By, Frank Horvat
“Sometimes I photograph without looking through the viewfinder, I have mastered that well enough, it is almost as if I were looking through it.”
First interview, January 1987
Frank Horvat : You ask if I have made good use of my vision. I believe I have used it too little. Photographers like Henri (Cartier-Bresson) always have a camera with them and are looking all the time. I don’t know how to do that. Right now, for example, I am not looking, my mind is occupied by words.
Joseph Koudelka : What do you mean by “I am not looking”?
Frank Horvat : I am not looking with the idea to make a photograph.
Joseph Koudelka : How are you looking?
Frank Horvat : I am seeing only a few of things around me. Only those that I want to see.
Joseph Koudelka : But to see what you want to see, you have to look. And to choose..
Frank Horvat : It seems to me that, to see “photographically”, I have to prepare myself in advance. Possibly for a long time. For instance it would be difficult for me, on my way out from here, to make photos of Paris. To see, I would have to go to another city, say to New York, live in a hotel room by myself and start walking through the streets, at first without a camera. And little by little I would begin to see. In the same way, I wouldn’t know how to make a portrait of a woman, just off the hip. I would have to think about her, to imagine her. She would have to prepare herself or to be prepared with someone’s help. And even then, when I would eventually be facing her, with my camera, I might not feel ready. It could take me two or three hours to understand her, little by little, through the viewfinder.
Joseph Koudelka : Perhaps because you want to understand. Me, I do not try to understand. For me, the most beautiful thing is to wake up, to go out, and to look. At everything. Without anyone telling me “You should look at this or that.” I look at everything and I try to find what interests me, because when I set out, I don’t yet know what will interest me. Sometimes I photograph things that others would find stupid, but with which I can play around. Henri as well says that before meeting a person, or seeing a country, he has to prepare himself. Not me, I try to react to what comes up. Afterwards, I may come back to it, perhaps every year, ten years in a row, and I will end by understanding.
Frank Horvat : You prepare yourself in your way. I imagine that when you find a subject that interests you, your photo is, in a way, already prepared within you. As if you had set up a place into which it fits.
Joseph Koudelka : What’s “my photo”?
Frank Horvat : Your photos often are recognizable, which is to say that they have something in common. Maybe the space between the figures, and the tensions within that space.
Joseph Koudelka : I don’t know. But I interrupted you, you were speaking about yourself.
Frank Horvat : If I have used my eyes well? I fear not having used my time well.
Joseph Koudelka : That is the gist of my question. Your time, not only your eyes.
Frank Horvat : Look, I met you in person only about an hour ago, though I am familiar with your photos and I remember a few things that I have been told about you. If I had to express the idea that I have of you, in a single sentence, I would say “He lives out of a sleeping bag.” That would sum up your way of using your time, which is different from mine, and probably more efficient. It’s not that I am dissatisfied with my own life. But I know that too often I have done things that didn’t really interest me, or that distracted me from what I thought was my real purpose, because I forced myself to respond to the ideas or the desires of others. I believe that if I was allowed to move back and to relive some hours of my life, the moments I would choose would be those when I was photographing for myself, in the streets of New York or in India. Or even some moments in the studio, when making portraits.
Joseph Koudelka : Personally, I have had the good fortune of always being able to do what I wanted, never working for others. Maybe it is a silly principle, but the idea that no one can buy me is important for me. I refuse assignments, even for projects that I have decided to do anyhow. It is somewhat the same with my books. When my first book, the one on the gypsies, was published, it was hard for me to accept the idea that I could no longer choose the people to whom I would show my photos, that any one could buy them.
Frank Horvat : What are your points of reference – I mean in literature, in painting, in music?
Joseph Koudelka : There are a few things that I like very much, but that I do not practice. I have always played music, and I would like to listen to it more than I do, but I don’t have the opportunity, due to the lack of time and place. When I was a kid, I did a lot of reading, then a little less during my studies, and hardly any since I left Czechoslovakia – always for the same reason, because I do not have a place of my own. When I travel, I don’t even know where I am going to sleep, I don’t think of the place where I will lie down until the moment I roll out my sleeping bag. It’s a rule that I’ve set for myself. Because I told myself that I must be able to sleep anywhere, since sleep is important. In the summer I often sleep outdoors. I stop working when there is no more light, and I start again in the early morning. I do not feel this to be a sacrifice, it would be a sacrifice to live otherwise. As for my points of reference, I don’t know what they would be.
Frank Horvat : But, in the world, what seems important to you?
Joseph Koudelka : Questions about the world are difficult for me. I mistrust words. I come from a system where words have no value. I got used to not listening much to what people say. Or rather, I listen to them, but I give less importance to what they say, than to the way in which they say it. When someone declares: “I am a communist”, (or a socialist, or an anarchist), that means nothing to me. What counts is what people do.
Frank Horvat : But what else counts for you? Is it important that your photos be preserved after your death?
Joseph Koudelka : It never seemed important to me that my photos be published. It’s important that I take them. There were periods where I didn’t have money, and I would imagine that someone would come to me and say: “Here is money, you can go do your photography, but you must not show it.” I would have accepted right away. On the other hand, if someone had come to me saying: “Here is money to do your photography, but after your death it must be destroyed”, I would have refused. Do you understand?
Frank Horvat : What matters is that the photos exist.
Joseph Koudelka : Absolutely. Not that they be published or that people admire me. To be known can even be a nuisance. I don’t like to feel like the center of attention. I often travel to a horse market in the north of England, where I know just about everyone. When they see me they ask: “Your book, when does it come out? I will never see it, I will be dead before then.” And it may be true, some are dead already. But I can always bring to a son the photo of his father, to an old man the photo of when he was not so old. What counts is that the work exists. Besides, I am not someone who likes his own photos very much.
Frank Horvat : But I have been told that you put them on the wall to see if you can live with them.
Joseph Koudelka : I did that in Czechoslovakia, and I would do it again if I had a home. I lived all the time with the photos of the gypsies. If you live all the time with a thing, and you go on looking at it, you end up either by getting tired of it, or by being sure that it satisfies you. For me a good photo is one that I can live with. It’s like living with good music or a good person.
Frank Horvat : Maybe because photography is made essentially of time. I often think that what we show is a point in time, more than a window onto space.
Joseph Koudelka : The philosophic aspects of photography don’t interest me. What interests me are its limits. I always photograph the same people, the same situations, because I want to know the limits of those people, of those situations, and also my own limits. It’s not so important that I succeed in making a photo the first time, nor the fifth, nor the tenth.
Frank Horvat : I know that when you were photographing the gypsies you often went back to the same places, to the homes of the same families.
Joseph Koudelka : I had a specific circuit, where I found the same type of situation again and again. It is what I still try to do, but now it’s gotten more complicated. I have neither a car, nor even a driver’s license, though I hope to get them. When one works as I do, health problems can become a limitation. Some years ago, I suffered from back pains and the doctor told me: “That comes from your lifestyle.” So I took care of myself and recovered, but I know that there will be a time when I will no longer be able to live as I do. When I was thirty, I kept telling myself that at forty a photographer is finished. Possibly this was only to force myself to take advantage of my time. Now I am almost fifty. I still make some good photos and I hope to carry on. But I believe that the truly creative periods are those when you live with intensity. If you lose intensity, you lose everything.
Frank Horvat : But is it a matter of age? The portraits of women, that I made these last years, are perhaps the project into which I have put the most intensity.
Joseph Koudelka : For me, there are few portraits that I truly admire. One time, a funny thing happened : I was near Rome with a pilgrimage of gypsies from Yugoslavia, organized by some Catholic priests. Not actually priests, but some kind of laymen, they earned their living and were nice people. In talking with me, they found out that I was the author of the book about gypsies. They told me that they had a copy of it and that they had cut out the pages, to put them up on the walls of a shack that they used for a chapel. And under each photo the gypsies wrote the name of someone they knew.
Frank Horvat : They knew the actual people that you had photographed?
Joseph Koudelka : No, they knew others, in Yugoslavia, who resembled them. “We know you very well” they said to me, “we call you Iconar”. That reminded me of something that I had said to Henri, one of the first times we met, and that made him really laugh: I said that rather than a photographer, I was a collector of photos.
Frank Horvat : Is that your reason for always going back to the same places?
Joseph Koudelka : It’s the reason why photography was easier in the beginning. It’s like a dart game: at the beginning, you can toss them anywhere, they will always be well placed. Wherever you hit is the right place ( in English in the original). But once you start building something, you realize that certain pieces are missing.
Frank Horvat : So, when you return to those same places, it’s with the idea of completing a series, of which some pieces are still missing?
Joseph Koudelka : I have a general idea. But as I cannot go everywhere, I limit myself to a few countries in Europe that I feel are close to my way of being: like Spain, Ireland, Italy, Greece. I often return there and I hope to continue returning until I will feel sure of having reached the limits of my possibilities. But I would rather not talk about projects.
Frank Horvat : Will this work be as important as what you did in Czechoslovakia?
Joseph Koudelka : I don’t know what’s important to the people who look at my photos. What’s important to me is to make them. I work all the time, but there are only a few of my photos that I find really good. I am not even sure that I am really a good photographer. I think that anyone working as I do could do the same. But my purpose is not to prove my talent. I photograph almost every day, except when it’s too cold for traveling the way I do – as in this time of winter. Sometimes my photos are OK, other times they are not, but I think that eventually something will come out of my work. I don’t worry about it. I also take photos of my own life, such as those at the beginning of the small paperback book: of my feet, of my watch. When I am tired I lie down, and if I feel like photographing and there is nobody around me, I photograph my own feet. They are not great photos, some people dislike them. For a similar reason, I always photograph the places where I sleep, and the interiors where I spend some time. It’s a rule that I have given to myself, because these are things that one forgets. Maybe one day I’ll make a book with them, nothing but those little photos. It may upset some people who know me only as the photographer of gypsies, and who don’t want to see me any other way. But I don’t care about what people think, I don’t try to change people. Nor to change the world.
Second interview, March 1987
Frank Horvat : You said that you were not very happy with our first interview. I re-read the text, and also I re-read my earlier interviews with other photographers. This made me realize that in the course of these meetings, I partly lost sight of my initial purpose, which was to talk about photography, rather than about photographers. Nonetheless, I would like to begin with a personal comment. I know several people who consider you somehow as their conscience. I know that you are not trying to play the role of guru, but it is your severity toward yourself which leads other people to look at themselves with less indulgence.
Joseph Koudelka : You say I am a conscience. That’s the last thing I want to be. It sounds as if I judge others, as if I feel superior. I have only been lucky. Because, at the beginning, I was an aeronautical engineer and was able to do photography without the need to be paid. Later, I continued to be lucky, by having the opportunity to work for eighteen years, without having to accept even a single assignment. But this is no reason to make anyone feel at fault, because my way of doing photography is only one among many – and perhaps not even the best.
Frank Horvat : I would like to see some prints of your work, for example some from the last year, that you said were not quite satisfying to you. And I would like you to explain why.
Joseph Koudelka : I don’t see any reason for doing that. If I am dissatisfied, it’s simply because good photos are few and far between. A good photo is a miracle.
Frank Horvat : But it may be is easier to explain why a photo is not so good, than to explain why it’s good.
