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Tono Stano Prague, Czech Republic

Slovakian photographer Tono Stano has been artfully distorting positive and negative space in photos of nude models — and the results are wonderful, delightful, surreal, and hard to deconstruct.
About Tono Stano

1960 Born on 24th March 1960 in Slovakia
1975-1979 Secondary school of applied arts in Bratislava
1980-1986 School of Film, Photography and Television (FAMU) in Prague
since 1986 Tono Stano works as an independent art photographer. He lives in Prague.

Essay by art historian Magdalena Jurikova, published in the photography book "Tono Stano" (Torst editions, 2005):

Where Tono Stano comes from, everything happens in a straightforward way, without further ado, taking a clear, traditional direction. Paradoxically, however, his work is sophisticated and provocatively mysterious – but only at first sight. In fact, it is based on naturalness and manly honesty, which are accompanied by an independent, vivid, almost Vernian imagination.
In his work he subjects everything to this without compromise. When he takes on a commission, he usually does so because his client has a similar imagination and expects full service from him, in other words the conception and execution. His work and the rest of his life are not separated by any fixed boundary; they are intertwined. Everything matures in him together with the roles he must play in life and they coalesce with his occupation. He is willing to perceive every detail, no matter how banal, as well as things of fundamental importance, because it is in the contrast between the two that the legendary spark that ignites the motor of imagination is born.
When he began a secondary school for the graphic arts in Bratislava, he originally enrolled in the graphic-art program. As luck would have it, however, that department had no more openings and he settled instead for photography. It was Milota Havránková, a now legendary figure of the school and of Slovak photography in general, who helped him to make the choice. Her personal, captivating example and commitment so convinced Stano, that he gave up his initial plans to study graphic art without the slightest regret. Her sophisticated teaching and experience revealed the magical world of photography to him in unexpected dimensions. His subsequent practical experience and study confirmed these intensive experiences for him.
After a year’s intermezzo, where he worked as a photographer on film sets (it was probably then that his attitude to exploring human identity became encoded in him), he began studying at FAMU, Prague. Several Slovak students soon formed a group there, which, owing to the many ways they differed from their Czech surroundings, attracted attention and went on to achieve success. With their playfulness, eroticism, and irony, and with the related spontaneous dynamics of the picture, they punched holes in the contemplative, existential atmosphere of black-and-white photography in Bohemia.
The young wave of staged photography was a bit like a cold shower on the Czechoslovak scene at the time. The prankish abandon with which they burst on the scene was gradually institutionalized and the widespread popularity of their actions artificially extended the lifespan of this stream of photography.
Today, the large group – in particular, Stano, Vasil Stanko, Miro Švolík, and Rudo Prekop – is now almost twenty years old, part of history. Stano is one of the few who managed in time, with honor, and without sentimentality, to abandon this dried-out riverbed. Back then, however, like the others, he most often worked with a number of absurd encounters of things, figures, and situations on a simple stage. Sometimes the almost lusty exuberance and open eroticism were not merely a provocation or a slap in the face of the regime and the clichés in the field. Paradoxically, under the foam of the pranks and irony, his conviction about the seriousness and importance of his own message always lay in the subject. He rejected pure experiment, experiment without deeper meaning. Unlike others he did not take advantage of the self-serving stage elements that were being used; even back then he preferred natural, human things like food and clothing. The body, naked or clad, was not merely an aesthetic object. Stano worked mercilessly with human facial expression and limbs. He demanded a lot from his models; their physical performances often bordered on acrobatics. He captured them floating together in a simultaneous leap or as they lifted each other up. He often used the tension in the muscles of the body and face as an element of narrative and also purely pictorially. With the mutual interaction of the force of the figures, he achieved atmospheres that were sometimes full of an almost ominous or purely instinctual tension (Adam and Eve, 1984). At other times they are stylized curves of motion, gentle and lovingly fragile (The Kiss, 1986). Or, by contrast, they attain an ironic extremity (Right-angle Flight, 1985–86). By distinctively manipulating bodies and objects, he would partly reveal the story. He uses the figure just as the calligrapher who gives the brush great spontaneous energy, resulting in a powerful gesture. Although Stano was the only director on the stage, the obvious individuality of the actors in his photographs visibly placed the additional potential of their physical and mental individuality into the action. It was here that the two poles were formed from which Stano’s ideas flow – his unrestrained imagination on the one hand and his models’ diverse, inspirational talent to move and to be actors on the other. Although Stano energetically pursues his aim as a strong individual, he is by nature conscious of the abilities and talents of those who surround him during his work.
