Markéta Luskačová is a Czech-born photographer who spent much of her life living and working in the UK. Frequently drawn to people who are marginalised, she is particularly famous for her documentation of life in remote Slovakian villages and the East End markets of London. She is considered by many to be one of the best social photographers of her age.
Luskačová was born in Prague in 1944 and grew up in Czechoslovakia in the era of Communist Party rule. In 1963 she chanced upon a group of Pilgrims travelling to the city of Levoča and became determined to document those cultural and religious traditions which were under threat of erasure. She studied in Sociology of Culture at Charles University, graduating in 1967 with a thesis entitled Pilgrimages in Slovakia. She then went on to study photography at FAMU film and TV school in Prague.
Although taken at the very outset of her career, the Pilgrim Cycle photographs brought Markéta’s work recognition and acclaim. She had travelled around remote areas of Slovakia, concentrating in particular on the village of Šumiac. There life had barely changed for hundreds of years and had managed to escape alteration by the collectivism imposed by the communist government in the rest of the country. She depicted the lives, rites and religion of these enduring village communities in a collection of hugely evocative and beautiful photographs. Since the pilgrimages were rare and directly contravened state ideology, Markéta wanted to record this way of life, fearing it would soon be eradicated.
These pictures were first exhibited in Prague in 1971 at the Gallery of Visual Arts. The editor of Creative Camera, Colin Osman, was visiting from London and happened to see this exhibition. Consequently, his magazine subsequently published Markéta’s photographs, bringing her work to international attention.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the communist censorship attempted to conceal her international reputation. Her works were banned in Czechoslovakia, and the catalogues for the exhibition Pilgrims in the Victoria and Albert Museum were lost on their way to Czechoslovakia.
In 1971 Markéta married poet Franz H. Wurm who, although a native of Prague, had British citizenship. Throughout 1970–1972, Markéta photographed the stage productions of the Theatre Behind the Gate as its house photographer. However, this brought her into conflict with the Communist Party which banned the theatre in 1972. She applied to state authorities to visit her husband in England and, eventually, emigrated in 1975. Nevertheless, she never stopped thinking of Czeckoslovakia as her home.
In London Markéta discovered a whole new inspiration for her work in the city’s markets, especially those of Brick Lane and Spitalfields. Short of money, she shopped in these markets for cheap produce but also found a rich and varied subject matter on which to focus her lens. When her son was born in 1977, she would push him around the streets in his pram and take photographs of the people and places she encountered. She would spend as much time as possible with her subjects, winning their trust and really getting to know them.
She continued to photograph these areas and their residents for decades and produced a long-running series of wonderful photographs which demonstrate tremendous veracity and humanity without ever veering into sentimentality. “I have not found in London any other better place to comment on the sheer impossibility of human existence”, she said. In 1991, Markéta had a one-woman exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery showing a selection of her photographs taken at the East End markets. Those pictures 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 extends over thirty years. This exhibition cemented Markéta’s reputation as a vital photographic talent.
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.
She also famously 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.
It is said that Markéta Luskačová’s photographs reflect her own personality. They are simultaneously generous in their humanity yet unsentimental in revealing the nature of people.