Fotograf Magazine

Josef Koudelka: raw beauty

“I felt the style of my work changing, and I let it happen.”This quote from Josef Koudelka, taken from a discussion held at the French Institute in Prague on November 19, 2002, offers a clue to understanding the photographer’s new monograph. It was prepared by the artist in collaboration with the publisher and graphic designer Robert Delpire for the Maestro edition.

In November 2006, the Czech edition of the album, entitled Koudelka, won the prize for the Best Central and East European Photo-Book. This competition is held by the Slovak Fotofo foundation. It takes place every two years, and at the 16″‘ Month of Photography in Bratislava it was held for the fourth time. More than a hundred volumes published since 2005 were appraised. The aim of the competition is to draw attention to the most worthy contributions in terms of content, whose rendering best sets off the artist’s message. (The jury awarded also a diploma in the category of history: selecting a facsimile edition of the visuals of the magazine SSSR na stroike – USSR in Construction 19301949 by a Moscow publishing house Agey Tomesh.)

What does Koudelka (1938) tell us in his summary publication? Above all, the manner in which he looks at his own work. He rightly ranks this monograph among the highlights of his thirty-year (and very personal) collaboration with Robert Delpire. The latter is also the author of the admiring introductory essay. In return, the photographer makes no secret of the fact that many of his revelations are due to this friendship, which began in the mid-1970s with the book Gitans: La fin du voyage. It is laudable that Koudelka has never allowed himself to be dominated by his partner. Robert Delpire did edit around 250 publications, but ventures such as De qui s’ agit-il? Henri Cartier-Bresson indicate that as both graphic designer and editor responsible for content he is far from infallible [a review was published in Fotograf 3/2003).

A sort of preparation for this monumental Koudelka résumé was the small but successful monograph brought out locally by TORST (2002). The French editor also borrowed from the Czech publication the essay by Anna Farová, Začátky (The Beginnings). It is in fact a quotation from an article written and composed out of older essays and criticism using the method of collage. Even so, the reading of Koudelka’s work is more coherent in the pocket monograph. It was reportedly Delpire who selected the accompanying essays for the new book. Three introductory essays to visual chapters were assigned to Czechs, who have an insight into the circumstances of Koudelka “s work prior to the international stage of his career. Theatre is introduced by the director Otomar Krejea, Invasion by the poet Petr Kral… indeed, polyphony was the obvious guiding principle: if the book wants to pursue what is best in Koudelka, testimony on Koudelka was selected according to the same principle. But as it is, the contributions overlap in places (this also in terms of method: see the above mentioned Začátky (The Beginnings) and the section Hledani(Explorations)).

The focus of the volume does not lie in the brief verbal intermezzos. The photographer lays out for us the pictures he values most, those images that articulate his vision. It is therefore a great pity that he was unable to find a writer who would reflect on his work as a whole in order to produce a comprehensive interpretation. For this monograph sums up a creative effort of forty-seven years, which would have been an outstanding opportunity. The book would certainly have benefited from an overall essay. But perhaps the artist prefers an openness of interpretation: perhaps he is more curious about various possible interpretations of his work than a perspective that would inevitably suggest a certain commitment.

Koudelka’s monograph was produced over a three-year period, but it had been germinating ever since 1990. It was then that the Musem of Decorative Arts in Prague hosted a retrospective entitled Josef Koudelka: Z fotografickeho dila 1958-1990 (Photographic Work 1958-1990), jointly organized by the art historian Anna Farova and divided into nine chapters (three of them dedicated to Koudelka’s activities with the Prague theatre scene of the 1960s). The present and final version, as it were, consists of seven sections. Their titles often echo titles of his various separate publications. Already his early notions of photography, as presented in the sections Začátky (The Beginnings) and Hledani (Explorations), indicate the complexity of an artist that one would have the honor of meeting in the following five sections of mature work.

Josef Koudelka quickly found his bearings in the situation of the 1950s, the time when he set out on his career. Yet his predecessors did not inspire him to follow in their tracks. In 1961, he acquired the diploma in mechanical engineering, held his first solo exhibition, and started to pursue a hitherto unseen theme: the Romany minority, whom he followed from North Bohemia, through Stra2nice in South Moravia, to Bratislava in the west of Slovakia, to East Slovakia and eventually all the way to Romania… When preparing his book Gypsies for the publishing house of Mlade fronta in the 1960s together with Anna Farova, he could choose from thousands of images. From so thorough a collection one can make a selection only with the risk of losing a large part of the intended meaning.

Koudelka’s Romany book also came out in New York in the mid-1970s, and in a French version in 1977 Even though the latter was a sumptuous publication, honored with the Prix Nader, we still sorely lack an original Czech version. Since the fall of the totalitarian regime, however, the photographer has considered reviving the 1960s folio. Hopefully we shall live to see the publication, and it would merit even a larger size than the double format Gitans: La fin du voyage.

Tradition has it that Koudelka started his international career as the most widely published anonymous photographer. For his photographs from August 1968 documenting the invasion of the Soviet Army in Prague were published without his name. A very strict selection was made of these in the present monograph, in the chapter Invasion.

