Photo by Tacita Dean
“I was a student at the Slade in London when I took these photographs. I was never much good at single images, so I was a bad painter. That’s how I ended up doing what I do. It’s not just photography, not just film – it has always been a mixture.
I went to Prague for two weeks in February or March 1991, right after the Velvet Revolution. I had just got a camera, my first of any quality – a Minolta, a 35mm SLR – and I bought a lot of Russian film, which cost about 20p a roll. Because I had so much, I wasn’t precious about it, so I took hundreds of photographs: of posters, photographs, photographs of photographs, photocopies of handbills by Václav Havel with handwritten decoration that were still on the walls (above, top right). I was allowing myself to play with photography for the first time. God knows what was going on unconsciously, but it was just a pictorial thing for me at the time.
I left the films in Prague to be developed. They took months. Eventually, a friend picked them up and sent them on. The photographs were tiny, with a white border, and they arrived wrapped in sugar paper. It was only much later that I looked at them again. They sat in my room in a box labelled “Czech photos”. Because of the way I’d taken them, I couldn’t remember what I’d photographed.
I’m not really a photographer who has Cartier-Bresson moments. But these photographs are like relics of a Prague that doesn’t exist any more, a sort of timepiece – almost as if they were taken a generation before me.
In 2002, I started working on a show in Düsseldorf. I ended up doing a lot of work inspired by the surrealist Marcel Broodthaers and his studio. Because there was a lot of “retrieval” in the exhibition, I started retrieving things from my own past. That’s when I rediscovered the Czech photos. I made contact with a man from East Germany who did black and white printing; he was able to reprint the photographs from the negatives at exactly the same scale as the originals, just as cheaply. He did six prints of each.
When I show these photographs, I put them in a box, like a library card index. In the first show, the box sat on a desk in the corner and people could leaf through. There are 326 photos in there and, of course, they get nicked. I’ve shown them in a lot of places now – Paris, London, New York – and far more were stolen in New York than anywhere else. The stairwell one always gets stolen.” The Guardian