Joseph Koudelka : But what if almost all are bad? For you, making photos is different, you like to direct. In my case, all depend on what happens, I have to find a situation that interests me. That is why I keep coming back to the same places. But often what I expect doesn’t happen, or it happens without my being able to make a good photo.
Frank Horvat : But what do you mean by “good”?
Joseph Koudelka : “Good” is when a situation is at its maximum, and when I myself am at my maximum. It may happen that I reach that maximum the very first time, by chance, and that I return to the place another ten times, over ten years, without being able to do any better. Or that in looking for a certain maximum I find something else, that I hadn’t imagined. What matters is my search, my motivation to go further. But I can not sell this way of working to a magazine, I can’t expect them to send me ten times to Lourdes, and to have me come back with some photo that has nothing to do with Lourdes!
Frank Horvat : Was the Prague Spring a maximum? It certainly was an event for which you couldn’t prepare yourself and that had little chance of happening again.
Joseph Koudelka : It has been the maximum of my life. In ten days, everything that could happen in my life did happen. I was at my own maximum, in a situation at its maximum. That may have been the reason why I “covered” it better than all those professional reporters, who had come from all over the world. I wasn’t even a photo journalist. Someone – who in fact knew me rather well – had written about me that I could succeed in any kind of photography, except reportage.
Frank Horvat : Were you aware of it being a maximum, while you were living it? Did you tell yourself every morning: “These days are my maximum, too bad if they cost my life?”
Joseph Koudelka : I wasn’t thinking about danger. Later, some people who had seen me in front of the tanks said that I could have been killed. But I never thought of that. Even though in ordinary life I am far from brave.
Frank Horvat : Actually, I was mistaken in saying that you were not prepared: the work that you had done during the ten preceding years had been a kind of preparation. Without that work, you wouldn’t have been able to photograph the Prague Spring as you did.
Joseph Koudelka : Certainly not. But I do not agree with what that person had written about me. I don’t care what people think, I know well enough who I am. But I refuse to become a slave to their ideas. When you stay in the same place for a certain time, people put you in a box and expect you to stay there.
Frank Horvat : What seems important to me, is that during those days you knew precisely how to see, because you had spent the ten preceding years in training your vision.
Joseph Koudelka : I agree with that. But I don’t pretend to be an intellectual or a philosopher. I just look.
Frank Horvat : And you spend your life looking and saying “yes” or “no” to what you see, by releasing or not releasing the shutter, by choosing or not choosing a contact. It is like the binary system of computers, except with many more a “no” than a “yes”. What seems interesting to me, are the ten years of “yes” and “no” that prepared you to make, at the moment of the Prague Spring, photographs that others didn’t make. Even though the events were the same for all.
Joseph Koudelka : Another reason was that I hadn’t been parachuted into Prague, like the rest. I was a Czechoslovakian, I was photographing in the country whose language I spoke, whose problems were my own problems. And I was working for myself. Too often people with some talent go where there is some money to be made. They begin to trade a bit of their talent for a bit of money, then a little more, and finally they have nothing left to themselves. In Czechoslovakia we didn’t have many freedoms, and particularly not the freedom to make money. But that led us to choose professions that we really loved. I always photographed with the idea that no one would be interested in my photos, that no one would pay me, that if I did something I only did it for myself.
Frank Horvat : I understand. But what seems the most important to me is what you just said about the maximum. Someone else might have made a few well composed photographs, from behind a tree, and then gone home. You went forward, to search further. Because you had a certain idea of that maximum.
Joseph Koudelka : The maximum was in the air. I knew that all the things that could happen in my life were happening. There was a girl I kept running into all the time. At first I was suspicious of her, I imagined KGB spies everywhere. Then that girl approached me, opened her bag and said : “I meet you all the time, you must not have eaten for three days.” So I fell in love with her. Everything that could happen did happen. I met all the people whose existence I had imagined. The power of the situation was so great, that it created all those possibilities.
Frank Horvat : Yes, but if you had not been prepared by the work of the ten preceding years, the situation might have brought you the same intensity, the same love story, but not the same photos.
Joseph Koudelka : That comes from my way of working. After having seen my contacts, I do not only print the good photos, but all those that seem to me of some interest, even if I know that they are botched. And I keep looking at them, so as to integrate that experience into my system. Now I can almost photograph without looking through the viewfinder, I have mastered it so well, that it’s almost as if I were looking through it. What I want is to find a passage from the unconscious to the conscious. When I photograph, I do not think much. If you looked at my contacts you would ask yourself: “What is this guy doing?” But I keep working with my contacts and with my prints, I look at them all the time. I believe that the result of this work stays in me and at the moment of photographing it comes out, without my thinking of it.
Frank Horvat : Like a computer program. You spend a lot of time preparing your program, so that at a given moment, in front of a very complex situation, that program permits you to react instantly and correctly.
Joseph Koudelka : I would have liked to show you a kind of catalog that I made ten years ago, where I classified my photos according to their composition. If there is something that you like and that you are interested in, and if, in addition, you have some ability and a little energy to spend, it’s bound to work. The program will function. But what is important, afterwards, is to leave the program behind and to move ahead. It would be too easy to let yourself become a prisoner of what you have built, to let the results come out automatically. At some point, one must destroy the program, and start a new one from scratch.
Frank Horvat : Yes. When I was doing my essay on trees, I realized that as my work was proceeding, my program would get more and more precise, to the point that in the end it became a limitation, making me do the same photographs over and over!
Joseph Koudelka : I am not interested in repetition. I don’t want to reach the point from where I wouldn’t know how to go further. It’s good to set limits for oneself, but there comes a moment when we must destroy what we have constructed.
Frank Horvat : I agree that we should change the program, but I believe that there are some principles that we shouldn’t touch.
Joseph Koudelka : Which principles?
Frank Horvat : If only I knew! If I do these interviews, it is precisely to find out. One principle could be to always aim for a maximum, as you say. I know photographers who have given up on that. They do a good job, showing what they choose to show, and what indeed is the representation of some reality, but to me that is not enough.
Joseph Koudelka : And why do you think some people give up searching for the maximum?
Frank Horvat : I only know one answer, which scares me: because they don’t have enough energy left.
Joseph Koudelka : That scares me, too. We already talked about it in our first meeting, and I told you that the limit could be around forty. It happens to all of us.
Frank Horvat : On the other hand, Titian made some of his best paintings at eighty. And so did Renoir, Rodin, Picasso. But painting may be a different matter…
Joseph Koudelka : Possibly. It’s also true that Kertesz made some beautiful photos in his last years – but those were not the kind of photos we are talking about, which demand a certain physical fitness, if only to seek out the situations. It seems to me that in painting there is less difference between a masterpiece and a work that is not altogether a masterpiece. Or at least less difference than in photography: because in painting technique is more important.
Frank Horvat : Whereas photography depends on the intensity of the moment. I have great admiration for people like Munkasci, who worked with large format cameras, which allowed them to make only one photo in a given situation. He could never give himself a second chance.
Joseph Koudelka : You may be right. But I am the product of a different era. If I couldn’t shoot lots of photos, I would not be the photographer that I am. Still, the cost of film h as often been a problem. At times, to save money, I had to work with remainders of movie-film, and even to buy film that was stolen. But when I have only three rolls of film left in my bag, I panic.
Frank Horvat : I understand that. Sometimes I shoot fifteen rolls in two hours, just for a studio portrait. But that does not keep me from feeling that each sitting is a unique event, which can never be repeated.
Joseph Koudelka : When I wake up in the morning, and I feel good, I tell myself: “Today may be the last day of my life.” That is my sense of urgency. But I keep wondering about what you just said, that I am a conscience. People have told me that. People much younger than myself have told me: “I would like to work as you do.”
Frank Horvat : Only they don’t.
Joseph Koudelka : Perhaps because they have an idea of me that doesn’t correspond to reality. When I left Czechoslovakia, I used to live on milk, bread and potatoes. It became something I was known for. So much that once, at the home of some friends in Holland, whom I was visiting, they put in front of me a plate of potatoes, while they treated themselves to goulash. I don’t want to be the slave of my legend!
Frank Horvat : You refuse to be the slave of money, the slave of your legend… Are you the slave of something?
Joseph Koudelka : I am the slave of my mind. I travel alone, I sleep outdoors. Even when I get a lift in someone’s car, I separate myself from that person in the morning, and only join up again in the evening. When I arrived in the West, I didn’t speak the local languages, so even when I had the money I didn’t know how to get served in a restaurant. I’m still unable to write French, I feel like an immigrant worker. I have spent much of my time by myself, with the result that I’m stuck with certain ideas, that may not always fit with reality. I am the slave of these ideas.
Frank Horvat : But don’t you think that the real slavery is the one that we choose? Being a slave to money, as I am, is to some extent the result of a choice. The limits of your mind may be something that you have chosen.
Joseph Koudelka : I was born with this mind. It comes from someone who was there before me. But in a certain sense, I chose to be as I am, and it is to this degree that I do not feel it as slavery. It may seem slavery to others, who see me from outside-but for me it’s freedom. Which doesn’t mean that it couldn’t change: now I’m the father of a little girl, and I have to earn money like everyone else. I am fifty years old, it’s the time of reckoning. I have done what I wanted, now I have to make good use of the time and energy that are left. Look: all these files contain my contact sheets – which doesn’t mean that they contain many good photos, only that I have done a lot of work. It will take years to really look at all that. Even if I fall ill, or if I am immobilized for some other reason, there is plenty of work to be done.
Paris, January and March 1987
Translation: Charles Martin,
Department of Comparative Literature, Queens College,
City University of New York, April 2003
Josef Koudelka: Formed by the World.
By JAMES ESTRIN
Josef Koudelka started his professional life as an engineer in Czechoslovakia and switched to photography in his late 20s. He photographed the Soviet invasion of his country in 1968 and published his seminal book, “Gypsies,” in 1975 (a revised and enlarged edition was published by Aperture in 2011).
His new book, “Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes,” also published by Aperture, is a result of four years of photographing the Israeli-built wall that separates the Palestinian West Bank and Israel. The book came out of a group project, “This Place: Making Images, Breaking Images — Israel and the West Bank,” that was organized by the photographer Frédéric Brenner and included Mr. Koudelka and 11 other photographers.
Mr. Koudelka, 75, has been a member of Magnum Photos for more than 40 years. He spoke with James Estrin in Paris last week. The conversation has been edited and will run in two parts on Lens, Tuesday and Wednesday.
Q. We met last time in Charlottesville, atLook3.
A. I try to do a minimum of interviews and usually I do an interview because I am having a show and I know I have to. Usually it lasts a long time. I don’t want to do it quickly, but I want to do it thoroughly.
Whatever I do, essentially, I do for myself. I didn’t do “Gypsies” to save Gypsies, because even I know I can’t save them. So everything I do for myself. If it helps something, I am very pleased. I go around the world and try to discover what interests me and what has something to do with me. For that reason, I never work for a magazine, I never did any fashion, I never made any publicity. For me, a project must interest me and have something to do with me.
So when this group project came up, I said no, I don’t want to participate. First of all, I don’t want to get mixed up with Israel because it’s very, very complicated and it was not exactly my idea. Secondly, it was a group project and I am very suspicious of group projects because you can control what you do, but you can’t control what the others do.
So, I refused to go there.
