PRINT September 1988


Charity is always help that is offered too late, just as revolution is help offered too soon.
–John Krich, Music in Every Room

THERE WAS VERY LITTLE, in fact nothing material, that Mendel Grossman could have done to help his fellow Jews in the Lodz ghetto. Powerless, and at great risk from the Nazis, he chose to photograph the extremity of his people. Those few of his negatives and prints that have survived stand as an appeal to a future he was not to know. In serving to recall past events, photographs with this urgency also admonish us. It is as if we were being told that historical hardships and cruelties have been visualized so as not to be repeated—and, of course, they always are.

When photographs show horrible suffering, we are often inclined to think the picture-taking impulse itself was ineffectual. As human dignity is threatened and life is lost, it seems a pathetic, sometimes a callous thing, or worse, to raise a camera to one’s eye instead of intervening. Under those bad circumstances when conscious intervention is possible, we should be more impelled to act than to record. But how few are those circumstances! Most often the need to stand back, if only mentally, in order to make the picture is compensatory. Photographic culture is here a human undertaking that is resigned to secondary action, and that implies the marginal status of everyone who has taken a picture, relative to whatever is pictured. Between the magnitude of the event, of which some aspect is described, and the reportorial vantage, there is always a disproportion.

Verbal reportage, of course, occurs after the fact, and is an account as often based on sources as on actual experience. But a photographer has to be on the scene—either in the midst of events that unfold at the moment of the camera exposure, or at their physical aftermath. Physical presence enhances the possibilities of involvement. When the situation is extreme, the pictorial motivation will likely compare with it, urged on by a passion for justice or vengeance. (I am speaking of the partisan rather than the bureaucratic photodocument.) Here, the photographic act has a rhetorical charge: it is understood to confirm, protest, indict, or mourn, sometimes all at once. An operator uses the camera as a tool with which to sublimate or symbolically perform these gestures, undeniable in their import.

Yet the whole stance of the picture is reactive, even when the timing and accuracy of the photographer is split-second. The photograph partakes of its moment in an intimate way, but happens too “late” for anyone to have prevented what it records. Though they sometimes contribute to a change of social or political attitude toward their subjects, photographs seal off their contents in a strange temporal limbo. By virtue of having frozen a process, they seem to have transformed it into something permanent and fatal, the opposite of process. When they move us, it is not so much that we are swayed by the activism of photographs as overwhelmed by their poignance.

I’m not sure I subscribe to John Krich’s remark about charity being help that is offered too late, or revolution help offered too soon. There is something too schematic and symmetrical about that. But I see what he means. Our good intentions have a tendency to be mistimed; and altruistic measures frequently have goals of their own, not necessarily relevant to those affected by them. Krich’s observation occurs in a description of Mother Teresa’s Calcutta Home for the Dying Destitute, in a book whose subtitle is Around the World in a Bad Mood.1 That phrase puts me in mind of the Czech (now naturalized French) photographer Josef Koudelka, whose acute talent for scenting out wretched places and oppressed people should lower our spirits. But he visualizes them with such tang and euphoric bitterness that his work is positively exhilarating.

It’s shocking to think of how much in current Western experience is ruled out by Koudelka, and nullified, as if it never existed. One could search practically in vain for the historical Europe or the tourist scene, the life of the middle classes, plastics, the consumer market, signs, cars, modern diversions, blue-collar existence, productive systems of any kind, in short the characteristic jamboree of the late 20th century. It takes a certain exclusionary genius to have rejected such sights while still asserting one’s ties to people. A great deal has been made of the solitary spirit of Koudelka’s work, but that spirit protests too much. Because of his rhetorical estrangement, his world may be as inhospitable as it is unfamiliar, but it remains a world of minority cultures, whose religious and funerary rituals it intimately discloses. The question of how long these cultures will continue to exist in recognizable form is held in suspense by his imagery. Preindustrial and mostly unrelated to any sizable economy, they seem to be holding on, in atrophied, ingrown states, a dwindling that has spurred him to make his late records. Europe had no place for the Eastern Slovakian gypsies Koudelka photographed in the ’60s, and the Spanish peasantry of his more recent images would not seem to have the brightest prospects either. At first glance, it looks as if he’s declared his theme to be rural, third world poverty, but the faces, though gnarled like those in undeveloped countries, are Caucasian. What happens in his pictures seems to have taken place a long time ago, under archaic conditions, hard to remember . . . so that their actual contemporaneity appears misplaced.

