Vilem Heckel - the legendary Czech photographer
Gallery Nr. 1
Curriculum VitaeThe legendary Czech photographer Vilem Heckel (1918-1970) was born in Pilsen, where he studied photography at Alois Chmelik’s portrait studio. When he was young he was introduced to photography by his father, a crane operator at the industrial giant Skoda in Pilsen. His father was not only an avid photographer but also a nature enthusiast. During their joint expeditions, he taught his son the valuable skills of landscape photography, and to an extent predetermined that, which now we see as the most fundamental in Heckel’s life’s work – the testimony of measuring human endurance against the majesty of mountains. Heckel himself recognized this influence: ” I was doing industrial and advertising photography for many years. However, my main field has always been landscape photography because of which I started to ski and climb mountains.”
He came into contact with industrial photography in 1937 when he was employed at the Prague-based company Indusfoto. Industrial photography was his main source of income until he began publishing books on landscapes and mountains. He remained at Indusfoto until 1939. He joined Karel Drbohlav’s Studio the following year and dedicated himself mainly to theatre photography. Later he was offered an opportunity to return to industrial photography at Illek and Paul Studio and also gained some experience in reportage photography. He spent the next fifteen years as an industrial photographer at Zbrojovka Brno and at the Czechoslovak Chamber of Commerce. He not only photographed what made him a living, but also what he liked – hiking, nature, people and towns.
“ He didn’t have any particular education, neither specialist nor general,” said the author Karel Dvorak in Vilem Heckel’s monograph. “… But with his admirable strength of will he succeeded in developing his receptiveness and the full use of his natural talent. That was also the secret of his photographic versatility.” Elsewhere in his monograph we can read: “Mountain climbing was possibly the adventurous part of his romanticism. It provided Heckel with an opportunity to celebrate unique beauty…He was the manly type with a lust for life. To be able to go through the adventures of mountain climbing, he had to test his endurance and expose himself to the risks of the demanding sport.” Photographer Josef Ehm best sums up Heckel’s professionalism: “…he would go to the darkroom in the evening and by 4 am he would have produced over forty high quality 40x50cm or 50x60cm enlargements.”
Membership in the Union of Czechoslovak Artists offered many uncommon benefits. The photographic division was created, paradoxically, after the communist takeover in 1948. The well-known and admired Josef Sudek, together with the young photographer Josef Prosek and other photographers, brought to life dreams of giving photography recognition, an aspiration which originated in the First Republic. In Heckel’s case, just as in the case of Jan Lucas, who later emigrated to the USA in search of a never-found ‘American dream’, the membership fulfilled the pre-Second World War desire to elevate photography above the level of a craft, despite the fact that it was in a state-owned institution subject to a new ideology. When Vilem Heckel finally decided to join in 1956, it gave him the opportunity not only to earn a living with photography, but also to travel and to participate in many mountain climbing expeditions abroad. Without the Union he would have never become the pioneer of Czechoslovak mountaineering photography.
Without a doubt Heckel’s popularity stems from nearly two-dozen books of photographs, which he compiled himself. His first book– Our Mountains – is as popular as Karel Plicka’s Vltava and Zdenko Feyfar’s Krkonose. Vilem Heckel, like Plicka and Feyfar, transformed natural motives into works of art. As an experienced industrial and advertising photographer he knew that he had to present the subject in a unique way to emphasize its originality and the originality of his vision. In comparison with other photographers he perhaps best captures the poetry of the Czech landscape.
He continued from his avantguarde predecessors, notably the photographer and film- maker Karel Plicka in his revolutionary and poetical document ‘Singing Country’, the format of a steep perspective rising into picturesque clusters of clouds hanging above low horizons.
When we look closely at Vilem Heckel’s mountain landscapes, we notice something unusual: his landscapes are almost never without people. This is for two reasons: to put the scale of massive mountains in perspective - man appearing as a mere dot next to their majesty – and to celebrate the struggle between man and nature. We sometimes feel that Heckel wasn’t interested in the mountains as much as he was in his friends. He meticulously documented their endurance in extreme situations and immortalized it through his photography. Despite the fact that Vilem Heckel made a living with industrial and advertising photography, at the end of the day he is unanimously presented as a mountain photographer. He agreed with this interpretation: “They call me a ‘photographer of mountains’ – and they are right. I feel closest to the mountains.” However, Heckel was also a first class reporter and thanks to this his testimony of the struggle between man and nature is so strong and convincing.
21 May 1918 Born in Pilsen where he was also educated. He began experimenting
in photography in his youth under the influence of his father who was
a keen photographer and hiker.
