Bear­ing wit­ness to courage and the fall of com­mu­nism

The Washington Times Weekly - - CULTURE, ETC. -

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.

From the book

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