The first plate of Koudelka’s most recent book, Exiles, which accompanied his show at the International Center of Photography this summer in New York (it had traveled there from Paris), shows the photographer’s left forearm stretched from a balcony over an empty Prague boulevard. The year is fateful, 1968, and the gesture is unmistakably that of someone who consults his watch. It’s 12 o’clock, a noon hour here momentous because of its silence and emptiness, as if to mark a large strike. The photographer engages us with a symbolic interval of his resistance as a fighter on behalf of the aborted Dubček liberalization. His subsequent flight from the Brezhnev armed clampdown, along with numerous other Czech intellectuals, artists, and filmmakers, was an escape to a freedom in the West whose embryo promise they had lost at home. (In this era of glasnost, the persistence of the Czech regime in its singularly reactionary, unbending course indicates all the more glaringly what they were up against.)

In the case of Koudelka, however, welcome into Western creative circles did not lead him to any endorsement of the materialism, much less the capitalist ethic, that surrounded him there. The only pictures really impacted with things in his entire career are of Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia, swarmed over by defiant but impotent crowds during the time of national humiliation and trauma. Events like that have the capacity to mark an artist’s vision. Though befriended in the West (particularly at the photo agency of Paris Magnum, which took him as a member), and clearly grateful for it, Koudelka was never consoled. It can be argued that this diffident man, who lives and travels as lightly as possible, is by temperament an uprooted character. In the early ’60s, as a young man, an aeronautical engineer and theater photographer, he had already been taking pictures of the outcast gypsies, a foretaste of his experience as one expatriated in his own turn. Still, there had once been a homeland for his alienation, and now he was forced to reproduce and project it by the sheer strength of his nomadic will. The pictorial introduction of his book is also really a closing down, a climax from which there could only follow an anticlimax. But from that ensues his meaning, as it’s realized that “our” Western Europe has been suffused by Koudelka’s downcast view of Eastern Europe.

The history of photography is heavily populated with exiles and émigrés. Of course travel has always been a professional need of practitioners, and the visual character of photographic work has enabled it to move fluently across cultural and language barriers. Communications networks have been a dense growth industry in the Western democracies, and after World War I they drew all sorts of photographers from the East, notably Hungary (Robert and Cornell Capa, László Moholy-Nagy, Brassaï, André Kertész, Martin Munkacsi, etc.). When World War II threatened their survival—many of them were Jews—the exodus concentrated in the United States. It was only well into the cold war that any of these migrations resulted in disaffected comment upon the host culture: the work of Robert Frank, a Swiss Jew, in The Americans.2

Frank was correctly taken to say that there was no spiritual coming to rest in a place that mistook affluence and acquisitiveness for culture, that brutalized its minorities, and that threatened the world with its militarism. As for the joyless Americans themselves, they were imprisoned or dissociated by meaningless drudge work, or else they were uncentered roamers, like gypsies moving over a space incomprehensibly large to a European eye. As Frank saw them, they enjoyed a pointless mobility. And he saw “freedom” itself, the slogan of American cold warriors, as a concept made hollow and feckless by politicos who clarioned it as a transcendent American virtue utterly denied those in the totalitarian Eastern bloc. (“People,” wrote Elias Canetti in 1942, “always want to get away, and if the place they want to get to has no name, if it is uncertain and they can’t see any borders in it, they call it freedom.”3) Now, thirty years later, but at a jingo moment dismally reminiscent of the ’50s, we’re shown the art of Josef Koudelka, an exile from that Eastern bloc, and an artist whose body of images joins Frank’s in its revulsion from the complacent mood of his adopted environment. But his apparent similarity of outlook with Frank’s is treacherous.

What Frank saw as targets are the equivalents of things toward which the Czech photographer feels an affinity. Dispossession and disenfranchisement, Koudelka’s photographs insist, are states in the natural order of life. . . life lived beneath the notice of the social majority. Precisely through that reckoning, his subjects hold together and derive their energy. No matter that ghetto status stunts and hardens so many of them. They expect little from the outside world, and they subsist on not much. Koudelka would have us believe the same of himself, when, in a photograph from 1976, he shows us lunch: a few triangles of processed cheese, a glass of milk, perhaps some yogurt, the remains of an apple, and bread, with a pocket knife as silverware. As a place mat for this half-eaten snack we have the front page of the International Herald Tribune, where one article is headed “Middle-Class Youths Swell Ranks of Argentine Terrorists.” (The contrast of near and distant accentuates the pride of Koudelka’s indigence.) Seen from above, the lunch is proposed to the viewer as something valuable to share, and even if the meal is spartan the light is voluptuous, as vibrant as when Koudelka pictures the life of abandoned objects and the plight of lone animals.

