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The Face of Pain and Change

Antonin Kratochvil 'felt compelled' to take pictures in his native Eastern Europe. Now they form a valuable historical record.

March 29, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Photojournalist Antonin Kratochvil left Czechoslovakia in 1967, when he was only 19, because he didn't want to whisper. His parents had been incarcerated and damned as "class enemies" by the Communists, so they lowered their voices when they talked about anything important and warned their son that the walls had ears.

Nine years later--armed with an American passport that allowed him to travel freely--Kratochvil returned to Eastern Europe with a camera and began to shout. Now based in New York, he is being heard in black-and-white photographs portraying stark facts of life off the tourist circuit. Images shot from 1976 to 1996 are featured in an exhibition at the Gallery of Contemporary Photography at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica (to April 18) and in a book, "Broken Dream: 20 Years of War in Eastern Europe."

Kratochvil has photographed the old and dispirited, the young and reckless, farmers who try to grow crops on polluted land and religious devotees who carry on forbidden traditions. His pictures include images of empty food markets in Poland, Gypsies and street gangs in Romania, an Albanian gulag and a shell-shocked Bosnian refugee in Croatia.

One particularly striking picture, "Shelter, Poland 1976," features a woman shrouded in black and two smaller, lumpish figures in a bleak courtyard with dirty dishes stacked on a bare table. "Fallen Iron Curtain, Czechoslovakia 1989" appears to depict an ordinary, unlovely landscape, but the title reveals that a roll of barbed wire off to one side formerly served as a fearsome barricade.

Recalling his youth in Prague, Kratochvil said he had a remarkably carefree childhood, but his parents were traumatized by Communist oppression. "My father was a photographer," Kratochvil said. "He worked in a studio, a kind of a cooperative, but he owned a company and employed people, so my parents were looked upon as exploiters of the masses.

"They spent five years in internal exile. They lost their rights as citizens, so they couldn't leave. The whole country was surrounded by barbed wire. My father was forced to work in a factory, where he was humiliated."

Seeking a better way of life after he finished school, Kratochvil snuck across the border into Austria, but got stuck in a refugee camp for almost a year. "Sweden finally took me," he said. "They got some old people and young people without professions. Being a refugee was like being in a meat market. Countries like the U.S. or Canada would take educated people, engineers or doctors, but they really didn't want to have anything to do with the rest of us."

In 1970, after two years of "bumming around and being stateless," he made his way to Holland. "I got political asylum there," he said. "The mood was a little bit better because it was after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, so the West was a little bit more kind to people like me."

Then he got his "big break": a scholarship to study at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Amsterdam. "It changed my life," he said.

Kratochvil had no prior training in photography, but he had helped his father in his studio and absorbed a lot of information. "What I had learned was subconscious," he said. "But when I went to school, it came so naturally. I fell into it right away."

He completed his studies in two and a half years, married an American he had met in Holland and moved to Los Angeles in 1972. After making the rounds with his portfolio, he landed a job at the Los Angeles Times, as a photographer for the newspaper's West and Home magazines. He resigned after a year, opting to work as a freelancer.

In 1976, the year he became an American citizen, Kratochvil moved to New York to work for Vogue, but he soon tired of fashion photography. His marriage had ended in divorce and he was interested in socially conscious imagery, he went on the road.

"The passport gave me carte blanche to go back to Eastern Europe," he said. "Before that, I had the passport of a political refugee, so I couldn't go back. I would have been arrested."

He has worked abroad on assignments for the New York Times Magazine, Time and Newsweek, among many other publications. But his travel to Eastern Europe was a personal journey. "I wanted to get in touch with myself," he said. Returning to his native country was part of his mission, but he also explored widely. "I was discovering different regions of Eastern Europe that I hadn't been allowed to visit while living in Czechoslovakia," he said. "It was the very exciting."

In Polish villages he was stunned to find religious practices he had never heard of, much less witnessed. "I had never seen such devotion in Czechoslovakia because they got rid of the clergy completely," he said. "Old people carried on traditions, but if young people went to church, they would be put on a black list."

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