Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 12, 2015
Matthew S. Witkovsky, ed. Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful Exh. cat. Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 2014. 224 pp.; 200 ills. Paper $50.00 (9780300203929)
Exhibition schedule: Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, June 7–September 14, 2014; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, November 11, 2014–March 22, 2015; Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid, September 15–November 29, 2015
Josef Koudelka. Romania, from the series Gypsies (1968; printed 1980s). The Art Institute of Chicago, promised gift of Robin and Sandy Stuart. © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York.

For many, the high point of this retrospective of Josef Koudelka’s work will be the series of images of the Soviet invasion of Prague in August of 1968. The photographer had just returned to the city from a trip photographing Roma communities when the seven-day invasion began. Weaving in and among the crowds of protestors, his camera loaded with yards of East German movie film, he managed to capture the fragile power of such instances of collective heroism. Images of conflict between the heavily armed invading forces and the very human Czech resistance combine with those of cleverly detourned propaganda posters to lay bare the hypocrisy of the invasion with a pathos reminiscent of Goya. The drama of this section of the exhibition is heightened by the role that these photographs played in Koudelka’s biography. Although he did not claim credit for them until 1984 for fear of reprisal on himself and his family, the images had already taken on a life of their own, featuring in print and television news sources as the production of an anonymous “Prague photographer.” They were also crucial in providing Koudelka an entrée into the West. He was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal for the work (anonymously) in 1969, and invited on their basis to join the collective Magnum Photos, whose legendary roster of photographers is known for a heroic pursuit of news photos at great personal risk. Magnum’s support enabled him to leave Czechoslovakia in 1970, and to forge a new career.

The gallery containing the invasion images is also a particularly good example of one of the exhibition’s overall strengths, which is its thoughtful balance in presenting the multiple media through which Koudelka’s work was distributed (books, magazines, television) within a clean, white-cube aesthetic that affords contemplation of individual images. In this gallery, the viewer proceeds from a linear presentation of large framed prints, which foreground Koudelka’s experience on the ground, to a wall of news clippings in a variety of languages and a CBS television broadcast that emphasize the role the images played in mediating the event for the world. The television broadcast also functions as an accessible orientation for viewers unfamiliar with this history, demonstrating a thoughtful curatorial intelligence further evinced in the judicious use of wall text and excellent scholarly catalogue.

Part of this retrospective’s larger argument, however, is that the invasion images, albeit compelling, were an aberration in Koudelka’s oeuvre; he is not really a photographer in the Magnum mold. All of his work “has something to do with me,” he has said (James Estrin, “Josef Koudelka: Formed by the World,” New York Times [November 19, 2013]:; “what happened in Prague in August 1968 happened only once in my life” (“The Maximum, That’s What’s Always Interested Me: Notes from discussions between Josef Koudelka and Karel Hvizdala in Prague, 1990–2001,” in Josef Koudelka, Prague: Torst, 2002, 130). At the Art Institute of Chicago, this singular position is reflected by installing the series in a long, narrow corridor of a gallery whose idiosyncratic dimensions and position—it joins galleries displaying his early work in Czechoslovakia and subsequent work in the West—set the images apart while emphasizing their importance in necessitating and facilitating that transition. The truer statement of Koudelka’s larger project is articulated in the work displayed on either end: the “Gypsy” photographs taken on extended visits to Roma encampments in Eastern Europe and the series later grouped as “Exiles” that issued from his own itinerant lifestyle once he left Czechoslovakia.

That Koudelka’s early investment in Roma ways of life later found expression in his own has often been noted. Stateless for sixteen years, Koudelka never established a new home but rather lodged with friends or even sometimes slept outside on scraps of cloth. The exhibition’s subtitle, “Nationality Doubtful,” refers to the status recorded in his travel document by British border control, and fits with curator Matthew Witkovsky’s apparent interest in positioning Koudelka’s work within a contemporary discourse around issues of citizenship, post-nationalism, and the representation of mobile lives. The two images that bookend the catalogue set the tone: both are reproductions of maps—the first, the night sky, and the second, Italy. Annotated by cryptic handscribblings and arrows, they evoke an understanding of the earth defined less by national borders than experiential vectors. In this view, the photographer made itinerancy a part of his practice long before artists like Gabriel Orozco began talking about a “post-studio condition.”

