When the Mask Series first began, back in the halcyon days of 2012. it quickly became clear that our illustrious common prop, a vintage M10 Gas Mask came with greater associations for some participants than others. So we were delighted when Czech photographer Jan Kratochvil agreed to share some of his personal recollections about the M10, and more general thoughts about what it will be like having complete power over what happens to his old nemesis (at least until it’s time to stick it in the post to the next artist in the queue…!)
1. CAN YOU GIVE US A BIT OF BACKGROUND ABOUT YOUR MILITARY SERVICE?
I did two years‘military service –which was compulsory in my country between 1868 and 2004. It was a strange experience for me, and the friends I had made there, as it coincided with Velvet Revolution (or, the end of the communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia). During this time, while my friends and I were aware that ‘something’was going on, we weren’t sure what it was because, together with the rest of the military, we found ourselves suddenly confined to barracks in November and December 1989. In practice, this meant we were not allowed to leave the premises at all –even to go for a walk. There was only one TV on the site, and we were forbidden to touch it, and listening to radio was also strictly prohibited. Naturally, our lockers and personal effects were subject to random searches.
I’ve done a bit of research for this article, trying to pinpoint the exact dates, and have discovered that it varied from barracks to barracks, and city to city, depending on the politics of local military officers. These decisions were being made on the ground. The reason they confined us all to barracks is simple: they wanted to hide the situation from us. It worked. Our casern was in a forest close to village Bzenov and our unit had no clue about revolution movements in Prague and protests in other bigger cities in Czechoslovakia.
But then one day, myself and my driver Jiri (nickname George – in the picture the first person on the right) were sent to buy food and beverages for our unit. It was then, in the town of Presov that I saw, for the first time in my life, a huge amount of anti-government posters and slogans. Some were well-known phrases in in Czechoslovakia ‘People, what you afraid of are?’, ‘We have bare hands’etc. When George and I returned to the barracks, we then secretly began letting the others known about what we had seen. Unfortunately, my best friend George died in a car accident a few weeks after our return from military service. We had made plans to see other, but our destinies were not aligned with our expectations, and I never got the opportunity to see him in normal, non-military life. (By the way, in this photo, I am the second person from the right. Next to George. This was taken in 1989, in our casern in Bzenov.)
2 BEFORE YOU STARTED YOUR SERVICE, HAD YOU HEARD OF THE M10 GAS MASK?
I can’t be sure I remember exactly what type of the gas mask we used for our training, but according to the information I have found, and so far I can remember –it was the M10 model. The official name of the M10 gas mask was OM10. (OM = in Czech ‘ochranna maska’; in English ‘protective mask’.) The model of M10 was a copy of the American gas mask M17. The newer model of M10 was called OM10M. By now, some of you will have also received this updated version of the M10, which was equipped with a connection to drink through the mask from the bottle. The mask M10 was in use from the early seventies and the model OM10M from the year 1987. So I assume from the information I’ve found on the internet that I had to use the M10.
I also have very clear memories from elementary school of the military exercises we had to do wearing a ‘PDF-D’(or a similar type) Russian mask. We looked like a heard of small elephants. However, since the end of the Cold War this, as well as home and workplace gas mask training, have now stopped. Some people keep masks at home still, but others no longer do. The masks are no longer routinely checked and tested –it’s something which has lost its importance in my country.
However, obviously the M10 is still of great importance to those of us taking part in Shane’s Mask Series. So, as a matter of interest, I have found the producer of M10. The factory still exists and produces new types of gas masks and some plastic materials. Here is the link about the history (in English) of the factory Gumárny ZubříInc.
3 ON A MORE PERSONAL LEVEL, YOU HAVE SAID THAT THE M10 GAS MASK WAS THE ‘SCARIEST’ PART OF YOUR MILITARY SERVICE. WOULD YOU MIND TELLING US WHY?
By the time I was doing my military service, new recruits joined up once a year. Prior to this, it had been every six months –which meant that you only had six months to wait until you were no longer a ‘new’recruit, and were therefore no longer subjected to such difficult military training.
The problem we faced by the time I was serving was that, in addition to our basic and educational training, once a week we also had to undergo so called ‘tactical preparation. This took place about 5 minutes walk from our army barracks, where there was a hill and then forest. Typically we wore this highly uncomfortable battledress.
When I was there, the ‘older’soldier who controlled the tactical preparation enjoyed it and made it hard, sometimes very hard ‘like in war’as he put it. For instance, crawling up the hill and back until we were exhausted. Another typical task was dipping with a military shovel or bayonet. At that time we were young and our bodies well trained, so if we were still able to make this hard training for an hour or two, then the command came to use the gas mask – which was a handy tool at their disposal for destroying the rest of our force and energy. It was a terrible situation for some of us, particularly if the gas filter was humid, at which point it was almost impossible to breath with the mask. Each of us ‘new ‘recruits were checked separately, to see if the mask was being used properly –without any slot for breathing out of filters.