By contrast to this empathetic vision, in a store in Lincoln, Nebraska, Frank saw some Styrofoam crosses and plastic wreaths with a sign: “. . . REMEMBER YOUR LOVED ONES 69¢ . . . ,” a little text so impressively obtuse that the photograph itself could be bland and recessive. When they treat death, both these diaristic reporters observe its rituals— how in America (outside the society of rural blacks, where the deceased are prayed for) one is anonymously picked off in a road accident and lies under a tarpaulin, or how, in Eastern Europe, one’s tribe lays one to rest amid lamentations. The sacramental, a continuing theme of Koudelka’s, illuminates not only the pilgrimages he follows, but many of the still lifes he chances upon. It is evoked when, within deep shadow, the light in a photograph appears to have elected humble figures or objects for display. Frank’s America is occasionally lit with that possibility, but is on the whole a place crass, uncaring, and profane, far removed from that redemptive zone where Koudelka wanders. But of course he’s not a pious photographer, any more than his predecessor. He views religion, I think, in the way Peter Sloterdijk phrases it, in his Critique of Cynical Reason, as

not primarily the opiate of the people but the reminder that there is more life in us than this life lives. The function of faith is an achievement of devitalized bodies that cannot be completely robbed of the memory that in them much deeper sources of vitality, strength, pleasure, and of the enigma and intoxication of being-there must lie hidden than can be seen in everyday life.4

The earlier photographer saw his new ground as bereft of comfort or hope—truly devitalized—and out of a sense of impasse he converted his disenchantment into poetry. The later one, Koudelka, preemptively steels himself against the main environment. It is made to act as background for the observation of festivals, pilgrimages, and rocky scenarios, sought out by the promptings of memory. As material prosperity encroached, these were harder to come upon, and Koudelka was obliged to rely on his faith in rapturous powers of perception. They were at the ready, for instance, when he saw a man transfigured by smoke from the flight of a small rocket at a celebration in Spain.

Frank loosened up stylistically at the daunting challenge of photographing this country. For his part, Koudelka tightened his procedures when he came to the West. But like so many others, he embraces a proposition worked out by Frank: that photography can encompass an indefinite spread of often small incident, revealed as the consistent moral illumination of a community by an outsider. What makes both men’s photographs expressive, past the entirely personal esthetics, is the troubled consciousness of their makers.

In The Americans Frank engaged in a great deal of uneasy mimicry of togetherness, a kind of pseudoparticipation with his subjects. Not for a minute do we believe that he was a caucus member at a national party convention, or a gambler in Elko, Nevada, despite the chummy space. These episodes work as false intimacies; the closeness in them is spatial only, and not social, as we might initially assume. At every point where he would draw nearer, the photographer dramatizes his foreignness, sometimes making it blatant in the unfriendly gazes of subjects he has surprised. Failing to share the lives of the people he shoots, he multiplies his transgressive roles, an act that leads him to explore a range of unpredictable visual gestures and framing. Koudelka, on the other hand, everywhere characterizes himself as the same meditative viewer studying the perennial corrosions of existence. It is as if he were playing through headphones some kind of philosophical tape that spooled to a harsh ending, upon which he had to invent infinite variations. One comes away with the feeling that, while never staged, his tableaux existed only for him, that he was sole witness of transient events that could not be helped . . . because they reflected his inner state. It would not have been a Koudelka picture had he righted a turtle wriggling helplessly on its back before photographing the creature. Any grotesque detail he instantly charges with a general significance, of a kind to which his expatriation lends a dramatic tone. Frank kept on catching glimpses of a heartless future; Koudelka lives his life in the stoic past. Encouraged by Henri Cartier-Bresson, he studies old masters of the museums and tautens his compositions. If his work betokens new knowledge, it does so the better to conserve its original impulses.

The Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz contributes an essay, “On Exile,” to Koudelka’s new book. In that text he writes of a subject that has obviously tempered his own life: “Exile destroys, but if it fails to destroy you, it makes you stronger.”5 He speaks of the immigrant’s “loss of harmony with the surrounding space, the inability to feel at home in the world,” as an experience that “paradoxically integrates him in contemporary society and makes him, if he is an artist, understood by all.” If many moderns dwell on a rupture of historical consciousness, for a writer like Milosz or an artist like Koudelka it becomes acute, a scab at which they are always picking in their mind. It is not at all that they become mere rhapsodists of homesickness and the passage of time. Though not overjoyed to arrive, they remember that they were compelled to escape. Koudelka has condemned himself to a hyperalertness toward a few viscerally selected motifs, of a certain scarcity, which he repeats, or which repeat themselves, year after year. Out of his own rituals there seems to have developed a trade-off in which he uses the social deficits of the stranger to irritate or prick his visual sense, so that it constantly seeks a perfection of display, of expressiveness, and, above all, of chiaroscuro. In its jagged organization, with its depths, the shock of this light-dark consummates in his images what is not completed in his life.

