Josef Koudelka’s photographs are of monumental proportions. In an age in which “point and shoot” has come to define photography, Koudelka proves that a camera in the hands of an artist can produce remarkable images that resonate with longevity. As a second generation member of Magnum Photos, the photo journalists’ cooperative founded by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa and David Seymour in the wake of World War II, he and his Magnum colleagues continue to demonstrate that documentary photography cannot be obliterated by the fads of invention and artistic freedom that have become the language of some of those entering the field of photography in recent years, Within Magnum he was admired by his colleagues for the manner in which he organized his negatives and contact sheets. Along with another Magnum photographer, when they were severely pressed for funds, it is known that they slept on the floor of the Magnum office in Paris.
“Nationality Doubtful.” What a strange title for a retrospective exhibition! We might ask: Is this purposeful ambiguity? No. In actuality, it is an autobiographical statement which illuminates his years of exile from his native Czechoslovakia. Granted residence in Great Britain, “Nationality Doubtful” was inscribed on his passport when he returned from trips abroad. Nationality has been and continues to be a root cause of human suffering and wars. For Koudelka, perhaps it is a metaphor signifying a desire to see people live in harmony without prejudice?
What we see in Koudelka’s photographs is a sensitive observer’s sober commentaries on the human condition. This exhibition is divided into a series of sections, each of which could be described as an extended photo essay limited to a specific subject. Koudelka does not use captions. This is not a limitation because the images speak for themselves within these coherent groupings. All of his photographs are black and white. Some have already been seen in books and exhibitions; however, that hardly detracts from their poignancy. They can be seen time and again, making new discoveries with each viewing.
Koudelka was born in 1938 in Moravia, one three components of the then Czechoslovakia. He studied in Prague at the Czech Technical University receiving a degree in engineering in 1961. At that time, Czechoslovakia was one of what were called “Iron Curtain” countries dominated by the Soviet Union to serve as buffers between it and Western European democracies. Life in a Soviet satellite required submersion of local identity and acceptance of Soviet superiority. This was hardly an environment in which imagination could flourish.
For centuries Prague had been a crossroad associated with both Eastern and Western Europe. Although integrated into the Soviet orbit, what was then Czechoslovakia became increasingly liberal and oriented toward Western Europe. It could be said that in his formative years, Koudelka lived in a political climate dominated by contradictions.
EXPERIMENTS AND THEATER
Trained as an aeronautical engineer. photography was at first a pastime that later became his profession. Drawing on his engineering background, he developed a style of visual Interpretation in which the orientation of elements became paramount. In his association with experimental theater which flourished briefly under the radar of Soviet control, Koudelka documented varied performances where he was able to investigate the realm and power of thematic presentation that has since become a hallmark of his work.
The Roma, as they are called in Europe, are defamed and excluded from mainstream society. They have created a coherent independent, semi-nomadic culture without national boundaries. For Kouldelka, their encampments and festivals have been a magnet throughout most of his career. Often depicted by others for their peculiarities, Koudelka has managed to penetrate their isolation, perhaps with the authenticity of a virtual member of their hermetic society. His first contact with them occurred at the beginning of his career as a photographer in his native Czechoslovakia. There, he slept out of doors, under the stars, witnessing and documenting their lifestyle with a sympathetic eye. Over more than 50 years, he has maintained his dedication to interpreting their world and lives. One could speculate and ask if Koudelka himself as an individual, in his own way of life, reflects their nonconformity and independence.
On two occasions, in the 1960s when they participated in the international youth movement’s questioning the foundations of contemporary society in the United States and Western Europe, and in the 1990s when the “Prague Spring” announced the collapse of the Soviet Union, Czechs rejected oppressive Soviet rule. In the 1960s, it was violently suppressed by Warsaw Pact troops. In the 1990s, Czechs were able to finally liberate their country from a foreign oppressor.
In 1968, returning from Roumania, Koudelka arrived in Prague one day before the invading Warsaw Pact troops. When they entered, he thrust himself into the midst of tanks, troops and resisters, using his camera to record these tempestuous days. He managed to get his negatives into the hands of International news agencies where they caused a sensation when published. These photographs brought him international acclaim and established him among the pantheon of major photo journalists.
Living in exile in the United Kingdom made him keenly aware of and sensitive to the plight of people living and functioning outside mainstream society. Rootlessness, as manifested in Gypsy society, continued to be a magnet for him. Perhaps social isolation could also be used to describe this section of the exhibition?
The absence of people sets this section of the exhibition apart. Here, he focuses on what might be called “acts of social vandalism” such as desecration of the earth’s surface by strip mining, abandoned remnants of past civilizations and erecting walls and barriers which isolate significant numbers of people. The Wall separating Palestinians from Jews in Israel is a recent project. It echoes the societal injustice that he experienced when Warsaw Pact troops occupied Prague.
Along with this shift in subject matter, he has developed another mode of presentation – extremely long accordion-like articulated selections of images depicting the same subject. They incorporate another one of his strengths – the ability to design a coherent presentation of his photographs.
Now, a naturalized French citizen, his nationality is no longer doubtful.
The excellent exhibition catalogue provides a complete history of his career both with text essays and with the reproduction of virtually all of his photographs. It is gratifying to see an exhibition in which attention to meticulous detail has contributed so much to the viewers’ experience.
Without question, this is a must-see exhibition.
Inoformation: Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful at the Getty Center Los Angeles until March 2, 2015.