This framing clearly has strategic advantage, but how does it affect our fundamental understanding of the photographer’s production? When first exhibited in the West in the seventies, the gypsies project was situated at both ends of the spectrum of modernist image making: most often, it was labeled ethnographic, but it was also presented in 1976 by John Szarkowski, the Museum of Modern Art’s very modernist curator, as a universalist exploration of form and the human condition. Neither model quite fits, making welcome Witkovsky’s suggestion that the gypsy images hover somewhere between art and ritual. The photographer made extended visits to Roma encampments throughout Eastern Europe in the sixties, recording the music he heard in them and taking what he described then as portraits. In the resulting images, the connection of photographer to photographed is palpable and somewhat romantic, as if the glassy cylinder of the lens somehow facilitated a transfer of souls. At the same time, the images engage in an intentional play with form. For example, many portraits explicitly thematize portraiture—in one instance, a Roma man displays a framed portrait, presumably of a lost relative, alongside a relief portrait of Czechoslovakia Communist Party leader Klement Gottwald; in another, a young bride is flanked by two women peering out through the glass of two windows like portraits hung on a cracked plaster wall. This admixture of the romantic and conceptual becomes yet more intriguing in light of Koudelka’s seeming investment in the Roma story as one with a kind of counter-world-historical significance. In the 1975 book presentations of Gypsies in French (Gitans, la fin du voyage, Paris: Delpire) and English (Gypsies, New York: Aperture), he insisted on the inclusion of a stylistically dry (although entirely fascinating) account of the long history of clashes between the Roma’s nomadic lifestyle and the norms governing Western civilization. Framed by that text, the photographs become not ethnographic documents, nor universalist statements—nor perhaps even Witkovsky’s mix of art and ritual—but monuments to an alternative mode of relating to the earth’s surface, an exploration of the visual poetics of people and territory; in some sense, they are a set of elaborations on the relationship of figure to ground. Whether this visual poetics is also a politics—and if so, what kind—is one of the more interesting questions productively raised, if not entirely answered, by the show’s reframing of Koudelka’s oeuvre.

The final gallery of the exhibition, which features the panoramic images that Koudelka has produced since 1986, might have been the place to resolve this question. This work departs from his earlier projects in its elimination of human figures; it thus offers retrospective clarity insofar as the images are no longer mistakable as ethnographic or news photos. Most of the panoramas have been published as books as well as exhibited, and this gallery presents three of the books as parallel horizontal strips of images wrapping around the walls of the gallery, alongside several very large framed prints (each roughly two-and-a-half-meters long) from the series Archeology (2006). Again, the presentation emphasizes the multiple ways in which the images function.

In their book forms, the panoramas have generally been presented with captions and other brief texts. For example, one of the books exhibited in full, Black Triangle (Prague: Vesmir, 1994), features captions subtly placed at the lower edge of each image in a small typeface, providing information about the environmental effects of coal mining in an area located between Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes, published by Aperture in 2013, is another particularly topical example of the same format. The book prefaces images of the controversial wall that Israel began erecting in the early 2000s with a timeline detailing its construction; captions line the lower edge of each image in a similarly small typeface, specifying location and stating facts about the construction project and its effects. Although impartially phrased in the manner of “balanced” news reporting, these statements nonetheless argue that the wall is an agent of territorial expansion; for example, “If completed as planned, the Wall will be approximately seven hundred kilometers long, more than twice the length of the 320-kilometer 1949 Armistice Line or ‘Green Line’ between Israel and the West Bank” (n.p.); or “Palestinian Bedouin communities are at particular risk of forced displacement due to demolition of their homes and other structures, which the Israeli authorities consider illegal” (n.p.).

Oddly, Wall is presented in the exhibition without any of this text; the image order and cover graphic of the Aperture book are preserved, but the displayed images (new inkjet prints) are labeled “Prototype for Wall.” To be fair, Koudelka did not author the text, but neither did he for his other books, and one assumes the decision was intended to avoid the controversy that inevitably clings to this subject matter. Indeed, when Wall came out, some criticized Koudelka for omitting figures, and thus also the human suffering that he must have witnessed on his trip. The decision to strip the work of text only exacerbates this issue, however; it also makes seem like a dodge what could have been an opportunity to better understand Koudelka’s project. Fans of the “Prague photographer” and the emotional immediacy of the invasion images may find Koudelka’s stance in Wall too formal and distanced. In a sense, the photographer continues his career-long meditation on figure and ground—the wall is at turns figure and edge, roughly textured material surface, looping lines of barbed wire, and chain link grid; at least in this viewer’s reading, the resulting formal tensions open a space for contemplation of the same themes of territorial division and human differences that underwrite Koudelka’s earlier work, including the invasion images. The temporality of Wall, however, is more future perfect than present; the mood, more Greek tragedy than twenty-four-hour news cycle. Devoid of heroes and martyrs, the human conflict driving the wall’s construction already seems petty. The wall goes up like a ruin in reverse. When placed in tension with the impassively newsy captions in the book, this dramatic mood and epic timescale have their own kind of political power. Juxtaposed instead with the large prints of toppled Greek columns from Archeology, the images become more fatalistic.

Kristin Romberg
Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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