Josef Koudelka, (Student on tank, eyes crossed out), 1968, gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 × 9 7/8". From the series “Invasion,” 1968.

Josef Koudelka, (Student on tank, eyes crossed out), 1968, gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 × 9 7/8". From the series “Invasion,” 1968.

Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka, (Student on tank, eyes crossed out), 1968, gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 × 9 7/8". From the series “Invasion,” 1968.

Moravian-born French photographer Josef Koudelka gained renown in early-1960s Czechoslovakia for his portraits of social groups—from the Roma to avant-garde theater collectives—but it was not until 1984 that he came forward as the previously anonymous “Prague Photographer” who captured the 1968 Soviet invasion of that city. While this striking body of work (parts of which ran as photo-essays in London’s Sunday Times and Look magazine) earned the artist inclusion on the Magnum roster, Art Institute curator Matthew S. Witkovsky’s nuanced retrospective of the artist, “Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful,” resisted reducing its subject’s oeuvre to reportage.

The exhibition presented approximately 160 photos that extended from Koudelka’s early work in late-’50s Prague to “Exile,” a series initiated in the ’60s and continued after the artist fled Czechoslovakia in 1970 (the phrase “nationality doubtful” was recorded in Koudelka’s travel papers during this stateless decade), and, finally, to his ongoing series of images made with a panoramic camera beginning in the late 1980s. While art historian Joel Snyder (in his preview for this magazine) draws attention to the show’s “vintage” prints—astutely prompting one to consider whether a proximity between time of exposure and time of printing should be taken as measure of intentionality—it seems the “vintage” works served primarily as a benchmark from which the varied material iterations of Koudelka’s photographs might be considered. Through assembled ephemera—including the original maquette for his book Gypsies (1975) and a sheet with multiple prints from a single negative manipulated to various ends during development—the retrospective focused less on the instant of exposure than on the artist’s procedures of shaping images over time. Witkovksy foregrounded the artist’s use of cropping, his attention to sequencing, and, centrally, his proclivity toward the book as portable exhibition format—all complicating the iconicity of Koudelka’s images.

Among the photographs of the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Prague Spring in the summer of 1968 was “Invasion,” a series of black-and-white prints depicting Czech protesters. Evocatively, Koudelka crossed out their eyes and facial features, a measure that paradoxically obscured the expressivity of the displayed acts of nonviolent resistance while rhyming with the anti-occupation graffiti that covered Prague. Interpreted through his lens in other works, these handpainted cartoons and slogans resonate with the legacies of Czech Surrealism, graphic design, and amateur photography. By staging the porous relation between Koudelka’s “Invasion” series and his earlier work—near abstractions dominated by graphic lines, surreal pictures of Czech theater collectives, covers for the theater magazine Divadlo—Witkovsky, following his subject, allowed acts of nonviolent, direct action to read as art. Indeed, avant-garde tactics abound in Koudelka’s reportage. Hand and wristwatch, 1968, for instance, is shot through with an absurdist gesture: An emptied Wenceslas Square can be seen behind a raised forearm adorned with a watch that displays the hour a protest was to occur.

Portraiture, as a device, was integral to the art of the ’60s, employed—from Andy Warhol’s “Screen Tests” to Shirley Clarke’s film Portrait of Jason (1967)—for its capacity to stage complex networks of intersubjectivity and reconfigure the conditions of visibility for marginalized groups. Koudelka’s knowing embrace of portraiture’s possibilities was celebrated in the show’s presentation of the series “Cikáni” (Gypsies), photographs of Czechoslovakian Roma taken between 1961 and the early ’70s. His sensitivity to the genre is strikingly evidenced by a close-up (Czecholovakia [Kladno], 1966) in which a teen couple’s fashionable pose seems to situate the Roma inside European youth culture, not outside it. In another image (Slovakia [Rakúsy], 1966), a man with his shirt open and hair sticking up holds a framed portrait of himself in a suit and a medallion bearing the image of Communist leader Klement Gottwald—a layering of portraits within portraits, fashioned as much by the subject as by the maker.

If “Gypsies” marked a threshold after which Koudelka became stateless, another sea change occurred when the artist turned to panoramic black-and-white landscape photography in the late ’80s. In these landscapes, many of which are marked by environmental destruction or war, Koudelka pictures formations that appear as borders, obstructions, or pathways—his tendency toward abstraction is affectively charged with politics. In the accordion-style artist’s book Wall, 2013, a sequence of panoramas of the Israeli architectural intervention, design and politics come into an unexpected synchronicity: Concrete roadblocks appear as Minimalist sculptures. While this work raises doubts about the material infrastructures of nationalism, the tidy formalism of the politics sits uneasily with Koudelka’s practice as a whole, which draws its expressivity from incongruities. Most profoundly, Koudelka’s photographs—typically positioned as untouched by the contemporary art world in their depiction of subjects marginal to the consumer culture of the twentieth century—emerged in Witkovsky’s eye as emphatically central to the art of that era.

Solveig Nelson