Koudelka was into enormity

History happens

Moravia<, 1966; Josef Koudelka, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the artist, 2013
  • Moravia<, 1966; Josef Koudelka, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the artist, 2013

Romania, 1968; Josef Koudelka, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Robin and Sandy Stuart

Romania, 1968; Josef Koudelka, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Robin and Sandy Stuart

Nationality Doubtful, the title of an intensely beautiful exhibition of Josef Koudelka’s photographs at the Getty Center, refers to a peculiar fact of the Czech photographer’s life. Born in 1938 in a small town in Moravia, he moved to Prague to study aeronautical engineering, but by the late 1950s photography was occupying more of his time. By the 1960s he was working for theater companies in Prague while pursuing a project that would occupy him for years: he began traveling Eastern Europe, spending time in over 80 Roma villages and encampments. Photography and itinerancy, or the photographing of itinerancy, took over his life. He was back in Prague in 1968 when Soviet-led Warsaw Pact armies entered the city. It was one of those moments when history happens to an artist, and Koudelka brought all his powers to documenting the invasion. His photos were smuggled out of the country and published in newspapers and magazines worldwide under the pseudonym P.P. (for “Prague Photographer”). By 1970 he feared for his safety and acquired an exit visa to visit Great Britain, where he requested asylum, effectively going into self-exile, and he lived for a long time as a stateless man. (He got French citizenship in 1986 and saw his homeland again in 1990.) Using England as a home base, he wandered all over Europe, often living and sleeping rough, while he worked on his Gypsies project and another, Exiles, but since he had no official proof of his birthplace or citizenship, whenever he returned to the United Kingdom his travel documents identified him as “nationality doubtful.”

You see him finding his subjects even in the very early work — outliers, provisional communities, and the distances that isolate persons and places. The pictures feature dark figures pressured by enormous, patchy white spaces. Koudelka’s eye was keen on margins and separations, the strange and the estranged. In an image from 1958, a nun in traditional habit stands on a beach in the far right zone of the wide-angle frame, as if in meditation, while along the faraway horizon vaguely discernible families and children play. At her feet lies a black umbrella, the nun’s parasol, I imagine, but it looks abandoned and woebegone.

The early blown-open images are quite different from work he did in the 1960s for acting companies and for Prague’s chief theater magazine, Divadlo. During rehearsals of Ubu Roi, King Lear, and masked dramas by the Belgian playwright Michel de Ghelderode, Koudelka worked physically very close to the actors and made images that look pounded, degraded. A devastated Lear, a fatso Ubu, and de Ghelderode’s grotesques, all in macerated, weirdly granulated off-whites and grays, blast or creep from a forbidding black surround. The cover images he supplied for Divadlo are more subdued. They derived from representational photos — of human figures, a carriage, a gondola, water shadows — but Koudelka attenuated the textures so severely that they’re nearly abstract. They look like inky liquids poured into a blanched space.

When the Russians invaded Prague, Koudelka did what he does: he inserted himself — his way of seeing the world, I should say — into the action. He’s close behind a righteous old man who barely has the strength to throw a cobblestone at a tank. He’s right there among the angry students and indifferent soldiers. Koudelka photographs the city streets as once-familiar habitats now turned alien and contested. A man kneels by a tank, beseeching. An enormous crowd pushes against an advancing tank, as if to deny its force. The debris, brickbats, smoke, protest signs, and brandished flags register the anger of a coherent community being upended by alien force.

During the 1960s Koudelka had already begun traveling to Roma events and encampments in Slovakia, Moravia, and Bohemia. His images aren’t ethnographic or journalistic. He isn’t interested in life ways. The images are about displacement, closed self-sustaining societies, lives lived at the margins, usually under mean circumstances. His process is assimilatory. When working in theater, Koudelka frequented rehearsals and moved around onstage virtually on top of the actors so that he could pre-visualize what to shoot on future visits. He, too, was rehearsing. He did the same among the gypsies, so that he doesn’t seem to be observing a scene. You feel there’s a wraparound membrane that encloses the photographer with the people he photographs. The textures of the images intensify their immediacy and rawness: their raised grain gives them a coarsened, mineralized look.

