Wall by Josef Koudelka is an Aperture photo book with a relatively narrow focus: The wall built by the Israelis in the West Bank. The Israeli goal was ostensibly to prevent free movement between the Palestinian and Israeli populations and thus reduce acts of violence against the Israeli people. I am not going to get into the politics or morality of building such a wall, nor the effectiveness. I am here to talk about the book and the photography contained therein!
Wall by Josef Koudelka (one of my Top 10 favourite B&W photographers), is a book that seems to have polarised opinion a little. This may be because the book solely comprises of panoramic images. It may also be because there are very few photographs of people (whom the wall affects). Regardless, the end result is some people who’ve rated it on Amazon felt disappointed and others thought it a tremendous book. Me? I’ll begin in my usual disorganised way:
Linen bound and at 38cm wide (15″), 27cm tall (10.5″) and 2cm (3/4″) thick, Wall by Josef Koudelka is a substantial book, but one that’s easy to handle. Construction seems to be excellent and print quality is top tier. The finish on the pages is just shy of ‘glossy’ and the B&W images have a full range of tones and good depth. It doesn’t take very long, however, to identify that this book departs quite severely from many books tackling documentary subjects: it has almost no text. In the first few pages you encounter a very concise chronological summary of the planning and erection of the wall. This includes references to reactions by the United Nations and International Court of Justice. At the back, there is a Lexicon that aids understanding of the geography and the terminology that appears in the short notes under each image. In my view, the book’s designer, Xavier Barral, got this absolutely right. Wall, by Josef Koudelka, is not about a photographer, photography, a style, philosophy, region or people. It is about the wall and we need no more than photographs to be guided in the manner Koudelka intended.
Now we can move onto what some will see as the elephant in the room: every single image is a double page spread. The dimensions of the book were optimised for this form of presentation and the result is 51 photographs at 71cm/28″ wide by 24cm/9.5″ tall (split down the middle). That’s quite a large image to be viewing from your lap. Were I reading this article I would be put off. However, the book is in front of me and my opinion is not as expected. It works better than it sounds and the level of detail we see tells us something about how Koudelka worked and what his original prints would be like. I understand he shot these images primarily with a 6x17cm Fujifilm film camera, but also on a specially made Leica S2 that was masked off to the 3:1 aspect ratio of 6×17 film images. Some photographs are pin sharp from corner to corner. Others are quite fuzzy, suggesting wide apertures on 6x17cm, or camera shake, or both. But it doesn’t matter to my eye. The images are compelling. They’re human, unlike so much of the imagery we see today.
Out of the 54 images, I would say that half are fantastic, the next 20 are very good and then there are a few weaker images that don’t quite stand up to the rest. However, we then remember that this book is not a showcase for his photographic majesty (although it does that quite well), it is also abut the issue: the wall.
This brings us neatly onto the real impact of the wall, which is on the people whose lives have been affected by it. Rather than include people in the images, they are almost entirely absent and I understand why. That would have been an entirely different project. It may also have strayed dangerously far from the somewhat typological approach favoured by the art world today. Nonetheless, the sheer physical magnitude of the wall tells us a lot about its inevitable impact on people. The reshaping of the physical landscape, the scars, the visual segregation and mechanical brutality of its construction all act as metaphors that catalyse thought. If you were in any doubt as to how massive the wall is (in stature and impact) the book will leave you in little doubt. As to where your personal politics takes you, that’s specific to the individual.
In terms of style, the photographs in Wall by Josef Koudela are clearly from the core of the man’s repertoire. They are unmistakably his. I see echoes of his images from the crumbling vestiges of the Soviet empire and from the Atlantic Wall in France (see Chaos, by Josef Koudelka), but with a more direct purpose. Chaos is a stunning book that I will write about in due course. It would also make a better early foray into Koudelka’s work (along with Koudelka, by Thames and Hudson as #1), but I already own those. Against that backdrop, ‘Wall’ remains a wonderful addition.
This book may also serve to help photographers struggling with the urban environment, or the panoramic format. I did not like the 3:1 ratio much until I saw Koudelka’s use of it, at which point I decided to experiment with it myself. A few images such as the one above made it into documentary work I shot in Afghanistan almost ten years ago. I think Koudelka is the absolute master of this format, not to mention unravelling the chaos of urban structures as experienced in a reportage context.
Wall by Josef Koudelka is an excellent book. It won’t be for everyone, but if you’re still reading and/or already have a good collection of photo books, you’re already not everyone.
Many more example spreads: