Between 1970, when he left Prague, and 1985, when he became a French citizen, the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka was a man without a country, and in many ways a man without even an identity. He had no passport, and his papers were listed with the rubric “Nationality Doubtful,” a condition of uncertainty for a still young man who’d had tight bonds to his city’s vibrant culture.
But during the night of August 21, 1968, Russian and Warsaw Pact tanks and soldiers invaded the city of Prague, bringing an abrupt end to the “Prague Spring” that had begun on January 5, 1968, when reformist politician Alexander Dubcek was elected First Secretary of Czechoslovakia’s Communist party. This mandate was the culmination of efforts to foment change that had been roiling the country throughout the Sixties.
Koudelka returned to Prague just one day before the Soviet invasion; he had been photographing the Roma people of Romania and Slovakia, an ongoing photo-essay project on gypsy culture that he had begun some years earlier. It was the music that first attracted him to the gypsies, and he had introduced himself as a photographer interested in making portraits of musicians.
The Roma had left northeastern India 1,500 years earlier, creating a diaspora across Europe, spreading from the Balkans to Ireland.
As a gypsy or itinerant himself, Koudelka continued to photograph the Roma for another decade. Finally, he adopted a new subject and a new visual style in the mid-1980s, when he began documenting the twin poles of environmental degradation and archeological ruins in Central Europe with a large-format panorama camera.
On the first anniversary of the Prague invasion in 1969, Koudelka’s searing and immersive images of the tanks and soldiers surrounded by protesting Czechs were released, garnering worldwide attention. Koudelka had spent the previous year tucked away in a darkroom, printing photos of the weeklong standoff between East Bloc and Soviet troops, and the people of Prague. These photographs were smuggled out of Czechoslovakia incrementally and displayed in international photo magazines like Look and Paris Match.
Charles Collingwood narrated a story about the first anniversary of the invasion on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, with Koudelka’s photos filling the TV screens of mainstream America. This body of work was published under the byline “P.P.” The moniker “Prague Photographer” was Koudelka’s official credit until 1985, when he was able to return to Prague and exhibit this landmark work under his own name. The irony of all this is that this photo-essay is, in fact, the only work Koudelka has made that can rightly be called “photojournalism.”
Koudelka began photographing in his late teen years, experimenting with darkroom printing and enlargement techniques. This work included a startling image of a Polish nun on a beach, a photo that anticipated the super-wide aspect ratio of his panoramic work a full three decades later.
In the early 1960s, Koudelka became a professional photographer for several avant-garde Prague theater companies; he eschewed the typical proscenium images often included in program booklets in favor of inserting himself onstage with the company during rehearsals. These photos have a manic energy and avant-garde style in keeping with the dramatic works being performed. They were printed in theater programs and in a monthly theater magazine titled Divadlo.
The Getty Center is hosting the major retrospective Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful in its lower-level photo galleries through March 22. It’s the first time the entire space has been devoted to the work of a single living photographer. The back galleries contain his mural-sized panoramic photographs; the central hallway is devoted to the Soviet invasion; and the front galleries exhibit his early experimental imagery. A single gallery is devoted to a re-creation of his landmark 1967 exhibition of gypsy portraits; 21 of the original 27 images hang in shadowbox frames. Koudelka has donated this work to the Art Institute of Chicago, a co-sponsor of the exhibition.
According to the exhibit’s co-curator, Amanda Maddox, Koudelka is deeply involved in how his work is displayed. He advised on the installation of the exhibition and was present at its opening in November. In a brief video produced by the Art Institute of Chicago, Koudelka walks viewers through a gallery in the process of installation. His high energy and sense of command suggests what a force he must be when in the presence of his own work.
He also addresses the expression “Nationality Doubtful,” speculating about what it means to be a citizen not of a single country, but of the world:
We are citizens of this earth. We are all the same: no nationalities, no borders.
In an era of ever-increasing ethnic and racial parochialism, it might seem as though Koudelka’s perspective doesn’t conform to contemporary geopolitical reality. But it is these “engaged” photographers — idealists, fantasists or whatever they may be — who challenge us, through their sense of inclusive, broad-based humanity, to look at the world outside, even if it’s only from the cocoon of an air-conditioned gallery.
There is a fascinating but sometimes rambling 18-minute video by Ted Forbes, manager of multimedia at the Dallas Museum of Fine Art, that uses the exhibition catalog to discuss the aesthetic parameters of Koudelka’s images. It is preceded by a five-minute survey of Koudelka’s career. I don’t usually like to present instructional videos in this blog, but I find this one engaging because Koudelka’s work is so varied and informed by his peripatetic lifestyle.
There is also a 12-minute video that foregoes the analytical perspective of Forbes’ piece in favor of a moody, poetic immersion in Koudelka’s images — the camera pans his contact sheets, resting on a chosen image outlined in red grease- pencil border. Fading in and out with each image, the haunting wind instrument sets the scene. This video is part of a series made by three French artists titled “The Secrets Behind Their Images,” based on the idea of exploring artist contacts by filmmaker/photographer William Klein. The narrator refers to Koudelka’s “frenzy of images.” While clearly not made in a shoot-from-the-hip style like street photographer Garry Winogrand’s, the contacts demonstrate a subtle discovery of the photographer’s key images.
A casual review of the Koudelka page on Amazon reveals the variety of themes and subjects reflected in his work. The exigencies of his decades-long wanderings have found a kind of terra firma in his restless exploring of each succeeding body of work.
In moving through the individual galleries of Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, you can’t help but be surprised at the unpredictability of the image flow. Often, a retrospective illustrates a discernible, if not predictable, evolution in an artist’s work over the course of a career. Not so with Koudelka. In his case, each gallery seems to represent a different photographer.
It was Koudelka’s restless quest as an artist that I believe captured the rapt interest of the cinematography fellows from the American Film Institute who viewed the exhibit with me in January. They were themselves a multilingual, multi-ethnic group, one which included more women than I expected — a herald, I hope, that women are infusing cinematography with new creative dimensions. I think an outlier like Koudelka, if he had been conducting a tour of his work, would have felt right at home in this rich cultural mix of film students.