France, 1987; Josef Koudelka, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of Josef Koudelka and PaceMacGill Gallery, New York

France, 1987; Josef Koudelka, gelatin silver print. Image courtesy of Josef Koudelka and PaceMacGill Gallery, New York

The Gypsies series is an album of mystery and revelation. A young woman turns her back and walks away from the camera, looking over her shoulder at the photographer tracking her, while she tents a blanket around the child in her arms, whom we can’t see. What we do see is a stern desire to be separate (from the photographer and his world) and to wrap her child into that protective separateness. An earnest man, squatting, converses with a white horse, which bows its head as if to engage in the conversation: they seem to be trying to reason with each other across a great divide. There are photos of musicians performing on the street or at festivals, but you won’t find much joviality there. Three musicians at what I assume to be a festive event — a wedding, maybe — possess a remote, inviolable melancholy. Koudelka kept himself physically and spiritually so close to Roma culture that in the most intimate scenes his viewing eye feels compacted into the action, not observant of it. In his image of a wake, a dead woman, bleached by harsh light coming through a window, lies in a coffin surrounded by villagers: Koudelka rounds his consciousness into the scene, its ceremonialism, the melancholy of the mourners, the stark presence of children. Photography for him isn’t so much a sympathetic act as it is a determining lyric subjectivity. In another loaded picture, a young gypsy, handcuffed and close to Koudelka’s camera, is separated from two populations, the policemen who stand a good distance behind him and a small group of village folk. It’s a dreadful image of enforced estrangement.

The other great body of work he amassed mostly during the 1970s, Exiles, came out of Koudelka’s travels to more Roma events, to religious festivals in Portugal and France, and to horse fairs in Great Britain. It includes the photographic equivalent of journal entries — pictures of his shoes, his wristwatch, his rough-sleeping spots and the frugal meals he was accustomed to. (In one of these, a knife, an apple, cup, cheese wedges, and food papers are spread upon his place mat, an unfolded International Herald Tribune.) In most of the gypsy pictures, the subjects are looking at the camera or obviously aware of its presence, but in Exiles virtually no one looks back at us. The pictures are identified only by country, so we deduce from the content what might be happening. The scenes are like images outside time. A dead raven hangs from its feet as if it’s been strung up for some arcane ritual; a gypsy child whose eyes we can’t see is raveled head to foot in a roll of paper, and he bears himself, despite all that paper, with an endearing dignity; a black hound in the snow turns its head toward us like a stalking wraith.

In 1986 Koudelka began to create enormous open-air images with a panoramic camera. People disappear from his work, and the images become studies of epic absences. He photographed ruins once created by aspiring humans but that are now broken monuments to idols of various kinds. The voluminousness of the images is overwhelming: when he photographs fallen columns, broken plinths and pediments in the ancient Greek ruin at Aphrodisias, they look like the unintelligible rubble of a once grand civilization. The land on which the structures once stood is visible here and there, as if the earth has been rendered marginal to the purpose of civilizations.

As he was making imagery of vanished civilizations he was photographing our own industrial ruins-in-the-making. Koudelka’s 1994 book, The Black Triangle, documented an area once called “the garden of Bohemia,” near the Czech Republic, which became a coal-production center. Between the 1930s and 1960s, vast swathes of land were excavated and laid waste to by the needs of the new industry. He mounted the series of pictures on one long accordion fold that stretches over 70 feet, all very small images that combine to make a kind of visual keening over loss and greed. In recent years he has continued to make archaeological images and also pictures of walls and other separators that speak of devastated or destabilized places. He has photographed the West Bank, the Negev desert, and the Golan Heights. His themes are still separation and estrangement, but they’re worked out in the contested, chaotic spaces of our time. These panoramic pictures extend his earlier passions in the sense that they expose the leftovers of cultures that exiled themselves to irrelevancy or self-destruction: they are a vision of what’s found on the margins of the now.

Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, on view at the Getty Center until March 22. 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles; 310-440-7300; getty.edu

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