Spy Pictures from the Prague Secret Police Surveillance Archives


posted Monday, April 30, 2012 at 4:31 PM EDT

History is the tale told by the winners and nothing proves this better than, “Prague through the Lens of the Secret Police” a collection of “surveillance” photographs taken between 1970 and 1989. Published in 2009, these are pictures made by nearly 800 secret police whose job it was to roam the streets of Prague and photograph suspicious behavior.
And as such, they are a total failure.
As a photographer, if these fuzzy, grainy images are surveillance photographs, I have to wonder how in 20 years of sneaky photography they were allowed to produce such a load of garbage? Even the most novice street photographer could get better shots, at least pictures of something.

To try to make sense of this nonsense I turned to my favorite faceless bureaucracy expert, Prague born writer Franz Kafka (1883-1924).
“Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.”  - Kafka
These surveillance photos were taken between 1970 and 1989. At the time, I owned super-sharp, little cameras like the Rollei 35S and the Leica CL. Why are these photos so awful when there were better cameras easily available. Didn’t the Prague Police ever read Populární fotografie?
“First impressions are always unreliable.” - Kafka
Am I the only one who sees that these photos show us nothing? No hotel sexcapades, clandestine kisses in alleyways, or mysterious envelopes passed between trench coats.

In most of these images, there is hardly a recognizable act of any sort, least of all a subversive one. There is one interesting shot of a man staring at a woman (right), but otherwise none of these images rises to the level of even a high school photography class. And this is from an archive containing thousands of images taken over twenty years.
In 2009, Harvard University hosted an exhibition of these photos and in the Harvard Gazette of Dec. 3, 2009 it was reported that,  “These domestic spies embraced a James Bond modernity. They used many cameras — concealed in tobacco pouches, purses, briefcases, transistor radios…”
A James Bond modernity? What are we to make then of the Prague Baby PramCam (shown below), a poignant relic of this comic operetta? This is 1940s technology in a 1950s baby carriage.

Are we supposed to believe that deep in the bowels of a police laboratory, a mysterious Dr. Evil built the soft focus 4 lens PramCam? Close your eyes and try to imagine 007 walking out of Q’s lab pushing one of these. Oh yeah, right.
Where are the sharks with lasers on their heads?
 “Most men are not wicked... They are sleep-walkers, not evil evildoers.” - Kafka
Franz nails it. These photos tell us a lot about the secret police photographers themselves and it is a clue to why Communism disappeared without a shot being fired.
Cops, even secret cops, are for the most part ordinary people. Working stiffs concerned with holding down jobs and earning a living. Even those who thought it was important to find enemies recognized the absurdity of their task.
I take photos all the time and these empty blurry frames tell me that they were made intentionally. Shot out of boredom, as little acts of defiance, the secret police wandered the streets of Prague for twenty years taking lousy pictures of people from far away because a job is a job.
Occasionally something interesting happened, like spotting a hot stylish, American made Ford Mustang Sally. However, it must have been an awful job, with dull days that turned into months and years, of killing time between lunch and dinner.
“They ran up tabs for meals and beer. All was carefully archived, including deadpan written reports that read like postmodern fiction,” according to the Harvard Gazette.
Even the Gazette got a whiff of the bogus nature of the images: deadpan stupid photos to go with absurdist postmodern fiction.
“We photograph things in order to drive them out of our mind.” - Kafka
Kafka nails the real meaning of these photographs. They report on the emptiness, the failings, and the fragility of the regime. These photographs were made by the regime to drive these things out of its mind.
Thanks Franz.

For more of these images, visit The Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes
Security Services Archive

“Prague through the Lens of the Secret Police,” published 2009 by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, in collaboration with the Prague Security Services Archive.

(Via Laughing Squid)