When Frank Rehak and Jana Kopelentova got married in 1994, more than the traditional pledges of affection and loyalty bound them together. They also had a shared devotion to a specific mode of photography that, for them, nearly amounts to an ideology. They call it documentary photography.
It has other names: humanist or social photography. It is more than pretty pictures, which is not to say aesthetics don't matter. But in documentary photography, content rules.
It is political in a broader sense, in that it searches out and responds to people who bear most of the weight of society's imbalance. But it also seeks to capture images of people in their intimate moments, to reveal their humanity in its most transparent expression.
The Rehaks intend to bring this form of photography here in a formal way when they open the School of Photographic Studies in Baltimore sometime next year.
The model they have in mind is the Photo League of New York, created in the 1920s and brought to a sad end in the 1950s by the McCarthy-inspired anti-communist blacklist. "We want a place like that," says Frank Rehak. "Not just a school, but a place, an atmosphere, with a gallery, where photographers can come, be with others, have a home."
But the couple is not starting from scratch. They already run a similar school in Prague. They spend each summer there instructing a new batch of students, most of them Americans, teaching the routines and techniques that will enable them to document the motley life of the venerable Czech capital.
Students are sent out to photograph housing projects and orphanages and the children therein; they shoot the city's lavish palaces, the Gypsy people who wander its streets, its moody cafes. They record the textures of the day-to-day as written in the creases and lines of the faces of its people. What students do there, the Rehaks hope, they will do in Baltimore: explore and map the physiognomy of the city.
Documentary photography discourages disinterest. The idea is for the artist behind the camera to become a committed witness, determined to capture only the most truthful and essential images. A witness, by definition, tells what he or she sees.
This description of documentary photography may be imperfect, but you will know it when you see it. The images, when they succeed, are invariably distinctive. Many are suffused with a strange mixture of melancholy and furtive happiness.
A good example is a study, made by Czech photographer and Prague faculty member Marketa Luskacova, of people together in a British pub. In this picture the nature of human conviviality is manifest, the happiness that people can gather to themselves when together in benign circumstances. Their faces, though smiling richly, reveal a faint and poignant knowledge of the limits of their happiness. It is the tempered joy of a time-knowing people who realize that soon enough it will all vanish.
The aim of social and documentary photography is to bring images like these before a public. They help inform the viewer, and the witnessing photographer, of what a rich and complicated undertaking life is. And occasionally, they effect social change.
This is the most desirable outcome one can hope for. And it can happen, though when it does it usually does so indirectly. Ken Light, a San Francisco-based documentary photographer and faculty member at the Prague school, explains: "I would be naive to think my photos could change anything. But the photos are also used by magazines and other media outlets and other [agencies] dealing with the problems they illustrate." Circulated widely, the images can raise awareness of problems, an essential first step.
Light says documentary photography encourages the photographic artist to go into the community, to dwell among his subjects.
"It is more extensive than photojournalism," Light says. "A magazine or newspaper might send a photographer to such places for three or four days. I spent four years photographing rural Mississippi."
Light will be on the Baltimore photography school's faculty, and Rehak hopes to gather others with similar experience. "Anywhere in the world where there is a photographer/artist, he is potentially a faculty member -- from Mexico, Europe. That's the great potential gift this school can bring to this community, this international flavor."
Faces of Hampden
Jana Kopelentova Rehak moved to Baltimore in the fall of 1994 from Prague to marry Frank. Among her earlier projects here was a series of portraits of people from Hampden. Her subjects -- the people who live in the block of 34th Street between Keswick and Chestnut streets, famed for its lavish Christmas decorations -- confront her camera without expression, or self-consciousness. The honesty in the pictures suggests a meeting of minds between the subjects and the photographer, a collaboration.
Jana is intrigued by this city. She is unsettled by the urban decay she sees in parts of it. It's not something she expected, yet she finds it stimulating. Though here for five years, she is still searching out the true "symbols and archetypes" of this place, still trying to understand how communal relations flow here.