Frédéric Brenner pushed me to go. He said go for two weeks and have a look. I said I will go on the condition that I pay for my own ticket because I know that I am going to tell you no. I know him very well, since he started to take pictures, and I like him and I think he’s an honest man.
I had never been in Israel, and I wanted to know what Israel was about, so I said O.K. And I discovered that it has something to do with me.
For 25 years, and this is my longest photographic project, I have been interested in how contemporary man influences the landscape. I have made 10 books on it.
Then I discovered the wall. I grew up behind a wall so I knew what it was. For me, the good photographer is not the guy who goes on the street for 10 minutes and takes this fantastic picture. The good photographer must create the conditions so that he can be good. I found that the destruction of the landscape is very bad. This is the landscape that had something to do with me.
I didn’t really want to get mixed up with this, so I needed to have the guarantee that they would let me do what I wanted. Only after four trips of three weeks each to Israel was I sure that I have the guarantee that I am not going to be used — that I will be given the freedom to do all that I wanted in Israel. And that I can control it, from the beginning to the final product. Only then did I sign the contract.
This was going to be a book and I was going to pick the publisher. If you look at only three of the photos you might not understand what it is all about. The question for me was if I do an exhibition should there be text. I don’t need text. There will be a short text in the back like in “Black Triangle.”
A. What is interesting for me is that I showed these books in Israel and everyone told me this book is not a political book — that this is about man and the place. This book is not about conflict — of course you can take it as you want.
An Israeli poet said to me, “You did something important — you made the invisible visible.” He meant that Israelis don’t want to see the wall and they don’t even want to speak about it. They don’t go across it. It is very easy to live in one country, in France or Czechoslovakia, and ignore completely one thing, one important thing, that you want to ignore.
Q. The thing that struck me when thinking about the book and thinking about you is that you photograph people who are rootless. In “Exiles” they are people who had to leave home. Gypsies don’t have a home or their home may be the next place they go to. To some Palestinians the wall is keeping them from their home.
A. I was brought up behind the wall and all my life I wanted to get out, and this is the principle of the wall — you know you can’t get out.
Q. So it’s not just a physical wall?
A. Of course it is a physical wall. I hope my book is not about my experience. In my “Black Triangle” book, I am not an ecologist though I am very happy if it is used to help the land. The viewer can take something else out of it.
I don’t like picture stories. In fact I think picture stories destroyed all photography. You needed to have a close-up and you needed to do other things and for me I am interested in one picture that tells many different stories to different people. That is to me a sign of the good picture.
We all see through our experiences. So because of my experiences, essentially the wall is about not being able to go to the other side.
Every day that I was there I didn’t see anything else but the wall, and I can tell you I couldn’t stand it longer than three weeks. I was so depressed that I needed to go away.
When I first started to take photographs in Czechoslovakia, I met this old gentleman, this old photographer, who told me a few practical things. One of the things he said was, “Josef, a photographer works on the subject, but the subject works on the photographer.” I have the camera’s viewfinder and I am trying to put the world — for the world — in the viewfinder. But in the same time the world is forming me.
A. I did 25 or 26 dummies of the book. The work is done only after 1,000 possibilities you come to the one that must be done this way and not differently.
A. I think it is not only about the wall, my book is about the wall and the Israel and Palestinian landscape. You have this divided country and these people who react certain ways to these conditions.
For me, Palestinian or Israeli, I look at you for who you are. When I left Czechoslovakia people asked me: “Are you a Communist? Are you opposed to communism? Are you an anarchist?” How you label it doesn’t mean much to me.
We have a divided country and each of two groups of people tries to defend themselves. The one that can’t defend itself is the landscape. I call what is going on in this most holy landscape, which is most holy for a big part of humanity, is the crime against the landscape. As there exists crimes against humanity there should exist the crime against the landscape.
I am principally against destruction — and what’s going on is a crime against the landscape that is enormous in one of the most important landscapes in the world.
A. I was never really interested in publishing my photographs. I was never interested, but now I am changing.
In the past if somebody had come to me and said, “I’ll give you money to photograph on the condition that you will not publish your photographs,” I would have accepted without any question. But if he would say, “I want to destroy your photographs,” I would have said no. For me the essence is important.
I am not this guy who wants to change the world — of course I would be happy if it helped. But I remember when I published my Gypsy book I felt like a prostitute because suddenly anyone who has money could buy it.
I wanted to choose the people who I wanted to show the photographs to. This was a deformation from Czechoslovakia because I knew that my photographs didn’t have importance there.
(He laughs.) I couldn’t help my Gypsies. If I was only going to be photographing Gypsies I was going to run into problems from the government, because they didn’t want much talk about the Gypsies.
I have this deformation, from this Czech period when I was growing up, in many different ways. It goes even to the language. I don’t believe what people say. What was written or what you heard — the contrary was true.
For me what photographers say about their photos doesn’t have any importance. For me it is just enough to look at the pictures. Many times — for the boring pictures — people have to say so many things about them to show you there is something to them when many times there is nothing.
A. I told you that I am changing. Of course I don’t have any illusion about this book that it will change anything. I am just showing what I saw. That’s all.
A. I never use the explanation of “art,” as a matter of fact every time there is the Magnum meeting and they start to talk about art I say: “Can we eliminate from the annual meeting the word art? Let’s just talk about photography. What is this art?”
I became what I am from how I was born, but also what photography made from me. Other people ask me, “Are you still Czech or are you French?” I don’t know who I am — people who see me might say who I am. I am the product of all this continuous traveling, but I know where I come from.
It is not my village where I was born, but a few kilometers to the south which is South Moravia, because there is the best songs and the best music there. If these songs and the music came from this land, then I have to have come from there too.
I am still trying to find how far I can go in photography. I realize the limitations. Most photographers die when they are 40 years old. I might be dead myself by now. That’s for other people to say. But I am still interested in taking photographs and I am still interested in life. I am still going on because I don’t put so many limitations on myself.
Take for example Bresson and Klein. As Henri started, he finished. With the exception that at the beginning he was the best. He still took some excellent photographs. And Klein used the wide-angle lens throughout his life.
When I was in Prague, I photographed the Gypsies with an Exacta camera and a 25-millimeter Flektogon f4 lens. I shot inside mostly at a 30th of a second or less. I bulk-loaded this East German 400 ASA movie film – and pushed it as far as it could go in a hot developer. Sometimes I left it in overnight. Sometimes to 3200 ASA.
There was such a density of negative that when I made my first exhibition of the Gypsies I made a second set and made a copy negative of it so everything that was in the Magnum archive was printed from the copy negative.
When I understood that I don’t need any more wide-angle lens photos – that on the contrary there’s a repetition coming – I bought two Leicas and started to use a 35-millimeter lens and a 50-millimeter lens. I knew that the techniques will change the vision — if you change the technique.
I think it is also the training from Czechoslovakia that I appreciate the freedom. You want to keep this feeling of freedom, and you want to go farther, so you break the rule, you destroy the house, and you start again.
For example, shooting this panorama film camera complicates my life enormously because you have four frames on 120 film and in one day you shoot 20 rolls and that’s already $200. So you must have somebody who gives money and then they expect that you finish something.
I was using this Fuji panoramic — but the problem was everyone stopped developing the film. You can’t get 220 film anymore and you needed to carry about 35 kilograms extra. I went to Leica and they did one camera for me that was digital panoramic, which is this S2 camera, and they make two lines and set it on black and white. I made four trips with it together with the film camera. In the last two trips I realized I was taking more pictures with this Leica and I am enjoying it more. The result is very comparable. The lens was exactly the same.
The principal difference is first of all you don’t have to carry the film, and you don’t need to process it and you don’t have to carry all the weight and you don’t have to find the money. The digital is much more precise and I have more control of the focus, the depth of the focus, and I can photograph much closer. It gives me more possibilities.
Landscape photography is fantastic. It’s not by chance that as they get older many photographers start with the landscape. There are certain things you have to do to photograph people — you have to be able to run. If you photograph people, all of the time you are running after something and you are losing all the time. With landscapes you are waiting all the time. It’s much more relaxing.
I’m 75 now so for that reason — discovering digital landscapes at 75 — I am saying, “Viva la revolucion.”
I want to show you this little book I bought 20 years ago in Czechoslovakia. It is the speech of Chief Seattle to the president of the United States in 1854. It is so beautiful. It applies to Israel.
He says the land doesn’t belong to the people — it is the people who belong to the land. The land is the mother and what is happening to the mother is going to happen to the son too. This is the question about selling the land. He said how can you sell your mother — how can you sell the air — and he said if you are spitting on your land you are spitting on your mother.
But now with the digital camera I have the possibility that I can just pay my ticket and pick up the camera and go where I want. I have friends everywhere who let me stay with them. So I have three years more and then I want to make a really important exhibition and two books. One will be a book with text.
Since the beginning of photography everybody has photographed these places, but nobody has ever visited almost all of them.
Nothing is permanent — that’s also what I learned from the Gypsies. Bresson used to tell me that your problem is that you don’t think about the future, and that’s exactly what I learned from the Gypsies. Not to worry much about the future. And I learned that to be alive I don’t need much. So I never worried about money because I knew in the past if I needed the money I borrowed it so I didn’t lose the time.
And time is the only thing you have in your life, and if you are getting older you feel it a little more. But I felt that all my life.
When I was planning to go to Israel, Frédéric [Brenner] prepared for me meetings with philosophers and rabbis and I said: “Listen, I went through all this in Communist Czechoslovakia. Before going to Yugoslavia, they said you have to learn what you are going to see.”
I said I get my knowledge through my eyes and if you look enough and give enough time, even if you do not have a fantastic brain, which I don’t think much about my brain, you will get to certain conclusions and I think I get to the conclusions. I didn’t want to talk to anybody before going there.
I am grateful to Frédéric Brenner that he pushed me to do it though because it made me richer as a human being.
Beauty is very relative and it depends on each person and the beauty is everywhere and the beauty is even in the tragedy.
JOSEF KOUDELKA: “Modern Sublime: The World of Josef Koudelka at the Rencontres d’Arles” (2003)
By Bruno Chalifour
“I would like to see everything, to look at everything.” (1) These are Josef Koudelka’s words quoted by Robert Delpire, his friend, editor and curator. “My photographs, you know them. You have published them, you have exhibited them, then you can tell whether they mean something or not.” (2) The fact is Robert Delpire is far from being a novice in the world of photography. Unbeknownst to many, he was the first publisher of Robert Frank’s The Americans in 1958, a year before Grove Press in the U.S., and the first director of the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris.
“I try to be a photographer. I cannot talk. I am not interested in talking. If I have anything to say, it may be found in my images. I am not interested in talking about things, explaining about the whys and the hows. I do not mind showing my images, but not so much my contact sheets. I mainly work from small test prints. I often look at them, sometimes for a long time. I pin them to the wall, I compare them to make up my mind, be sure of my choices. I let others tell me what they mean. [To Robert Delpire] My photographs, you know them. You have published them, you have exhibited them, then you can tell whether they mean something or not.” (3)
An event eclipsed all others last summer at the 33rd Annual International Photography festival in Arles, France: the Josef Koudelka retrospective curated by Robert Delpire. (4) Les Rencontres d’Arles, as this festival is now officially called, needed a gros coup, a change of direction. Sponsorship and attendance had been dropping for the past seven years despite various attempts to revive one of the oldest photography festivals. A new president, Francois Barre (director of Beaubourg museum in Paris from 1993 to 1996) and a new board (including Jean Baudrillard, Robert Delpire, Alain Fleischer, Jean-Luc Monterosso (5) had been chosen at the end of 2001 Rencontres. They appointed a “new” director for the next five years, Francois Hebel. He had been a previous director of the Rencontres in 1986 and 1987, the director of the Paris bureau of Magnum from 1988 to 2000, the assistant-director of Corbis Europe in 2000 and 2001. He left Corbis in the middle of turmoil, surrounded by frustrated photographers, to join the team of the Rencontres.
