In every generation, new lights, new codes and new ideologies arise - and, just sometimes, a new personality that embraces them all. In a specialized field like photography, new faces and new talents come and go. but only few of them can be regarded as representing recent aspects of the history of the medium, or of forming a constant by which we may compare and judge others. In the field of reportage or street photography-or whatever we may call the capturing of the world in which we live at the moment of occurrence, there is a contact between the human experience of the photographer and his subject which is purveyed through the camera lens. An important and unusual photographer is distinguished by his power of communication and the wisdom of his choice of situation. He must possess the ability to comprehend, watch and execute the human condition through his camera. He takes the incident as it appears before him, brings his discipline to bear and accepts the odds of the chances against him. This is in direct contrast to the act of making images by adjustment and interference within specific circumstances. the only manipulation in the former area of photography is the skillful handling d the mechanical instrument, and this becomes a part of the photographer's anatomy. It is easy enough to understand and account for the existence of such a talent, but how and where can one meet a personality of this niveau who is still at the , beginning at his career An encounter of this nature cannot be planned since much of the person in question's future is still undetermined and undefined, and thus a chance meeting is more in line with the important aspects of his life. Let me recall the circumstances in which I first saw images by Josef Koudelka.
It was during my first year 1966 with CAMERA magazine that I visited Prague for the first time to be present at "Interkamera", a photographic fair and exhibition. It being my first trip to Eastern Europe, I was filled with excitement and prepared to take in all kinds of experiences within the ten days at my disposal. I had a few contacts in Prague through mutual friends in Western Europe, and, since I had published work by Josef Sudek in March 1966, he was first on my list to visit. I was fortunate in being accompanied by two of my former students from an international summer college in Alpbach, Austria, and they became my constant companions and interpreters. We spent some wonderful afternoons with Sudek and his sister and getting to know more of Sudek's work, and this was to be the beginning of a very Personal relationship.
One evening, a rendezvous was arranged for a dinner and a visit to a theater where an exhibition of work by a young Czech photographer was to be taken down next day. Anna Farova was my dinner guest, and after the meal we walked together to the theater. She apologized for the fact that the young photographer was out of town taking pictures in a gypsy community in Moravia and expressed the hope that we might meet on a subsequent trip. First and foremost, she wanted me to see his work. Koudelka's exhibition hung in the foyer, and I was told that he was also active as a theater photographer. The exhibition.included theater pictures and she carried the more recent 'gypsy' images, and I was filled with exaltation by what I saw. I made rapid mental notes about the powerful gypsy pictures, and I asked about Koudelka and his life in Prague.
Of primary importance was my first selection from the Photographs before me for publication in CAMERA the following year. Here were images of the lives of a People which created a lasting impression on most viewers. Koudelka's communication impact was equal to his photographic sensitivity in the final prints, and the images I brought back with me were filled with an .exceptional vitality. The article which accompanied the pictures and Anna Farova's personal account of Josef Koudelka's work were, in conjunction with the images, to form a milestone in the history of CAMERA magazine.
I was chosen to create an invited exhibition and catalogue in Bergamo, Italy for the 12-27th of October at the Palazzo Della Ragione, "Mostra Di Fotografia, EUROPA 1968". This was sponsored by the Tourist Office and I was asked to take charge by Pepi Merisio a Bergamesca photographer and collaborator for Camera. I included the following photographers,Tony Armstong Jones ( Lord Snowdon) England,London/ Aart Klein, Amsterdam/
Josef Koudelka, Zigani,Prague/ Felix H. Man, Early Work,Sorengo, Ticino CH/ Pepi Mersio, Lazio antico, Bergamo/ Horst Munzig, Spagna,Mindelheim Bayern/Gottard Schuh, Early Work, Küssnacht ZH CH. This was one of the first Reportage exhibitions with the new garde and old garde on the European continent. Iwas a pleasure to introduce someone from the Eastern part of Europe and have Josef show for the first time in the West.
It was not until 1969, when I made a further visit to Prague, as well as during the Preparation of the article for March 1970, that I had the chance of meeting Josef Koudelka and talking to him in Anna Farova's apartment.
