Bearing witness to courage and the fall of communism
In the face of crushing totalitarianism, the artist Josef Koudelka served as our single most important witness to the flickering human spirit in Eastern Europe. His life’s work has, at last, been assembled into one piece, and is raised high in a handsome, heavy monograph bearing his name.
Since the very start of his career, while he was still in his early twenties, the pile of honors that protected and sustained him began to build around his feet. In 1967, the Union of Czechoslovakian Artists gave him their annual award “for the innovative quality of his theater photographs.” John Szarkowsky at the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave him a solo show in 1975. The French Ministry of Culture named him an Officer of Arts and Letters in 2002, and the International Center of Photography gave him the Cornel Capa Infinity Award for all his “distinguished achievements.”
But “Koudelka,” which arrays more than 50 years of his best work, holds an even bigger intention. We get to watch a renowned and eloquent storyteller wander in and out of focus, the emotions of his message veering from hot to cold, from concrete to abstract, literally from softly out-of-focus to vindictively sharp. Casual viewers may struggle to understand how it could all be the work of just one person.
Born in January 1938, Mr. Koudelka grew up in Moravia, where the edges of the Czech Republic, Germany and Poland have overlapped through the centuries. The folks there have an ancient tradition called the Wanderjahr, when young people are expected to go exploring a bit before settling down, literally for a wandering year.
The communist authorities had him listed as an engineer, studying at the Technical University in Prague, but in 1961, Mr. Koudelka traveled abroad for the first time, performing as a musician with a group of folk dancers. Upon returning, he realized that his boyhood hobby of photography held the key to future satisfactions. He figured out how to make the camera do whatever he wanted. While doing this, he paid respects to the strung-out sculptures of Alberto Giacometi and the far heavier works of Henry Moore and Constantin Brancusi.
“They are born under Josef’s eye,” said Robert Delpire, describing the work in an introduction to this book, “an eye that doesn’t create an image but rather invents a subject, whether living or not.” According to one of his earliest exhibition reviews, young Mr. Koudelka “depicts reality not as it is, but as he imagines it and feels it.”
Mr. Koudelka also loved the theater and learned all about the visual frame that viewers make of the stage. When he approached the founders of an avant garde theater named Za Branou in Prague, he asked permission to photograph their dramas, but with one outrageous condition: He must be free to shoot whenever and from wherever he chose, even onstage in the middle of a performance. He became a walk-on player, slipping in among the actors of a Chekhov play, finding a close-up detail here or there, or stepping back to see more of the set.
That work enthralled Prague’s whole artistic community. It held all the emotions of the original play and added the lusty, nightmarish, sore eyes of the young Mr. Koudelka.
More exhibitions followed, but then Mr. Koudelka decided he wanted to capture a different kind of theater, one for which “the play had not been written.” He felt irresistibly drawn to the ageless, anonymous world of outcasts, specifically the gypsies. This way, Mr. Koudelka could also flee the notoriety that he had achieved in the capital. In no time he became a gypsy, quite apart from the world, with little more than his bedroll, making his bedroom each night in the weeds.
Mr. Koudelka developed per- fect empathy with his subjects, and in so doing won their welcome and trust.
In one dreamy scene, a little boy runs full tilt across the alley from one log and stucco house to the other, from the arms of one anxious woman to another, and slung across his back wags a make-believe machine gun pieced from two scraps of wood.
Suddenly, a young man stands handcuffed, nervously on the edge of town. Far behind him stands every gawker and gossip, and three cops in uniform along with their eager dog. An older man, overcome, droops into one crooked arm of his woman, her eyes dried out from crying.
During the spring and summer of 1968, a very different chain of circumstances shaped Mr. Koudelka’s political personality, even though his life-long streak of independence proved crucial, too. The young non-conformist chose to return home the day before Russian tanks overran Prague.
“Traveling through the streets with his camera, despite the dangers, Mr. Koudelka himself embodied the independence and aler tness that the Russians wanted to crush,” writes Petr Kral in another of the book’s eight essays.
In one of the first scenes he witnessed, a member of a Russian tank crew leveled an assault rifle at the chest of a protester, and that young Czech merely opened his leather jacket and invited the invader to shoot. Then not just one brave student, but a whole street full of Czech mothers and sons stood their ground in front of a tank, braced their arms and backs against it and refused to let it pass. Eventually, one young man climbed up top and tried to rally the spirits of his countrymen, waiving the national flag that now symbolized resistance.
The political message completes its arc when the uniformed Russians seem to understand and respect the face-to-face cries of one Czech patriot.
Mr. Koudelka’s photographs were smuggled past the Iron Curtain into the hands of a photo agency in New York named Magnum. They marketed the whole set to magazines around the world as the work of “an anonymous Czech photographer.” Mr. Koudelka didn’t acknowledge having taken those pictures publicly until 16 years later, after the death of his father and when none of his family remaining behind the Iron Curtain could be persecuted.
In 1970, Mr. Koudelka managed to get a precious three-month exit visa from Czechoslovakia to continue his work on gypsies, but he never obeyed the deadline to go home, instead becoming a stateless person in exile. Great Britain allowed him to reside there as a political refugee for 10 years. In 1974, he became a full-member of Magnum. Throughout the 1980s he wandered Europe as a vagabond, appearing to all who met him as a nearly silent, mystic pilgrim.
With the collapse of the Soviet system and the rest of the Warsaw Pact, Mr. Koudelka returned in search of the bones and ghosts it left behind. A statue of Lenin, broken and tethered like Gulliver, takes its last voyage on a barge through Romania’s leg of the Danube in 1994. A devilish black dog prowls a snow-covered park in France.
He also took up a panoramic camera and perfected a life-long love of landscape, but he composed in a daring new way. Four gatefold displays are beautifully tucked into the book, showing how the horizon of Poland, Saxony and the Czech Republic has been ruined by irresponsible industries.
Fifteen images taken since the Milleneum all fit into the chapter called “Chaos,” even though these are the most painstakingly composed in the book. After a rich, long artistic career, Mr. Koudelka finds all of textures and patterns he needs supplied by the real world, but the perfect frame remains all his own.