With new old blood, new energies, the festival in the summer of 2002 heavily relied on Magnum (6) for its appeal and presented 30 exhibitions in 18 locations, most of them situated within walking distance in the antique Mediterranean city. It also offered two international conferences, 19 workshops, and eight night projections at the antique Roman theater. At the chore of the 2002 programming was a comprehensive survey of Josef Koudelka’s lifework. In order to cover the scope of his phenomenal oeuvre and draw audiences back to Arles, Hebel with the help of Delpire opened four different spaces to the retrospective, a first in Arles. Hundreds of Koudelka’s black and white images of various formats and sizes created during a career that spans over 40 years were on display for thousands of eyes. The retrospective was organized followed the course of the photographer’s life. An evening projection was also dedicated to Koudelka’s work but failed to meet the audience’s expectations. What could have been an opportunity for the artist to explain his vision and projects and expand on them, one of the delights of such evenings in Arles as illustrated later that week by Larry Sultan, was only a reiteration of the exhibitions. Koudelka, in accordance with his own words (see above), remained almost silent during the duration of the event compelling the audience to go and buy the latest-published book on him that was being sold in the local bookstores (7).
From Gypsies, 1975
Born in 1938 in Czechoslovakia and trained as an engineer, Josef Koudelka turned to photography very early on. His first professional work began with photographs taken for theater companies and magazines in Prague. The first exhibition space of the Rencontres was mainly dedicated to these images. In 1962, the photographer embarked on an eight-years’ project, a photo-essay in the tradition of Life magazine as revisited by Eugene Smith and Cartier-Bresson, on the Gypsies of Czechoslovakla. The work was noticed by Anna Farova, a famous Czech critic and curator. She showed Koudelka’s photographs to Allan Porter, the editor of Camera (Switzerland), and to John Szarkowski, the director of photography at MoMA. Porter published the work as a portfolio in Camera in 1967 and then as a monograph in 1979. Szarkowski included Koudelka in his famous Looking at Photographs show and catalog of 1973 and in 1975 gave Koudelka a one-man show at MoMA while Aperture published the accompanying book Gypsies (8). This vast body of work was solemnly showcased at the 2002 Rencontres in a large exhibition room at the Espace Van Gogh, the only light sources being the halogen lamps lighting the photographs, giving the impression that the exhibition was held in a church. In tune with the somewhat solemn atmosphere, the visitors seemed to be aware of the close proximity of the Saintes Maries de La Men, a well-known Gypsy shrine, and to pay respect to the ancient Gypsy culture which has played an important role in the local life, the Camargue life-style, with its music, its strong religious feeling and its love of horses.
The third body of work on display at the Rencontres was composed of the images that launched Koudelka’s career as an international photographer and opened the doors of the prestigious Magnum agency to him (9).
Dramatic events had taken place in Czechoslovakla in the spring of 1968 and Koudelka had witnessed them firsthand, and recorded them on 35 mm film. His images of the invasion of Prague by the troops of the Warsaw Pact were smuggled out of Czechoslovakla to the U.S. and distributed via Magnum to newspapers and magazines around the world. For safety reasons, Koudelka, still in Czechoslovakla, was awarded the Robert Capa Prize for these photographs anonymously. At the time, Delpire, at the Centre National de La Photographie, understood how important the work was and knew that magazines had only published a small portion of it, often favoring the most sensational pictures. Many saw the black and white photograph of the student opening his shirt and offering his bare chest to the gun of a Russlan soldier standing on top of a tank, but not so many saw the image of that young woman crying, holding a blood-stained flag. The Centre National de La Photographie published the entire series in 1990 in a speclal collection within the Photo Poche series under the title Prague 1968.
In 1970, Koudelka managed to leave his country and sought refuge in England, from there he emigrated to France where he became a Magnum associate in 1971 and full member in 1974. Since that time, the photographer has lived in exile, both physically and mentally, and his photography has established its roots in this state of being, as illustrated by the exhibition, Josef Koudelka (10) curated by Delpire at the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris. The book, Exils, was published as a catalogue to the show by Delpire in 1988 (11) and by Thames and Hudson in London as well as Aperture in New York the same year. Although Gypsies dealt with the daily lives of these traditionally migrant populations of Europe, Exils(Exiles in its English version) was not designed around a specific theme except its alienated and alienating atmosphere, which is why Exils is a complete departure from the Gypsies, Gypsies was composed of portraits where the sitters were facing the camera, completely aware of the photographer’s p resence and accepting of it, thus allowing the photographer to enter a world that very few gadje (non-Gypsies) know from the inside. There are also more spontaneous, “non-portraits” where the instant becomes decisive and conveys the strength and depth of Koudelka’s vision. These images are extremely dynamic and enigmatic, as is the case with “Okres Nove Zamky” (1967) where a teenager holding something resembling a toy gun, big enough to be real, is running in the foreground toward a group of two women and three children standing on a dirt road in the middle ground. The ambiguity of the scene arises from the fact that one of the two women is carrying a young child, the youngest of the three, and turning away from the running boy, as if in a gesture of protection. Another disturbing factor is that the main protagonist of the photograph, the disheveled running youth, seems to be casting two long human shadows onto the ground, drawing a threatening diagonal rising in the direction of the peaceful group. We are wi tnessing here, through Koudelka’s frame, the violent confrontation of a young male with motherhood and childhood. The ambiguity sometimes present in Gypsies reached a climax in the following body of work.
From Gypsies, 1975
The photographs of Exils totally eliminate any feeling of empathy toward the subject as shown in Gypsies. First of all, the viewer will recognize that the format of the show and the book follow a structure that Delpire and Frank had already used for The Americans. Exils is organized around six “chapters.” The number of photographs in each of them varies, but each seems to have a visual theme. An almost stifling and overwhelming feeling of solitude, abandonment, a deep sense of alienation, sternness and a strong, dark atmosphere (the final touch that makes a photograph work and grab you as identified by Bill Brandt in his introduction to Camera in London (12) emerge from those black and white images. Even scenes of play, fairs and celebration are contaminated. Everything becomes dramatically theatrical emphasizing and projecting the difference between real life and the theater: on stage, as in most of Koudelka’s images, time and actions are condensed; emotions rapidly brought to a climax,
There is a constant tension in Koudelka’s photographs. It pervades every image he has taken since the Prague invasion of 1968. Exils begins with the only view of Prague in the book, one taken of a large avenue at midday, completely deserted, similar to a scene from H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds though eerier as there is hardly a trace of violence. The silence that reigns echoes the one that follows the fall of the curtain at the end of the fifth act of a tragedy. But there is no applause here, just cold silence; only someone’s arm stretched across the foreground, showing the time on his watch, diffuses the idea of death. Death, however, is a constant player that waits in the wings of several of the photographs of Exiles. It is definitely introduced in the first chapter with the image of a man sleeping on a stone bench in his coat. His slumber evokes Hamlet’s “sleep of death,” one that is haunted by nightmares only. A few pages later, another image shows a turtle on its back, frozen on a dark and dull day, o ne of those days when “the sky weighs like a solid and heavy lid over the earth.” (13) The first chapter ends with a pile of debris, a leitmotive that will become extremely familiar in Koudelka’s latest coffee-table book of large black and white panoramic views, Chaos. Dark and long shadows, and again people seen from their backs, giving no human eye contact, populate the pages of chapter two. It is as if Koudelka was constantly taking us along the streets of Prague in that winter of 1968. Black is the color of Koudelka’s vision in Exils. A pile of fallen timbers echoes the previous debris and reminds us of the punctuation of Old Glory in Frank’s The Americans.
Koudelka pushes further Frank’s vision that was dismissed when his book first came out because of its apparent dullness and claustrophobic atmosphere. The Czech adds here the rigorous use of the frame advocated by Henri Cartier-Bresson (no wonder he felt at home at Magnum, no wonder Cartier-Bresson and Delpire welcomed him, although, paradoxically, Elliot Erwitt, the agency’s jester was the one who introduced them). Rigor is what concludes this second chapter, with an image that is so strictly composed and so ideally geometrical, that even the centenary buildings in the background look staged; time seems to have stopped its flight and a lonely woman, seen from her right profile, looming over a block of stone in the foreground looks “statuefied” and “medusa-like.” Religion, death and solitude, again, are the themes of the third chapter. The fourth chapter concentrates on an eerie situation where and when everything, even the people who inhabit them, seem elsewhere, unreal, lost in utter and incomprehensible de tachment; waiting for Godot without exchanging a single glance or a single word. Chapters five and six reiterate and reinforce the same atmosphere although the last images seem to introduce a certain lightness of being…in quiet desperation. Exils is a definite turning point in Koudelka’s work and the subjects and the format chosen for the ensuing projects only confirm this. In Aries, though, this particularly meaningful body of work was not given the space and importance that its power and relevance deserve, mainly by lack of appropriate space and the same chapel also displayed the beginnings of a new era in the photographer’s life: the move from 35 mm to panoramic medium format.
From Gypsies, 1975
In 1986, for a project commissioned by the French government and whose goal was to document the French landscape at the end of the century (14), Koudelka had started to use a medium format panoramic camera. Along with a new approach and format (“new” not only for Koudelka at the time but panoramic views seem to have regained fashion in landscape photography lately) the 2 1/4″X 6 3/4″ (6 cm X 17 cm) negatives allowed for mural-sized enlargements, a possibility that the photographer has fully used in the shows that have followed. From Paysages Photographies, La mission de la Datar to the Cross Channel Mission (15), Regards d’acier (commissioned by Sollac, a French steel manufacturer), The Black Triangle (1990-1994) in the Ore-Mountains of Bohemia, Ulysses’ Gaze, Beyrouth Centre Ville (16), Reconnaissance Wales, Limestone and more recently En Chantier, Koudelka has been visiting the devastated and dilapidated landscapes of the post-industrial and postmodern era. His travels have taken him to Berlin, Beyrouth, Pa ris, Czechoslovakia, Bosnia, France, Germany, Greece, Poland, Romania, Ukraine, and Wales. In 1999, the fruit of thirteen years of errance in the pursuit of the ruins of modern civilization, of the consequences of abandonment and entropy was edited and brought into an impressive coffee-table book/essay, Chaos by the same Robert Delpire. Taken out of their specific contexts, the apocalyptic images made during the above-mentioned assignments, as well as various personal trips, acquire a wider general meaning and validity. Chaos stands as a monument to the aftermath of the industrial revolution and the modern era, it is the toll of the modern age. It stands as the result of Koudeika’s very powerful and idiosyncratic vision, one already formulated and distilled in the stark and sometimes mysterious photographs of Exils. On various occasions in Chaos the artist seems to take formal and esthetical “risks,” leaving aside the “ordering of chaos” that is typical of the approach to traditional composition and most of h is previous work, even moving away from a sequel of a trend that tends to focus on the “in-between moments”, and the periphery of the decisive moment and the frame, as exemplified in Raymond Depardon’s work (17), one of Koudelka’s colleague at Magnum. In the following images in Chaos, “Beirut, Lebanon, 1991″ (p.13 and again 42), the central image of the triptych made of three vertical panoramic views (p.15) taken in San Francisco [990, “Germany, 1995” (p.82) and “Slovakia, 1991” (p. 86-87), the content of the photographs and the world seem to implode. The viewer loses its footing, the world sinks. Top / bottom, left / right do not make sense anymore as if photographer, camera, audience and mankind with them were being swallowed by a huge and monstrous maeistrom. The world loses its shape, the horizon sinks to become a giant entropic magma. The world as we know it seems close to its end and becomes a dark landscape of the mind which is not without evoking some images by Carl Chiarenza (18) in a more viscous an dynamic form though.
