Markéta Luskačová, By the Sea

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by RRB Photobooks (here). Clothbound hardcover with tipped-in monochrome image, 132 pages, with 66 black-and-white reproductions; 7.9 x 11 inches. Includes a text by the photographer, her CV, as well as a list of selected exhibitions and publications. Designed by Dan Mogford. In an edition of 600 copies, including 100 copies with signed and limited gelatin silver print. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Born in Prague, within a landlocked country, Markéta Luskačová was seventeen years old when she saw the sea for the first time. Riding a night train to visit her aunt in Varna, Bulgaria, Luskačová was sleeping when the people in her car began clamoring with excitement. She awoke to the overwhelming vastness and the merging hues of the Black Sea. “I looked from the window: it was dawn, and everything I saw was blue, there was no horizon, no line between the sea and the sky, just blue.”

Fifteen years later and almost 2000 miles northwest, the Czech photographer found herself gazing at a similar vastness, yet of a different color. The sea of Whitley Bay, as she describes it in the beautiful introduction of her latest book, was grey, “breathtakingly grey, as was the sky.” And she was taken all the same. This time, however, not just for the landscape, the scenery, but for the people within. Drifting through Luskačová’s words and memories, and corralled within her photographs, it is them – the people on England’s northeastern beaches – who are the source of By the Sea.

Luskačová first photographed Whitley Bay in the summer of 1976, while visiting the photographer Chris Killip, who was then living and working in Newcastle. Two years later, Amber, a local film and photography collective, invited her along with Martine Franck, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Paul Caponigro to photograph the North East. Given the freedom to choose her subjects, Luskačová readily returned to the beaches of Whitley Bay (and a few others), where she worked from July until November of 1978, and continued to photograph independently for the following two years. While a few of these images were subsequently published and exhibited, it was only after the successful reception of her 2016 self-published book To Remember – London Street Musicians, 1975-1990, that Luskačová decided to return to “some other old boxes” which included her seaside photographs. Showing them to a number of friends, it was Rudi Thoemmes (of RRB Photobooks) who offered to make a book.

Perhaps, because traveling, at this moment in time, is nothing but a longing, I am tempted to consider this book a comforting journey: one that dives into the past and moments of belonging; that shares intimacy through the act of looking; that doesn’t keep you at arm’s length, but takes you in right from the cover. Set against the backdrop of a cloudy sky, a group of people – adults and children – stand by a seawall. Dressed in heavy sweaters, some are lost in thought, while others watch the sharp horizon line and things we cannot see. It is their sense of togetherness, of serenity and contentment, despite the chilly winds, that emanates from the frame and infuses the blue, linen-covered space around it – like a postcard suspended between sea and sky.

Most of Luskačová’s subjects are captured within and withstanding the harsh weather of the area, which is, surprisingly, not in opposition to, but an intrinsic part of the joyful atmosphere of her photographs. We see children launching themselves into the sea foam and piles of sand, chasing dogs and each other; while teenagers stroll in courtship; and adults – dressed in their Sunday best and huddled in their beach chairs – observe, smile, or chatter along. There are ponies and donkeys slowly trotting up and down the beach, and then there is the place itself: “The fairground and the omnipresent tents,” as Luskačová relates, “fortresses against the wind and rain, the seaside cafes selling sandwiches, apple pies, custard pies, ice creams, and teas, of course. But they also sold boiling water to women who brought with them from their homes their teapots and teabags, because to buy tea for the whole family would be too expensive.”

What makes these photographs so extraordinary is that, looking at them, one recognizes that they don’t document events or fleeting moments, but the experience of human relationships, of which the photographer is somehow part. This feeling of solidarity and tenderness is especially poignant in the images of mothers and grandmothers tending to their children, whether they envelop them in a thorough hug, or delight them with cotton candy. Considering, that in 1978, Luskačová was herself a mother of a one-year-old son (Matthew, to whom the book is dedicated), this sensitivity is no surprise. What is surprising, and revealing, instead is that her son accompanied her whenever she went to work.

“Every day while packing the pushchair, nappies, food, baby bottles, and camera bag, I remembered the peasant women in the mountain village of Šumiac, in Slovakia, where I had photographed a few years earlier. The women there had taken their babies with them while working in the fields. I thought if they managed, I would too.”

Little did she know that the stroller’s wheels wouldn’t turn in the wet sand. Luskačová managed to photograph nevertheless: thanks to women and children towards whom her son, once sitting in the sand, would crawl – and who generously agreed to look after him. In doing so, Luskačová, who was an interloper at first, became part of the community she captured. This sense of belonging – which is rooted in a respectful gaze, an openness to share, and the capacity to relate – is integral to the emotional quality By the Sea, and binds this body of work to Luskačová’s images of Slovakian pilgrims, London street-musicians, and the intimate portraits of the people of Spitalfields.

Formally, her beachside photographs inevitably converse the moody light and grainy texture of an early Robert Frank, and the essential, yet sympathetic gaze of Roger Mayne or Helen Levitt (obviously in context with Luskačová’s photographs of children). More kindred in spirit than in style, is perhaps the German photographer Helga Paris, particularly her quietly striking series Leipzig Hauptbahnhof 1981/82, which documents the daily life within the East German train station. Like Paris, Luskačová has an innate affinity for people on the margins, not merely those of society, but of perception. Yet, instead of aggrandizing their subjects through the means of morale or mystery, both women capture them with a sensitive, non-judgmental eye, seeing them for who they are – not people, but persons.

It is a difficult undertaking, this visual dissolution between “us” and “them”. What is so remarkable and baffling about Luskačová’s individual photographs – and By the Sea as a whole – is the apparent ease with which she does so. I suspect that it has something to do with a delicate balance between integrity and intuition, compassion and determination. A lesson in patience – one that is worth spending time with.

Collector’s POV: Markéta Luskačová is represented by Augusta Edwards Fine Art in London (here) and Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica (here). Luskačová’s work hasn’t regularly appeared at auction in past decade, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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