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Jan William Drnek: interview about the digitalization of Mucha's Slavic Epic and about life


Jan Wilda Drnek is known mainly as a landscape photographer and he had several photographic exhibitions. In addition, he is a renowned expert in signmaking and a specialist for colour management. He was approached to digitise the Slavic Epic on the start of this year. Find out more in the interview.


What does photography mean to you and how did you start taking photos?

Photography is a big hobby of mine. Although I shoot photos professionally, it’s not how I earn my living. I am therefore completely free in my creative activities, which is a great advantage.

And what about the very beginnings?

At the age of six, my friends and I joined a photography club in the House of Children and Young People in Strakonice. It was organised by two photography enthusiasts, Mr. Zeman and Mr. Janů, who introduced me to Lubitel and Flexaret cameras. I was completely captivated by moments spent in the darkroom and photography became the love of my life.

When I was a secondary-school student, I created a darkroom together with my friend. We tried to make the biggest possible pictures there. Back then it meant approximately 30 x 40 to 50 x 60 cm. That was already something extraordinary. I would have never thought that one day it would be normal to make photos in a size of up to several tens of square meters and that I myself would make them as well.

Slavic Epic

You were offered the opportunity to take photos of the Slavic Epic and thus to digitalize it. The Slavic Epic is, by all means, an impressive artwork of an impressive size. What needs to be thought through if you want to succeed with such a task? 

The last time I created faithful reproductions of artworks was within the project called Sentenced to Death of my friend Bořek Šípek. I was absolutely keen on that work because it combined my experience with technical photography, colour management and print. Last year in October I came across a book project, which documented frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, and I started to be enthusiastic about working on an artwork in a similar size. My desire and my ideas were so big that within several days they transformed into an actual offer to do something like this in the Czech Republic. The Slavic Epic, Alfons Mucha’s masterpiece, admired in the Czech Republic as well as in the whole world, was my first idea. I made an agreement with the Albatros publishing house and then I was completely free to put the whole idea into practice.

It was already the end of October and I learned that the Slavic Epic would be in the National Gallery only until the end of the year because it would go to Japan after that. There was no time for heroism. I needed to think everything through properly and prepare it: the time schedule, photographic equipment, lights and a team of skilled and dedicated people, who would be able to cope with the time and technical demands of the task. The core team consisted of my own family. My daughter Jana, who is a graphic designer, always works as my assistant, and she is the best one I could have ever wished for. She took care of all the work related to data at the site. My son Jan was an invaluable helper and a technical advisor of mine. Thanks to his profession of a camera operator he has a lot more experience with lighting than I do. To make our team complete, we also cooperated with the best people from Jan’s camera crew. The National Gallery was very helpful. We could take pictures almost anytime at night and on Mondays when the gallery is closed. I was also very glad to meet the conservator and restorer of the Slavic Epic, Tomáš Berger. We understood each other both professionally and personally. I consulted with him about plenty of technical details and obstacles we faced when reproducing problematic parts of the work.

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The maximum distance from the paintings was obviously a serious limitation. Sometimes it was as little as nine meters. During this type of work, you always deal with the conflict between the desired resolution, depth of field and diffraction. I created a mathematical model, which allowed me to find the optimum compromise between the actual focal length and the maximum distance from the picture. The right lighting is a key question. I am a friend with people from Fomei, and therefore I decided to use their equipment. To reach better homogeneity of light, I used large-format cinematographic butterflies. It is practically impossible to reach a completely consistent homogeneity, and therefore I decided to do a post-production correction, and I captured non-linearity by a large set of classic Gretag Macbeth test charts with 24 patches.

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I have always made panoramas using a Manfrotto cubic manual head. Of course, its accuracy is limited – especially for very small viewing angles. Such shooting demands extreme attention but the time we had was limited. My wife Janice supported me in my decision to splurge on the automatic head of my dreams – RoundShot VR, a top-level Swiss product. I must say that I have no regrets. The head worked great when combined with Gitzo tripods. It is also suitable for interior shooting because the carbon head is very light. The tripod allowed us to work well in cramped conditions and in spaces with a small maximum distance from the picture, which would not be feasible with robust tripods. We mostly shot at the height of 3.5 meters. When it was not possible to use mobile scaffolding, we used a light aluminium stepladder.

We photographed each painting several times, and within a month we made over 10,000 individual 50 Mpx pictures.

