The women in Dana Kyndrová’s starkly composed, occasionally grainy black-and-white photographs could be anyone, and they could be anywhere. This lack of specificity only highlights the poignancy of the moments in which we find them. These range from daily activities such as sipping coffee with friends and smoking cigarettes, to the unfolding of more definitive junctures in which we catch the subjects mid-childbirth, mid-kiss, mid-grieving.
If she was stopped by the secret police, she simply pretended to be a “naïve girl” who took pictures as a hobby
The images constitute the two-decades-long photo series for which the Czech documentary photographer is best known, Woman Between Inhaling and Exhaling, currently on view at New York’s Czech Center (30 May – 28 July 2019). Largely taken in the former Czechoslovakia and later in the Czech Republic — as well as in various other European countries such as Switzerland, England, Russia, the Ukraine, Germany, Slovakia, Poland, and Estonia — the photos are intended as an homage to women living under communism and the transition to a post-socialist society. When Kyndrová began the project, she says that Central Europeans still felt deeply a dividing line between East and West. Because it’s not easy to tell when or where the images were taken, this division is rendered irrelevant when seen through her lens.
The strength of the show — if not the point of the project — is that these candid moments of pain, pleasure, even boredom and despondency reveal how womanhood is not altered by a geographical border or defined against a political ideology. It is instead the product of shared experiences. When creating the series, Kyndrová separated it into seven parts: adolescence, maternity and family, fun, work, eroticism, faith, and old age. Most of the photos were taken in the 1990s, when the artist first began compiling the images, though some date as far back as the 1970s, sourced from old photos the artist had taken as a teen. The show at the Czech Center is arranged non-chronologically to create what is essentially a fabricated coming-of-age narrative told through the lives of numerous unnamed European women.
It is the oldest photo that is perhaps the most specific, in both subject and meaning. Taken in 1974, it shows Kyndrová’s grandmother tenderly kissing her husband on his deathbed, a moment that the artist says is “sacred” to her. It is the only image in the series that is personally connected to the artist, but that is certainly not what makes it the most intimate. The softness of the woman’s kiss on the man’s forehead, his head slightly cocked to the left on the pillow as if to receive her lips, is so perfectly captured that it feels as if it is happening in real time. Above the bed, a tondo depicting the Virgin and Child gestures to the physical and emotional cycle of birth, death, and rebirth that women drive.
According to the artist, the gaze of one woman towards another is different from that of a man, something she says she was especially aware of when she photographed birth-giving. Only another woman could fully appreciate the cruelty and strength required to bring life into the world. Photos taken at a hospital in Prague in 1994 are uncompromisingly clinical in their viewpoint, in an effort to redress the stereotypical “gentleness” the artist was told female photographers often exhibit. In one, a woman in labour sits spread-eagled on a bed, her feet elevated in stirrups while a doctor leans in to retrieve the baby’s head. What your eye is drawn to, however, is the nurse who is passing by, bucket in hand, to clean up another station. In another, a freshly birthed baby lies on the bed between his mother’s legs, covered with blood, umbilical cord still linking the two; the woman too is crying.
Photography links Kyndrová with her own mother, who was also an artist and who gave Kyndrová her first Canon in the 1970s. She counts her mother and Edward Steichen as her main influences, though she never formally studied photojournalism — partially because there were no such classes available to her when she was growing up.
During the 1980s and 90s, she was just one of a handful of female documentary photographers in Czechoslovakia, which the artist says may have helped her get closer to some subjects and events; if she was stopped by the secret police, she simply pretended to be a “naïve girl” who took pictures as a hobby. This did not stop her from being interrogated a couple of times, and authorities once ripped the film out of her camera while she was shooting the funeral of Jaroslav Seifert, a Nobel-winning poet outspoken against the government. But when Soviet troops began pulling out of Czech territory in 1990-91, being a woman helped her get into the emptying barracks — she surmises that the officers, there without their wives, may have let her in with lewd hopes of getting more than their picture taken, but that she was ultimately the one taking advantage of them.
Indeed, Kyndrová exploits the predatory male gaze within Woman Between Inhaling and Exhaling. Consider the 2001 photograph of a nude female model at Moscow’s Visual Art Academy, who reclines nude on a bed, presumably for a life drawing class. The artist captures a man from behind, standing in front of the model but looking to the side at another image of a reclining, faceless female nude hanging on the adjacent wall. The model looks bored, while the man seems incapable of discerning the difference between a real woman and a facsimile.
Other images subvert the male gaze entirely, such as the photo of a group of middle-aged women drinking at a pub in Northern England, shot in 1994, while a lone gentleman at their table sombrely looks off into the distance. A cheering woman, her hand thrown in the air and her mouth open in an “O” shape, is captured by Kyndrová through the muscular bare legs of a man on a stage; the image, taken in Bohemia in 1999, is simply titled Ladies’ Party.
For the artist, the success of the Woman Between Inhaling and Exhaling series comes from the communication and connection she fostered with her subjects. Her photos were never staged, nor were the subjects ever photographed without their knowledge, predating the contemporary conversation around consent. This is not a consideration that she herself has always been afforded — just a few months ago, she discovered a documentary produced by the Communist security forces in 1988, the 70th anniversary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia, in which cameras were trained on her. Photography can be an effective tool of resistance to both prop up political regimes and social stereotypes, and, as it is in Kyndrová’s work, to dismantle them. An image’s power ultimately derives not from what it captures, but why.