1932 – 1936
studied portrait photography with Alois Chmelik,
a local photographer in Pilsen
1937 – 1939
employed in Indusfoto in Prague
1923 – 1940
worked in Karel Drbohlav’s photographic studio Svetozor in Prague
1940 – 1941
worked as an industrial photographer in Studio Illek and Paul in Prague
1941 – 1956
employed as an industrial photographer in Zbrojovka Brno and in the Czechoslovak Chamber of Commerce in Prague. He also photographed motor sports, tourism, people, towns, landscapes and mountains.
admitted in the photographic section of the Czechoslovak Artists Union
participated in first mountaineering exercises and climbs
photographically documented the winter crossing of the High Tatras by
the Czechoslovak team of mountain climbers
enters freelance photography
participated in the first Czechoslovak mountaineering expedition to the Caucasus. Photographs were exhibited in Moscow, Leningrad, Kyiv, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia
awarded gold medal for the photograph ‘Caucasus 1958’ in the 3rd Biennale of Mountain Photography in Irident, Italy. Exhibition in Prerov.
first exhibition in Prague - the majority of the photographs were from the expedition to the Caucasus
exhibitions in Pilsen and Brno
participated in the second mountaineering expedition to the Caucasus. Exhibitions in Liberec and Prerov
exhibition of best works in Brno and an exhibition of the Caucasus photographs in Bratislava
participated in the first Czechoslovak expedition to Afghanistan –
Received public acknowledgement for contributions to the development
of sports in Czechoslovakia. Second exhibition in Prague
visited Corsica with Arnost Cernik and climbed the highest Corsican mountain Monte Cinto. Opened third exhibition in Prague, Hindukush 65, which was later shown in Olomouc, Ostrava, Afghanistan, Hungary and Berlin.
participated in an expedition to Pakistan. Exhibitions held in Moscow and Novosibirsk. Hindukush ’ 65 exhibited in Bruntal. Cooperated with Laterna Magica for the World Expo in Montreal
received the second public acknowledgement for his contribution to the development of Czechoslovak sports and sports education.
Received Award for Excellent Work.
Czechoslovak expedition „Peru 1970“
31 May 1970
dies under an avalanche from mount Huascaran that buried the
Czechoslovak mountaineering camp
11 July 1970
memorial service held in Skalni Mesto near Hruba Skala for the victims
of the Peruvian tragedy.
The Vilem Heckel Peak annual photographic competition is launched in Liberec. Exhibition of life’s work in Prague as part of Intercamera 71
a new variety of rhododendron in Pruhonice Park is named after
Comment : It has not been possible to list all of Vilem Heckel’s exhibitions; this brief biography only cites those noted by him, and those that could
be substantiated. There have been many other exhibitions of Heckel’s
photographs in numerous places according to the Vilem Heckel
monograph published by Panorama, Prague 1982
Bibliography - Book Publications1956
Our Mountains, text Josef Junsky, Orbis, Prague
Journeys to the Peaks, with text by Miroaslav Jedlicka and Otto Jelinek.
Statni telovychovne nakladatelstvi, Prague
Gimpfelsturmer, Artia, Prague
The Kingdom of the Sun and Ice, Our Climbers in the Caucasus, text Josef Štyrsa, Sportovni a turisticke nakladatelstvi, Prague
Climbing in the Caucasus, foreword by Lord John Hunt, the leader
of the British mountaineering expedition to Mount Everest, Spring Books, London
Sonnige Bergwelt, text Ota Pavel, Artia, Prague
Drink of the Heroes, photo illustrations of Josef Styrsa’s book,
Statni nakladatelstvi detske literatury, Prague
Mountains and People, text Ota Pavel, Sportovni a turisticke nakladatelstvi,
The Caucasus Expedition, text Arnost Cernik, Svet sovetu, Prague
Hindukush, text Jaromir Wolf, Sportovni a turisticke nakladatelstvi, Prague
Mountains and People, second edition, Sportovni a turisticke nakladatelstvi, Prague
Als Bergteiger im Caucasus, text Arnost Cernik, Svet sovetu, Prague
Beautiful Czechoslovakia, text Adolf Hoffmeister, Orbis, Prague
Die Schoheit der Tschechoslowakei, Orbis, Prague
Czechoslowakia, French-English-Spanish edition, Orbis, Prague
Stairs to Universe, text Vlastimil Smida, Olympia, Prague
Island of Blood Revenge, photographic illustrations of Arnost Cernik’s book,
Svoboda Publishers, Prague
Beautiful Czechoslovakia, second edition, Orbis, Prague
Our Mountains, second edition, text Josef Kunsky and Frantisek Kozik, Orbis, Prague
The Last Mountain, collection of 27 colour photographs from Peru, text Gustav Vlk, CTK Pressfoto, Prague
The Journey Ends Under Huascaran, Vilem Heckel’s last photographs,
text Jan Suchl, Olympia, Prague
Beautiful Czechoslovakia, third edition, Orbis, Prague
My Country, selection of photographs by Emanuel Kupcik with poems by
Czech and Slovak poets
Our Mountains, third edition, Orbis, Prague
Beautiful Czechoslovakia, fourth edition, Orbis, Prague
People, Land and Time, anthology of Vilem Heckel’s work, selection of photographs and text by Emanuel Kupcik, epilogue by Rudolf Skopec, Orbis, Praha
My Country, second edition, Orbis, Prague
Beautiful Czechoslovakia, fifth edition, Orbis, Prague
Marianske Lazne, text by Evzen Vesely, CTK Pressfoto, Prague
My Country, third edition, Orbis, Prague
Castles and Chateaus of Czechoslovakia, text Jaromir Neumann. CTK Pressfoto, Prague
Vilem Heckel, selection of photographs from Vilem Heckel’s life’s work,
edited and comentary by Karel Dvorak, Panorama, Prague
Vilem Heckel’s Peaks, to accompany the exhibition of the same title,
Czech Photo, Prague