Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka
The engineers Miroslav Zikmund (born 1919) and Jiří Hanzelka (1920-2003) undertook two long-term travel expeditions. During the first one, between 1947 and 1950, driving a mass-produced Czechoslovak passenger car Tatra 87, they traveled through Africa and South and Central America. They undertook the second expedition between 1959 and 1964, using two prototypes off-road vehicles Tatra 805, and they visited some states of the Near East, monsoon Asia, Indonesia and Japanese Islands, and most of then-Soviet Asia.
During their travels, they wrote hundreds of reportages for the press and radio, shot dozens of short documentaries, several feature films, as well as tens of thousands of photographs. They met with many local dignitaries and important figures from political, cultural or economic life, but, above all, they were interested in the fates of the common people. In many instances, they visited places where they were the first foreigners that the local population had ever seen. In the 1950s and 1960s, they published ten voluminous travel books of high literary value in hundreds of thousands of copies (the eleventh one, prepared for publication as early as 1969, was not published until 1990). Their travel documentaries ranked among the most visited films featured in Czechoslovak movie houses at the time. However, a significant part of the materials from their second voyage remained stored in their personal archives until the late 1980s.
After the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact armies in 1968, both travelers were subject to prescription by the regime in terms of both their professional lives as well as their existence. Brezhnev’s direct order at that time was: “Let Zikmund and Hanzelka starve to death!” Until the fall of communism in 1989, they were not allowed to publish, their books were not put out, their films were not shown and their reports were not aired; their publications were taken from shelves of public libraries and their Tatra 87 from their first journey, which was exhibited at the National Technical Museum in Prague, was put into storage. They themselves were stripped of many civil rights and freedoms.
After 1989 they lived to see their social and civil rehabilitation, and, in 1995 they donated their large archive to the Museum of South-East Moravia in Zlin, which prepared the permanent traveler’s exhibition “With Engineers Zikmund and Hanzelka through Five Continents” together with the H+Z Archive in order to preserve their work and make it available for further access to their research.
Jiří Hanzelka died in Prague in February 2003 after a long illness. Miroslav Zikmund lives in Zlin, continues to write and is socially active. At present, he is processing and cataloguing the materials and pieces of information from their travels.
The phenomenal work of Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka is significant and unique both in terms of its scope, the value of its collected facts and its overall artistic quality, all a result of the precise and diligent preparation that preceded both expeditions. Zikmund and Hanzelka met in their junior year at the Trade Academy in Prague in 1938, where they both enrolled after graduating from secondary school, and soon they began working on their plan “5” (five continents). During the Nazi occupation between 1939 and 1945, after Czech universities and colleges were closed, they privately studied the languages, the geopolitical meteorological and economic conditions and the situations in the countries they planned to visit. Their thorough and consistent work impressed the management of the car-maker Tatra-Koprivnice in 1946 so much that the company accepted their request and provided them with a passenger car Tatra 87 for their journey to Africa and America. And so on April 22, 1947, the then unknown engineers Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka left from the headquarters of the Auto Club in Opletalova Street in Prague for their first expedition. When more than three and a half years later the Tatra “Eight” returned on November 1, 1950 with both travelers to pass through the streets of Prague, they were welcomed by thousands of people.
All the creative activities of Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka developed in parallel and were mutually and completely interconnected. Their photographs were mostly perceived and presented as a pictorial accompaniment of their texts or exhibitions from their travels. This was true not only for the editorial boards of magazines and publishing houses, but also for the authors themselves. To a degree, it corresponded to the situation at that time, since for many years photography had not been understood as an autonomous branch of art.
Even though both travelers had no ambitions to create an exhibit of artistic photography, it does not mean they disparaged or underestimated the creative photographic process in any way. Photography was a field with which they had a lot of practical experience before their first journey. Miroslav Zikmund has archived his technical photographic manuals as well as the carefully kept records on the pictures taken at the time of his secondary school studies up to this day. The long-term theoretical and practical preparation is apparent in their pictures and, even considering the fact that they were not professional photographers in the sense of making their living, their photographs have a high professional standard. Moreover, in the environment where they themselves appeared as eccentrics due to their different ethnic make-up and background civilization, they were able to work perfectly together as a pair: one of them would entertain the locals, while the other would freely take photographs or films. They did not consider it important to distinguish who played which part at a given moment; what was important was the result. They both did not distinguish in the authorship of the photographs, texts and film documentaries; all works included both names.
The photographs by Miroslav Zikmund and Jiří Hanzelka installed on the premises of the Theresian Wing of the Old Royal Palace at Prague Castle in March 2005 were developed in 2003 for a large exhibition in the Great Synagogue in Pilsen, Miroslav Zikmund’s native town. The initiative for the creation of this collection came from the Rudolf Lowy Foundation for the Preservation of Pilsen Synagogues. The Museum of South-East Moravia in Zlin also participated in the effort as the custodian of Hanzelka and Zikmund’s collections, collaborating for this purpose with the National Institute for the Preservation of Historical Monuments in Pilsen in whose photo laboratory the photographs were enlarged. The financial support for the collection was provided by the city of Pilsen, the 700 Years of the City of Pilsen Foundation, the Regional Office in Zlin, the insurance company Koopertiva, and the company Pilsner Urquell. The enlargements were made using the photographic paper Fomatone MG Classic 132 provided by FOMA Hradec Kralove.