As for the camera, Canon was a natural choice for me because I have the most and the best experience with using it. I used my Canon EOS 1Dx and Canon EOS 5Dsr, which belongs to Jan Šibík. The basic lenses for detailed close-ups were EF 200mm f/2L IS USM, and EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM. To document the each whole canvas I used EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM, EF 50mm f/1.2L USM, EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM and TS-E 17mm f/4L. As usual, the cornerstone and the key to achieving colour accuracy were the ColorChecker Passport from the X-rite company. We used three original charts and to preserve homogeneity I printed several hundreds of high fidelity Gretag 24 test charts.

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I dedicated a special 30 TB server for the data, and I think that it will take the whole first half of this year to process all of it. The work is very time-consuming. One completed photo of a canvas sized 810 x 610 cm has 60 GB, and the RAM capacity of my good old MacPro from 2013 is “only” 64 GB.

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Moreover, what will be the result of the Slavic Epic reproduction? What will you do once you are done with it?

I hope it will be the best possible result (laugh). During the shooting I managed to make several 1:1 control prints. When I compared it to the original canvases, I could see that the colours and tonality matched very well. The depiction of details was more distinct on the printed copy as usually. At first glance, it may seem strange, but it is important to realize that the details are much less clear in the gallery, where the level of illumination is lower than we needed for control views. The photos were made for a spectacular and rather unique pictorial publication, which will be published by Albatros. The resulting photos can also serve as faithful digital copies of the Slavic Epic.


You have travelled a lot of countries. Is there a country where you felt better than in the Czech Republic? If yes, which one is it?

All countries and all continents fundamentally differ from each other. The overall impression of the country is also influenced by the people you meet there. I could talk about travelling for a long time but in relation to photography, my favourite countries are Namibia, Iceland and the whole of South America. Unfortunately, I also have to admit that the older I get, the lazier I am. I feel the best at our garden tearoom where I enjoy spending calm time and meditating in full-grown greenery (laugh).

Do you have a tip for aspiring photographers/travellers? What did your preparations for photographic expeditions look like?

I would recommend them to follow a completely different way of travell photography than what I have got used to myself. It means no twenty-five kilogram bags of hard lenses and tons of equipment and all kinds of gadgets. On the one hand, I can make large-format pictures of a high technical quality in the wilderness in size, which even Alfons Mucha would envy (a lot of laughs). On the other hand, there’s no way I could work without an assistant or bearers. I constantly have to check all my things, clean them and backup gigantic volumes of data. I have problems when flying by plane, and I face a risk that if I fail to make a great impression on the officials, I will have to pay a ridiculous price for overweight. My personal record is from Lima where they wanted me to pay 2,500 USD. I managed to beat it down to 960 USD. However, that was almost ten years ago. Today there’s not much you can argue about: you either pay, or you do not fly.

Preparation for an expedition takes a day or two – I pack things, I check all my equipment, I do not sleep, and it is really exhausting. However, one thing is positive about it – I have found out that it is quite a good way to cope with jet lag. One of the negative consequences of my approach to shooting while traveling is that it reduces the travelling experience to a minimum. When I take photos, I only perceive the shooting process. If I want to experience a place properly, I do not take a camera with me, or I only take as little equipment as possible – let’s say one body and two zooms. But the ideal is not to have a classic camera with me at all. If there’s a picture I want to remember or a documentary photo I want to take, then I can do just fine with my iPhone.

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You are a co-founder and an operator of a company working in the area of signmaking, which has become a market leader. Could you describe the whole history from the creation of a successful company all the way to sales? It could be a model example for other people who also want to know how to be successful in their business.

Well, to describe the entire history we’d rather have to write a book than an interview :-) I do not feel like a great businessman, but it is a truth that my activities in this area have all been successful. When I think about what was behind my success, I would say that it was maximum effort and complete acceptance of responsibility for all actions. To be able to sell successfully, the financial management of the company has to be absolutely transparent and of course, there has to be a profit and a growth potential, or at least a significant market share or another important or unique benefit.

Have you tried to break through abroad as well?

That is what we are currently working on with our latest acquisition. I hope it will be a success but I do not want to speak too soon. Don’t forget to ask me about it when we do an interview next time (a mischievous smile).

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Spiritual development

What does spiritual development mean to you and what approach have you taken in this area?