“Devastation is photogenic,” claims Koudelka whose empathy with the scars left on the environment by Man’s violent carelessness is expressed through the dark and strictly-composed draughts of a “mad geometrician.” The photographer’s black and white prints (he only used color once and never liked it) recreate a world that lies somewhere between Shakespeare’s King Lear and Alfred jarry’s Ubu Roi. It is a world of muted sound and obvious devastation seen and told by an extremely opinioned and almost obsessive eye whose fascinated and fascinating quest follows a manic spiral. The retrospective in Aries stressed this approach and its chronology, culminating with Chaos in the chapel of the Praying Friars. The first location of the retrospective, on the first floor of the interestingly renovated Espace Van Gogh exhibited the early works, mainly the theater images and a few personal images, some of which in a panoramic format achieved by cropping square images into elongated prints. The second part of the show was lo cated in two adjoining rooms on the first floor of the same Espace and was dedicated to the Gypsiesseries. A block away, a first chapel harbored Exils and displayed a few accordion books of panoramic photographs (The Black Triangle, Limestone and Reconnaissance Wales). And to conclude, the bouquet final, a selection of panoramic images from the Chaos series was “staged” in this superb new (although from the 15th century) location, La Chapelle des Freres Prieurs (the chapel of the Praying Friars). To say Koudelka’s work was “staged” there is totally appropriate in regard of the theatrical quality of the display. The entire Inner space of the chapel lay in total darkness; halogen light was only cast onto the large panoramic photographs. In the background a soundtrack of running water and gravel could be heard. The whole scene reinforced the sublime quality of the photographs, the beauty and strength of their depiction of destruction, and beyond destruction the evocation of an ultimate nothingness, death. In the world of Josef Koudelka, all things human express the futility and the devastation engendered by a neverending quest for power, through technological and violent means, best exemplified by war. All ends badly, in entropic devastation. A silent horror pervades those images, the “horror” mentioned by Kurtz at the end Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the one conveyed by deserted battle-fields, emptied concentration camps, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, vast abandoned industrial sites where human labor and hopes have been reduced to despair, nothingness. Only Nature seems to be able to prevail, ultimately, in a perpetual spiral–a downward spiral and not a cycle because it has integrated Man’s intrusive impact. It feels as it only the ultimate extinction of the human race will able to stop that deadly spiral. However, Koudelka seems to find an ultimate redemption in these apocalyptic landscapes. Of his images of the Ore Mountains (The Black Triangle) the photographer said they were “tragic but beautiful. Horribly beauti ful. […] In that wounded landscape I find an untamed beauty. Strength. The struggle for survival. After its destruction, land slowly begins to recover, to renew itself, and life begins again. 1. .1 Nature finds a new balance, creates a new landscape. […] In that landscape you can see how strong Nature is. That it is stronger than Man. That it cannot be destroyed.” In the same interview he added: “I have always been drawn to what is ending, what will soon no longer exist.” (19)
From Gypsies, 1975
Chaos, the show as well as the book, takes a new turn in the presentation of Koudelka’s work. Vertical images are more frequent, which is a rare occurrence with panoramic format. They are often grouped in triptychs. They have no specific common titles, each image retains its caption specifying location and year. “Beirut, Lebanon, 1991″/”San Francisco, U.S.A., 1990″ / “Poland, 1994″ (Chaos, 15) becomes a very abstract composition reminiscent of photographs by Minor White, Walter Chappel or Carl Chiarenza. “Palermo, Italy, 1993″ I “Ukraine, 1992″ I “Berlin, Germany, 1990″ (Chaos, 20) does the same, playing on the commonality of shapes and textures. A circular shape always either emerges from or sinks into a ravaged surface. Desolation has become global and the photographer’s world is decidedly anchored in formalism. Through Robert Delpire’s vision of Koudelka’s work and his editing, the work reaches far beyond the humanistic genre of photography that Magnum is famous for. It takes a connotation that must be fam iliar to the readers of William Blake’s poetry or the viewers of Akira Kurosawa’s movies, an apocalyptic vision of a world devastated as a result of human folly. “Valencia, Spain, 1989″ / “The Wall, Berlin, Germany, 1990″! “Beirut, Lebanon, 1991″ (Chaos, 30) combines two views of war zones, strewn with the remnants of political violence and combat, with a photograph of an abandoned statue protected by a shroud of plastic, as if in a body bag, a timber and some pieces of wood propped against it. This dismal, lugubrious atmosphere is somewhat echoed in its evocation of death, a pervading theme in Koudelka’s work, by “Crimea, Ukraine, 1993″ (Chaos, 75) showing a closed metallic coffin abandoned among ruins. This theme has always been subtly present in Koudelka’s work after the Spring of 1968 in Prague. It was already there in Exils in that photograph of a dead crow hanging from a horizontal barbed wire, the very image that Delpire had chosen for the cover of Josef Koudelka, the little monograph published by the Centre National de la Photographie in 1984 (20).
Beyond the work itself, the Aries retrospective and the Chaos project achieve a rare definition of Koudelka’s idiosyncratic status at Magnum as well as in the history of world photography. He is a photographer who has hardly ever worked on other people’s assignments. When he has photographed on commissions, Koudelka has always managed to keep carte blanche and to choose his own subjects. When subjects were proposed, he has just “refrained” them in his own style, to meet the goals and requirements of a highly coherent ceuvre. His life is entirely and solely dedicated to photography. For nearly thirty years now, an extremely literate editor and close friend, Robert Delpire has understood this fact and orchestrated it. Although Delpire’s curating in Chaos had a tendency to isolate Koudelka’s photographs from their obvious socio-political context and implications, it has subtly stressed the photographer’s existential and artistic quest. Koudelka’s quest has established him as one of the most extraordinary photogr aphers and powerful artists of the twentieth century, the epitome of content meeting form, “the silent equivalent of an epic drama.” (21)
[Robert Delpire’s retrospective of Josef Koudelka’s work is available through Magnum.]
(1.) Delpire. Robert, “Josef Koudelka.” Contacts. vol. i, DVD (Paris: Arte/La Sept, 1999.)
(4.) Robert Delpire was the first one to publish Robert Frank’s Les Americians in 1958, a book published a year later In the us as The Americans. He became the first director of the centre National de la Photographic In Paris and as such created the now famous Photopoche series imitated all over the world. He also edited and published Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photographe, Koudelka’s Gitans, la fin du voyage, Exils and’ chaos (1999)
(5.) Jean-luc Monterosso is the director of La Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris and one of the creators of Le Molt do is Photo, Paris biannual photo-festival.
(6.) Magnum is a prestigious co-op photo-agency created in 1947 by Robert cape, Henri cartler-Bresson, George Rodger. David Seymour, known for its humanist, ethical as well as aesthetic approach to documentary, its foil use of the frame and the strict but creative composition of its images as epitomized in Cartier-Bresson’s essay and photographs In The Decisive Moment (1952)
(7.) Josef Koudelka, (Prague Torst, 2002). With probably the best price/content ratio, this paperback contains quality reproductions of Koudelka’s retrospective and a rare interview of Koudelka.
(8.) Gypsies had been edited by Robert Delpire and published as Gitans: la fin du voyage, Paris, 1975. (Only issued in 1977.)
(9.) In order to become a member of Magnum photographers have to be co-opted by older ones and voted in. The agency is famous for its code of ethics and its in-depth studies of subjects as well as the formal and esthetic qualities of its members’ images.
(10.) Josef Koudelka, retrospective show curated by Robert Delpire at the Centre National do la Photographie, Paris, 1988.
(11.) Exils published by the centre National do Ia Photography in 1988 was also released the same year as Exiles in London by Thames and Hudson and in New York by Aperture along with a show alto curated by Delpire at the Iternational center of Photography in New York The Maine Photographic workshops granted it the Book of the Year Award.
(12.) In the Introduction of his book of photographs, camera in London (1938), the English photographer Bill Brandt defines what motivates and triggers his photographic impulse ache strolls along the streets of his dry, an echo to Baudelaire’s or Walter Benjamin’s Flaneur. Both Brandt’s and Koudelka’s works have a very strong sense of “atmosphere”. a very compelling character conveyed by dark tones, strong lines, almost disturbing at times.
(13.) Baudelaire, charles, “Spleen.” Los fleurs do mal (1861).
(14.) The DATAR project / Paysages photographies. la mission photographique de la DATAR (1986-1990), a project funded by the French government after the 1861 Mission Heliographique, commissioned about 20 photographers, among whom were L gait, F. Golkhe, G. Basllico, R. Dopardon, R. Doisneso, J. Koudelka, T. struth. This initiative was followed by several other “missions” in several French regions such as the TransManche/Cross Channel project, la mission du littoral, and Lea 4 saisons de Metz pour la photographie.
(15.) La Mission TranaManche/The crosschannel Mission, Cahier 6 in 1989, was Koudelka’s first monograph using panoramic Images and that was presented as an “accordion” book. This format allowing 8″x23″ reproductions on two pages was used for the books that followed (The Black Triangle, Reconnsistance Wales, Limestone, En chantier.
(16.) KOUDELKA, Josef, BASILICO, Gabriele, DEPARDON, Raymond, ELKOURY, Fousd, BURRI, Rene, and Robert FRANK, Beyrouth, Centre Ville (Paris: Editions do Cypres, 1992.)
(17.) Raymond Depardon is another member of Magnum, which he joined in 1979 after leaving Gamma that he had co-founded in 1966. Volume 81 of the Photopoche series is dedicated to his work. Ho has published numerous books and Is also a famous documentary and fiction film director. He waa chosen for the 1997 Annual of Reporters sans Frontieres (Reporters without Borders) and participated in the DATAR project.
(18.) Carl Chiarenza, Landscapes of the Mind (Boston; Godine, 988) and Evocations (Tucson: Nazraeil Press, 2002.)
(19.) Josef Koudelka (Prague: Torst, 2002), 139.
(20.) Josef Koudelka, * Photopoche * series (Paris: Centre National do la Photographie, 1984).
(21.) John Szarkowski, Gypsies (New York: MoMA, 1975).
Joseph Koudelka: a reference bibliography
Gypsies. Texts by John Szarkowski and Anna Farova New York: Aperture and New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1975.
Gypsies in the British Isles. London: the Arts Council of Great Britain, 1976.