If you were caught deceiving them, than the commanders would fix the gas mask on to you themselves, making it so tight, that was not possible for you to remove your mask without assistance. Sometimes they would then wait until a soldier began to lose consciousness before allowing us to help him pull the mask from his head.
4. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST REACTION WHEN YOU SAW THAT SHANE HAD STARTED THIS PROJECT? WOULD YOU STILL HAVE BEEN INTERESTED IN TAKING PART IF IT HAD BEEN A DIFFERENT MASK THAN THE M10?
At first, the idea of working with the M10 held no particular draw for me. If you look online a bit, you can see lots of photos with gas masks. But once I’d read more information about the Series, I started to communicate with Shane Balkowitsch and my target was clear. I had to participate in this project. In fact, it then came as a surprise for me that the gas mask Shane had chosen was a Czech mask!
But even if it had been another mask completely, I would still have wanted to take part. I want to do wet plate, and to be a part of such an important global art collaboration. So in this sense, the specific object or scene itself were not so essential. The most important thing about this series was first of all the group of great people, who enjoy wet plate and photography in general like me.
5 HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN TAKING WET PLATE IMAGES?
In the spring of 2012, I attended my first private workshop for Collodion Wet Plate photography. Right from the start, the appeal of working with wet plate was so strong; I had no other option but to do it. I was always amazed when I saw work of the old masters. I was interested in the process they used for making such a great photos. Afterwards I discovered they’d done it with collodion –both wet and dry. I wanted to try it, to manage it, to produce pictures with nearly the same process and chemistry as they had done many, many years ago.
My first plate I made at home was in December 2012. My dream is to build an old style wet plate north light studio in my attic, in 2015. Until recently, photography has been a hobby for me, but now I’m also starting to do it on a freelance basis, working with local businesses. Unfortunately there is a limit to how much time I can devote to it, as I also have my family, regular work, house work, and only then some time to deal with photography. I am still trying to overcome this state and do more and more photography. Heaven only knows what will happen. Like everyone else, I use my mobile phone –but I also enjoy DSLR, pinhole camera, SLR, toy cameras, and medium format camera. My latest toy is a Kodak 2D 8×10”adapted for wet plate photography fixed on survey tripod. Lately I’ve been dividing my time between analogue and wet plate cameras, and reading interesting books about photography and its history. One of my proudest highlights of 2014 is that I bought a nice old French brass lens from Alex Timmerman’s collection for my future wet plate portrait photography.
And of course, I am particularly delighted to be having my first exhibition of my wet plate collodion work in my hometown of Trebic in the Czech Republic. It opens on Monday the 1st of September, and I’d love to see you there!
6 HAVE YOU ALREADY HAD IDEAS ABOUT WHAT YOU WILL DO WITH THE MASK? WILL YOU CREATE AN IMAGE THAT EXPRESSES SOMETHING ABOUT YOUR PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE WITH THE MASK, OR DO SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT?
The first thing which came to mind was to evoke an image from the past which I still have in my brain. But after thinking about it more, I am now thinking I’d perhaps like to replace these dark thoughts with something funny and unusual. A lot will depend on how I feel when I am holding the M10 in my hands again after such a long time again. One thing I will do though, is take a careful look at all the previously created photographs to be sure that my composition will be not similar to composition of the others. It will be big challenge for me, because the work which has already been submitted is really great. In this project are so many talented people!
7 SHANE HAS SPOKEN ABOUT THE DIFFERENT ASSOCIATIONS ANY GAS MASK IMAGES BRING. AS SOMEONE WHO HAS LIVED THROUGH A TURBULENT TIME IN YOUR COUNTRY’S HISTORY, HAVE YOU FOUND IT DIFFICULT TO SEE MORE LIGHTHEARTED INTERPRETATIONS OF THE MASK APPEARING?
My own experience of the Velvet Revolution, during my military service more than 20 years ago, took place mainly behind casern walls. Therefore I had no possibility to be in streets like other people were. As far as I know, fortunately, gas masks were not used. The Emergency Regiment of Public Safety and Division for special purposes (the so-called Red Berets), who beat demonstrators with batons, did not used masks. Emergency Regiment of Public Safety used the infamous ‘white helmets’.
Perhaps if one of these helmets had been chosen as the common prop, I might have found it more difficult to see it being joked about. But I don’t feel there is anything off-limits about using the M10 as an art prop. In fact, there was a time when it was popular among young people (hippies etc.) to use the gas mask cloth bag as a school bag at secondary school. It was foppish before the Velvet Revolution, although some schools did not allow students to carry such a bag.