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Josef Koudelka on the Measure of a Photographer, Courage, and Controlling Your Own Destiny

Interview edited by David Walker


©Tristan Wheelock
Josef Koudelka on stage with Anne Wilkes Tucker at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, Virginia during the Look3 2013 Festival of the Photograph. 

Legendary photographer Josef Koudelka packed the house at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville during the Look3 Festival of the Photograph on June 15, and the audience greeted him with a standing ovation after master of ceremonies, photographer Vince Musi, announced that Koudelka "didn't want to be here." Koudelka, who has a reputation as a lone wolf among a group of peers known for their independence, has rarely granted interviews during a career that spans more than 40 years. 

"Of course I don't feel very comfortable to be here. I am not a good speaker," said Koudelka, who was nevertheless gracious to Anne Wilkes Tucker, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, who was also on stage to interview him. "I don't know what she's going to ask me, but I gave her assurance I would answer everything…I will attempt to be as honest as possible."

Koudelka also told the audience at the outset that he "never listened much to what [other] photographers say," and added, "I think the best portrait of a photographer are his photographs, so pleas judge me on my photographs." 

The audience cheered, and the program got under way with a projection of a sampling of Koudelka's earliest work--a documentary of stage actors during performances, followed by a series of abstract images that stemmed from his work as a theater photographer. The program alternated between silent projections of Koudelka's major bodies of work, presented chronologically, followed by several minutes of Q&A conversation between Tucker and Koudelka about that work. 

Here's an edited version of the conversation. The headings indicate the subjects of the major bodies of Koudelka's work, and when it appeared during the program.

Theater 1961-1968

Anne Wilkes Tucker: What led you to embrace such minimalized abstraction at that time?

Josef Koudelka: I was in the beginning of taking pictures and of course I was trying to discover what you can do in the photography. Somebody saw these pictures, and asked me if I would be able to do 12 of them, and he wanted to use them on the cover of the monthly magazine that concerned the theater. It was very strange to use these abstract pictures, which had nothing to do with the theater, on the for cover of the culture magazine. But you have to realize it was the period of when Czechoslovakia started to be free, and a lot of things were possible at that time. Not everything. Even my Gypsy images--the first exhibition was '66--I needed to have a censor come and say it's ok, it's possible to show.

AWT: You were invited to photograph the theater. You were 23. For that job, and all subsequent jobs, you demanded total control. And for the theater, you demanded that you be on the stage for the dress rehearsals, and on the stage photographing during the plays. What gave you the courage to make that demand?

JK: Freedom is the essential thing in my life. This year I'm participating in Venice Bienniale. 

Five years ago I accepted to photograph in Israel. What do I do? First of all,  it must be interesting for me, I must have the freedom to do it how I want to do it, and control the result--freedom to control absolutely the result, in anything I do.

AWT: The director  felt that you were sensitive to the interior of the characters, not the actors, the characters. Did you read the plays or just respond to what you were seeing on the stage?

JK: I put three conditions before I accepted this work. I knew that he liked my photographs, and he wanted me to photograph. I said I want to be in the rehearsals, in the reading rehearsals, I want to be in the rehearsals on the stage, and I want to have at least three performances where I can walk between the actors and photograph them right in the light.

AWK: Having sat in the rehearsals, did you preconceive what you were going to photograph, or did you just go with your feelings as you worked?

JK: I'm a very spontaneous photographer. I just go and I photograph. But what the advantage was, which is in fact repeating in all my work, you know, [is that] you go, you don't know much, you react, and you look at what [is] coming, and you try to exploit what is coming out. So every night I develop the films, I look, next day I try to do it better.

You look at these photographs of the theater. [The director] realized that these are not the pictures of the actors, that it was behind [their countenances]. I was never really interested in documenting the things. In any picture I'm doing, even if my picture can serve as a document--[unintelligible] what [the director] said, he said Josef, you were lying. But you were lying to tell the truth. 

The Gypsies 1962-1971

AWT: The Gypsies is beginning of travel for you. You are moving into a new place, and photographing people you don't know. It's not a long-term relationship. This is the beginning of a major trend.

JK: This is not the beginning of travels, it is the beginning of long-term relationships.

AWT:  Two questions: What helped you gain access to people known to be private, and what did you learn form this project that you carried into later work?

JK: So I start with the second[ question]. What I gained from working with the gypsies was to learn that I don't need much to be alive. The access: I just picked up the camera and I went.

(Laughter and applause from the audience).

