Josef Koudelka: the theatrics of life

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

Wild white hair and beard, but dressed in a drab, olive shirt and combat jacket, Josef Koudelka is like a guerrilla Father Christmas. Wearing scuffed shoes, and with a roughly unceremonious joviality, the Czech photographer appears uncomfortable being stalked around his exhibition by dozens of press with cameras and smartphones, before being cornered into a Q&A session. Once settled, however, he speaks with passion about people, music and the theatricality of life and photography. Commensurate with that, however, is an abiding anger toward injustices and regimes with a history of suppression, whether it is of the people or their culture.

Koudelka’s retrospective at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, covers the photographer’s experiments in graphic black-and-white composition from the early 1960s through the iconic “Gypsies” series and landmark photojournalism work of the Soviet crackdown in his native country in 1968. It continues on to his more recent landscape work done in a panorama format.

As befitting someone who considers himself a wanderer and exile (his only advice to young photographers is “buy good shoes”), Koudelka’s work has moved around in terms of genre and format over a career spanning more than half a century. There is the dramatic active framing of snapshots capturing decisive moments, but also the distanced, static portraiture reminiscent of August Sander’s documentary photography — both of which contrast with the generally unpeopled large-scale landscapes of later years.

While this major exhibition of more than 300 images provides an intense visual experience of different ways photography can be used, the vast majority of images exude heaviness and claustrophobic darkness. They are grainy, often blurred, and they sometimes unashamedly exhibit the process of darkroom printing, with areas visibly dodged or burned.

When this method of reducing or increasing the amount of exposure to chosen areas of photographic paper is done unobtrusively, it balances the tones, and therefore composition, across the whole of the print. If done aggressively, however, it creates tension and directs the viewer’s eye with clear intentionality. Particular areas of the image seem to proclaim “look at this,” and, at the same time, we are reminded of the performance of the photographer in creating the work.

Drama was an important part of Koudelka’s early career: In a literal sense, because he worked for a theater magazine in the ’60s, creating fantastically emotive images, but also because theatricality was, and still is, deeply embedded in the photographer’s world view. The week in 1968 when young Czechoslovakians stood up against invading Soviet forces occurred when he was working as a stage photographer, and so it became not only a tragedy but also a drama to be recorded. Likewise, his “Gypsies” series, created in the same period, is described by Koudelka as a “theater of the real.”

Through dynamic composition and juxtaposition, Koudelka’s work challenges us to differentiate between spectacle and reality, and while there is no positive indication that one is valued over the other, this is not at all the same as the disbelief in reality that is characteristic of postmodernism. As he puts it, “You form the world in your viewfinder, but at the same time the world forms you.”

In a sense, Koudelka does not want us to become too comfortable with his works as definitive statements. Instead, he crops bodies in images abruptly; we often see people cut off at the knees or ankles, visually and figuratively separating them from the Earth. In other works, disembodied arms and legs jut into the space of the photograph, making scenes surreal and reminding us that whatever coherency the composition has, we can never see the whole picture of what’s really going on.

Even with the more poetic and purposefully aesthetic panorama prints of his later “Chaos” series — monumental testaments to the violence we enact both on the natural world and upon each other — through the pitted insistence of film grain and the lack of bright tones or highlights, we are not permitted redemption through “art” or the creation of “beautiful” objects.

In this respect Koudelka’s work, in its celebration of the imperfect, has more in common with the aesthetics of the haiku poet Basho, or the tea master Sen no Rikyu, than with the luscious highly detailed color images that largely dominate the world of contemporary art photography.

For someone who seems to admire people most when they are rebelling or in exile, this seems only right.

“Josef Koudelka Retrospective” at The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo runs till Jan. 13; open 10a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥850 (includes admission to the museum’s special exhibition (see below). Closed Mon. (except Dec.23, Jan. 13), Dec. 24 , Dec. 28-Jan. 1. www.momat.go.jp