Josef Koudelka was born in Moravia, a Czechoslovakian state, in 1938. After completion of his studies, he became an aeronautical engineer, but the impossibility of obtaining enough funds to build airplane engines which would comply with the minimum safety standards separated him from his profession since it was unthinkable for him to accept responsibility for the lives of Passengers under these circumstances. This and many other reasons made him turn toward photography. He began working in the field of theater photography in 1985 and published in a theater magazine when a director, Otomar Krejca, gave him permission to work with the actors during performances in his own inimitable way. The first results met with the director's approval, and they turned out to be extraordinary personal impressions rather than average proscenium theater pictures. In 1961, Josef photographed his subject matter from theater set-ups and carefully planned stage lighting as well as something more vivid and closer to his heart. He chose the life and environment of the gypsies of Slovakia as his other theme. (himself a Moravian with a provincial background), he possessed a natural affiliation with these people, and he continued to photograph them until 1970, when he had the opportunity of publishing and exhibiting his pictures in Prague.
Josef said he didn't really know why he started to photograph the gypsies, but he does know and remember he could not stop.At this point in 1969 I requested Josef make 8 cm x 11 cm smaller than post card prints of the entire Gypsy series in 3 sets each which totaled approximately 32 photographs to date.I received these photographs within weeks and in due time presented them, the set of 32 to Henri Cartier-Bresson on a meeting in Paris and a few months later to John Szarkowsky at the MOMA in New York.
I had not said much in regard to the photographs in the little packet, but I knew it would mean something to them some day soon. As it came to pass when Josef sought asylum and a place to stay in Paris Henri Cartier-Bresson gave him his sacred place, his studio and old living quarters not far from his apartment on the Rue de Rivoli.. The 32 small cards in New York came to be the famous 1974 one man show of the Josef's "Gypsies"work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 1969, Josef made his first trip outside Czech
Czecholovakia. He sought asylum in England in 1970 and remained there as a stateless resident in London since 1971 . Once having made the decision to stay and work in Western Europe, he widened his range to include gypsies all over the continent.
Josef owes much to Anna Farova for her initial interest and assistance, and to Henri Cartier-Bresson who he met by "coincidence"; both these persons were extremely important in acknowledging his work. Earlier, the Czechoslovakian critic and photographer Jiri Jenicek had made a great contribution to Josef's development as a photograph·, for it was he that helped chose the pictures for his first exhibition, where he met Anna Farova for the first time. Jenicek ordered a 3.5-cm Zeiss Flectogen lens from East Germany, and received a 25-mm instead. After the death of Jenicek he bought the lens from his widow. Josef subsequently used this lens for much of his work.
Gradually, Josef's work became acquainted with more and more people visiting Prague. The Photographer Inge Morath and the playwright Arthur Miller took a great interest in his work, and especially in his photographs of the gypsies.
Since the words reportage, street photographer, documentarist and journalist have such different meanings in different countries, Josef Koudelka prefers not to categorize himself or his work. saying 'I make photographs for myself'.
It was in 1970, in the United States, when he received the Robert Capa Memorial Prize, that he met Elliott Erwitt again after having been introduced in England before. Erwin. at the time President of Magnum, was instrumental in making Josef a member of the Group in 1971. Later, in 1974, the Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, John Szarkowski, proposed an exhibition of Josef Koudelka's work which was eventually realized in the spring 1975. The same year in the fall saw the publication of his book 'Koudelka-Gypsies' by Delpire in France and 'Aperture' in America. I must make a note here that on the occasion of a n exhibition of drawings by Henri Cartier-Bresson at a gallery in Zürich he and his wife Martine called to ask me for dinner before the Vernissage. We met at the Kronenhalle at the Belleview Place and prioe to the dinner he offered me a book. The book was the first of the copies of the Museum of Mosern Art's one-man show of Koudelka's works. I was enchanted by the private messenger service of no other then the master, Henri. He asked me to look at the dedication and to my astonishment Josef wrote "to Allan , the first one to publish me in the West, thanks Josef" The Museum of Modern Art did show part of his gypsy work, and many of the images are included in the CAMERA monograph which were taken over a period in the last ten years. Josef Koudelka himself has made the following statement about his work: Publishing photographs is not important to me. lam changing slightly now--but it was never important to me. I like to concentrate on working and not to be disturbed-and that is what happens during and after publishing. But 1 do believe when one publishes there must be an idea behind it . . .
"In the last four years I did not make any prints as I was busy photographing. It was only last winter I made 6000 prints.
'What is the maximum to me and maximum to reality is a good picture. My contact sheets are a personal record of my life. They are my diary-where I sleep, how I eat and who I am with. My photographs are not a diary but a reflection of myself to the world. It is like photographing theater situations-they are always changing. Sometimes the actress is bad and sometimes · am bad. In the last nine years I have refused any commercial assignments, but I did have a grant from the British Arts Council. My friend, Robert Delpire, who designed this monograph and also my book. worked with me in making the selections of images and the layout of this monograph. I have much gratitude to Magnum who helped me Greatly and made my life easier. I am now a full member of Magnum, and they allow me all the freedom I find necessary. his selection of photographs represents just one of my output. Virtually all of them were taken since I left Czechoslovakia and the latest was shot in 1974.
