photography class at the People’s School of Art (Lidová škola umění), in Biskupská ulice, a way of preparing for the Film and Television School of the Academy of the Performing Arts (FAMU), Prague. Here, Birgus not only became acquainted with the technical and artistic sides of photography, but also discussed philosophy and exchanged opinions on a variety of subjects.


In the Youth Gallery (Galerie mladých), Brno, he exhibited a series of staged photographs, Counterpoint, which was based on the contrast of the flesh tones of a black man and a white woman. The photographs interested the art theorist Václav Zykmund (1914–1984), who, in the accompanying catalogue, praised Birgus’s sense of composition, rhythm, and proportion. In the same year, first exhibited his works with Josef Pokorný, his later colleague from the Dokument group, at the Galerie v podloubí, Olomouc. Took the FAMU entrance exams for photography and came in first, but did not want to give up studying at Olomouc. With the help of Professor Šmok, was given an opportunity to attend both schools. At Olomouc, continued on an individual study plan, commuting to Prague for lectures at FAMU once or twice a week. Made the Sleepers set. Completed the requisite practical part of the course as an intern in the editorial offices of Revue fotografie (Photography review) and Československá fotografie (Czechoslovak photography).


Spent his summer vacation at a volunteer work camp in England. Took photos in Bradford and the East End, London.


The magazine Československá fotografie first published Birgus’s photographs from the East End series. The set received an award at the international


In Sofia, 1977, photo Jaroslav Lískovec

With Petr Klimpl and Josef Pokorný, founded a photographic group called Dokument. Its members later established contact with the Oči (Eyes) group in Žilina, Slovakia (which included Zdeněk Fišer, Josef Bohuňovský, and Bohumil Kotas). At their meetings, compared and contrasted photographs critical of the Communist régime. The group also organized the Productive Age project, oriented to a neglected social topic.


In the magazine Československá fotografie, he published ‘Nerozhodující okamžik’ (The Insignificant Moment), an article about the current state of documentary photography. Completed his studies at Olomouc, with the dissertation ‘Film v českých divadlech do druhé světové války’ (Film in Czech Theatre until the Second World War). At the invitation of Šmok, began to work as a senior lecturer in the Department of Photography, FAMU. Moved from Olomouc to Prague. Worked on the Žižkov project, with, among others, the photographers Pavel Štecha, Iren Stehli (b. 1953), Jan Malý (b. 1954), Jiří Poláček (b. 1946), and Dana Kyndrová.


For two years, as a part-time teacher, ran the photography department of the Regional Conservatoire (Krajská lidová konzervatoř), in Ústí nad Labem, where, for example, Antonín Braný and Ondřej Kavan also taught. Until June 1981, was a part-time teacher of the history of photography at a secondary school for the graphic arts (Střední průmyslová škola grafická), in Prague. Had his first solo exhibition abroad, at the Ninth Photographic Confrontations festival, Gorzów Wielkopolski. For the festival, he also organized an exhibition of current works by FAMU students. Received his doctorate from Palacký University, Olomouc. His dissertation, 256 pages long, is entitled ‘Interpretace dramatického textu prostřednictvím filmu v meziválečných inscenacích E. F. Buriana’ (Interpretation of the dramatic text by means of film in E.F. Burian’s productions between the wars)..


Put together an exhibition called Photography at FAMU, Prague, for the international festival of short films, in Oberhausen, Germany. A revised version was held at the International Association of Film and Television Schools (Centre International de Liaison des Ecoles de Cinéma et de Télévision – CILECT) festival, Karlovy Vary. With the photographer Jan Reich (1942–2009) and the film director Pavel Blumenfeld (1914–1982), made an audiovisual programme about Kyrgyzstan. Colour appeared in his work at this time, though black-and-white predominated. Birgus’s photographs, published in Československá fotografie, interested the Lithuanian photographer Romualdas Požerskis (b. 1951), beginning many years of work with Lithuanian photographers. With Ondřej Kavan (b. 1954), Birgus was invited to exhibit at the Fotografijos Galeria, in Kaunas, Lithuania. The exhibition was shown again in Vilnius and in Šiauliai. After returning, he curated a Požerskis exhibition in Czechoslovakia and published his portfolio in Československá fotografie, which was then reprinted by the Swedish press. Požerkis’s photographs were critical of society, considering mainly the problem of alcoholism and the suppression of religious freedoms in what was then the Soviet Union.

