I had never seen it before, but I recognised it. Jovan Dezort’s image portrays in black and white a scene of tram tracks and construction, captioned descriptively 'The Můstek pedestrian underpasses on Wenceslas Square under construction in 1967-1968'. The nearby buildings offer a sense of place, and the trams passing through the intersection, though old-fashioned, look not so different from the trams that still drive along the streets of Prague today. The streets themselves are gutted in the image, rendered almost unidentifiable, though the grand street that runs into the upper left corner of the frame is unmistakable: it’s Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square), leading up towards Muzeum.
I’ve been to this square countless times, but when I say I’ve never seen this scene before, what I mean is this: the tram tracks were removed in 1980, replaced with a cobblestoned pedestrian area above ground and a metro station below ground. The main subjects of Dezort’s image are its tram tracks and construction – elements completely missing from the square today. I’ve never in my life seen trams running along this intersection, and yet, as I looked at the image, I found myself feeling that sensation of recognition when an image in the mind transfers from ‘unknown’ to ‘known’.
This process remains something of a mystery to me, but the mental construction of recognising a scene I’ve never seen before is one of the magical elements of viewing old photography. It carries with it a certain alchemical association. Knowing that there had been trams running along the square long ago, the mind can mentally combine observable details from the image and map them atop observable details from a place known in actuality. Looking at the photograph, I’m able to create a mental construct of these two pieces together. I’m able to orient myself in the image, to import it into my mind as a map or a memory that I can walk through. It's even possible to fill in through imagination some of the interim states of the transition between then and now.
Viewing the exhibition of John Dezort, showcasing his street scenes around Prague over the ‘60s and ‘70s, I felt a similar nostalgic feeling arise, though I wasn’t yet born, and in fact had never been to Prague before 2003. But I lived there, had gotten to know the streets and the people very well, and so, even though my personal history is not seen in the photographs, looking at them feels like looking at my own past as well. Photographs serve as aids to memory, sometimes even supplanting the memories they were meant to support, but it is strange indeed to witness the effect as an image forms memories for times and places in which we never were.
Jovan Dezort's exhibition 'Faded with time...' is on exhibit in Prague at the Old Town Hall (Staroměstská radnice) from Sept 12 - Oct 14, 2014. See more images in our online portfolio.