CEDAR RAPIDS — Paul Goldsmith’s “Prague 1968,” currently on display at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, is a contemplative tour-de-force of social documentary photography.
What’s more, the work was made by a 19-year-old who, while on a trip to Europe, rode his Vespa from Israel to Prague just in time to witness and record one of the most dramatic moments in the history of Czechoslovakia.
Czechoslovakia was a socialist nation in 1968, part of the Eastern Bloc. In January of that year, Alexander Dubcek became First Secretary of the Communist Party of Slovakia and ushered in a number of progressive reforms, including expansions to free speech and freedom of the press. The reforms did not sit well with many Warsaw Pact nations, especially the Soviet Union.
By August, rumors of a Soviet invasion spurred Goldsmith to make his way to the Czech capitol. Upon arriving in the city, the young photographer easily made friends in the bustling cafe scene of Prague and was offered a bed in a vacant dorm room. Goldsmith woke on the morning of the 21st to the rumbling of Soviet tanks in the streets.
The stunning photographs in the collection are a boy’s-eye view of a tectonic event, the full magnitude of which he surely must not have realized at the time. Nearly two dozen black-and-white photos line the walls of the L-shaped gallery; most are about 20 by 24 inches. The small scale draws the viewer in close for an intimate perspective. The images are rich and expertly composed.
As Goldsmith emerged onto the street that fateful August morning, so did thousands of students and activists, carrying Czech flags and hand-painted banners. They were protesting the Soviet invasion and defending Dubcek’s reforms. Goldsmith’s images capture these exuberant crowds as they flood the streets, amass onto Wenceslas Square in the city center, and face off against the invading Soviet forces.
One of the most striking aspects of these photographs is how young everyone looks. A crowd of fresh-faced youths carry a bloody flag through the streets like a funerary procession. Their expressions are grave. The flag seems heavy with the stain. In other images, weary looking Soviet soldiers perch on tanks or crowd the back of a truck, like boys on a farm. One wears headphones just off his ears. They barely look 18. A close-up picture shows a young man with blood on his forehead and cheek. The image is grainy and softly focused. He almost looks like a modern prince, like William or Harry. There’s a light in his eyes despite his injury.
A couple times I almost thought I recognized someone in the photographs. That’s the sort of effect they have. There’s an ebb and flow to the organization of the images. It’s not a linear narrative. It’s more like Goldsmith is wandering around the city, stumbling upon each scene. This lends a great degree of realism to our experience as viewers. We are walking along with him.
Goldsmith captures so much sympathy and humanity in these photos. When the demonstrators create a memorial for a killed protestor they bring hand-picked flowers, potted houseplants and branches of summer leaves. We can see that the Soviet boys are tired and really don’t want to fight. We can feel a new breeze that caresses the flags, that forecasts the Velvet Revolution two decades later, that whispers of a day when there will be freedom for the people of Czechoslovakia.
And when I left the museum and saw blue sky breaking through the clouds above Czech Village, the little shop-lined avenue and fluttering flags at the entrance looked different somehow.
What: “Prague 1968: Photographs by Paul Goldsmith”
Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids
When: Through June 2, 2013
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon to 4 p.m. Sunday
Admission: Free to $5 through May 10, 2013