When photographer Markéta Luskačová came from Prague in the mid-seventies, it became her great delight to visit the markets in London since they were forbidden under Communist rule in her own country. It was Brick Lane market in particular that took Markéta’s fancy, both as a subject for photography and a source of cheap produce. In fact, such was the enduring nature of her fascination and need, Markéta continued coming to Spitalfields to take photographs and get her weekly supply of fruit and vegetables for over thirty years.
As a young photographer in Czechoslovakia, Markéta went out to visit remote villages which were so poor that the collectivisation imposed elsewhere by the Communists was not viable, and she recorded a way of life barely changed for centuries in breathtakingly beautiful pictures, first exhibited in Prague in 1971 and later shown at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1983. By chance, Markéta’s photographs were seen in Prague by Colin Osman, editor of Creative Camera, who was on a visit from London to attend the opera and he published them in his magazine, drawing international recognition for the quality of her vision.
In London, Markéta showed her work to Norman Hall, the renowned picture editor of The Times but when she told him she wanted to photograph markets, he dismissed it as “a subject for beginners” yet she set out undiscouraged.
“I went to Brick Lane and I never left. I fell in love with it.” she admitted to me, “Most of all, I photograph things I like and I was lucky enough that somebody saw my work and supported my photography for a little while.”
A year later, Markéta took her photographs of Brick Lane to Norman Hall and, looking at them, he declared, “This may be a subject for a beginner, but it is not a beginner that took these photographs.”
“I was poor,” recalled Markéta, “so I needed to do my shopping there as it was the cheapest place to buy things. I could identify with the people in Brick Lane because they were immigrants and they were in need of cheap goods. Once I had done my shopping, I would leave my bag with a stallholder while I took my photographs.”
In 1991, Markéta had a one woman show at the Whitechapel Gallery of her photographs of Spitalfields, establishing her reputation as a major photographic talent in this country. Those pictures – of which a selection are published here today – were the result of a two-year residency in which she selected from and printed her pictures taken between 1975 and 1990. Yet it is less widely known that these represent only a portion of those Markéta has taken in Brick Lane as result of her long-term relationship with the market which now extends over thirty years.
In particular, Markéta recorded the last days of the ancient market in birds and animals that existed in Sclater St and Club Row until it was closed down in 1990 as a result of protests by animal rights activists. Markéta shared a natural sympathy with the dealers, observing their affection for their charges, unlike the hard-line protestors, one of whom pushed her in front of a car.
Famously, Markéta photographed the sale of a lion cub in Brick Lane. She remembers that it was first offered at £150 and then the price diminished to £100 and finally £75, over successive weeks, as the cub grew and became less cuddly and more threatening. Eventually, the seller came back one Sunday without the lion but clasping a tray of watches that he had swapped the creature for. In Brick Lane, Markéta found her primary subject as a photographer, offering an entire society in realistic detail and a mythological universe of infinite variety.
“I don’t go to Brick Lane regularly anymore, sometimes six months passes between one visit and another” Markéta confided to me,“I photographed what I saw there and what I thought it was good to record, be it a face or a smile, an animal or a shoe. I believe in the evidential quality of photography, and I know that unless things are done in a visually interesting way they are not remembered.”
A woman with a gentle manner and a piercing gaze, Markéta Luskačová’s magnificent photographs reflect her own personality. They are simultaneously generous in their humanity yet unsentimental in revealing the nature of people. More than twenty years after her last show in the East End it is my delight to show a selection of her Brick Lane pictures here today. spitalfieldslife
All images © Markéta Luskačová