Gitans la fin du voyage. Edited by Robert Delpire. Paris: Delpire, 1975. [Not issued before 1977.]
Josef Koudelka. Lucerne: Camera, 1979.
Josef Koudelka. Edited by Romeo Martinez. I grandi fotografi series. Milan: Fabbri, 1982.
Josef Koudelka. [much less than] Photopoche [much greater than] series. Paris: Centre National de la Photographie, 1984.
In Portrait of a Film: The Making of “White Nights.” Photographers: Eve Arnold, Anthony Crickway, Josef Koudelka, Terry O’Neil. New York: Harry Abrams, 1985.
Exiles. Edited by Robert Delpire. [much less than] Photo copies [much greater than] series. Paris: Centre National de la Photographie, 1988.
Exiles. Text by Czelaw Milosz. London: Thames 6 Hudson and New York: Aperture, 1988.
In Regards d’Acier. Photographers: Harry Gruyeart, Josef Koudelka, Sebastiao Sal gado. Catalog. Dunkerque: Sollac Dunkerque, 1988.
Josef Koudelka. Mission photographique-TransManche series. Douchy-les-Mines: Centre National de la Photographie Nord-Pas-de-Calais et Paris: Editions de la Difference, 1989.
In Paysages Photographies. La Mission Photographique de la D.A.T.A.R. Paris: Editions Hazan, 1989.
[28 photographers: Dominique Auerbach er, Lewis Baltz, Gabriele Basilico, Bernard Birsinger, Alain Ceccaroli, Pierre de Fenoyl, Marc Deneyer, Raymond Depar don, Despatin & Gobeli, Robert Doisneau, Tom Drahos, Philippe Dufour, Gilbert Fastenaekens, Jean-Louis Garnell, Albert Giordan, Frank Gohike, Yves Guillot, Werner Hannapel, Francois Hers, Joseph Koudelka, Suzanne Lafont, Christian Mey nen, Christian Milovanoff, Vincent Mon thiers, Richard Pare, Herve Rabot, Sophie Ristelhueber, Holger Triilzsch.]
Animal A [much less than] Trois Cailloux [much greater than] publication. Amiens: Maison de la Culture, 1990:
Prague 1968. [much less than] Photo notes [much greater than] series. Paris: Centre-National de la Photographie 1990.
“Josef Koudelka” in Entrevues. Edited by Frank Horvat. Paris: Nathan, 1990.
Josef Koudelka Fotografie. Divadlo Za branou 1965/1970.. Edited by Otomar Krejca and Anna Farova. Prague: Ministry of Culture, 1993.
Josef, Gypsies, Photographs by the Recipient of the Hasselblad Prize 1992. Catalog, Gote borg: Hasselblad Center, 1992. [15 illus.] [Show: August 28-October25 19921
Beyrouth: Centre Ville. Photographers: Gabriele Basilico, Rene Burri, Raymond Depardon, F. El Khoury, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka. Paris: Editions du Cypres, 1992. [+ English edition]
The Black Triangle. The Foothills of the Ore Mountains, Photographs 1990-1994
Prague: Vesmir, 1994.
Periplanissis. Following Ulysses’ Gaze. Fore word by Michel Demopoulos (Director of Thessaloniki Film Festival), texts by Alain Bergala and Margarita Mandas. London: the Foundation for Hellenic Culture, 1997. [43 illus., 35 mm]
[Exils. New edition revised by Robert Delpire, 1997.]
Reconnaissance: Wales. Cardiff: Ffotogallery and Cardiff Bay Arts Trust, 1998.
chaos. Edited by Robert Delpire. Paris: Nathan-Delpire and London: Phaidon, 1999.
In I Tempi di Roma. A Photographic Site. Azzano San Paolo: Edizioni Bolis, 2000. [Texts in English, French, and Italian. Other photographers: Gabriele Basilico, Stephane Couturier, Fouad Elkoury, Leonard Freed, Harry Gruyeart, Josef Koudelka, Paulo Nozolino, Fernandino Scianna, Kelichi Tahara, Christina Garcia Rodero.]
Lime Stone. Paris: La Martiniere, 2001.
En Chantier. Une universite et un quartier,
Paris 13e. Paris: Textuel, 2002.
Josef Koudelka. Prague: Torst, 2002:
[A real retrospective book, well-printed, with one of the very rare interviews of Koudelka ever published at a price in the tradition of the Photo Poche / Photo Note series and more recently Phaidon 55.]
Photographs by Josef Koudelka. Text Will Guy.
Aperture, 2011. Cat# DQ775 ISBN-13: 978-1597111775
ASX CHANNEL: JOSEF KOUDELKA
All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher
Koudelka is now 74, has been a member of Magnum since 1970, won just about every award imaginable and is one of the fathers of photography: talking to him is like meeting Henri Cartier Bresson or Robert Capa.
Born in 1938 in Moravia, Czech Republic, he started taking pictures at a very early age, when he was only 12, completed the studies in aeronautical engineering, a profession he quit in 1967 to become a full-time photographer. Growing up, the subjects of his photographs were the actors of a theatre in his town and the beloved gypsies of nearby Romania.
In 1968, at the age of 30, in Czechoslovakia the Prague Spring was under way; reformist Alexander Dubček rose to power and abolished many of the restraints imposed by the Soviet Union. Then on one August night, right after a trip to Romania where he photographed his beloved gypsies, at 3.00 am Josef received a phone call from a friend who informed him that the Soviet troops were about to invade Prague. Josef thought his friend was off her head and hung up but, on his friend’s third attempt to warn him and with the roaring of planes in the background, he rushed to the streets where he recorded the Soviet invasion of Prague through images that have become the milestones in the history of photojournalism.
With the help of Eugene Ostroff, curator of the Smithsonian Institution, and of Anna Fárová, an historian specialized in photography, he managed to smuggle the films out of Prague and into the hands of Elliott Erwitt – that is to say Magnum – in New York; the images spread across the world but, fearing potential repercussion on his family, Josef did not want the images to be credited to him, hence they were released as being shot by P.P. – a Prague Photographer. Only fifteen years later, in 1984, after his father passed away, Koudelka publicly took the deserved credit for the images.
In 1969 the anonymous Prague Photographer earned the Oversees Press Club’s Robert Capa award and Magnum offered him funding to photograph gypsies outside Czechoslovakia for three months, then in 1970 Erwitt helped him obtain political asylum in London which was followed by seventeen years spent wandering around with no permanent address until 1987 when he received French citizenship and, since then, has been living between France and Prague where he was able to return only in 1991.
On display at Fondazione Forma in Milan until September 16th is Zingari (Gypsies) by Josef Koudelka, 109 images that are also the material of a volume published by Contrasto. The exhibition at Forma is a world premier and, alongside the book, is a project which Koudelka had been thinking for 43 years; the photographer come up with the idea for the book the first time back in the 1970’s before leaving Czechoslovakia.
I interviewed Koudelka on the opening day of the exhibition before the press conference. The photographs were already in place while the pre-spaced lettering sign still needed fixing onto the wall; the first version did not meet the approval of Koudelka and the second one had been temporarily attached with some tape while the artist was deciding – following his own creative pace – whether he wanted it to be 5 cm higher or lower, slightly more on the right or on the left, not an easy task.
My doubts as to what to expect from such a photographer and a man who has made such radical choices in life were quickly cleared and dispelled.
To say that Koudelka pays much attention to details does not even begin to be a faithful description of what he is. He is obsessive about even the smallest detail. Josef can sit for hours, in silence, in front of one of the walls of the gallery to decide in what order the photos should be arranged.
The works on display at Forma are among the most significant photographic record of the XX century. Koudelka started photographing gypsies in 1962 when even talking about them was forbidden and continued until 1971 recording with his camera the life of the gypsy community of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, France and Spain. Back then the preconception was the same of today: gypsies steal and kill; Josef was told the same but he had met the gypsies for the first time as a young boy at a music folk festival and what struck him was their music and passion.
The exhibition “Zingari” (Gypsies) by Koudelka is not a political work but rather an analysis of life and living; this was Koudelka’s goal and the gypsy community was the perfect encapsulated version: the seasons of life are perfectly represented and emotions and feelings are experienced and displayed free of any restraints or social conditioning.
Having met him, I can now appreciate the reasons for his constant need for order in his photos, the meticulous care for the composition and light: nothing is left to chance. What amazed me is that the same composition ability was already present in the images of the invasion of Prague in 1968, how could he already have such an attentive eye and display such skills when all you had to shoot the picture was a handful of seconds and, on top of that, you needed to keep your eyes peeled in order to not be caught?
This is what separates photography as a documentary from the art. Perhaps, by photographing actors on stage he had grown accustomed to creating the composition and yet, this is not enough to explain the genius of his photos; Koudelka is not a photojournalist but life determined that he should witness an historical event which he recorded in the only way he knew possible, through his eye, the one of a poet who has replaced the ink with the light.
Thinking about Koudelka’s life choices, the rigorousness characterizing his shots could be perceived as unusual: the love for the gypsies, the myth according to which Koudelka slept on the floor even in hotel rooms or that he fixed some toothpicks onto his Leica to hold the focus, and then three sons with three different women from three different countries, no home, no clothes expect what he wears and a change, he has never had a telephone, a car or a television set; no compromises, he has never taken jobs for magazines but only projects commissioned by the government; a life spent supporting himself and his sons only through the awards he won, the funding and the sale of the books and not of the photographs which he does not sell because the fact that somebody owns them upsets him deeply.
Unusual or perhaps obvious as if, given the impossibility to achieve in life that level of perfection that is instead possible to obtain in photographs, his existence has always aimed at experiencing the world in full to then “order” it through his images. Ordered chaos. A total identification with the medium.
While walking through the exhibition space, the master explained to me that there is a fundamental difference between a book and the exhibition displaying those same pictures shown in the book: when browsing a book, you leaf through the pages whereas, when you visit an exhibition, you look at pictures on walls, you would not be able to use the same sequence of photos for the book and the exhibition.
Koudelka has lived with these photographs for 43 years, hence he talks about them as you would do with your sons or daughters, he loves them and respects them; the prints are impressive, he took a great deal of care of them, one by one, and did the same with the book which, he is keen to clarify that, has been produced by a hugely skilled German printmaker of whom, unfortunately, I could not capture the name but whom Koudelka he is very proud to have found because the books you find around nowadays, he says, are all dull and ugly.
He told me that during the 1960’s he bought, by chance, a wide angle lens from a widow who sold a bit of everything and that lens was perfect to shoot in the small spaces where the gypsies lived, then, once he left Czechoslovakia, he stopped using the wide angle lens because once he has used a technique he does not like to repeat himself, hence he took on a 35 mm Laica camera and started travelling around the world.
– See more at: http://www.vogue.it/en/people-are-talking-about/focus-on/2012/07/josef-koudelka#sthash.yy2x4FV8.dpuf
Josef Koudelka: Freedom To Create
“Forty years have gone by, and I do not remember them nor they me. You cannot rely on your memories -￼ but you can rely on your pictures.” – Josef Koudelka
Josef Koudelka, interviewed by Anne Wilkes Tucker…How cool is that?
Named by Time as “America’s Best Curator”, Tucker took us through a chronological selection of Koudelka’s work, taking pause with each passing milestone to ask Josef questions. A lot of material was covered and a lot of insight and knowledge was shared.