We can guess at the influences that were absorbed into this art at its formative stage. The gypsy photographs Koudelka made while he still lived in Czechoslovakia show a kinship with the knotted spareness of Giacometti’s figures and his weighted emptiness of space. It’s also reasonable to suppose that during his stateless period in England, 1970 to ’79, Koudelka was affected by Francis Bacon’s paintings and Bill Brandt’s photography. Finally, one should add his likely sympathy for Samuel Beckett. But to continue to modulate their kind of dramaturgy through the ’70s and well into the ’80s was, for an artist, to be seriously out of phase, even provincial in relation to current style. A provincial artist is one who works with an outward-looking attitude, adapting from models at some distance in time and place, in the art capital; a regional artist is involved with his or her marginal scene and its idioms, and is or chooses to be oblivious to the rest of the world. Koudelka represents a particularly complex variation of both types. In Prague, he defected from his technocratic class and capital city (which was itself a cultural outpost) in order to document the social and ethnic groups at still more outlying districts. When he left his country and entered mainstream modern culture, he was attracted to agonistic strains of it that dated from an earlier time. Unquestionably, factors in his provincial upbringing predisposed him to certain choices of Western European models, but it was his loyalty to the mental universe of his self-appointed region that empowered his work with continued vividness and presence in new circumstances. As for another, highly conditioning factor, his personal history, everyone notes his love of the theater, which comes out in Baroque rhythms and in deeply marked graphic and narrative contrasts.

One of his admirers, Romeo Martinez, observes that “Koudelka has recognized in the theater a form and a metaphor of life.”6 This idea is seconded by Robert Delpire, who not only originally organized Koudelka’s recent show, in France, but was the first to publish Frank’s Americans in the ’50s. Delpire says that Koudelka’s work is “marked by a sort of theatrical organization of reality.”7 In such a view, the subjects of the photographs function as players on a stage, and it is true that some of them perform obvious roles, such as a little boy with angel wings and sneakers on a bicycle, or a young gypsy man cuffed and condemned on the edge of a village. Interestingly, both these individuals are removed from their nominal audiences but close to the camera. Imaginative or real as were their onetime scripts, they now perform unknowingly in dramas devised on the spot by the spectator’s eye of the itinerant photographer. He is an expert in showing us two or more scenarios adjacent to each other in the frame, not merely keeping track of them but welding them together freshly in a new production. A one-armed bather seems resentful of a squalling baby on a Portuguese beach—as far as Koudelka will go in depicting vacation. Some kids horse around in a Spanish alley while just around the corner, in the foreground and out of their sight, a baggily dressed fellow seems to play uninvited hide-and-seek. Four Irishmen piss against the wall of a concrete trench, and though they avoid noticing each other, as men typically do in such quarters, Koudelka, behind them, makes a dramatic synthesis of their isolation.

While the town or village offers Koudelka’s theatrical flair such glints of reduced sociality (which are humorous and a little sinister), what of the country? He almost seems to thrill to the depressing vacancy of open reaches and plains. He’s a vagrant explorer of unpopulated places, where every now and then he finds like-minded passersby, animal or human. He insists on the freedom to be without direction, to be derelict, to be attracted to the unlovely and unploughed field or heath, where there is no refuge from the feeling of loss. Here is nature, spoiled not by industry but by the viewer’s own malaise. Koudelka’s pictures of this type never make it to the status of landscape. The weather is bad. Someone throws up a ball, in poetic ennui, and a horse lounges in the distance. Later in his work, we realize that this desolate mode overmasters the ecstatic one of the denser groupings. The impression grows that an admirable independence of spirit can have its morbid side: instead of going his own way, the photographer shuns people out of reclusive need, weariness perhaps, or suspicion. If the smallest incident or modest object—a glance, graceful debris—becomes an event, it may be because of a disheartened vitality that has to disguise itself.

An emphasis through much of the later work is the use of the wide-angle lens (25 mm.) in a way that can be described as literary. Although the space it plots is tight, the device enables him to show that no one connects. In fact, space either seems to push or keep people away from each other, or to cramp them together when their purposes and sometimes scales are very different—so that obviously gratuitous relationships, invented stories, are at issue. The effect of wide angle is to slope perspectives and to inject an unexpected pointedness into things. A strange dynamism is imposed upon the pictorial surroundings, and Koudelka makes it look portentous. The dizziness sometimes produced looks as if he had gone wrong in the inner ear and couldn’t take the curves. Abruptly, the ground sinks away or down from our viewpoint. By means of the wide-angle view, yoked to his strong lighting, the photographer orchestrates mood, just as the music track underwrites our emotions in response to film.

