|Born: Drahomir Josef Ruzicka
|1870, 8 February - 1960, 30 September
|Bohemia, Trhová Kamenice
|US, NY, Long Island, Jackson Heights
Approved biography for Drahomir Ruzicka
(Courtesy of Christian Peterson)
One of the world’s most important later pictorialists, Ruzicka practiced and preached pictorial photography for four decades, from the mid-1910s past mid-century. He photographed primarily the architecture of New York, where he resided most of his adult life, as well as scenes in his native Czechoslovakia. He was a medical doctor and known among pictorialists as Dr. D. J. Ruzicka.
Drahomír Joseph Ruzicka was born on February 8, 1870, in Trhová Kamenice, Bohemia. At age six, he moved with his family to a farm near Wahoo, Nebraska, a state that drew many Czech immigrants. In 1882, the young Ruzicka went to New York to finish high school, then to Vienna for college, and graduated from New York University with a medical degree in 1891. A few years later, he set up a private practice in obstetrics and pediatrics on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and became one of the earliest doctors to use X rays. But in 1921, when he was in his early fifties, he retired from medicine.
Ruzicka’s knowledge of X rays fostered an interest in photography, and he purchased his first camera in 1904. At first he was unhappy with his amateur results but in 1909 became aware of the creative possibilities of the medium. Within a few years his pictorial images were appearing in magazines such as Photo Era, for which he also wrote an article on photographing in the city that appeared in October 1911. During the 1910s, he photographed primarily in the parks of New York, producing platinum prints that were subtly toned and full of traditional pictorial beauty.
Ruzicka is best known for his images of the old Pennsylvania Station (by architects McKim, Mead and White), which he began making around 1915. Always set in the station’s cavernous interior, the pictures are flooded with light and largely inhabited by businessmen and other commuters. At this time, he began making straight prints, more sharply focused and with greater tonal contrast. Influenced by modernist attitudes and subject matter, he also photographed on Wall Street, Fifth Avenue, and 42nd Street, exploring what he called the "canyons" of New York.
Ruzicka’s straight pictorialism helped nurture the movement of modern photography in his native Czechoslovakia. In 1921, he returned for an extended stay in Prague, where he showed his work to local camera clubs and spoke about the aesthetics of photography. Czech photographers were still basing much of their imagery and technique on paintings and other established arts, but Ruzicka’s example showed the path of modernism to such individuals as Josef Sudek and Jaromír Funke, who went on to make major contributions to avant-garde photography in their country.
Ruzicka committed himself to assisting photographers in the United States as well, and in 1916 he helped found the Pictorial Photographers of America (PPA). He served on the PPA’s first executive committee, spoke at many meetings, judged its salons, and was designated honorary president in 1940. He was also active in the Camera Club of New York, where he presented one-person exhibitions of his work as late as 1952.
Ruzicka’s photographs were exhibited at numerous other venues and even were acquired by museums during his lifetime. His work was prominent in international salons up until about 1940, with the 1935-36 season being his most prolific—more than 100 prints shown in thirty-three salons. Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and the other major American salons regularly accepted his work. Among the foreign venues that did were Barcelona, London, Madrid, Ottawa, Prague, Toronto, and Turin. Invitational solo shows of his work were seen at the Smithsonian Institution in 1930 and the Brooklyn Museum in 1947; both museums also solicited gifts of his photographs for their permanent collections.
Numerous organizations honored the elderly Ruzicka. England’s Royal Photographic Society presented him with an honorary fellowship (Hon. FRPS) in 1949, and a year later the Photographic Society of America bestowed upon him a similar title. The year before his death, a small monograph on him was published in Prague. D. J. Ruzicka died at his home in Jackson Heights, Long Island, New York, on September 30, 1960.
Christian A. Peterson Pictorial Photography at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (Christian A. Peterson: Privately printed, 2012)
This biography is courtesy and copyright of Christian Peterson and is included here with permission.
Date last updated: 1 June 2013.
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