Josef came onto the stage to a standing ovation. Having never really taught any classes or conducted any workshops, he had not been the most accessible of photographers. He admitted to being uncomfortable sitting in front of the packed Paramount Theater.
Koudelka started shooting when he was 14. He studied engineering and graduated in 1961—the same year that he staged his first exhibition. A few years later, he quit engineering and photography became his sole focus. He was hired by theater companies to photograph productions. He was 23 at that point. Czechoslovakia was experiencing “socialism with a human face” and Josef enjoyed the freedom to experiment, as that was increasingly prevalent. He wanted to know what could be done in photography. He agreed to shoot the theatre productions, but insisted on having control over the final result.
“Freedom is an essential thing in my life,” Josef explained to a captivated LOOK3 audience. Not too fixated on the script or the story, he would sit through rehearsals and maintain spontaneity in his work. He insisted that he be allowed to walk between the actors during three actual performances, evaluating the results each night, and trying to improve upon them the next day. Koudelka was trying to create art as much as he was trying to document. The owner of the theater told him, “Josef, you were lying, but you were lying to tell the truth.”
Koudelka embarked on a project to photograph gypsies in Romania. He vividly remembers how the entire village walked towards him as he approached. Building a relationship with them was important and he didn’t start shooting right away. Instead, Josef shared his love for folk music and played songs on an old tape recorder he carried. It gained their confidence and exposed the depth of his character. The resulting work was published in his book “Gypsies” some years later.
With the gypsies, Josef learned that he didn’t need much to live and to be alive.
In August of 1968, he returned to Prague. A few days later, the Russians invaded. Here he stressed, “I am not a courageous man.” It was an extreme situation, and when his girlfriend woke him up and told him the Russians had invaded, it was a natural reaction to pick up his camera and make pictures. He didn’t make the images so they could be sold into publications; he made them for himself.
Everything that followed was pure chance. His negatives were smuggled out of Prague and into the hands of Magnum, who syndicated them, crediting “P.P.” or “Prague Photographer” to protect his identity. Koudelka won the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1969, still anonymous. He left the country because it was dangerous. It would not take the authorities long to find out who P.P. was.
Josef told us that the authorities were pulling people off the plane just before takeoff. You could imagine his relief when the flight took off.
From there, Koudelka became akin to the gypsies he once photographed. Travelling constantly, never staying longer than 3 months in any location. He traveled with a sleeping bag and had never paid rent for at least 16 years. Owning little, he continued to shoot for himself, never taking a full time job. “I need to travel. If I stay too long in one place, I will go blind.”
More books and awards followed. Josef stopped shooting with a 25mm and moved to a panoramic by chance. He learned composition and cropping, and his minimalistic sense continued. The panoramic gave him a new challenge—an opportunity to change and to develop. He focused on landscapes and stopped shooting people. “I love people, but I like to be alone,” he noted. His travels continue. “I go to places because I know there is a picture there waiting for me.”
In each place he visited, Koudelka would walk alone, feeling the place much as he had felt the theater. Each book that was published was different: an attempt to cover a new aspect of life. Practical and progressive, he embraced digital photography because it was less expensive to produce, liberating him from the need to raise funds. It was also lighter, which became more important as he grew older.
At the start of the event, Josef asked that we not judge him by anything that he said but by his pictures. He judges other photographers the same way and doesn’t have any heroes. He wasn’t moved to photography by the work of other photographers. The motivation was inside of him.
When asked where his home was, he said “Your home is the place where you leave from. So for me, my home is here because tomorrow, I go away.”
His journey continues.
Look3: Josef Koudelka on the Measure of a Photographer, Courage, and Controlling Your Own Destiny
Legendary photographer Josef Koudelka packed the house at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville during the Look3 Festival of the Photograph over the weekend, and the audience greeted him with a standing ovation after master of ceremonies, photographer Vince Musi, announced that Koudelka had been reluctant to participate. Koudelka, who has a reputation as a lone wolf among a group of peers known for their independence, has rarely granted interviews during a career that spans more than 40 years.
“Of course I don’t feel very comfortable to be here. I am not a good speaker,” said Koudelka, who was nevertheless gracious to Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, who was also on stage to interview him. “I don’t know what she’s going to ask me, [but] I gave her assurance I would answer everything…I will try to be as honest as possible.”
Koudelka also told the audience at the outset that he “never listened much to what [other] photographers say,” and recounted how Henri Cartier-Bresson had asked him to read and comment on the text of The Decisive Moment before that book was published. “I said to Bresson I’m really not interested and I’m not going to read it.” Koudelka added, “I think the best portrait of a photographer are his photographs, so please judge me on my photographs.”
The audience cheered, and the program got under way with a projection of a sampling of Koudelka’s earliest work–a documentary of stage actors during performances, followed by a series of abstract images that stemmed from his work as a theater photographer. The program alternated between silent projections of Koudelka’s major bodies of work, presented chronologically, followed by several minutes of Q&A conversation between Tucker and Koudelka about that work.
Here’s an edited version of the conversation. The headings indicate the subjects of the major bodies of Koudelka’s work, and when it appeared during the program.
Anne Wilkes Tucker: What led you to embrace such minimalized abstraction at that time?
Josef Koudelka: I was in the beginning of taking pictures and of course I was trying to discover what you can do in the photography. Somebody saw these pictures, and asked me if I would be able to do 12 of them, and he wanted to use them on the cover of the monthly magazine that concerned the theater. It was very strange to use these abstract pictures, which had nothing to do with the theater, on the for cover of the culture magazine. But you have to realize it was the period of when Czechoslovakia started to be free, and a lot of things were possible at that time. Not everything. Even my Gypsy images–the first exhibition was ’66–I needed to have a censor come and say it’s ok, it’s possible to show.
AWT: You were invited to photograph the theater. You were 23. For that job, and all subsequent jobs, you demanded total control. And for the theater, you demanded that you be on the stage for the dress rehearsals, and on the stage photographing during the plays. What gave you the courage to make that demand?
JK: Freedom is the essential thing in my life. This year I’m participating in Venice Bienniale.
Five years ago I accepted to photograph in Israel. What do I do? First of all, it must be interesting for me, I must have the freedom to do it how I want to do it, and control the result–freedom to control absolutely the result, in anything I do.
AWT: The director felt that you were sensitive to the interior of the characters, not the actors, the characters. Did you read the plays or just respond to what you were seeing on the stage?
JK: I put three conditions before I accepted this work. I knew that he liked my photographs, and he wanted me to photograph. I said I want to be in the rehearsals, in the reading rehearsals, I want to be in the rehearsals on the stage, and I want to have at least three performances where I can walk between the actors and photograph them right in the light.
AWK: Having sat in the rehearsals, did you preconceive what you were going to photograph, or did you just go with your feelings as you worked?
JK: I’m a very spontaneous photographer. I just go and I photograph. But what the advantage was, which is in fact repeating in all my work, you know, [is that] you go, you don’t know much, you react, and you look at what [is] coming, and you try to exploit what is coming out. So every night I develop the films, I look, next day I try to do it better.
You look at these photographs of the theater. [The director] realized that these are not the pictures of the actors, that it was behind [their countenances]. I was never really interested in documenting the things. In any picture I’m doing, even if my picture can serve as a document–[unintelligible] what [the director] said, he said Josef, you were lying. But you were lying to tell the truth.
The Gypsies 1962-1971
AWT: The Gypsies is beginning of travel for you. You are moving into a new place, and photographing people you don’t know. It’s not a long-term relationship. This is the beginning of a major trend.
JK: This is not the beginning of travels, it is the beginning of long-term relationships.
AWT: Two questions: What helped you gain access to people known to be private, and what did you learn form this project that you carried into later work?
JK: So I start with the second[ question]. What I gained from working with the gypsies was to learn that I don’t need much to be alive. The access: I just picked up the camera and I went.
(Laughter and applause from the audience).
AWT: When you arrived they may not have welcomed you.
JK: I’ll never forget when I get to this incredible village–there were these big mountains behind, there were these wooden houses…and all the village was walking [toward] me. I never forget that.I just went, I stayed in the village one week. It was in Slovakia. And they told me don’t go this way, there are gypsies, liable to kill you or steal everything what you have. I think I was extremely lucky. I didn’t have any prejudices.. and I still I try not to have any prejudices.
AWT: I think that’s not the first time you’ve gone where they told you not to go. OK. So they’re walking toward you. Did you pick up your camera then? or later?
JK: No, no. Of course you develop the relationship with the people. During next 8 years I visited many different villages. What helped me was [that] I loved the gypsy music, I love generally all folk music. I was carrying with me a very primitive tape recorder, and I recorded the songs. I think it probably helped me to [gain their] confidence. They realized that if I liked the music, I liked something more. It was really not difficult, and I of course I was giving the pictures to the people, too.
AWT: This was a life changing event for you in certain ways. For one, [the invasion of Prague by the Soviet army] was the end of the liberalization that had been taking place in Czechoslovakia. It was the beginning of your relationship with Magnum, because these negatives were smuggled out to Magnum, and they got them published in the west anonymously. Was it for the protection of your family that it was anonymous, because your were still there? Tell people what it was like from August of ’68 to 1970 when you left–what drove you in the more repressed Czechoslovakia that you knew you had to leave?.
JK: I’m not [a] very courageous man. These pictures I did not [do] because I have got a big courage, but because it was [an] extreme situation. And something got out of me, maybe what was the best of me. And it was not only my case. It was the case of most of these people who were on the street. We were not thinking, we were working. I never photographed the news before. I was never in a situation like that. When my girlfriend woke me up [and] said, “The Russians are here,” I couldn’t believe [it]. I pick[ed] up the camera to go take pictures, and there were so many things happening around [me]. Pictures were everywhere. So I did these pictures not to be published…I developed these pictures probably one month or two months later. I print[ed] some of them, and they [were] never meant to be published. So everything that happened after [was] just by chance.
I left Czechoslovakia because as I said I am not [a] courageous man, but because I knew that they could find me, and I was not brave enough to go to the prison. And they would have [found] me…[because] I was the guy who photographed most. Everybody knew it.
AWT: Was [censorship and cultural and intellectual repression] part of it for you–that the stimulation that you had before was diminished?
JK: It was a little more complicated. I’m not sure if we really have the time to talk about it. In that time I got a project photographing different group[s] of Czech society. There was one communist who everybody hated. He was one of these people who said it was all right that the Russians arrived. The state gave him the funeral. I thought it would be very interesting to come there. I thought all his friends who [had been] revolutionaries who fight for social justice, suddenly they turn into something [else], I thought it would be interesting to go there [to the funeral] and photograph their faces.
So I get [to] the funeral and when they were playing [unintelligible] I put my 25mm lens up and I photographed them all. Of course, what I didn’t know was that the only public there was the secret police. so I got this fantastic collection of all guys who were the secret police. They arrested me. They brought me to–I didn’t know what it was. By chance all night I [had been] working in the darkroom, you know from working all night, next day you are a little shaky, I hear, “Don’t move.” They put me in the car. I didn’t know where we were going because it [the funeral] was an official event.