In the great earlier work that brought him fame, Gypsies, published here in 1975,8 Koudelka carried on more or less as a portraitist. His subjects posed for him, or they accepted his presence in good enough humor as they went about their bleak lives. Considering this retrospective, which includes images from the 13 years since then, one noticed the great incidence of pictures in which the photographer is invisible to his subjects. The wide-angle lens permits him to get quite close to people while extending the view; he also uses a telephoto lens, which allows him to shoot at a distance, narrowing the field, without being noticed. Yet it’s remarkable how few of the post-Gypsies faces in the ICP show react to him, whichever lens he employs. The documentary aims of the gypsy project—to study the mores of self-contained social enclaves so intensely as to become a part of them—have been transformed into a kind of artistic itinerancy, where lives barely touch each other. Almost as if he recognized this weakening, or at least denaturing, of his original intent, the photographer hyperactivates his formal sense. Eventually he himself becomes the center of regard, insofar as he dominates everything that is seen by the very fact that it is he who sees it. The introspective tone grows almost fanatical, and increases correspondingly as the subject’s social import declines. Most of the pictures he shows from after 1980 work as still lifes, even when they’re shot in the streets. Though their vigorous shadow play had been anticipated in earlier work, they transmit far less passion, if only because he no longer fuses his predicament with that of others, no longer confirms a privation of spirit but rather indulges in it. Mendel Grossman sought to preserve a record of his people as they were all engulfed in the crisis of the Lodz ghetto. Artless, grainy, and crude, his photographs lack visual strength, but they convey the horror of “being-there.” Much more complexly, Koudelka, failing to achieve that horror, compensates by memorable artistry.

Still, if Koudelka’s esthetic now outruns his openness toward the world (which is his right, in every sense), it’s necessary to recall that he had initially put his imagination to the service of memorializing the lot of the gypsies, a quarter of a million of whom had been exterminated by the Nazis. He photographed them during a period in which the Czech government had sought social control by registering and resettling them, often against the will of their neighbors. Many of the gypsies are shown out in the cold Slovakian wastes, but others are depicted as inadequately urbanized, in raw interiors. It was a transitional and deeply uncertain moment, in which many of Koudelka’s subjects chose to present themselves with photo mementos of their dead ancestors and relatives. First, then, in his aim, and then in his motifs, Koudelka’s photography was recuperative. So his subject is legitimately viewed as historical, but there is something about his style, considered in the United States now, that looks old-fashioned as well.

I wonder if that might be because of the way he stands out at the end of a decade much of whose effect has been to uncoil and numb any tension of personal feeling on the part of its artists. In his Wanderjahre, which apparently continues, Koudelka seems never to have heard of our cynical vogues of art that have appropriated commercial media. His own work is steeped in the innocence of its depth. The historical mission of that work is blended with a theatrical impulse, the two finally gathering into metaphors of the artist’s own vulnerability in exile. For he is aware of how little photography can help, how late it is, and yet how necessary it was to persist in bearing witness. Under the circumstances, such an effort can only be described as gallant.

Max Kozloff is a photographer and critic who lives in New York. His latest book, The Privileged Eye, was published by the University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“Josef Koudelka,” organized by the Centre National de la Photographic, Paris, in association with the International Center of Photography, New York, will travel in America in 1989 and 1990.



1. John Krich, Music in Every Room, New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1984, p. 153.

2. Robert Frank, The Americans, New York: Grove Press, 1959. Reprint ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

3. Elias Canetti, The Human Province, 1973, reprint ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1986, p. 1.

4. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. 277.

5. Czeslaw Milosz, “On Exile,” in Josef Koudelka: Exiles, New York: Aperture, 1988, n.p.

6. Romeo Martinez, “Immagine del teatro, teatro delta immagine,” in Josef Koudelka: I grandi fotografi, Milan: Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, 1983, p. 4. Author’s translation.

7. Robert Delpire, in Exils: Photographies de Josef Koudelka, Paris: Centre National de la Photographic, 1988, n.p. The French edition of Josef Koudelka: Exiles, this book substitutes a discussion of Koudelka among Delpire, Alain Finkielkraut, and Daniele Sallenave for the essay by Milosz.

8. Koudelka: Gypsies, Millerton, New York: Aperture, 1975.