Zdeněk Tmej - Biography                                                                                  



Zdeněk Tmej (b. 1920) 

His unique documentary of in the form of a photographic diary which he made in 1942-1943 spent in Wroclav (Ger. Breslau) as a labor conscript forced to contribute to the German war efforts constitute a most comprehensive and exclusive series unparalleled in either Czech or world photography. 

His very personal approach to photography, his inventiveness, technical mastery and art far surpassing the standards of his period made him one of the founders of pre-war Czech avant-garde photography. As his oeuvre has never been assessed in its entirety, it is high time that it be mapped and presented to the public. 

Tmej was a member of a generation of Czech photographers who - stigmatized by their success during World War II and the period immediately following - were banished to oblivion after 1948 when Socialist Realism became the official trend of Czechoslovak photography and art in general.

In 1949, meeting Robert Capa who came to visit Prague, Tmej found a soul-brother for whom - just like himself - photography had become a lifetime destiny. Talking shop, they discovered they were even using the same equipment, i.e. a Contax and Rolleiflex. Five years later, getting out of a jeep at Thai-Binh in Indochina, Capa stepped on a land mine and was instantly killed.

 Another five years later, Tmej found himself arrested and sentenced to prison under a pretext of his having committed serious offenses „of moral depravity“. It was a frame-up arranged by the agents of the secret police who had been shadowing him and his friends ever since the Communist coup in 1948, and it was only as late as 1965 that he was released.. 

He went through life as he would through a mine field, resembling a barefooted and vulnerable acrobat walking the edge of a knife. Asked where in particular was he jailed during those seven years of his imprisonment, Tmej who calls himself a „galley slave of the Red Bolshies“ would wryly say: „Everywhere.“ When he was being transferred to the feared Leopoldov Fortress prison, he was forced to travel in chains. Towards the end of his sentence he spent six months in solitary confinement but still considers that a rose garden compared to the time he had to do on the correction block. Sharing a cell with twenty other inmates depending on a single wash basin and a single lavatory became as common an aspect of everyday life as irradiation to which he was exposed when loading bodies with uranium-rich rock at Příbram or Jáchymov mines. But none of these things broke him. After all he had had a tough training  from almost two years of forced labor in wartime Germany. 

He way he relates the almost unbelievable stories of his life is quite naturalist. Full of contradictions, he is extremely moody. At times he will act cocky, stubbornly  sticking to everything he has said, then his mood will change and he will sadly complain that he should have done this or that differently. Although a hard-driven perfectionist, he will at times behave as if he could not care less about anything. While he does not lack self-confidence, there are times when he feels dejected and considering himself to be the world’s biggest loser, he will shyly avoid all people. 

He never married but had a daughter named Lucie. She died in 1997, at the time I offered him assistance in sorting his archive, selecting material for an exhibition and a catalog. While I have known him all my life, it was only in 1979 when working on my diploma on my father, Václav Chochola, at Prague’s Film Arts Academy that I started meeting him frequently, recording his memories. My main subject at the time were the links between three photographers of the same generation, i.e. Chochola, Tmej and Karel Ludwig, but in the course of my work I also automatically recorded many hours of Tmej’s reminiscing about his life. Some of the stories concerned only himself and his work and I have supplemented the material with data from his own biography as well as many hours of recordings with him made by Otmar Průša, a Film Arts Academy graduate.

 In this way, part by part, I was able during the period of 1979 - 1998 to record and chronologically order everything Tmej told me at various occasions. I consider it a honor to have been able to conduct with Zdeněk Tmej a dialogue that last some twenty years and I feel that his reminiscences which I became to term „autologue“ are perhaps the best commentary to his photographs.


Blanka Chocholová

October 1998 (From catalogue Zdeněk Tmej Archiv)



Zdeněk Tmej: A Brief Biography


1920              Born July 5 in Prague

                      His parents own a tailor’s and dressmaker’s.

1932              Produces his first picture, a photograph of his mother, using his deceased father’s 9x12 cm Zeiss camera.

1933              Starts attending a secondary comprehensive school.

1935              Produces amateur photographs using a Voigtlander- Brillant camera.

1936              Works as assistant master builder at the Trojníček Development Company in Prague.

                      Publishes his first photographs in Ahoj magazine’s amateur photography section edited by L. E. Berka. On the recommendation of his uncle visits Karel Hájek, photographer of Melantrich Publishers, and starts working as his laboratory technician and assistant.

1937-1938      Works under Hájek at his laboratory in Melantrich and assists him on assignments. Publishes in Czech periodicals such as Ahoj, Hvězda, Salon, Pestrý týden and Zdroj but his pictures appear also in Life, Picture Post, Lilliput and Sie und Er. Following Hajek’s suit he first buys a Rolleiflex, then discovers the advantages of speed offered by the Contax camera.

1939              When Hájek leaves Melantrich Publishers, he quits as well and enrolls in the State School of Graphics.

1940              Meets photographer Karel Ludwig and begins working with him.

1941-1942      Works as freelance photographer for Praha v týdnu  magazine edited by Karel Ludwig but a denouncement to the police establishes that he has no workbook, a necessary precondition for leading an unharassed life in wartime. As a result he is sent to forced labor in Germany.

1942              His forced labor conscription starts in September. He is sent to Breslau (Polish Wroclaw) where he and his fellow workers are accommodated in a vacated dancing hall of a pub. Thanks to his unusual talent for an almost movie-like „direction“ of the photographed scene, stage-like lighting and processing the resulting photographs to technical perfection, his pictures are characterized by a timeless value unparalleled in the entire history of wartime documentary photography.