Photo: Ludmila Kubíková


At the invitation of Karel Otto Hrubý, Birgus took over the running of the Institute of Art Photography at the Union of Czech Photographers, Prague. He was 28 years old at the time. The school was originally supposed to be run by Jaroslav Vávra, but he died unexpectedly in 1981. The situation became complicated when, after reexamination at the Olomouc Military Hospital, Birgus’s exemption from military service was revoked and, in October 1982, he had to begin his one-year basic military service at Armádní film (Army Film), Prague. Thanks to the understanding of the head of the Barrandov department of Armádní film, was allowed to do military service while running the Institute of Art Photography part-time. Birgus’s monograph about Miroslav Bílek was published by Profil, Ostrava. Worked with Pavel Jasanský (b. 1938) on photographs for Město (City), a collection of poems. Once printed, however, the book was branded ideologically offensive and the Práce publishing house had all 10,000 copies pulped. A year later, a new version was published with photographs by Miroslav Hucek (1934–2013) taking the place of many of the excluded photos.


In Lithuania, in collaboration with the Union of Lithuanian Photographers, he organized an exhibition of FAMU students. Participated in group exhibitions abroad, for example, Aspects of Czechoslovak Photography, at the Thackrey & Robertson Gallery, San Francisco, and 27 Contemporary Czechoslovakian Photographers, at the Photographers’ Gallery, which then moved on to Bristol. Participated in the opening of the London exhibition, together with Antonín Dufek, Pavel Štecha, Ivo Gil (b. 1941), and Ľuba Lauffová (1949–2004). In London, met with a number important people involved in photography – George Rodger (1908–1995), a photographer of the Magnum agency, Colin Osman (1926–2001), Editor-in-Chief of the magazine Creative Camera, Sue Davies, the director of the Photographers’ Gallery, and with Vojta Dukát (b. 1947) and Libuše Taylor (b. 1950), two Czech photographers living abroad. For the 14th Photographic Confrontations in Gorzów Wielkopolski, organized an exhibition called Young Czechoslovak Photographers. Mladá fronta published Informatorium II, in a print-run of 135,000 copies, which includes Birgus’s large outline of the history of world photography.


Had his first solo exhibition in western Europe, at the Canon Photo Gallery, Amsterdam, organized by the director Lorenzo Merlo. Took part in the exhibition The Nude Photography in East Europe, Turin. At the Galleria d’Arte Narciso, Turin, Birgus curated a retrospective of works by the photographer Eugen Wiškovský. Organized the exhibition Photographs by FAMU Graduates, which opened at Kunštát House, Brno, before moving, in a different form, to the Museum of Decorative Arts, Prague, 1987. He also organized an exhibition of contemporary Lithuanian photography, including works by classics like Sutkus, Macijauskas, Luckus, and Požerskis. The exhibition ran without a hitch in Brno and Bratislava, but in Ostrava, it was denounced to the secret police and closed down; all the exhibited works were confiscated and sent them to the KGB in Vilnius; Birgus was interrogated by the police. The photos considered problematic were mainly those of drunkards and pilgrimages. Birgus’s father died.


On 1 of February, married Darina Tausková. Exhibited with Wolfgang Zurborn in the Kellergalerie, Munich. In November, together with Antonín Braný and Denis Brudna, organized an exhibition of young photographers from FAMU at the Fabrik arts centre, Hamburg. His mother died.


Together with Antonín Braný, Birgus published the first Czech monograph about František Drtikol (Prague: Odeon).


For the FOTO 89 festival, Amsterdam, he and Miroslav Vojtěchovský (b. 1947) organized the large Contemporary Czech Photography exhibition. At the same time, with Radovan Boček (b. 1963), organized the first of a threepart exhibition of photographs from the Velvet Revolution, called The Czechoslovak November 1989. It opened in the Foma exhibition hall on Jungmannovo náměstí, Prague, on 5 December, where, before moving on to České Budějovice, Graz, Strasbourg, and Nuremberg, it was seen by more than 100,000 people.


He exhibited his own works at the Festival of Czechoslovak Photography in Tours, France. This group exhibition, organized by AGIT under the direction of Christian Roger, comprised a number of Czech and Slovak photographers: Jiří Hanke, Martin Hruška, Barbara Hucková, Jiří Korecký, Pavel Nádvorník, Ivan Pinkava, Nadja Rawová, Viera Sláviková, Miroslav Švolík, Vladimír Židlický, and Peter Župník. The Institute of Art Photography (of the Union of Czech Photographers), which Birgus was still in charge of, became part of the newly established Opava branch of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, part of Masaryk University, Brno, as the Institute of Creative Photography. (Since 1991, the faculty has been part of Silesian University, Opava.) Another exhibition abroad, this time during Birgus’s workshop in the gallery of Salzburg College, Salzburg, organized with Václav Podestát. With Miroslav Vojtěchovský and Reinhold Misselbeck, organized the large Czechoslovak Photography of Today exhibition, accompanied by a hefty catalogue in German. After the opening at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne, the exhibition travelled to eight European and two American cities.


