Review: Czech Eden by Matthew Monteith


Book Reviews, Photobooks

If you take photos in a foreign land, they will be different from the photos taken by the people who live there, because what you see is unfamiliar (maybe even strange) for you. In the same fashion, when you view photos of a country, to a large extent your perception of what you see is guided by how much you know already about that country. In that sense, there is no absolute photographic truth of any given place, simply because your preconceptions (or their lack) will determine what you see. I think it is very important to keep this in mind when looking at books like Matthew Monteith’s Czech Eden (there are some sample photos from the book here).

In his foreword to the book, Ivan Klima addresses this complex by quoting a young photography student who said that what was portrayed in the book “related more to the gloomy period of Communist rule than to the present day.” To which Ivan Klima responds that it wasn’t the photographer’s intention to show any specific period. I have no idea what the actual truth is. I did visit a fairly similar country during the last throes of its Communist rule (East Germany), and I did visit the Czech Republic some years after Communism had been ousted.

What I do think, though, is that is important to try to avoid getting this particular aspect in the way - as tempting as it might be for Westerners to think in those terms. After all, the Czech Republic is one of the countries that is not really somewhere at the fringes of Europe, but actually right in its center. And thinking in terms of Communist/post-Communist unnecessarily clouds what we see. So if you want to do yourself a favour, try to immerse yourself in what the photographer decided to portray. This is how you will get most out of the photography.

Czech Eden mixes landscapes with portraiture, still lives, and even the occasional street photography scene in a way that has become quite common in contemporary photography, and the results are very appealing. I am usually drawn most towards the landscapes or cityscapes, simply because of my own personal preferences (if given a mix), and Matthew Monteith clearly excels with his. Very nice environmental portraits then add the icing to the cake - and, yes, the photo of the couple with the little child standing in the lake (which you can see here) does look absolutely spectacular.

Needless to say, your own preferences will be different. In any case, Czech Eden clearly is one of the highlights of this Spring’s list of new books (“with Spring” here defined via the calendar and not the weather), and if you like contemporary photography this is one of the books that belongs onto your book shelf.