A look at the Josef Koudelka retrospective

Photo: Josef Koudelka, source: www.ngprague.cz

Josef Koudelka - Photographer is a retrospective that has been conceived on a grand scale with an absolute sense for detail and perfection. Taking place at the National Gallery's Trades Fair Palace in Prague, the exhibit captures forty years of Koudelka's work: five major periods in black and white from 1958 to the present that will leave few visitors untouched. The show includes Koudelka's famous portraits from the lives of Czechoslovak and Balkan gypsies, as well as the barren panoramas and bleak landscapes that he has worked on in recent years.

As the viewer moves through the show a question that will run continually through his mind: who are we in this world and what is our place? Expressive, often bleak, the retrospective shows the evolution in Josef Koudelka's style: early in his work the individual is central to his composition, later, almost completely absent, replaced by an unreal landscape. Watching this evolution is one of the most fascinating elements of the exhibition overall.

Koudelka first began as a photographer taking stills of theatre productions. 'Beginnings' is the first exhibit of the show. Here we have a chance to observe Koudelka's earliest black and white images, which had a remarkable influence on how theatre in Czechoslovakia was photographed at that time: strong lighting, flattened images of faces, stylisation in away reminiscent of early prints by Andy Warhol in its graphic simplicity. The print 'Three Sisters' features a pouting actress with waif-like charm that seems related somehow to Eddie Sedgewick chic.

Another striking image is of Jan Triska, the Czech Paul Newman of the 60s - on stage in a mix of emotions between lust and no escape. Other pictures are grittier: scenes from King Lear, revealing a bedraggled king in the centre of the stage in his moment of despair. The grainy quality of the image, the harshness of the lighting, echo chaos of the storm and the character's inner turmoil.

Theatre is an element that Czech art historian Anna Farova has suggested is implicit to Koudelka's work. In her writings from the 1960s Mrs Farova points out that even Koudelka left photographing the theatre for other themes, he began to look for the theatrical in the world., something which is certainly embodied by the series 'Gypsies', shot between 1962 and 1970. One of Koudelka's most widely-recognised thematic works 'Gypsies' features portraits of the Roma as well as scenes from their daily life: a wedding procession winding its way up a hill, musicians posing before a crowd. But, Anna Farova suggests it is essential we recognise that Josef Koudelka "does not photograph reality as it is, but as he imagines it and feels it." This might be surprising for some viewers since, at first glance, some of the photos from 'Gypsies' seem almost like documentary reportage. Close examination, however, shows an intricacy and quiet perfection of composition that reveals careful intent and dedication on Koudelka's part, to capture scenes exactly the way he thinks they should appear. A Chagal-esque horse bowing its head to a Romanian gypsy, three boys playing strongmen, their arms flexed, their faces tense. Josef Koudelka must enjoy unusual trust and communication with many of those he photographs. Consider, for example, the photo of a family standing dutifully at the wake of a loved one. Inside their house they fall into the shadows, while light from a window covers the deceased in brightness. All look towards the dead woman, except for the children: they gaze curiously into the camera.

Finally, some subjects in Koudelka's pictures have little choice but to lie still: a wolf, or is it a dog(?), shot through the head while tied to a tree, its fang bared in a growl. The picture evokes a feeling of deep pity, one doesn't even know why. It is the desperation of the person who shot it when it was tied.

The third series is one that many viewers around the world will recognise immediately, taken at the time of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Most of the pictures were published abroad upon the first anniversary of the invasion, anonymously for fear of reprisals against the photographer.

Tanks in Prague's streets; bullet holes in the side of a building, lines on an old man's face, two young men defiantly carry the Czech flag. The photographer risked his life to take these pictures and there is no Czech, certainly of his generation, who would not be familiar with them.

A solider points his machine gun at a young Czech man who has tauntingly spread the arms of his jacket wide, as if telling the invader "Go ahead, shoot me, if you dare, go ahead and shoot."

At last, the exhibit moves into two final stages which cover the broadest period of Koudelka's career but which we can only mention briefly here: the first 'Exile', photographs Josef Koudelka did after leaving Czechoslovakia in 1970, echoing his feelings of departure and loss. The photographer lived first in England, then in France, where he became a naturalised citizen in 1987. The final series 'Chaos' then marks a fundamental change in Koudelka's style, when he begins photographing with a panoramic camera.

Let it suffice to say that in the final two series the individual is most at threat. Though 'Exile' features some lyrical elements that draw upon Koudelka's earlier work, waves of the sea, a flying gull, a boy with angel wings on a bicycle, more often than nought individuals are framed from behind, in silhouette - alien or alienated. There is one photo of a group of men in standing at a pissoir: they stand old, bent, with hats, like absurd characters in some existential novel. Figures in a landscape. There is an increased feeling of despair.

In the final series this feeling takes over into broad panoramas grainy in details and shadow, where humans are no longer present. A long black road leads to nowhere, following a geometric hill of ash. Now, objects come to the fore: wire, rope, antennas, soot, and fog: choking, cutting, breaking up the frame. In a picture from Lebanon, one of the last pictures in the show, we see a bombed out building, with a broken clock, and a tiny, almost imperceptible man on the run. But where he will run to, is anybody's guess.

Josef Koudelka - Photographer continues at the Trades Fair Palace in Prague until February 23rd, 2003.