Birgus’s son Daniel was born.


Had a solo exhibition at the Fotogalerie im Haus Böhl, Eisenach. Showed his photographs at the Art Institute of Chicago in the exhibition What’s New: Prague, curated by Colin Westerbeck.


Had a solo exhibition at the Galerie Friedrichstraße, Berlin. Participated in the exhibition Czech and Slovak Photography from the Interwar Period to the Present, which opened at the Fitchburg Art Museum, Massachusetts, and was later shown in Boston, Middlebury, Seattle, and Monaco. From 1993 to 1997, helped to curate a series of exhibitions called Names of PHP, at the Prague House of Photography.


Was made an Associate Professor at FAMU, Prague. His habilitation work was on František Drtikol, later published by Prostor, Prague. For the Burgrave’s House at Prague Castle, organized a retrospective and accompanying catalogue of works by William Klein, later shown in the Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava. His daughter Helena was born.


With Blanka Chocholová (b. 1953), organized the exhibition Bitter Years: Europe 1939–47 through the Eyes of Czech Photographers, which opened at the Burgrave’s House, Prague Castle, and travelled through Europe from 1995 to 2000 (Edinburgh, London, Berlin, Moscow, and Skopelos).


Had a solo exhibition at the House of Art, Bratislava, as part of the Month of Photography festival. With Miroslav Vojtěchovský, organized the exhibition Certainty and Searching in Contemporary Czech Photography, which opened at the Burgrave’s House at Prague Castle and was accompanied by a catalogue of the same name, published by KANT.


Had his first solo exhibition of exclusively colour photographs, held at the Prague House of Photography. For the Third International Fotofeis Festival, Scotland, organized the exhibition The Body in Contemporary Czech Photography..


With the curator Pierre Bonhomme, organized the exhibition Modern Beauty: Czech Photographic Avant-garde, 1918–1948, which opened at the National Museum of Catalan Art, Barcelona, before moving on to Paris, Prague, Lausanne, and Munich, and, in a reduced form, Berlin and Budapest. From 1998 to 2002, ran the Centre for the History and Theory of Photography, FAMU, before it was closed down after the appointment of the new dean, Michal Bregant, and the new head of the Photography Department, Jaroslav Bárta. With an exhibition of works by Robo Kočan, which opened in November, Birgus began his five years as curator of the Velryba gallery, Prague, in which the FAMU Photography Department offered exhibition space to its students and other young photographers. (Alena Rudolfová-Vandasová contributed importantly to the running of the gallery.)


At the Chicago Cultural Center, the exhibition Czech Photography of the 1990s opened, organized by Birgus and Vojtěchovský, and accompanied by a publication of the same name. KANT, the publishing house of Karel Kerlický, published Česká fotografická avantgarda, which would later also be published in German (by Arnoldsche Art Publishers, in Stuttgart) and English (by the MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London). Birgus was made a professor at FAMU.


Together with Jan Mlčoch, curated the large exhibition The Nude in Czech Photography and produced a book of the same name. It opened in the Imperial Stables at Prague Castle, and was later held in the Olomouc Museum of Art and, in a reduced version, Moscow, Paris, Aachen, Poznań, Bratislava, Wrocław, Walbrzych, Opava, Bratislava, Athens, Jindřichův Hradec, and Warsaw. The two men then curated the exhibition Czech Avant-garde Photography, 1918–38, for the Czech Centre in Berlin and the Hungarian House of Photography, Mai Manó House, Budapest.


Again with Mlčoch, Birgus organized a retrospective and book of works by one of the greatest Czech avant-garde photographers, Jaroslav Rössler (1902–1990). It opened at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, and travelled to a number of venues abroad: Festival Photo España, Madrid; Centre Atlantique de la Photographie, Brest; Museum der Moderne Rupertinum, Salzburg; and Fotografie Forum International, Frankfurt am Main. Birgus was made a member of the European Society for the History of Photography, Vienna.


Assembled the set Czech Documentary Photography for exhibition at the Leica Gallery in New York.


