Josef Koudelka Could Locate Beauty Anywhere

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“I’m quite different from other people,” the legendary eighty-six-year-old Czech photographer Josef Koudelka was saying the other day at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea, where his first solo American show in nearly a decade was about to open. “No kidding,” Melissa Harris responded, and Koudelka began laughing and nodding in a way that said, You ought to know. She was, after all, his biographer.

They were sitting on expansive white risers and looking out at vast white gallery walls across the spacious room, freshly hung with six Koudelka photographs of industrialized landscapes. The frames were so broad, and the images of mines, walls, oil fields, quarries, and factories had such vivid depth, that looking at them seemed akin to gazing through windows at distant lands. Koudelka had made these pictures between 1997 and 2010, using a medium-format panoramic camera in and around Leipzig, Turin, Baku, Messinghausen, Alabama, and the West Bank. His ostensible subject was the human altering and distorting of natural settings. But Koudelka had looked intently enough at pitted earth, scarred concrete, and polluted water to find lines, shapes, shades, and shadows in gorgeous combinations. Koudelka, one feels, could locate beauty anywhere.

“Germany,” 1997.

The show is titled “Industry,” and the word defines not just the subject matter but the artist. Born in Moravia, Koudelka trained as an aeronautical engineer before photography took over his life and, at the end of the nineteen-sixties, made his reputation. First came unforgettably intimate pictures of the Romani people. Then he documented the Soviet-led occupation of Prague. In the late summer of 1968, draped in cameras, he scaled rolling Soviet tanks to photograph their invasion of his country, and signed his pictures, which were smuggled out to the West, with only the initials “P.P.,” for Prague Photographer. After Koudelka himself slipped through the Iron Curtain, his real name became internationally famous.

In a profession with its share of single-minded swaggerers, Koudelka was on another level. Among the words used to describe him in Harris’s new book, “Josef Koudelka: Next,” are “ascetic,” “monastic,” “spartan,” “solitary,” “merciless,” “basic,” “pure,” “exhausting,” “brutal.” To be his lover, his child, or his friend was to know that his only full commitment was to his camera, and to what he and the camera would do tomorrow. As Cristina Marinelli, the mother of Koudelka’s son Nicola, told Harris, “Josef lives for photography.” She meant this literally, for Koudelka shaped his existence to fulfill his need for peripatetic wandering and immersion. He walked and photographed the world, from ancient ruins in Greece and Syria to the modern barriers separating Berlin and Palestine.

“Israel,” 2009.

“For me, the travelling is most important,” Koudelka was saying at Pace. “Not to stay still. Get rid of the things that stick on you. I can get rid of anything.” For much of his life, the only bed that Koudelka would use was a sleeping bag. He preferred to sleep outdoors while shooting, and, when he came in from the cold to visit New York and Paris, he often stayed at the Magnum offices. In Paris, he lived for a time in the storage room at the back of the office, bedding down under one of the coöperative’s employee desks. “I slept on the floor,” he explained. “I needed to train myself to be in any place to make good photographs. You live a certain way of life to be able to make certain things.”

This rugged existence became so ingrained, Koudelka went on, that when the great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson invited him to be his guest in Paris, Koudelka worried what a bed would do to him. But he couldn’t refuse Cartier-Bresson’s hospitality, and submitted to a mattress and a pillow. “After one night, I couldn’t turn my neck for a week,” he said. In Harris’s book, Koudelka says that he and the American photographer Jill Hartley “were madly in love, but I had doubts about how it could work. I couldn’t offer her anything but the Magnum office—sleeping on the floor.”

“USA,” 2000.

Koudelka’s personal uniform featured sturdy workman’s shoes. “I wake up,” Koudelka said, at Pace. “I walk all day. Every year a new pair of shoes.” He was a lithe, muscular man who could cook and wash his clothes anywhere, mend any hole or tear, and remain agile with multiple cameras dangling from his neck. He favored thick military-style olive-green shirts with deep, secure pockets where his passport and his cash could be held close to his self-sufficient heart.

Only once was the system breached by thieves. “At least twenty years ago,” Koudelka recalled. He refuses to say where it happened. “I try to forget about it. I was photographing for a month and a half, and it was raining all the time. I was sleeping outside. One day I lost everything. I accepted it. The only way you can get rid of it is the next year, I go back and you do something better. I can’t tell you if I did do something better, because I don’t know what I lost.”

At Pace, Koudelka wore baggy black Levi’s jeans, a black thermal sweatshirt with a frisson of olive-green fabric visible beneath it, and a frayed khaki vest with several pockets. Although his beard and hair are wispy and white, and although he now uses a cane, he insisted that nothing significant about him had really changed. “I don’t need to be anywhere,” he said, cheerfully. “I do what I want. I’m interested in everything. I spend my day looking. And three rolls is the proof I looked.”

How does one take in the world as he has? “Of course, you must have good eyes. But the guy who has good eyes can take very bad pictures. The good photographer must create conditions to be a good photographer,” Koudelka said. “What’s nice for me is to walk on the street. Nobody ever surpassed me on the streets of Prague. Now most people are passing me. I’m very at peace with it, because none of you will walk so many miles like me. How many, I have no idea.”

He was planning to sleep that night in the hotel room that his gallery had booked for him. But, if the hotel’s pillow seemed menacing to an aging neck, Koudelka wouldn’t hesitate to bed down in the familiar way: “I still can.”

“Germany,” 2010.

Harris, who was dressed in stylish black trousers and a pocketless red sweater that set off her russet hair, took all this in with a patient smile. She met Koudelka through her job at Aperture, the nonprofit photography publisher where she was the longtime editor-in-chief. She knew that Koudelka had an aversion to talking with inquiring journalists; he referred to himself as “Mr. No.” But Koudelka’s sense of impending mortality, and his desire to account for his life himself rather than leaving the job to others, meant that he could “take the risk,” he said.

It helped that Harris was as persevering as he was. She interviewed him in sessions that went on for nearly a decade. Both said that the collaboration had gone well. The book struck them as unsparing, accurate, and true to the spirit of an idiosyncratic and important artistic career. And even better, Harris said, “We didn’t kill each other after ten years!”

Sitting alongside his biographer, gazing out at his six newly exhibited photographs, Koudelka sought to explain his creative principles. “I’m not interested in a story,” he said. “I wanted one picture that tells a different story to different people.” To Koudelka, his finest pictures, like the image of a powerful white horse bowing its head as if listening to reason from a diminutive squatting Romani man, represent the strokes of serendipity that happened to an observant man who walked many miles. “I was born as a visual person,” he said. “Industry came by chance. Gypsies came by chance. The invasion of Prague came by chance. It’s nice to know that, even if I didn’t know everything, sometimes I reacted well.”

“Italy,” 2004.


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