Fotograf Magazine

A Trap for Classicism

Josef Koudelka (born 10 January, 1938) organised a retrospective called ‘Josef Koudelka, Photographer,’ which opened during the summer last year in Arles. The exhibiton was presented once again on the occasion of the photographer’s 65th birthday at the National Gallery in Prague, Trade Fair Palace from 15 November  2002  to 23. February 2003. It turned into an occasion to reflect upon his work as well, both for Koudelka himself, who gave an unprecedented number of interviews in his mother tongue and for Anna Fárová, who has been writing Gypsies in Slovakia, northern Bohemia and later in Rumania and other countries. The body of his work reflected a rich thematic variety. Space was made for 97 of his Gypsy pictures at the retrospective. The Gypsy theme is represented in the book by 15 prints: ‘Anything you phototgraph requires a specific approach,’ he explains. ‘Maybe that’s why my photographs of the Gypsy settlements and my theatrical photographs are so different visually, even though they I worked on them simultaneously.’ Koudelka’s early commissions were scattered here and there on the pages of Divadlo magazine from 1961-1970. A total of thirteen examples testify to a period thanks to which the flight engineer became a professional freelance photographer in 1967: that same year he was given the award of the year for innovative theatrical photography from the Czechoslovak Artists’ Association.

It is essential to recall Koudelka’s beginnings in order to understand his mature work. The art historian Anna Fárová first came into contact with him when she organised in 1990 a retrospective and a catalogue of Josef Koudelka’s photographic works from 1958–1990  for  the  Art  and Technical Museum in Prague. It was already evident where she had gotten the precise compositions and richly coloured prints characteristic of Koudelka. Of course, outside the country where he was born, the photographer’s first encounters with the photographic medium were until recently unknown. Nonetheless, there is an exaggerated proportion of the items (59 in total) in the travelling exhibition from the period when he worked for various theatres (especially in comparison with the 11 items in the chapter titled ‘Invasion’). In contrast, the 22 line-drawing studies of illustrations for Divadlo create an ideal visual effect. Unfortunately, not one of these items is represented in the monograph.

In order to be able to return among the Gypsies, Koudelka brought them pictures:  ‘That  meant  that,  first  of all, I photographed  them the way they commentaries on the photographer’s work since the mide 1960s and was able to collect her observations in monograph   form.

Up until last year, there was no book that did not gloss over  Koudelka’s beginnings and his commissions for the theatre. Probably the only thing the photographer was not lacking was a monograph. He had imprinted his own particular aesthetic tone in each of his previous albums. It was now necessary to pick and take from each collection, distilling the significance of each, and it was TORST, the publisher, who finally did so – with success. The book includes an interview with Koudelka by Karel HvíÏìala (the quotes cited in this review are not taken from it, however). The organisation of the monograph is based on that of the exhibition’s floor plan: ‘Beginnings,’ ‘Theatre,’ ‘Gypsies,’ ‘Invasion,’ ‘Exiles’ and ‘Chaos.’ The proportions are different, though: the book, with its 82 reproductions and the exhibition, with its 315 items, each resonate in their own way.

In the late 1950s, Josef Koudelka started making his ‘solitaires’ –single, self-contained photographs. The monograph reproduces only six of them, whereas the exhibition displayed fourteen. In his points of departure, Koudelka remained faithful to Czech photographic tradition which fed on the paradigms of the visual arts. The mood of his early work evokes that of Eva Fuka, who in the 1950s and ‘60s was a sort of uncrowned queen of Czechoslovak experimentalists, straddling the border between photography and free creative expression. In 1961 Koudelka received his degree in mechanical engineering from the Prague Technical University, made his artistic debut at the Semafor theatre and started photographing wanted to see themselves,’ he says. ‘It was particularly important that their skin didn’t come out too dark –that their faces had enough light. If one of them didn’t like the result, he might rip up the photograph. You see, most of the Gypsy portraits from that period are arranged, because the people in them were told where to sit. At the same time, I had this system where they’d stand so long that they’d end up looking more or less normal. Still, the portraits are stiff most of the time. They had never seen themselves in photographs before, you see. They only knew old photographs in which nobody moves. I remember I was leaving in a bus once; there were some kids running behind us and when one of them noticed I was taking a picture of him, he stopped in his tracks!’ recounts the affable, lanky Koudelka…

‘On the first anniversary of August 1968,’ remembers Koudelka, referring to the attack of the five Warsaw Pact countries on the Czech Republic, ‘I was with Divadlo za branou in England. They were selling copies of the Sunday Times with my pictures there. And I couldn’t tell anyone that I had been the one who photographed the invasion. The credits read simply ‘Unknown Prague Photographer?’.’