At FAMU in 1985–86 Stano completed a calendar project in which he used various fields of human activity as his topics. The calendar became the essence of his work at the time. The staged “tableaux vivants” scintillate with irony and blur the terms of his topics such as “industry,” “agriculture,” and “culture.” Their witty arrangement was achieved with the help of utterly banal props and intentionally naive contrasts, which totally do away with the original state-building dignity and seriousness of these “pillars of society.” Culture, for example, is brought to life by two figures, of which the one on the left is playing in pantomime at being a violin virtuoso and the one on the right is playing at being a caveman draped in fur and performing a dance dedicated to the forces of Nature.
To disturb the viewers’ peace and quiet and passivity and to rouse their emotions and intellect has increasingly become Stano’s ambition. In Playing at the Fourth (1986) he joined his fellow photographers Rudo Prekop and Michal Pacina in a conceptual project. In a series based on chance they jointly created figures, as in a children’s game, with a folded sheet of paper, where each participant added his or her own version of the individual parts of the figure. The fourth subject is the viewer, whose task is to decipher the whole. That, however, was only part of the scope of Stano’s interests. Apart from conceptual elements his photographs employ a variety of inspirations, which stem from post-war trends in art and even much earlier ones. He is also seeks impulses in areas not related to high art. With a bit of simplification one can say that he chooses his tools made to measure for each assignment. He doesn’t hesitate to make use of anything that will help him to distance the resulting picture from reality. In that respect the most effective are the situation-photographs, where he uses the minimum of props in their unexpected encounter with a figure or nude (as in Mischief, 1985).
Even back in the 1980s Stano’s initial youthful student swagger was gradually smoothed out into the elegance of the dandy and aimed for brilliantly engraved scenes. To achieve his mystery and mystification he chose disguises in the glamour style (Keep the Secret, 1988). The whole group of posing figures is often covered in black taffeta drapery. Stano takes pleasure in the Baroquely voluminous relief of the richly gathered fabric in opposition to the white skin of the face and hands (Fashion for the Last Journey, 1987). Movement, pressure, and taut muscles provocatively dramatize a scene that, paradoxically, has a utilitarian name.
Although Stano’s photography has never been devoted solely to the nude, the public has perceived it as such from the beginning. In his case, woman’s body has been dominant, but even earlier he enjoyed juxtaposing it with the masculine element. To a certain extent, that is connected with the rules of the art of action and performance, which on the Czechoslovak alternative scene in the 1980s still held a strong position. Sensuality and eroticism are secondary in Stano’s work. Action and movement push their way to the fore and the gestures of the figures are harmonized in the rhythm of the picture. When Stano composes them symmetrically, three-dimensional analogies of the Rorschach test emerges; they are in fact prints of blotches left by folding paper along the vertical axis (Advertising Myths and Superstition in Sexual Life, 1989). The body is presented as a multifunctional mechanism capable also of utterly irrational movement. Because Stano became accustomed to seeing it as source of kinetic energy and took a liking to the dynamic tautness of muscle, he is naturally interested only in physically agile, extremely supple, young people who are aesthetically good looking in all positions. The processes that our physicality submits to with age leave him cold.
Stano perceives the charms of woman’s body as a fascinating natural phenomenon, as a perfectly tuned instrument that resonates thanks not only to the decisiveness of the photographer but also to the willingness and ability of the model. Part of his attitude consists in passion and also respect. Consequently, we perceive the women in his photographs as emancipated beings that have agreed to play an intelligent picture game and are determined to participate in it with verve and commitment. Nor here are Stano’s photos lacking humor, mystery, mystification, or a touch of irony.

