25 January 2007

Josef Koudelka

I have been meaning to write a post on Josef Koudelka for some time now. Mostly, I've been rolling over in my mind what I want to say and I've settled on trying to point out a couple of connections between his work and that of others. I have previously posted one of his images that I esepcially like but largely without comment.

Koudelka (b. 1938) is Czech and became"anonymously" famous for his photographs of the Soviet Invasion of Prague in 1968. Perhpas the most recognizable of these is this image showing the deserted streets of the city.

The negatives for these photographs had to be smuggled out of the country and subsequently were published in the West to mark the first anniversary of the invasion. In 1969 The Overseas Press Club of America awarded the "Robert Capa Gold Medal" to the "Anonymous Czech Photographer" who had chronicled the events. Koudelka did not emigrate until 1970 and until that time it remained politically dangerous for him to be credited for the photographs. In this respect , of course, Koudelka's exprience presages that of Iranian photographer Jahangir Razmi
who only this year was credited with images he made during the Iranian revolution and for which he had anonymously received a Pulitzer Prize in 1980.

A second, less coincidental, connection between Koudelka's work and that of several other photographers is the preoccupation with disappearance. As Koudelka remarks of his panoramic images of post-Communist East and Central European landscapes: "The changes taking place in this part of Europe are enormous and very rapid. One world is disappearing. I am trying to photograph what's left. I have always been drawn to what is ending, what will soon no longer exist" (Josef Koudelka, Torst 2002, p. 141). The image at right, "Croatia, 1992" is an example of this work.

This comment immediately brought to mind the recent work of another, somewhat younger Czech emigré, Antonin Kratochvil (b. 1947). For Kratochvil's recent work you also should consult the web site of his agency VII. I posted early on here about Kratochvil's [VANISHING] (d.MO, 2005), which, as the title suggests, is precisely about things disappearing. As I said at the time, each section of the books seeks to capture "some dsappearing species or resource or environment or landscape or community or principle or history in geographically dispersed locales." For both Koudelka and Kratochvil the disappearances they chronicle are tragic, although their attitudes toward the possibility of rejuvination seem to diverge somewhat. (Koudelka being perhaps a bit more sanguine of the two.)

But I also soon recalled Sebastião Salgado's Workers: An Archaeology of the Industrial Age (Aperture 1993) where you will find the following dedication: "This book is an homage to workers, a farewell to a world of maual labor that is slowly disappearing and a tribute to those men and women who still work as they have for centuries."

There are other photographers, surely, less preoccupied with disappearances. But there likely are others who we might add to this list of three. It is a difficult matter to depict something that cannot be seen (e.g., smells, as I noted in a very recent post or relative power as I noted in an earlier one). But what of transformations? What of extinctions or passings or vanishings, when all the camera can capture, really, is what is demonstrably present "here and now"? The difference is between trying to depict something we "know" exists even though it is difficult to see and trying to depict something that, in Koudelka's words, "will soon no longer exist."

[Images in this post © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photo]

PS: This spring two new "retrospective" collections of Koudelka's photography are due to appear. One is Koudelka. With essays by Robert Delpire, et.al. (Aperture). The other is JOSEF KOUDELKA. Introduction by Bernard Cuau. (Thames & Hudson).



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