That is the way things stayed for a long time, too. The photographer did not want to take any risks that would jeopardise his parents’ ability to visit him or his sister abroad. Incognito, he received an award for the most courageous coverage of the year.  Only in France was a book devoted to     a series of photographs taken during the ten days that shook Prague published   under   the   title   Prague,   1968,   selected   from   among   ten thousand photographs. ‘As a book, those photographs never saw the light in Bohemia,’ emphasises Koudelka. ‘Before it wasn’t possible, but I hope they are published some day. I think they’re pretty important for the history of the nation. Maybe somebody will take notice one day. During the course of those ten days, the people of this nation acted in a truly exceptional manner.’

In the course of the 1970s, Josef Koudelka was gradually incorporated into the select collective of photographers, which became the holder of his copyrights when it secretly received the negatives of the military occupation of Czechoslovakia and in 1974 became the co-owner of Magnum Photos.

His British exile became a base which he used for moving about in the world. A series of images titled ‘Exiles’ was born of the experience. It was first published in 1988. The photographs inspired Czesław Miłosz, the Polish Nobel prize-winning poet, who was also fated to be an exile, to write an introductory essay. Both the pictures and the essay were proved that the fact that the photographer had left his home behind had not broken him, as it had others before and after him. On the contrary, he reached  a peak with ‘Exiles.’ For can photography express any more than what is revealed by a gaze turned in on the human interior? In perfectly composed, stylised snapshots he shows solitude to be a fate shared not only by those exiled from totalitarian regimes. A dreamlike image of an angel on a bicycle which Koudelka was able to exhibit in his homeland is inluded both among the 53 exhibition items and the 24 reproduced prints.

When I was abroad, I needed someone who I knew liked me, wanted to help me and would advise me well.’ He found such a person in the legendary co-founder of Magnum Photos: ‘Henri Cartier-Bresson was the first to tell me not only that I had eyes, but that many people had had  eyes and had lost them. I don’t think he influenced me as a photographer. But ethically he influenced me absolutely. I had my own ideas about  the  West – I was over thirty when I left: I knew what I was getting myself into and that I didn’t  want to    end    up  like ‘I’ve been publishing panoramic books  recently,’  says  the  photographer, ‘and that’s mainly because I had to finish them. I accepted a sort of photographic commission from a cultural institution to photograph Rome the way I might see it, for example. This way I’ll complete an older collection on Rome and in May I should be having an exhibition there of about 20 photographs. I can’t afford to do it on my own, since with a panoramic camera I get four shots to a roll of film, twenty rolls a day and, basically,    the developing and the contacts are too expensive. When someone gives me something to photograph, the time frame within which  it should  be made public is also decided.  Enlarging  a  big  panoramic  photograph  can take all day. It’s not me that enlarges most of my photographs –along wth framing, that’s another job that has to be paid for by the sponsors. Even though I might be able to enlarge panoramic photographs as well –I still believe I’m the best one to do so, it’d take me much longer. But I had the great fortune to meet someone about twenty-five years ago who said he thought about enlargements the same way I do. He saved me a lot of worries and time. I’m talking about the Bosnian Serb, Vojin Mitroviã. He became my friend and before I can even tell him what I want, he knows… And I go out and take pictures, which is what I’d rather be   doing.’

Koudelka apparently does not consider that this might entail a sort of golden cage. The book Chaos has been ready since1999! As someone who has followed his quest for new subject matter and the aesthetic paradigms deriving from it throughout his different stages, I am curious as to what conceptual ‘vanishing point’ is next… In contrast, Josef Koudelka is proud of the commission he carried out for the firm Lhoist, who published his album titled Lime Stone, devoted to his limestone quarries. Incidentally, ‘Photographer’ was supplemented with an exhibition titled ‘Kámen – Pierre’ (‘stone’ in Czech  and  French)  at  the  French  Institute’s ·tûpánská 35 Gallery. ‘The opportunity came to me like  mana them…  Of course

I was na_ve in the sense that when I went to Spain and they told me ‘Give us some colour there?’ I didn’t know I could say no. So I tried it and saw immediately that it didn’t work. Why? Some people hate films, others think beer is too bitter. Each of us has our own peculiarities…’