His sense of sculpture is remarkable and it sometimes itself becomes the topic of the photograph. It is clear that for him the elements emerge in a tangle of other contexts during work but he is sufficiently perceptive to make sure they don’t vanish. He likes to use tactilely contrasting components, such as skin against cut hair cast over the lap of a supine model (Untitled, 1989) or a nude curled up with antlers (Fallow-deer Heritage, 1986). Stano covers the bodies of the models with reflective paint, which, with its metallically shiny reflection, creates the illusion of having been cast in bronze. Tresses of black hair are the only reference to the living corporality (Glossy Lady, 1986).
The portrait is a genre that attracts Stano. Although it provides fewer opportunities for manipulation, it always presents the challenge of making one look under the shell. It is clear that he chooses subjects he wants to portray and that, again, they are people remarkable for their appearance or occupation or both (Mahulena Bo?anová, 1987, and A?a Geislerová, 1990). The simple arrangement with the perfect texture of light provides an unexpectedly nostalgic expression, whereas at other times he uses the extreme dramatic quality typical of an actor (Tatiana Kabarova, 1990). He subsequently went further, bringing out personal traits in a number of photographs that lie somewhere on the boundary of the portrait. In them he involuntarily comes close to pictures of the Pre-Raphaelites (Art Nouveau Too Late, 1986), detective films (A Very Suspect Man, 1987), Impressionism, and academicism. It is, however, always a matter of atmosphere, not a paraphrase of some other work of art.
In the early 1990s Stano began to draw on the signs created by the per­fectly composed full light and dark shadow on the unusual configuration of body curves. The figure sometimes changes from its anthropomorphic basis into an almost mythological hybrid creature (Czech Symbolism, 1990). At other times, thanks to the harsh lighting of the individual details, it becomes a torso or even a fragment, which, however, concentrates within itself all the animal vitality and remains free of the abstractly pure anonymity of volumes (Top, 1994, and Bottom, 1994). For Stano, the possibilities offered by the body and physicality are unlimited. He is bewitched by whatever they offer. He multiplies individual fragments and details, and composes them into symmetric configurations like those in a kaleidoscope (Documentation of a Promise I, 1994, and Documentation of a Promise II, 1994).