1943-1944      Manages several times to go home to Prague. When Ludwig establishes a department of photographic promotion for the Lucernafilm Company, he starts working for it as well, albeit illegally as he still has no workbook.

1944              Returns to Prague for good in February.

1945              During the May 1945 Revolt, while crossing the town from Pankrác to Malá Strana, he takes pictures in the streets. Ludwig uses Tmej’s Contax camera to capture his unique pictures of the end of the war in Prague.

                      Together with Ludwig, Mrázek, Kaizr, Makovec joins a repatriation mission driving to Germany in a wood-gas powered Packard. They take documentary pictures of the war-ravaged Germany and visit liberated concentration camps. In Bergen-Belsen all their photographic equipment including exposed films and Tmej’s 135 lens for the Contax are stolen.

1945-1948      Work on contract for the National Theater.

1947              Prepares his monograph for a film publishers, collaborates with Ludwig on a book of photographs titled Město (City), contributes to Svět v obrazech and Sobota  magazines.

1948              Forced to terminate his working on contract for both the National Theater and the Lucernafilm Company, he manages to conclude a permanent arrangement with the State Song and Dance Ensemble which lasts some 30 years, and continues with stage photography of repertory, ballet and opera theater. Drawing on the host of material which he has available he starts working on a picture publication about dance.

1949              Joins the SČSVU (Czechoslovak Fine Arts Union), obtains a new Exakta  Vartex camera.

                      Meets Robert Capa in Prague’s Alcron Hotel and obtains from him an American-made Heiland flash attachment for Vacublitz Acquires also two East German-made Blom flash attachments, becoming the first photographer in Czechoslovakia to use the equipment.

1951              Together with Ludwig receives a generous offer from Rudolf Slánský, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, to establish and run a photographic and propaganda department for the Party but a few days later Slánský is arrested and then sentenced to death in a stage trial and executed.

1952-1953      Working together with Václav Chochola photographs theater, ballet, sports and horse races. They use additional lighting by means of two or three electronic high-voltage flash units (2 000 V, 20 kg) synchronized by photocells. Collaborates with Jan Rey on a new book of photographs titled Svět tance  (The World of Dance) for Artia Publishers which prints the book in several languages for export.

1954              His friend and Ludwig’s first wife, Lída Matoušková, now married to Alois Englander, a diplomat in Vienna, gives him a U.S. made Plymouth passenger car as a present. Together with Václav Chochola he works on another book for Artia Publishers, titled Koně (Horses). The assignment takes them to Kladruby, Napajedla, Topol’čanky and other stud farms around the country.

1958              Arrested on October 10 and on December 12 sentenced by the Prague People’s Criminal Court to eight years’ imprisonment for five different offenses. The punishment includes also loss of civil rights, expulsion from the Fine Arts Union and confiscation of personal property including the Plymouth car, photographic equipment and a part of his archive. None of these possessions are ever returned to him. Serves his sentence first in Prague, then Příbram and Jáchymov uranium mines and penitentiaries at Valdice, Kartouzy, Leopoldov and Opava. The publishing contract  for the book Koně is actually signed in prison.

                      Shortly after the trial his daughter Lucy is born.

1960              After he has served two years of his sentence, his mother appeals to the Ministry of Justice to have him pardoned and released but receives a negative answer.

1962              Following another appeal for clemency, his punishment is reduced by one year.

1965              On October 10 he is finally released from the Kartouzy prison where he has spent the last six months in solitary confinement. With no means at his disposal, he is entirely dependent on his friends for support.

1966-1967      The Fine Arts Union’s photography section chaired by Tibor Honty restores his membership and gives him a financial grant.

                      Starts working again for the State Song and Dance Ensemble.

1968              Travels to Vienna to visit his friends,  the Englanders, and visits Zolingen, Switzerland, where he stays for five months.

                      Returns to Prague on Christmas Eve.

1970-1975      Works for the Prague 9 District Council, documenting The Vanishing Vysočany.

1977              His long-time friend and fellow photographer Karel Ludwig dies.

1978-1988      Continues documenting the demolished district of Vysočany, works on commission producing photography for various promotion and advertising materials (calendars, posters, brochures).

1979              Begins collaboration with Blanka Chocholová who collects his reminiscences for her diploma work on Václav Chochola and later materials on Karel Ludwig, Karel Hájek as well as his own biography.

1983              Due to intervention by the secret police, his contract with the State Song and Dance Ensemble is terminated again.

1989              Returns to working on his series from wartime forced labor in Germany, collaborates gallery owners and curators at home and abroad.

1990-1996      Sorts his negative archive, makes prints to complete his portfolio, prepares exhibition collections. Participates in an exhibition titled Hořká léta 1939-1947 (The Bitter Years: 1939-1947, Europe Through the Eyes of Czech Photographers) first shown in Prague and later also abroad.

1997              His only daughter Lucie dies on September 14th.  Grand daughter Kristýna Stará is His last spring.

1998              Continues making his self-portraits and completing his oeuvre in collaboration with Blanka Chocholová.

1999-2004  According to exhibition and publication activities realized by Blanka Chocholová, Tmej gets

                 a satisfaction: having his first Monography in Fototorst Edition and Director Věra Chytilová is shooting

                 documentary movie about him Václav Chochola and Karel Ludwig. The film is called Rise and Falls

                 and it shows very unique story of Tmejs life and his friends and backsets of their fate.


2004         after serious health complications Zdeněk Tmej dies Jully 22nd seventeen days after his 84 birthday

                 at Štrasburg  hospice in Prague



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