World traveller Josef Koudelka’s concern for humanity became something of a hallmark. On 28 June 1994, Anna Fárová made this evident in an exhibition of his work and stated at the opening of the Prague exhibition ‘The Black Triangle, the Foothills of the Ore Mountains (1990–1994)’: ‘It seems that increasingly and with ever more seriousness, Josef Koudelka is becoming concerned with political life in his concerns for public affairs and is searching for – and finding – his themes in the problematic realities of our world today.’ The book Černý trojúhelník (The Black Triangle), published in a three-language edition in 1994 on the consequences of open-pit coal mining was deprived of accompanying factual information by the publisher, Vesmír. Is it still art? Of course. The discordant subject matter combined with the harmoniously conceived images makes for a bizarre concretion. Let us recall what Koudelka said about Brook’s conception of Shakespeare’s King Lear (he photographed it in Prague in 1964): ‘It was one of the most beautiful stages I’d ever seen… It was perfectly in tune with my aesthetic of beauty and ugliness.’ And the premi’re of ‘The Black Triangle’ made it possible to display the precisely arranged exhibition at the Salmovsk˘ Palace – a beautiful component of the Hradãany castle landscape, though it has fallen into a dilapidated state since  1984.

The foothills of the Krušné Mountains are among the many places the photographer visited upon returning home. In a larger context, they are   the repository of problems involving alienation represented in the Chaos.’ from heaven, for it helped me further my work with landscapes. For three whole months I was able to move freely all over Europe and the United States as well. I had complete freedom. I’d show them my credentials and they’d let me wander on my own for days on end. I divided up my time between living and taking pictures. When I photograph landscapes, I use a panoramic camera. I took most of those photographs using a FUJI with     6 x 18 cm negatives, which has the advantage that I can choose the composition I want without having to adjust myself to the horizon. Josef Sudek wasn’t able to do that, for example. If he wanted a level and undistorted horizon, he had to hold it in the middle of the visual field. I have the benefit  of a different  construction  in which  the lens doesn’t  rotate… I never use tripods –I don’t have the patience. I photograph by hand even with long exposure times.’

Selecting meticulously from among the vast quantity of material on exhibit, Koudelka repeatedly opts for landscapes that remind one of overflight views with their almost perfect distinctness: the perspectives seem beautiful in their particularity, but still they lack concreteness. Fifty- nine format panoramas were exhibited at the Trade Fair Palace, forming  a grouping that viewers could digest in the same way they could the section titled ‘Theatre.’ The critics responded in a variety of ways, sometimes contradictory. Vûra Jirousová of Literární noviny (LITERARY NEWS), who initiated some years ago an exhibition of Koudelka’s collected works at the National Gallery (she was not entrusted with organising it and in the meantime left the gallery), loved the panoramas. The renowned critic Josef Chuchma gave his overall assessment of Koudelka’s life work in the magazine Respekt: ‘Its message is of an individuality that increasingly communicates predominantly with itself, deliberately avoids the majority of society and both physically and spiritually endeavours to transcend the singularity of one particuar human life or civilisation.’ Anna Fárová wrote a review of ‘Photographer’ as well. The the magazine Ateliér found it problematic that Koudelka, ‘makes a series of destructive moments the piece de resistance as well as the end of the exhibition.’ Yes, the dozen prints in the monograph do seem more balanced with regard to the other sections in the book than the burdensome series at the end of the exhibition. However, Fárová calls attention to some important evidence regarding the secret character of the photographer’s hindsight: ‘TORST’s 1996 monograph was supposed to have seven chapters. According to the way the book was conceived six years ago, it was not supposed to end with landscapes of destruction, but with a portrait and  a diary. That is to say a personal element which would put that burdensome character into its correct context and balance it out: the work would seemingly turn the contact with the person from the closing chill to a connection with the sections ‘Gypsies’ and ‘August   1968.’

Although the monograph remained unfinished, it does not suffer from  the disproportions that arose when the author put together the retrospective based on six sections dedicated to exhibitions that were orginally independent (which is also applicable to the drastically reduced ‘Invasion’).

Josef Koudelka approved of the monograph and the exhibition, ‘Photographer,’ despite reservations, due to its exceptional character. Koudelka’s precision led him through each of his mature stages, completing them with the highest possible degree of perfection. It is no wonder that Josef Koudelka is among the best photographers around today, that his work is exhibited in the most prestigious galleries and museums, that leading international collections have bought his photographs and the foundation established by the Swedish camera manufacturer Hasselblad honoured him for his lifelong contribution to the field of photography.

Josef Moucha