Sense (1992) and Fairytale Creature (1995) – two of Stano’s trademark photographs that have traveled the world, are results of his full-blooded, independent efforts, and are informed by all past experiences of the nude in photography, while finding their current individuality – dynamically pulsating, non-romanticizing, yet supremely aesthetic, embodying the self-confident individual, who is duly aware of his or her own sexuality and physical existence. The bewitchingly stylized torso, which has the sculptural nobility of Classical marble, is an ambiguous symbol that demonstrates not only the sensuality of bodily free­dom but also, despite the almost banal title, an unexpected spiritual dimension.
Just as he had once employed color and structural material to defamiliarize the picture, Stano later, in the 1990s, tried white liquid in the folds of brown skin in the Local Filling series. It was here that he finally achieved what for him was an unusually rigorous, abstracted, laboratory-like expression, one that would soon be superseded, however, by an explosion of animality.
That came to life in another encounter with Nature. His attitude to it, which he seemed to have firmly encoded in his genes, necessarily had to force its way to the surface one day and drive him out of the studio. Thanks to the financial independence gained with a grant from Kodak in appreciation of his previous work, he could literally move for a few years to one of the most beautiful places by the Želivka water reservoir. With a carefully selected group of models, he worked there in all kinds of weather. With his typical intensity he was determined to explore the relations offered by the nude cast into the arms of Nature. Thanks to modern technology he managed to achieve utterly unusual encounters – for example, the naked girl lying in the snow, who is not suffering, however, because she had acquired enough warmth in an improvised sauna beforehand. Long days spent in the middle of the forest and on the shores of the lake gave free reign to the atavistic pleasure derived from one’s own nakedness in the sun, rain, and cold depths. The people set loose into the exotic scenery are feisty but also frightened, vulnerable, and inventive, just as people had been in prehistoric times and have remained to the present day. Only time and place change. In some of the photographs Stano returns to approaches used in staged photography back in the 1980s, when groups and individual figures were captured in?acrobatically arranged positions. The nocturnal natural scenery, however, charges the situation with the atmosphere of a ritual. The women are a bit more passive than they were in the shelter of the studio, as if the photographer wanted to subject them to the mythic forces of Nature. They find themselves under water, weighed down by a stone, like a victim from a ballad, or saving themselves above the water’s surface on a bending bough. Nor here is it a matter of a romantic myth of Man lost in the middle of the mighty, treacherous womb of Nature. It is only playing at being myth and the athletically agile actors thus test a little to see who’s the stronger. We needn’t worry about them; they are well equipped for this strange struggle with Nature.
Stano’s respect for Nature has the same dimension as his admiration for the body. He has no intention of only bowing down to it and last but not least he wants to exploit everything visually attractive that its daytime and nighttime changes have to offer when juxtaposed with Man. In a large, highly diverse series, where he allows himself, here and there, to be captivated by mere scenery, he sometimes works also with spontaneously arising circumstances – and finds himself outside his usual playground. On a large tree he “sets up” a shot buck, which seems to have got itself caught while leaping over a great branch. It is not the first time that Stano has struck such a macabre tone at an almost pompous level. So far, however, he has worked with staged death, not with truly dead creatures. The new “studio” simply offered far more possibilities than he assumed and so he moved in for a long time, hungry for the unexpected opportunities which such a changing, vital environment teems with. Sometimes, however, he is stunned by the magic of Nature and he limits himself only to an easily ignorable intervention. A nude masked by leaves and ferns, for instance, grows into the trunk of an old tree (Forest Work, 2001) with such credible expressiveness that from our bird’s-eye-view we have a hard time figuring out what it is.
To this day the important, monumental series called Fascination remains for Stano a living organism, which will probably have a number of offshoots. This topic has not yet been exhausted for him even by the exhibition held simultaneously at three Prague venues (the Prague House of Photography, NoD, and Bílkova ulice).
Apart from this so far unlimited project, of course, other projects, differently oriented, have emerged. In 2003, Stano summarized his years of working at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the publication Stars, which depicts interesting actors and directors who have crossed paths with him. As a portraitist he is inventive and probably has enough charisma to win over his subjects for his often difficult arrangements (although these people are better equipped than others for unusual situations). They, in turn, show their magnanimity and congenial playfulness. All the photographs perfectly describe the relaxed, friendly atmosphere of this international film festival, whose popularity is based precisely on the lack of formality and on efforts to achieve closer contact between actors and audiences. None the less, it is when Stano decides for a completely everyday atmosphere and abandons the typical Karlovy Vary props, that his portraits are the most convincing (for example, those of Carlos Saura, Morgan Freeman, and V?ra Chytilová).
The portraits from other milieus, especially those of Stano’s friends associated with the Pražská p?tka (the Prague Five) group of theaters, of whom he works most with Aleš Najbrt (a graphic designer and actor of the Sklep theater), are made more or less randomly. Over the years, however, a remarkable number of them have accumulated. Many of the portraits cross over from the sphere of personal memory and often express much more than merely the photographer’s affection for the people he has portrayed.
Work with the Tros Sketos group (František Skála, Jaroslav Róna, and Aleš Najbrt) provided Stano with more interesting experience in, among other things, the portrait, while the hoaxing and parodic pranks of the unusual trio have much in common with his own point of view. They came together also in Karlovy Vary, where, in 2003, they made a commercial and became the mascots of the Festival. Their group portrait also appears in Stars.
Since 1991 Stano has been working on portraits made with a camera inherited from Josef Sudek. Owing to a lack of suitable film material he began to experiment with making photographs directly on paper. The result is more than 45 head-portraits on which he has made collages using negative and positive photographic details. He has so far kept to himself the ghostly images that emerged from this, but is preparing a whole set of them for a book, which will bring out the bipolar structure of the negative and positive fragments.
It has been twenty years since Stano’s energetic arrival on the photography scene in what was then Czechoslovakia. It is Stano in particular who has kept all the promises that he and his friends made with uncommon vitality in the middle of the 1980s.
He has received many international awards and leading museums of photography and modern art want his works. Connoisseurs and agencies are also interested. Stano has achieved the status of an absolutely free, independent artist. And he is always able to acquit himself with honor because he is used to fighting for the results. He is tenacious, restless, and always curious about new encounters and experience. To the present day his way of expressing himself can hardly be regulated by the channels of some new style. He makes use of everything he finds interesting. Fearlessly he draws both upon the Classical heritage and fairground culture. He cares about the aesthetic appeal of the final product, but, as he himself says, would never like it to be absolutely perfect. The typical features of his photographs are tension and dynamism, which stand in contrast to the work of other people doing staged photography, who tend to prefer the statically fixed scene. It is precisely this tension and dynamism, which leads Stano to increasingly close contact with dance and movement theater and could in the future lead to his making other, so far untried, variations on one of his favorite themes.

