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On celebrity photography, travelling and the coronavirus

Fast Confession – celebrity photographer Lenka Hatašová: I keep Kellner, Matuška and even Forman in my basement

Karolína Lišková
20.Feb 2021
+ Add on Seznam.cz
7 minutes to read

Lenka Hatašová is a literal celebrity among Czech celebrities. She’s had almost all prominent Czech VIP figures in front of her camera, leaving those, who did not get there yet, craving for it. Over 30 years of relentless work turned her name into a photography legend. In her interview for LP-life.com, she opens up not only about her beginnings in the days of analogue photography, but also about her friendship with many stars.

How long have you been a professional photographer?

Last year, I celebrated the same anniversary of my professional life with a camera as our free republic, so it's been 30 years since I started taking pictures for a living. I spent my adolescence under a totalitarian regime, so I remember well, for example, the evenings when my parents listened to the forbidden Voice of America or Free Europe stations and how they were worried about someone finding out. However, my father was kind of a rebel, exclaiming his opposition to the regime left and right – maybe I picked it up a little from him. During the events around November 1989, I spray-painted a slightly rebellious slogan on the wall of a house in my native town of Libčice nad Vltavou, which stayed there for years.

Your photograph of that inscription was also a part of your exhibition project called "30".

That's right, on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, I finally delved into digitizing my extensive archive and fished out absolute treasures from my cellar, including unpublished photographs from November 1989. I put together exactly thirty of them and visited a few galleries, including the Paris happening organized by the School without Borders association in the premises of the Czech Cultural Center.

Luxusní byt Vinohrady - 230m
Luxusní byt Vinohrady - 230m, Praha 2

How much has the pandemic affected your life, your work?

First of all, I finally had a chance to breathe. I didn't even notice how hard I had been working for so many years, shuttling back and forth between my studio and my office, where I sat at the computer, working on the post-production of my photos for many hours at a time. It was mostly due to the first wave of COVID, when I deliberately hung up my camera for a few months, that I discovered whole new dimensions of life, such as cooking, exercise, meditation, training for my next pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela or gardening. And I must admit that I was really enjoying such a life! Also, I finally found time for the aforementioned digitization of my archive and building a stock of portraits, which we founded with my favourite colleague, photographer Monika Navrátilová.

What else would we find in your archive of negatives? After all, you spent at least half of your professional life photographing on film.

It's sort of a nightmare of mine. In the basement I have a large tin cabinet, filled with over a hundred files, each file has a hundred pages, and each page contains thirty-six squares, so you do the maths (laughs). Unfortunately, I wasn't very consistent in those hectic times, so I haven't labelled everything, but I'm slowly starting to get through this heap of memories. There are, for example, rare photographs of our late celebrities in their American environment, such as Waldemar Matuška, Arnošt Lustig, Ája Vrzáňová or Miloš Forman, but also a portrait of today's magnate Petr Kellner from his business beginnings, when he still wore a beard and sold the first copiers. And then, of course, my photos of tennis legends from grand slam tournaments, including Steffi Graf, Andre Agassi, Ivan Lendl or Martina Navrátilová, as well as Lady Diana, whom I once had the opportunity to see through the viewfinder of my camera at London's Wimbledon.

Besides all that, your archive harbours war photographs as well. How did they age for you?

My photojournalist trip to an actual war was perhaps the worst thing I had ever experienced. At that time, Sarajevo had been surrounded for almost two years, with Serbian snipers killing civilians and journalists in the neighbouring mountains with such accuracy that the helmets and bulletproof vests we had to wear were in many cases ineffective. I met there a girl with a hole in her head who survived the bullet, or a CNN cameraman with almost half of her face missing. After her recovery, she returned to the war to continue her work, which in this case I would call more of an obsession. No one could get me back there again. Everyday fear for dear life is a level of stress we can’t ever imagine during peace. This is why I have great sympathy for refugees and the war-affected around the world today, since I really know what I am talking about.

Can a photograph truly capture the reality of war? And how do you even discern a good photo?

The most important element is always the one behind the camera. The lens is just an extension of the human eye, seeing the world through its own filters and settings, which are your own perception of reality, your level of empathy or your worldview. A hundred different photographers will come with a hundred different shots from the same situation. Photography that evokes feelings, whatever they may be, is simply good photography, and the subject of war is no different. But I'm not an expert on that, one experience definitely doesn't make me a war photographer. Despite my beginnings as a photojournalist, I have considered myself a portraitist for years.

In the Czech Republic, you are perceived as a celebrity photographer, which is probably the dream of every portrait photographer. How did you get there?

Again, through my photojournalism beginnings. I used to work for a big newspaper, joined by a certain Halina Pawlowská, who started a social column, hitherto unknown to us. And I, as the youngest member of the photography department and a girl at that, was assigned the position of a society photographer. At first, I was unhappy about it, as I wanted to pursue the so-called street photography, as well as documentary and sports photography, but in the end, I settled so much among all the different cultural personalities and show business stars that I never left. But it was different back then – there were no tabloids dragging them, famous people were always written about in good nature and we all became friends. In those days, I formed relationships with them, which probably are lasting to this day.

With whom, for example?

One example for all could be Simona Stašová, with whom I toured TV festivals all over the world – from Seoul to San Francisco, thus getting to create many beautiful photographs of her.