 Spiritual development – what a noble expression. I think that in this respect it is very important what you encounter in your early childhood and whom you see as your example. When I was a child, books written by Jaroslav Foglar and Jules Verne inspired me. As a teenager, I read classic literature, Roman and Greek philosophers. Moreover, after my studies of mathematics, cybernetics, and basics of nuclear physics I developed an uncontrollable interest in all kinds of philosophy, including Buddhism and Kabbalah. I studied books by Rudolf Steiner, C. G. Jung, Stanislav Grof and various kinds of esoteric sciences and pseudo-sciences. When I was about forty, I seriously considered joining a Buddhist monastery. God’s Providence interfered in it in the form of my wife who pointed out that given that our children were 9 and 12 years old, it was not exactly the best idea. With the benefit of hindsight, I must admit that she was probably right :-) To make it up for me, she gave me a week stay in darkness for my fiftieth birthday. But who knows, maybe I’ll end up in the monastery one day anyway. Last year I was in Bhutan and I made a preliminary agreement with a local abbot that I could stay in the Gantey Gompa monastery. I hope my feet will not get cold there.

Could you share your experience with the Dark Therapy with us? What did it feel like?

The Dark Therapy was my dream for many years. Unfortunately, I was very busy and I kept putting it off. At first I wanted to try a stay in darkness at Holger Kalweit in Germany. It would take three weeks and it would be combined with absolute fasting. I’ve trained fasting for such a long time so I would manage. Would you believe me? (he’s chuckling with laughter) In the end it was my wife who helped me to finally get into the darkness. She gave me a voucher for a week stay in the darkness at Mátma villa in Čeladná. It was a great, interesting and powerful experience. I spent a week without light and sound, I was there only with myself. Due to the absence of light and sound you have no idea about time. That alone is quite shocking. However, there was one clue, which helped me a lot. My stay in the darkness was relatively short and therefore I decided not to fast. Somebody brought me food to the next room once a day. They always rang a bell so that I did not come to light when it was there and that’s how I was able to count days. For that purpose there was an ordinary bead abacus on the wall. It sounds unbelievable but having spent two or three days there, I was not able to figure out how many days I had been in the room without checking it on the abacus.

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Your life is full of colourful photo prints and photos in general and all of the sudden you spend some time in a place where there’s no light and no sound.

I did not miss colours while I was in the darkness. I could just close my eyes or have a short nap and I had dreams, which were so realistic and interconnected that sometimes I was worried that I might be going crazy. Imagine that you’re having a very strange dream but you consider it to be reality. Then you wake up and realize that it was only a dream. But in fact you haven’t woken up: it’s just another dream. And so it goes several times in a row. This lasted for about the first three days. After that everything calmed down and consequently I got into a state of extraordinary peace. I started to see beautiful colourful pictures even with my eyes open. If I were a painter, I would definitely want to capture them. But what can a photographer without a camera do in a complete darkness? Nothing really. By the end, I thought I could see objects on the table and they were colourful as well. It was purely a spontaneous visualisation based on a reality I had experienced.

Could you give us a specific example?

Sure. For example, I was able to grab a bottle of water and open it without thinking twice. I could put the bottle cap on the table, have a drink, pick up the cap from the table and close the bottle. I could “see” the transparent clear PET bottle with clean water and a bright blue cap. It was only an illusion. I would see a blue cap even if it were, in fact, red or green. It was still water, which usually has a blue cap, and I also saw the bottles in the adjoining room when there was light before the beginning of my stay – they looked exactly like the visualisations, which later appeared in my brain. If someone changed the bottles in the meantime, they would still seem to be the original bottles to me. I found it interesting that when I was not able to feel the bottle or the cap, which I could “see”, its image disappeared.

Would you recommend darkness to others? Is there anything people should be careful about?

 Unlike advertisements and proclamations saying that experiencing such things is universally beneficial, I am very cautious with recommendations. Our Western esoteric form of the Dark Therapy has probably been inspired by various cultures from the whole world, which use darkness to immerse into a deep state of meditation. However, staying in darkness is by all means intended for people who have already been trained for it and who have practiced meditation or contemplation, if you will. I am afraid that rushing into darkness and complete silence could be an experience with disastrous consequences for an overworked manager with no meditation practice. However, that is just my lay opinion.

Thanks a lot for the interview

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