Frank Rehak has experienced a similarly deep response to Prague, where he went in 1993 on a Fulbright scholarship and met his future wife. His feeling for the old city is manifest in his photo of a man with a briefcase walking by a wall scrawled with graffiti in the old capital; patches of dead snow lay about, the skeletal trees of winter await their renewal.
Rehak, the son of a physician, was born in Washington, grew up in Atlanta and Philadelphia and moved to Baltimore to take two degrees from the Maryland Institute. He has taught his craft in colleges and universities in and around Baltimore (Goucher, Loyola College), lectured in Europe, and in 1995, with Jana and several others, established the School for Photographic Studies in Prague.
Photography came into Rehak's life as a teen-ager. "You put your camera around your neck and go out into the streets as a way to explore the world." A hobby became a vocation.
For Jana the camera was an artifact in her life from her birth. Her father, grandfather and grandmother were photographers, so there was never any doubt.
Today, at age 31, Jana describes herself in mysterious terminology, words that seem to weld her person and personality to the camera and its function. A statement that accompanies a current exhibit of her work at the University of Maryland Baltimore County reads, in part: "My history, public and private, is defined by light and shadow, by hope and despair the contrast of promise and decay."
After high school, Jana worked as a commercial photographer for a while, then enrolled in the Czech national Academy of the Performing Arts. That was where she met Frank, who was lecturing while on his Fulbright fellowship.
Photography as art has a long history in the Czech lands. In this century Czech photographers have expressed themselves in art nouveau, socialist realism, surrealism, Bauhaus, even Dadaist forms. Social documentary photography, for its part, emerged almost simultaneously with the invention of the camera. Among its earlier proponents in this country was Matthew Brady, who assembled much of the imagery of the Civil War.
Though Baltimore is without the rich history of art photography that Prague has, the city is not barren of it. Rehak sees it as home to a group of photographers who perceive and represent the city from an artistic point of view. Among them are Jim Burger, who collaborated with Rehak on a photo essay on Baltimore firefighters, photographic teachers Tom Gregory and Jack Radcliffe, and free-lancer Jennifer Bishop. Even Aubrey Bodine, probably Baltimore's most famous photographer, made documentary images on occasion.
Rehak, personally, refers to a broad and distinguished U.S. tradition of documentary and humanist photography. It has its heroes, people like Danish-born Jacob Riis, whose depictions of life in Manhattan's tenements moved New York's authorities to improve conditions for immigrants. Then there was Lewis Hine, a social activist of the Progressive movement out of the Midwest, who photographed the stunned and apprehensive, the curious and hopeful faces of the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. Later he turned his camera on the exploitation of children in U.S. factories and mills. His pictures resulted in this nation's first child labor laws.
Is there still a place for this kind of photography in the United States today? In Baltimore? The Rehaks certainly think so.
The Rehaks, who live in Bolton Hill, are urban people, drawn to the city's harder edges. Frank says he has no difficulty bridging the cultural distance between the archaic, baroque congestion of old Prague and much of the down-at-the-heel, throw-away architecture throughout Baltimore. He brings the same values and appreciation to both.
"I have a strong connection to an industrial landscape," he says. The buildings set within it "can all be compared to a Renaissance church. Both were built with aspirations for something better."
Grappling with logistics
The Rehaks have found a space for their school: above the Everyman Theater between Lafayette and North avenues on North Charles Street. But they are still raising the necessary capital -- about $400,000 -- much of it being sought through foundations, grants and other donors.
Althea Wagman, a psychologist and former department chief at the National Institutes of Health, is board chairwoman of the proposed school. She and her husband, Dr. William Wagman, also a psychologist, were drawn to the enterprise by the power of the Rehaks' photographic imagery. Neither had an interest in photography before, but they became the first contributors to the new school.
Documentary photography, she says, "offers an opportunity to see into human interactions that words would fail to describe."
As an example, she points to some of the work Frank Rehak and Jim Burger did in their 2 1/2-year project on the fire department, titled " IN SERVICE." It was "absolutely beautiful," she says.
"It captured [the firefighters] in all sorts of situations, having to do with fire and with their personal interactions."
She hopes the new school will offer students similar challenges. "We want the students to have not only the experience of photography, but the experience of the wealth of culture that Baltimore provides."