There is nothing more recent simply because I have been too busy actually taking photographs to catch up on my darkroom work and evaluating the latest pictures.
I shoot a great many Photographs and I am trying to discover new possibilities within the medium that I can explore further. The most important thing for me is to keep on working and I am afraid to stop. I want to avoid what I have seen happen to other photographers, who have restricted themselves, perhaps unnecessarily, and ultimately run out of inspiration.
Over the last ten years I have been continually re-shooting real-life situations in much the same way as I originally worked in the theater. I keep covering festivities and other events that reoccur year after year. I know the stage, I know the play and I know the actors. Sometimes they have an off-day, sometimes they are all their best. The same holds true of me. What interests me is when we are all at our best. And of course one always has to be open and ready for moments of accident and improvisation. They can create the richest experience of all.."
It is now ten years since I first met Josef, and I have followed him closely in his work. Although we see each other seldom we do manage to meet occasionally, and we are in constant touch by telephone. Josef's work is important to me as an
editor-critic and as a human being. His vision is universally representative, and his magical, mystical arrangements are perceptive and penetrating.
When comparing his work to painting, the only relationship I can think of is to the work of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya (1740-1824)-not only because of its imagery, but also because of Goya's life and the magnetic element in both his oils and drawings. Here is torture and love, humility and anguish, sorcery and religion. But, be that as it may, there is always a sense of hope, and the fragility of human endeavor and human circumstance prevails.
Effort is required to appreciate El Greco's warm spirituality, Velazquez's cool objectivity. But we feel Goya in our bones and in our blood. We know him, or think we know him, as instinctively as we know ourselves.' Andre Malraux. "With him you have the beginnings of modern anarchy and new modern painting begins." Bernard Berenson. In his paintings 'The Burial of the Sardine' and 'Mad House', Goya completes the picture by offering a vision of what tormented his heart of darkness. The madness that is common to both the fiesta and the asylum is evident in these two paintings which Goya probably completed during recuperation from the terrible illness that left him deaf. As regards the painting 'The Disasters of War', I should like to draw attention to the following aspects: Before Goya, artists tended to portray war in a heroic fashion as a splendid and courageous act of man. Goya, on the other hand, painted and drew war in its naked truth as an inferno which brutalizes man to the point where he commits acts against his fellow men which exceed the powers of the mast gruesome imagination. He was already 62 in 1808 (the war ended in 1814), and he produced a magnificent and devastating series of etchings with captions arising from the ugliness of war. His visual portrayal of war and its atrocities compounded his major statement about society in the wake of war's brutality. His six years effort, however, ended without hope or adjustment to society's needs. These faces. which appear as if masked in Goya's paintings, are presented as real in our society by Josef Koudelka.
The reason that I detail the above description of this important artist will become evident in future criticisms of Josef's work. A child of war, educated and raised in I a threatening political-coalition arrangement in Center i Europe in the mid-20th century, he too was a witness to an uneven concept of truth, hope and salvation. The strength of the development of existentialist philosophy in post-war France and the socialist political philosophies adopted in Germany permeated into the predominating socialist states in Eastern Europe. Josef was aware, consciously or unconsciously, of this tent of futility hovering above the rights of the individual, and the gypsies became indictment to the world as a 1 minority penalized, shunned and ignored by the majority. The minority and its defense, the untouchables and their misplacement in our society--these are Koudelka's image. They are incised as a document to truth into the crevices of our I: brains, so that we may be affected and revolted by their
I very existence. We live in a world in which the power of words is often ineffective. and our image-makers tend to produce pictures which are so abstract that their content becomes lost in the interests of stylism and fetishism. Josef Koudelka uses the medium of photography in such a way as to make us shudder and be awe-stricken by the repellent content of his pictures, - even if we cannot fully comprehend their meaning. He is neither a voyeur nor an observer: he is a participant in every aspect of his photographic work. which is directed largely at righting the wrongs of our human condition. Like Goya, he presents us with a desolation, a perturbation through his images; but, like Goya, he is aware of the seeds of goodness in the human heart. In making us witnesses to the facts through his photographs, he also makes us accomplice to the facts. And he succeeds.
1967 November, pp. 27-34-
1972 February, p. 21-
1970 March, pp. 2-12
1975 December, p. 29
1979 August, a Monograph and Essay