The Prague House of Photography held an exhibition of works by Birgus in the Galerie Oskara Kokoschky, Prague. KANT published the first monograph about Birgus, Cosi nevyslovitelného / Something Unspeakable, written by Tomáš Pospěch, in a bilingual Czech and English edition. In November, Birgus, together with colleagues from the Institute of Creative Photography, organized the first meeting of Czech, Slovak, and Polish post-secondary schools of photography. It took place in Opava on the occasion of the exhibition Institute of Creative Photography: Diploma and Final Portfolios, 1998–2003.


Together with Mlčoch, Birgus curated the large exhibition Czech Photography of the 20th Century, which took place at the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague and, at the same time, Stone Bell House and the Municipal Library, both of which are exhibition spaces of the City Gallery Prague. The exhibition comprised 1,300 works from many public and also private collections, and was accompanied by a catalogue in Czech and English editions. Together with Vojtěch Bartek, Aleš Kuneš, Václav Podestát, Tomáš Pospěch, and Jiří Siostrzonek, Birgus put together the exhibition Fifteen: Fifteen Years of the Institute of Creative Photography, for the Prague House of Photography and the Galerie Opera, Ostrava, which was later shown in several foreign cities. In the East Bohemian Gallery, Pardubice, he and the curator Martin Dostál put together an exhibition of photographs from 1981–2004, which was accompanied by a book published by KANT, including an article by Elżbieta Łubowicz, a Polish photography theorist and curator. The Association of Professional Photographers.


For the Czech Center in New York and the Consulate of the Czech Republic in Chicago, Birgus curated the exhibition František Drtikol & Jaroslav Rössler, Master & Student. For the Czech Centre in Paris, organized the exhibition The Self-portraits of Dita Pepe. For the Prague Biennale 3, compiled a selection of works by young Czech and Slovak women photographers, called Glocal Girls. The American gallery Vintage Works, began to represent him, and presented his works at the AIPAD show in Miami.


For the Lyon Septembre de la Photographie festival, prepared the exhibition Identités: jeunes femmes photographes tchèques. For the Monat der Fotografie, Vienna, compiled a set of Czech Avant-garde photographs, Klassiker der tschechischen Avantgardefotografie: František Drtikol, Jaroslav Rössler, Eugen Wiškovský. And for the Czech Center in New York, curated Czech Avant-Garde Photography: Jaromír Funke and Eugen Wiškovský.


The Leica Gallery in New York held the exhibition Europeans, with works by Vladimír Birgus, Jindřich Marco, and Jindřich Štreit. Together with Mlčoch, Birgus organized a large exhibition called Tschechische Fotografie des 20. Jahrhunderts, for the Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland in Bonn. With Tomáš Pospěch, curated an exhibition for the City Gallery Prague, Once Upon a Time in the East: Czechs through the Eyes of Photographers, 1948–1989.


To mark the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Institute of Creative Photography, at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Silesian University, he curated The Opava School of Photography, which, after opening at the Reduta, Brno, travelled to Prague, Oxford, Cologne, Bratislava, Ostrava, Liberec, Warsaw, Vilnius, and other cities. The exhibition was accompanied by a 296-page catalogue published by KANT. With the curator Yu Iseki, organized the exhibition Darkness for Light: Czech Photography Today, for the Shiseido Gallery, Tokyo, attending the private view and, with Ivan Pinkava, giving talks. At the Hasselblad Centre, Gothenburg, sat on the jury of the prestigious Hasselblad Award, given that year to the French artist Sophie Calle.


At the invitation of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, gave a talk on Czech Avant-garde photography.

Se synem Danielem, manželkou Darinou a dcerou Helenou 2011


For KANT, prepared the first monograph on Dita Pepe. The Monat der Fotografie festival, Vienna, included an exhibition of works by Vladimír Birgus, Jindřich Marco, and Jindřich Štreit.


With Aleš Kuneš, co-organized The Intimate Circle in Contemporary Czech Photography, a large exhibition of works by fifty photographers on the subject of intimacy, self-reflection, and relations with family, friends, and lovers. Accompanied by a catalogue, the exhibition opened at the City Gallery Prague in the Municipal Library and then in the House of Art (Dom umenia), Bratislava.


The House of Art, Opava, held an exhibition of Birgus’s photographs from 1972 to 2014. Another exhibition was mounted by the Olomouc Museum of Art.


Students and teachers of the Institute of Creative Photography, Silesian University, Horní Bečva, 2012, photo: Pavel Mára