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Josef Koudelka

Text from Max Kozloff, Lone Visions, Crowded Frames

Koudelka's Theater of Exile

... It's shocking to think of how much in current Western experience is ruled out by Koudelka, and nullified as if it never existed. One could search practically in vain for the historical Europe or the tourist scene, the life of the middle classes, plastics, the consumer market, signs, cars, modern diversions, blue-collar existence, productive systems of any kind, in short the characteristic Jamboree of the late twentieth century. It takes a certain exclusionary genius to have rejected such a sights while still asserting one's ties to people. A great deal has been made of the solitary spirit of Koudelka's work, but that spirit protests too much. Because of his rhetorical estrangement, his world may be as inhospitable as It is unfamiliar, but it remains a world of minority cultures, whose religious and funerary rituals It intimately discloses. The question of how long these cultures will continue to exist in recognizable form is held in suspense by his imagery. Pre-industrial and mostly unrelated to any sizable economy, they seem to be holding on, in atrophied, ingrown states, a dwindling that has spurred him to make his late records. Europe had no place for the Eastern Slovakian gypsies Koudelka photographed in the sixties, and the Spanish peasantry of his more recent images would not seem to have the brightest prospects either. At first glance, it looks as if he's declared his theme to be rural, Third World poverty, but the faces, though gnarled like those in undeveloped countries, are Caucasian. What happens in his pictures seems to have taken place a long time ago, under archaic conditions, hard to remember . . . so that their actual contemporaneity appears misplaced.

The first plate of Koudelka's most recent book, Exiles, which accompanied his show at the International Center of Photography this summer in New York (it had traveled there from Paris), shows the photographer's left forearm stretched from a balcony over an empty Prague boulevard. The year is fateful, 1968, and the gesture is unmistakably that of someone who consults his watch. It's twelve o'clock, a noon hour here momentous because of its silence and emptiness, as if to mark a large strike. The photographer engages us with a symbolic interval of his resistance as a fighter on behalf of the aborted Dubcek liberalization. His subsequent flight from the Brezhnev armed clampdown, along with numerous other Czech intellectuals, artists, and filmmakers, was an escape to a freedom in the West whose embryo promise they had lost at home. (In this era of glasnost, the persistence of the Czech regime in its singularly reactionary unbending course indicates all the more glaringly what they were up against.)

In the case of Koudelka, however, welcome into Western creative circles did not lead him to an endorsement of the materialism, much less the capitalist ethic, that surrounded him there. The only pictures really impacted with things in his entire career are of Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia, swarmed over by defiant but impotent crowds during the time of national humiliation and trauma. Events like that have the capacity to mark an artist's vision. Though befriended in the West (particularly at the photo agency of Paris Magnum, which took him as a member), and clearly grateful for it, Koudelka was never consoled. It can be argued that this diffident man, who lives and travels as lightly as possible, is by temperament an uprooted character. In the early sixties, as a young man, an aeronautical engineer and theater photographer, he had already been taking pictures of the outcast gypsies, a foretaste of his experience as one expatriated in his own turn. Still, there had once been a homeland for his alienation, and now he was forced to reproduce and project it by the sheer strength of his nomadic will. So, the pictorial introduction of his book is also really a closing down, a climax from which there could only follow an anticlimax. But from that ensues his meaning, as it's realized that our Western Europe has been suffused by Koudelka's downcast view of Eastern Europe.

...

One of his admirers, Romeo Martinez, observes that "Koudelka has recognized in the theater a form and a metaphor of life." This idea is seconded by Robert Delpire, who not only originally organized Koudelka's recent show, in France, but was the first to publish Frank's Americans in the fifties. Delpire says that Koudelka's work is "marked by a sort of theatrical organization of reality." In such a view, the subjects of the photographs function as players on a stage, and it is true that some of them perform obvious roles, such as a little boy with angel wings and sneakers on a bicycle, or a young gypsy man cuffed and condemned on the edge of a village. Interestingly, both these individuals are removed from their nominal audiences but are close to the camera. Imaginative or real as were their onetime scripts, they now perform unknowingly in dramas devised on the spot by the spectator's eye of the itinerant photographer. He is an expert in showing us two or more scenarios adjacent to each other in the frame, not merely keeping track of them but welding them together freshly in a new production. A one-armed bather seems resentful of a squalling baby on a Portuguese beach-as far as Koudelka will go in depicting vacation. Some kids horse around in a Spanish alley while just around the corner, in the foreground and out of their sight, a baggily dressed fellow seems to play uninvited hide-and-seek. Four Irishmen piss against the wall of a concrete trench, and though they avoid noticing each other, as men typically do in such quarters, Koudelka, behind them, makes a dramatic synthesis of their isolation.

While the town or village offers Koudelka's theatrical flair such glints of reduced sociality (which are humorous and a little sinister), what of the country? He almost seems to thrill to the depressing vacancy of open reaches and plains. He's a vagrant explorer of unpopulated places where every now and then he finds like-minded passersby, animal or human. He insists on the freedom to be without direction, to be derelict, to be attracted to the unlovely and unploughed field or heath, where there is no refuge from the feeling of loss. Here is nature, spoiled not by industry-but by the viewer's own malaise. Koudelka's pictures of this type never make it to the status of landscape. The weather is bad. Someone throws up a ball, in poetic ennui, and a horse lounges in the distance. Later in his work, we realize that this desolate mode overmasters; the ecstatic one of the denser groupings. The impression grows that an admirable independence of spirit can have its morbid side: instead of going his own way, the photographer shuns people out of reclusive need, weariness perhaps, or suspicion. If the smallest incident or modest object-a glance, graceful debris-becomes an event, it may be because of a disheartened vitality that has to disguise itself.

...


 


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