Selected Solo Exhibitions

1984 FAMU, Láza?ský palác, Prague
Galeria fotografií Okno, Legnica
1985 Walbrzyska Galeria Fotografií, Walbrzych
1986 Fotochema, Prague
1987 Galerie Fabrik, Hamburg
1988 Galerija Ars, Ljubljana
1989 Musée Lapidaire, Lectoure
Galerie G4, Cheb
1990 Le pont neuf Gallery, Paris
Centre Culturel des Prémontrés, Pont-à-Mouson
Galerie G4, Cheb
Mala gallery, Warsaw
Fondation Nationale de la Photographie, Lyon
1992 Galerie U ?e?ických, Prague
1993 Ambrosiana, Brno
1995 National Technical Museum, Prague
1996 Galerie Marzee, Nijmegen
Dom kultury, Bratislava
2000 Schoren, St. Gallen, Switzerland
2001 Fascination, Prazsky Dum Fotografie, Prague
Photo l.a., booth of Galerie Waldburger/photofront, Los Angeles
2002 Fascination, Galerie G4, Cheb
Galerie Waldburger & Slovak Institute & Czech Centre, Berlin
Fascination, D?m um?ní, Brno
Czech Centre Bratislava
Fascination, Galerie Fiducia, Ostrava
2004 Institut Fran¢ais, Budapest
Galerie Baudelaire, Antwerp
2008 Louvre Gallery of Photography, Prague
2010 White Shadow, Galerie Baudelaire, Antwerp
2011 White Shadow, Vaclav Spala Gallery, Prague
2012 White Shadow, Galerie 4, Cheb
2012 White Shadow, Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York City
2013 White Shadow + Guests, Galerie Robert Doisneau

