Fotograf Magazine

Koudelka’s Chiaroscuro Revelations

The world-renowned photographer Josef Koudelka (born 1938) has published an album of dreams. For he started working on his cycle Gypsies, as he has never ceased to call the Roma, already half a century ago. He photographed them mainly in Slovakia, but also in Bohemia and Moravia. In 1968 he pursued his subject further, to the Balkans. Upon his return to Prague in late August, he photographed the Soviet invasion of that year. It was these photographs that rapidly established his reputation abroad. The last “gypsy” photograph included in the book at hand is an image taken forty years ago in Spain.

Koudelka never lost interest in the subject: photographs of Roma from around Western Europe are included in his book Exily (Exiles), which won an award for photo-book of the year in 1988. The Roma in Western Europe, however, were different, and Koudelka thus presents them in Gypsies only exceptionally; in three places, to be precise. He succeeds in illuminating an archaic way of life, whose decline was postponed by the presence of the Iron Curtain. In order to be able to work in key localities on a regular basis, Koudelka had to bring his pictures back there. If an image was not to its subject’s liking, he would go as far as to tear up the print. Often this was the result of chiaroscuro lighting in remote, non-electrified parts of East Slovakia. A number of portraits are thus staged: to say the least, Koudelka instructed the Roma where to pose for him. At the same time he would always remain on the alert, waiting for them to start acting more naturally. By doing so, he achieved a sparkling tension between an expressive theatricality and acutely surprising insight.

Things are different now, but in the 1960s the Roma only knew and recognized the older studio-type photography, in which no-one moved. Most of Koudelka’s photographs taken in Roma settlements derive their dynamism from the use of wide-angle lens and a masterful polygraphy of black and white contrasts. Photographs made on the side as part of ethnographic research are generally different and are almost never published in photo-books in their own right.

It seems that Koudelka was on a quest for an archetypal vision of humanity. He presents our minority fellow citizens as a proud nation with a set of priorities entirely of their own. It was this aspect that won him recognition already in 1967, when he exhibited Gypsies at Divadlo za Branou (Theatre at the Gates), which was then under the esteemed directorship of Otomar Krejča, and where he at that time also photographed stage productions.

Koudelka’s Roma book, featuring sixty reproductions, would subsequently be reissued periodically ever since the mid-1970s, in the rendition of the illustrious French editor and graphic designer whose name had long already become a trademark of its own – Robert Delpire. Since the fall of the totalitarian regime in the Czech Lands, Koudelka has considered publishing Gypsies in a form inspired by an older graphic design by Milan Kopřiva. The latter had prepared the book for publication in the late 1960s, but this was never actually produced for political reasons.
The current Koudelka version includes almost fifty more photographs than the older versions. Its production is impressive – it is published in six languages by a collaborative effort of seven publishing houses. In his epilogue, rather than lionizing Koudelka, the British sociologist Will Guy instead presents a highly readable narrative of the Roma exodus from India.

Josef Moucha