They stopped in front of the house [that] was the center of the secret police. Suddenly the buses arrive, and from the buses people [emerged]…and when I saw these guys, which I had photographed. were secret police, I burst into [an] enormous laugh. [A police officer] pulled me out of the car, threw me against the wall. Anyway, strange thing was that in two weeks, I [was planning] to leave Czechoslovakia. I was leaving with permission to visit for three months to photograph gypsies outside. Can you imagine how I felt sitting in the plane, and they were getting people at the last moment off [the plane]–can you [understand] how I felt when we lift[ed] off. Can you imagine now?
… But of course I didn’t send the pictures for 16 years because I didn’t want–my parents [have] to live with them. I was very happy I [became] known not for pictures of the invasion because they couldn’t say I did something against socialist Czech Republic …
AWT: When you went to England, and later to Paris, did you also seek out other [Czech] exiles in those cities?
JK: Not at all. It was not the purpose, but they were just not around when I was.
AWT: These pictures are made over almost three decades. They are made in France, Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Wales, Ireland, Sicily, Germany. You were traveling all the time.
JK: I [have] been traveling all the time; I’m still traveling, 43 years. I think probably somebody asked me, “Did you ever stay in one place longer than three months?” I don’t think I ever stayed. And today at breakfast somebody asked me about home…
AWT: Well, no, because I was trying to say, you don’t have a television, you don’t have a computer. You already said–and you’ve said many times–”What I don’t have, I don’t need.” You travel very light. You have a sleeping bag and minimal things. You don’t plan the trips, do you?
JK: I [do] plan the trips…I know where I go. Before it was different. Now I have a really tight schedule. Before I used to go for three months to one country. I took the train from London, I get to Paris, I stayed there, I went to Milano, then I stay in Florence, then I went to Sicily for one month, two months. Now it is slightly different.
AWT; But that would have been true for Exile.
JK: Yeah, yeah…I have been traveling all the time. In fact, [for] 16 years I never paid any rent, and I never take any job. First job which I take was before my daughter was supposed to be born, and I was afraid that I should have certain money.
I’m the photographer who needs to travel. If I stay long in one place, I become blind.
AWT: The catalyst for change in your work is the technical change. When you left Prague, you stopped using the 25 mm lens. You felt you needed to do that. And then when you began [the Chaos work] you were lent at first a panoramic camera. Is that chance, conscious, or a combination of both, to make yourself change your vision by changing the technical process?
JK: In my case things are happening by chance. [Before I got] a panoramic camera I was determined to shoot landscape, [but] I was never happy with the result. [I used] a Rolleiflex 6×6 and I just cut out whatever I didn’t need. That’s in fact in the [early] period. I really learned composition by cutting away, making different frames from 6×6. That’s how I learned composition, and how I learned how to cut to the essentials. So when I heard this photographer say pictures shouldn’t be cropped I thought [he] must be the most crazy guy.
Then by chance I discovered this camera, which was the panoramic, and asked, can I rent it for one week just to test it? And I’m really extremely happy that I discovered this camera because it helped me to do something which I never did before. It helped me go on with the photographing, to try something else, and I still [haven’t] got to the end of what I can do with it.…The life of the photographer is very limited. I think [of] all the photographers [who] died [creatively] before being 40 years old. I am 75. I might be dead, I don’t know, but I still like taking the pictures.
AWT: Another major change of this series [Chaos] is that there are no people, or rarely people.
JK: You know, I love people, but I like to be alone. I came here, I probably was nasty to quite a few people who run up to me. [When] I [arrive at a new place], I want to go alone, I want to feel the place. If I am in the landscape, I want to be alone, I don’t want to see anybody. I like to close the eyes, I like to listen to sound, I like to feel that I’m part of this landscape
AWT: So no guide, no entourage, no other photographers…
JK: Listen, I don’t have a car, and I don’t drive. So of course there are other people who drive me around. I was in the United States [photographing] and I traveled with this great guy. Every morning when it was before sunrise, I said, “Peter, get out of your bloody bed. Life is cruel, but beautiful. Get out!”
After one month, he came to me and said, “Josef, I want to tell you: thanks to you I realize there are only limited sunrises which I can see in my life, so I make a promise that I won’t lose one.”
AWT: You have not given that many interviews, and I read as much as I could. The biggest surprise is that no one asked you about [Czach photographer] Josef Sudek [who also shot panoramics, and is best known for his images of Prague]. I don’t know whether you responded against his pictures? He was around Prague when you were a young man, he’s close to [people] you’re close to, he works in panoramic photography, but he is nowhere mentioned [in your interviews]. I’m curious.
JK: You know, I have never got any heroes in my life, and in photography neither. I don’t think I’ve read photographers that write [about] photographs. I remember when [someone I met] showed me some books, even Robert Frank’s. It didn’t [mean] anything to me. She showed [Henri Cartier] Bresson. I was not excited.
The relationship which I have got with Bresson, which was very different than most of the Magnum photographers or maybe other photographers outside of Magnum, because probably I didn’t come to photography because I liked his photographs. in fact there are certain photographs which I don’t like, and I was able to tell it to him and he was, eh, maybe he was not happy but…and he was, “Why are you having this spaghetti panoramic, just nothing [photography],” and it was perfectly all right.
So Sudek, I remember seeing pictures from [him] which I really hated. These were these pictorialist pictures which were out of focus. I was using a 25mm lens [and] I wanted to have everything in focus. I think he’s a fantastic photographer, like Bresson’s a fantastic photographer, Frank is a good photographer. But I never met him. I never felt [the] need to go to see him.
Black Triangle, 1990-1994
AWT: This is monumental. You can go home, back to Czechoslovakia after 20 years. Why did you choose in your first project [back] in your homeland to go up to the northern border and photograph this place that had been so decimated by industrial pollution?
JK: I knew the place before I left and I was very much interested in [it]. When I got back, I re-discovered [it], and I was fascinated. It was the period when I was getting more and more involved with my panoramic photography. I thought it was the right thing to do, and also because the devastation that was going on there was enormous…In fact I [have] continued the project farther, in Poland and in Germany. Every time I go back to Czechoslovakia again I go to all these places, and I’m photographing how they change.
AWT: You said that too much in Europe is disappearing, and you are drawn to what is ending, but you also said this magnificent landscape no longer exists, and you found it tragic but beautiful. That twist of finding the horrific beautiful: these are not about the campaign [of activism], you’re not an environmentalist, it’s not news, it’s something else for you?
JK: One Mexican writer, [former minister of culture in Mexico] when the book Black Triangle came out, he wrote something in a Mexican magazine and he said “Josef is dealing all the time with death, but his pictures are not morbid. on the contrary. he said only if you understand death, you can understand life, too. He said If you take Gypsies, this is the end of this free, traveling life. iIf you take the [Prague] Invasion, this is the end of this fantastic dream about social justice. if you take Black Triangle, this is the pend of] the dream about this romantic landscape. if it is true or not, I don’t know. I know that everything is going to finish. I don’t look so much to photograph things which are contemporary things which will exist, but the ones which might not exist anymore.
The Wall [separating Israel and Palestine], 2007-2012
AWT: this is monumental.
JK: Every book is different. With this last book [The Wall] there are 54 pictures, and every picture has certain reason to be there. And for every single picture I [returned] many times to photograph again and again.
I didn’t want to participate [with 11 other photographers on a project about Israel], but when I saw what was happening to the landscape, and I had a guarantee I could do what I want, after four visits to israel, I signed the contract.
Vestiges, 1991- (ongoing)
AWT: Another big technical change here is digital. You are not working with film, it’s digital. Yesterday you cited two big differences that this makes for you. One, you don’t have to carry so much, and [two], your relationship with light, the leeway…
JK: In fact second change is much more practical. I don’t need to find people to sponsor my trips, who pay [to] develop all the film, and make the contact sheets. What is fantastic now is that I can pick up this [digital] camera. I can buy the ticket by myself. and I can go.
People ask, “For the last 30 years, you have just been photographing panoramic?” No, I have been photographing all the time with 35mm. Nobody saw these pictures, but I don’t…want to deal with [them]. I don’t want to lose more time in my life. I want to photograph. I know the time is going to come [when]I won’t be able to work, I won’t be able to do what I am able to do now. It can happen any time. So I want to take pictures. And I still I hope that eventually I will have the time to sit down and to look through everything throughout the years that I did with this other camera.
But I didn’t understand the question about the light.
AWT: You were talking about when you are only in a place for a day or two, and you see a situation you want to photograph, and you can only be in one place once…
JK: You know you only have two days to be in this fantastic place, and you can’t [go back to re-do the picture].
I go into places because I know there is a picture, and I know I have to get it. How many times I go–one time or ten…sometime I can’t do it, and when the money is involved,you know that you can’t buy the film, you are thinking about every frame. With digital, I can continue [to shoot frames], and then eventually I know that it is good. I can eliminate what is not good.
Questions from the Look3 audience:
Donna Ferrato: There’s this ancient Magnum tradition that goes way back to the old brotherhood of Magnum days, of photographers visiting other photographers they respect, with a little box of prints. And you give your box of prints to each photographer, and you have them initial the ones that they like the most. and I know that this is how many Magnum photographers learned to define their vision. It helped a lot, right?
JK: It is not defining the vision, it’s about something else. I don’t know maybe one photographer who can say that he’s an extremely good judge of his photographs…. I need three people who I have as a reference, if my pictures are good or bad. I need somebody who knows something about life, maybe not much about photography or about composition. Then I need somebody who knows something about composition, and then I need the third one just for correction who knows something about both.
DF: And so Josef…
JK: Let me finish. And if I like picture, if I think it’s good, and these three people like the picture, too, I have more reason [to think] the picture is good. Many times I liked the picture, and none of them liked it. But I’m not going to shoot myself, because maybe there still is something. They know before what I was like, but they don’t know by this picture what I’m going to be later.
Audience member: I was going to ask you if you could share anything about your editing process, not just what you are looking for in your pictures, but also when you sequence them, what is it you are looking for?
JK: I will use for the example the last book, called The Wall, which is not only about the Israel/Palestine wall but also about the landscape. You go there, you have four years to go back, you have maybe 8 trips, so you go around, and you try to realize what it is about. For me, [unintelligible] pictures in this book are that each picture has certain importance… I try to fulfill this idea. Of course when you do the book, and the viewer still has to feel that he wants to turn the pages. So you have to tell two stories: stories about what want to say, and then this is the graphical story: it works if you turn the pages.
Audience member: To what extent were you familiar with, or did you come into contact with Czeck intellectual Jan Patočka? I have a [once-banned] book here of his lectures, that he dedicated to you. I’m not sure if you are aware of this.
JK: No. (laughter)
Questioner: It also has your photograph on the cover of the book.
JK: When I was in Czechoslovakia, I was just a photographer, I didn’t get mixed up with, ah, I knew Václav Havel, because he was working in the same theater as me. But I considered myself just a photographer. I was really not intellectual. I was just a simple guy doing the job.
Another audience member: Home. You alluded to that earlier. Can you tell us what that word means to you? and is there’s one place in the world where you feel at home?
JK: When I photographed the archaeological places [for the Vestiges project], I [came] everywhere across Emperor Trajan [a second century Roman emperor]. He was this guy who traveled everywhere. He was never in Rome. . One thing he said was, “Even though I was thought [of] as a foreigner in every country, I didn’t feel like a stranger in any place.”