Another person I share the same wavelength with is Jitka Zelenková, our phone calls sometimes take hours. But I don't want to name all those who I love to meet and who make our photoshoots fun and sweet, also because we have known each other for a long time and we have so many shared experiences. Besides, I am more of an introvert; I rarely let new people get too close.

Do you have any funny story from your travels with Simona Stašová?

That must have been amazing.

A few years ago, I accompanied Simona, her make-up artist Eva and costume designer Radka to the Tiburon Film Festival near San Francisco, where she won the Best Actress Award for her role in Filip Renč's Self-Lover. One day we went up into the hills above the beautiful city to do a photo shoot, and we made camp by a tiny chapel, surprisingly surrounded by a large limousine and a bunch of bodyguards that would not let us in. Suddenly a dark-skinned woman came out of the chapel, and Simona immediately ran to her with open arms, screaming Michelle! Michelle Obama! The lady turned around, opened her arms and stepped forward to meet Simone, when suddenly she realized that they didn't actually know each other, froze, waved to us, and left. Only then did we realize that it was not Michelle Obama, but former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who probably headed over to this safe, remote chapel for prayer in privacy.

What about you and photography gear? Do you need to have a lot on the road with you? And how do you get along with modern technology?

I don't travel all that often, and if I do, I make do with my Nikon and one lens - a zoom that will cover all the necessary focal lengths from the so-called wide-angle to the portrait. However, an absolute necessity is a light reflector that gives the faces of my subjects that perfect illumination. Luckily, they come collapsible and therefore don’t take up much space. I really welcome modern technology, if only because I myself have experienced the prehistoric times of analogue photography, when we could only dream about checking the photo on the camera display right on the spot. How many rolls of film did I ruin by misexposing them, or botching the development in the developer bath! Fortunately, this stress is long gone now, and I would not return to it, not even from some kind of retro nostalgia, which is quite modern today. In addition, I consider the professional Photoshop photo editing program to be a modern darkroom, allowing you to do literal magic.

Do you have any photography goal?

Ever since I was a child, I dreamed of being a photographer and taking pictures of John Lennon, but time didn't allow for that. At least I got to shoot Yoko Ono on her long-ago visit to Prague. She even gifted me a poster saying IMAGINE PEACE with her handwritten signature, which adorns the wall of my studio today. And then I always wanted to meet Meryl Streep and the Dalai Lama, which also worked out, so I'm good (laughs).

Who is your photography guru?

Unfortunately, he passed away two years ago. It was the German-born American photographer Peter Lindbergh. I relate with his perception of light completely – seeing some of his portraits sends chills down my spine every time.

Have you ever turned down a photoshoot request?

Yes, from a politician representing a nationalist party. There’s no way I’m ever supporting disguised Nazism, racism, xenophobia and chauvinism through my work. No amount of money is worth that.

What's your price for portraits, anyway, when someone simply turns up to your studio? Do you even do those?

I’ll gladly shoot anyone if I can fit it in. The price corresponds with my current mindset, where I want to keep some spare time for my other, non-work related activities (laughs).

Do you cater to your subjects‘ ideas, or are you completely in charge of the photoshoot?

Over the years I've developed my own style, which I believe is why people seek me. Therefore, if someone comes up with an idea completely different from mine, I can't comply all that much. I have to feel it’s "just right", otherwise I'd be suffering and I can’t stand by such a work. I consider my profession an art, allowing myself to be guided by light perception and some sort of a gut feeling. I’m not really good at copying templates.

Who takes pictures of you?

Like the proverbial cobbler’s child, I don’t have many portraits of myself – to be honest, aside from mobile-phone selfies, I don’t really like being photographed. My "official" photographer of choice is the aforementioned Monika Navrátilová – she’s made me a few amazing portraits that I rotate as necessary. Then I have one good photo by Robert Vano, which is the same case, actually (laughs).

Leni, thank you for the interview.

Fast confession:

How did COVID affect your work?

Quite significantly, there’s less of it – I don't mind though, I could do with some rest.

What's the last thing that made you laugh to tears?

Our dog Olinka lying on her back. It happens almost every day.

How much was your most expensive camera?

I bought it a very long time ago and at that time it cost something short of two hundred thousand...

What does luxury mean to you?

Lots of free time.

Who or what would you never shoot?

I have already had such an offer – from xenophobic and racist political parties.

Which one of your pictures made the most money?

That was a picture of Jana Novotná from the time she almost won at the Wimbledon, so 1997, I think. That one was paid for in pounds.

Who’s the greatest person that have your photos on their wall?

I can’t really tell, since I don’t know how to pick the greatest person.

Who do you think is the best photographer in the world?

Peter Lindbergh, unfortunately deceased two years ago.

What country do you feel is the most attractive for the camera?

Cuba.

Your most embarrassing moment at work?

That was back when the pictures were taken on film. I forgot to put it in my camera and took photos "commando style".

Who or what else would you like to shoot, but hasn’t had the chance yet?

I have no such dreams.

What do you think about using filters?

We photographers retouch, which is also a filter in a sense, but if you mean the ones in your phone‘s camera, I don't like those, they're overdone.

If I gave you a million crowns right now, what would you do with them?

I’d follow my friend Iva’s advice and invest in bitcoins.

COVID vaccination – yes or no?

I’m considering it.
The respondent asks the editor:

COVID vaccination – yes or no?

No.
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