If you haven’t read the first part (and #10), you can start here: Top B&W Photographers: Tom’s 10.
#9: Josef Koudelka
This decision took all of a nanosecond – Koudelka had to be on my list. I think it would be fair to say that I have gotten more from Josef Koudelka’s photography than any other. Every time I come back to his work, I see something fresh and new. I feel something new.
The Czech French photographer’s life and work could not be more different to Ansel Adams’ and, at 79 years old, he is undoubtedly one of the most highly regarded photographers alive today. What kind of photographer is he? Where does he fit in? Well, I am not entirely sure he fits into any particular box and perhaps that is a testament to his extensive abilities. I’ll expand on this a little later on.
Koudelka’s working life is summarised nicely on Wikipedia (there’s also an excellent Guardian article on Koudelka). Born in Czechoslovakia, he photographed the 1968 invasion of his country by Soviet forces. His negatives were smuggled out of the country and published anonymously in the Sunday Times, under ‘PP’ – Prague Photographer.
His iconic photographs epitomise the significance of photojournalism, both in terms of their political impact at the time and our comprehension and memory of historical events many years later. Just as Robert Capa’s photographs of the D-Day landings are often seen as the definitive images of that point in history, Koudelka’s have become symbols of Warsaw Pact expansionism and East-West tensions at one of their most terrifying crescendos.
In 1970, Koudelka received asylum in the United Kingdom, where he lived for ten years. During this time he became a joined Magnum Photos and spent much of the 1970s and 80s photographing across Europe, producing Gypsies in 1975 and Exiles in 1988. From what I understand, he has not been one to court the limelight. This is perhaps why he so highly regarded among photographers, but less well-known outside of our own tribe.
Back to the question, “What kind of photographer is Koudelka?”
I think the answer has to be ‘every kind’ and that is why Koudelka would certainly be vying for ‘Tom’s favourite photographer of all time’, If I had to pick just one. There are many superb photojournalists, whose work is shaped by a particular political agenda. Some are heavily shaped by the demands of their agencies, or contemporary trends. Other ‘famous photographers’ have specialised within a particular genre. However, it seems that Koudelka’s many grants in the 70s and 80s allowed him to wander freely and to indulge in the essence of what motivated him to take photographs. You might even say that Koudelka was ‘launched’ by his photographs of the ’68 Soviet invasion of Prague and then used the resultant impetus to pursue highly independent choices. His subsequent work includes some of the finest examples of documentary photography, portraits, abstracts, reportage, landscape and street photography that I can think of. His commitment is perhaps best exemplified by his 17 years living among gypsies. That’s not whim. It’s not a ‘project’. For some unfortunates, it is a lifetime.
Despite the wide range of Koudelka’s photography, it is also highly unified. It looks feels cohesive and feels familiar, even if we are leaping from a portrait to an abstract urban scene. At least from my point of view, his work never feels impersonal. I always feel his presence, as a human observer and artist, as well as the vitality and presence of his human subjects. As a photographer, he doesn’t try to make himself too visible. As a human witness, he does not shout too loudly about his politics. I like that. We are left with a wealth of photographs that is accessible and does not demand judgment from us. Perhaps one way of putting it might be that his work asks lots of questions, but does not attempt to provide a final answer. That’s for the viewer to do.
As I write this, my thoughts are returning to a recent article, Is Street Photography Killing Itself. Although it is of course unfair to hold an entire genre to Koudelka’s standard, I think it might be fair to say that street photography becomes most interesting when it possesses diversity. In this regard, Koudelka is remarkable in the sense that (to me) he is a true ‘Jack of all trades, master of the lot’. While out on the street, he photographs human vignettes. Glimpses. He photographs incredible abstracts. His work slides effortlessly into reportage, which then hangs perfectly next to full-immersion documentary work. I think it is fundamentally a bit of a cart and horse scenario. I think Koudelka’s wonderful street photographs emanate from a clear interest in the human condition and an innate artistry that is more fundamental than photography itself. He does not start with the activity and try to add artistry and human interest as an afterthought. I think this cuts to the most basic advice for any photography: start where you’re most interested. Anyway, I digress.
Simplicity vs. Complexity: I think there is a palpable tension across his work. We see image after image that photographers might like to think we’d see and shoot, but we’re left with the burning question, ‘well, why haven’t we‘. What he is doing seems to be simple, just as a master blacksmith seems to just ‘bang bits of metal with a hammer’. Yet a closer look reveals timing, composition and personal placement that is anything but ordinary.
What’s more, I find his photography so compelling that I often find myself letting go of my photographer’s perspective altogether. I find myself inspired, immersed and excited and without any thought of photography. It’s just me and his incredible art.
…. and some more photographs… (there being so many to choose from):
Some of you will know that Koudelka is well-known for his use of the panoramic format. I believe he mostly shot his panoramic images on a Linhof 6×17. While this particular visual approach dominate books like Chaos, it hasn’t defined him. Although these photographs are usually at the more abstract end of the spectrum, they are not a reinvention of his visual approach. They could perhaps be described as a deliberate, conscious and ‘evolutionary narrowing’. I enjoy many individual examples of both very much, although I find a much higher proportion of images that I am not drawn to among the panoramics (especially vertical compositions). That’s of course entirely personal and I am glad that we can appreciate both. In fact, it was his panoramic work that first attracted me (he’s one of the few photographers who I believe has truly mastered the notoriously tricky 3:1 format) to his work. When I looked more deeply, I was hooked and I’ve never looked back.
Just opening up one of his books this morning filled me with such excitement that I actually felt like a giddy child. Could I ask more of a photographer?