The album Exiles resonates with the normally impalpable mental states of the artist in order to evoke equally an internal impression in the viewer. Personally I believe that in this book Koudelka has surpassed not only himself but also the medium that he relies on. Photography would appear to be doomed to a naturalistic descriptiveness, but it is paradoxically those who have proved the very opposite who enter the timeless hall of the giants in the field.

From this ecstatic levitation, Koudelka turns to ad hominem social critique. Since 1986 he has been commenting on the state of civilization in the genres of the urban vedute and the landscape. His photographs have gradually ceased to be populated, and neither do they feature walk-ons: the themes are of the traces of human activity. He has already dedicated six volumes to panoramic photographs of various localities. At the end of 2006 he put them on display, together with all seven muta­tions of his new monograph, at the Gallery of the French Institute in Prague at Stepanske 35. In fact the only pieces on exhibition to be actually hung on the walls were the photographs from his last landscape series, Camargue.

The first four panoramic books – Mission Photographique Transman­che (1989), The Black Triangle (1994), Reconnaissance Wales (1998) and Lime Stone (2001) – captured both the destruction of landscape by industrial activity and the tenacity of nature, or, as the artist says,

“a tragic, wild beauty, its power, the struggle for survival.” Two books present different motifs. Teatro del Tempo (2003) shows the present-day aspect of the eternal city of Rome, Camargue (2006) the landscape of the south of France. The press release of the co-organizer, Art Link, heralds: “The project was initiated by Conservatoire du Littoral, who are in charge of protecting French coastal nature. Koudelka, who had previously said he was unable to photograph the picturesque French landscape, found in this specific region of France visions resonating with his own way of seeing. The wild, windswept landscape, full of marshes and swamps and left to itself for many years, represents the self-renewing power of nature…”

For the artist the commission was a great challenge. He was extremely exacting in terms of the deadlines that would enable him to take full responsibility for the resulting book, He needs to revisit his subject matter several times over a certain period, and he needs to make his own selection of the photographs. The first condition is that he is able to identify with the theme in terms of ideas, and that during the initial survey he discovers a personal angle. In Camargue, he had to come to terms with a completely flat landscape. Perhaps he was reminded here of Sudek’s low horizons.

Josef Koudelka’s dedication to landscape is a well-intentioned one. Hardly surprising, if he no longer feels like chasing in impromptu photographs something which proves forever elusive. He is already of the age of a living classic and prefers to lend himself to the issue of wounded landscapes, and nature’s capacity for resistance, In terms of fact, his subject matter has an ethos of its own. For showing the consequences of societal plunder is a condemnation of the self-centered way of human existence. And Koudelka is at root a documentary photographer, so why avoid doing work on commission at which he is brilliant? I have no doubt that he is personally committed to the consistent and long-term observation of the perennial order coping with the human assault… But if I were to comment more closely on Koudelka’s panoramas, I would reiterate what has already appeared in Fotograf (see 2/2003]: in the broader context, Koudelka focused on environmental issues in his book Chaos (1999), which represents, from the perspective of art, the crowning of the artists possibilities in the given creative area.

Although Josef Koudelka is appraised internationally, and has been conferred decorations by both the Czech and the French republics (as well as receiving numerous other honors), his primary interests are dictated by his work. He brought the monograph out in a total print run of eighteen thousand copies, with an accompanying text in German, Spanish, Italian, English, French and Czech. He pushed through the caveat that each of the co-producers was allowed to pick their own typography as well as cover design, different from Delpire’s proposal. The Czech version is the work of Alea Najbrt, done in a contemporary style [most are presented in a retro mood].

The reproductions in the monograph can be read as the memento of an artist given to introspection. The book is different from others: thanks to its innovations in terms of structure, owners of his previous books Gypsies, Prague 1968, Exiles and Chaos still receive their due… It is abundantly clear that Josef Koudelka wanted this fresh volume to be a work in its own right. It was far from easy to fit all of it together, if all of his major themes were to be given a specific visual form. The focus of a great many photographers makes their retrospectives a far less complex matter. They simply follow maxims, much like painters or graphic designers. Josef Koudelka stands out from all of these, yet still he manages in this summary of his creative periods to date to enhance all of them to perfection.

The power of Koudelka can be explained by the creative method of the theatre director Peter Brook – to show the ideal and the betrayal of this ideal, the brightness of the vision and its destruction – all in a single instant. As the photographer managed to achieve something of this kind, it also binds together even the diverse motivations for his efforts, such as his ethnic, political, or environmental concerns, And if the whole is alive with an aesthetic tension between the parts, it makes the viewer’s experience all the more dynamic. We may call that mastery.

Delpire R, Farova A, Soulages P, Krejča 0, Frizot M, Kral P, Edda D, Tiberghien GA: Koudelka. Praha: Torst 2006, 158 reproductions, unpaginated, ISBN 80-7215-288-2,

Josef Moucha