Selected Group Exhibitions

1984 FOMA, Prague
1985 27 Contemporary Czechoslovak Photographers, The Photographer’s Gallery, London and Bristol
Ursprung und Gegenwart tschechoslowakischer Photographie ,Fotografie Forum, Frankfurt
Il nudo nella fotografia dell’Est Europa, Torina Fotografia ’85, Torino`
1986 La jeune photographie Tchécoslovaque, Arena, Arles
Mánes, Prague
UPM, Prague
1987 Preis für junge europäische Photographen, Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt
Galerie G4, Cheb
1988 Preis für junge europäische Photographen, Galerie Faber, Vienna
De Prague et de Bohême, Espace Jules Verne, Brétigny sur Orge
Questioning Europe, Photography Biennale, Rotterdam
Fotochema, Prague
1989 Prix Air France, Ville de Paris, Paris
French Institute, Prague
Prager Trio, Czechoslovak Centre, Berlin
Junge Photographen aus der CSSR, Galerie Treptow, Berlin
Four Photographers from Prague, Aix-en-Provence
1990 La Tchécoslovaquie à Arles, Palais de l’Archevêché, Arles
Photographie progressive en Tchécoslovaquie 1920-1990, Galerie Robert Doisneau, Nancy
Slovak Photography of the 1980s’, Warsaw and Moscow
Positivität, Fotogalerie, Vienna
Vision d’Homme, Chatêau d’Eau, Toulouse
Czech Symbolism, Výstavní sí? Uluv, Prague
1991 Slovak Staged Photography, Museum of Dance, Stockholm
Zeitgenössische Tschechoslowakische Fotografie, Kunsthaus, Hamburg
Photographie Tchécoslovaque 1940-1990, Centre Culturel, André Malraux, Vandeouvre-lès-Nancy
Photographie Tchécoslovaque 1940-1990, L’Aubette, Strasbourg
Die neue Kontinuität 1970-1990, Progressive Fotografie in der Tschechoslowakei, Städtisches Museum, Mühlheim
Contemporary Czechoslovak Photography, Exposition Park, Tokyo
1993 In & Out of Czechoslovakia, The Zelda Cheatle Gallery, London
Preview, Galerie Marzee, Nijimegen
A la recherché du père, Nouveau Forum des Halles, Paris
Czech & Slovak Photography, Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas
Between Image & Vision, Ironworks Gallery, Coatbridge
What’s new: Prague, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
1994 After the velvet revolution: Contemporary Czech and Slovak Photography, The Photography Gallery of Western Australia, Perth
Prague House of Photography, Prague
1995 Galerie G4, Cheb
1996 Národní Galerie, Prague
1997 The Body in Contemporary Czech Photography, Macintosh Gallery, Glasgow
Salmovsky palace, Prague
10 ans de photographie , Reims
1998 Czech Photography in the 20th Century, The Eli Lemberger Museum of Photography, Tel-Hai, Israel
1999 Czech photography in the 1990s’, Chicago Cultural Centre, Chicago
Vartu, Vilnius
Mücsarnok, Budapest
Czech and Slovak Staged Photography, Czech Centre, New York
Contemporary Czech & Slovak Photography, David Scott Gallery, Toronto
2000 The Nude in Czech Photography, Císa?ská konírna Pražskékeho hradu, Prague
2002 Dom umenia, Bratislava
Fotobiennale, Moscow
Czech Centre, Paris
2004 Um?lecká beseda Slovenská, Bratislava
2004 The Nude in Czech Photography 1960 – 2000, D?m um?ní, Opava
2005 The Nude in Czech Photography, Kostis Palamas Hall, Athens
2007 Nová Slovenská vlna po 20ti letech, Galerie Bazilika, ?eské Bud?jovice
2008 The Third Side of the Wall, Moravian Gallery in Brno, Brno
2009 Tschechische Fotografie des 20. Jahrhunderts, Bonn
2010 Darknesses for Light, Czech Centre Tokyo, Tokyo

Represented in Collections

Art Institute, Chicago
Bibiliothèque Naionale, Paris
Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris
Moravská galerie, Brno
Museum Ludwig, Köln
National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford
Slovenská Narodná galleria, Bratislava
Um?leckoprumyslové museum, Prague
and in various other public and private collections

Read more
Tono Stano's Projects on LensCulture
Tono Stano's Books