Review: The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness by Zdenek Tmej (Errata Editions)


Book Reviews, Photobooks




When I wrote my post about the unwillingness of post-war German photographers to confront their country’s most recent past (find the posts here and here) one of the books I had to think of was Zdenek Tmej’s The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness, published in 1946 in what was then Czechoslovakia. During World War II, Tmej had been one of the many forced foreign laborers in Nazi Germany, and he had documented part of his life with a camera. The original book is hard to come by, but luckily, there now is an Errata Editions version. (more)

There is a bit more to Errata books than just the reproductions of photobooks. I feel some of those aspects have not received as much attention as they probably should. So here’s what you get when you buy Zdenek Tmej: The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness. First of all, the original pages of the book are reproduced, for the most part as full spreads across the gutter (see samples). There are a few example of one spread per page. Of course, the paper stock is different, but the use of photographs makes looking at the Errata version as close to looking at the original as one can probably get in the absence of such an original copy.

After the spreads, there is a full English translation of the Czech text in The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness. This will require a bit of flipping the pages back and forth, but since the text in the original edition was printed on its own pages the position of the translation does not take away from the experience. Following the translation, there is a very detailed essay about the photographer and the book by renowned Czech photo historian Vladimir Birgus, which includes various reproductions of documents, additional photographs, and some of the original negatives. Lastly, there is a short essay by Jeffrey Ladd, the Errata mastermind, plus a bio of the photographer, plus various more photos of negatives or contact sheets.

Why do the Czech original and the Errata version have different cover images? Because the Errata version features the photo the artist had originally wanted, whereas the publisher had picked a different one. All of this points to the considerable attention to detail that goes into Errata’s process, and the combination of all of this makes their books so valuable.

In a nutshell, with Zdenek Tmej: The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness you get a piece of photography history (and because of the book’s contents of actual history as well), presented in such a way that you will be able to appreciate the book not just for its photography, but also for its own history, placed into its proper context. So you will learn about the details in the photographs, such as why people were sleeping in what looks like (and actually is) a beer hall, who the women were, you will learn what the Gestapo thought of a foreign forced laborer taking photos, and you will learn about the sad history of the photographer himself who ended up becoming a forced laborer again, in a Uranium mine, under the Communist rule of his own country.

Zdenek Tmej: The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness comes with a lot of historical weight tied to it. I can’t think of a better way than this Errata Editions version to do it and its maker the justice they deserve.

Zdenek Tmej: The Alphabet of Spiritual Emptiness, photography by Zdenek Tmej, essays by Vladamir Birgus, Jeffrey Ladd, Alexandra Urbanova, 172 pages, Errata Editions, 2011

Spreads from the book kindly provided by Errata Editions - thank you!