AWT: When you arrived they may not have welcomed you.

JK: I'll never forget when I get to this incredible village--there were these big mountains behind, there were these wooden houses…and all the village was walking [toward] me. I never forget that.I just went, I stayed in the village one week. It was in Slovakia. And they told me don't go this way, there are gypsies, liable to  kill you or steal everything what you have. I think I was extremely lucky. I didn't have any prejudices.. and I still I try not to have any prejudices.

AWT: I think that's not the first time you've gone where they told you not to go. OK. So they're walking toward you. Did you pick up your camera then? or later?

JK: No, no. Of course you develop the relationship with the people. During next 8 years I visited many different villages. What helped me was [that] I loved the gypsy music, I love generally all folk music. I was carrying with me a very primitive tape recorder, and I recorded the songs. I think it probably helped me to [gain their] confidence. They realized that if I liked the music, I liked something more. It was really not difficult, and I of course I was giving the pictures to the people, too.

Soviet Invasion of Prague, 1968

AWT: This was a life changing event for you in certain ways. For one, [the invasion of Prague by the Soviet army] was the end of the liberalization that had been taking place in Czechoslovakia. It was the beginning of your relationship with Magnum, because these negatives were smuggled out to Magnum, and they got them published in the west anonymously.  Was it for the protection of your family that it was anonymous, because your were still there? Tell people what it was like from August of '68 to 1970 when you left--what drove you in the more repressed Czechoslovakia that you knew you had to leave?

JK: I'm not [a] very courageous man. These pictures I did not [do] because I have got a big courage, but because it was [an] extreme situation. And something got out of me, maybe what was the best of me. And it was not only my case. It was the case of most of these people who were on the street. We were not thinking, we were working. I never photographed the news before. I was never in a situation like that. When my  girlfriend woke me up [and] said, "The Russians are here," I couldn't believe [it]. I pick[ed] up the camera to go take pictures, and there were so many things happening around [me]. Pictures were everywhere. So I did these pictures not to be published...I developed these pictures probably one month or two months later. I print[ed] some of them, and they [were] never meant to be published. So everything that happened after [was] just by chance. 

I left Czechoslovakia because as I said I am not [a] courageous man, but because I knew that they could find me, and I was not brave enough to go to the prison. And they would have [found] me…[because] I was the guy who photographed most. Everybody knew it.  

AWT: Was [censorship and cultural and intellectual repression] part of it for you--that the stimulation that you had before was diminished?

JK: It was a little more complicated. I'm not sure if we really have the time to talk about it. In that time I got a project photographing different group[s] of Czech society. There was one communist who everybody hated. He was one of these people who said it was all right that the Russians arrived. The state gave him the funeral. I thought it would be very interesting to come there. I thought all his friends who [had been] revolutionaries who fight for social justice, suddenly they turn into something [else], I thought it would be interesting to go there [to the funeral] and photograph their faces. 

So I get [to] the funeral and when they were playing [unintelligible] I put my 25mm lens up and I photographed them all. Of course, what I didn't know was that the only public there was the secret police. so I got this fantastic collection of all guys who were the secret police. They arrested me. They brought me to--I didn't know what it was. By chance all night I [had been] working in the darkroom, you know from working all night, next day you are a little shaky, I hear, "Don't move." They put me in the car. I didn't know where we were going because it [the funeral] was an official event.

They stopped in front of the house [that] was the center of the secret police. Suddenly the buses arrive, and from the buses people [emerged]…and when I saw these guys, which I had photographed. were secret police, I burst into [an] enormous laugh. [A police officer] pulled me out of the car, threw me against the wall. Anyway, strange thing was that in two weeks, I [was planning] to leave Czechoslovakia. I was leaving with permission to visit for three months to photograph gypsies outside. Can you imagine how I felt sitting in the plane, and they were getting people at the last moment off [the plane]--can you [understand] how I felt when we lift[ed] off. Can you imagine now? 

… But of course I didn't send the pictures for 16 years because I didn't want--my parents [have] to live with them. I was very happy I [became] known not for pictures of the invasion because they couldn't say I did something against socialist Czech Republic …

Exiles 1971-1987

AWT: When you went to England, and later to Paris, did you also seek out other [Czech] exiles in those cities?

JK: Not at all. It was not the purpose, but they were just not around when I was. 

AWT: These pictures are made over almost three decades. They are made in France, Serbia, Croatia, Romania, Wales, Ireland, Sicily, Germany. You were traveling all the time. 

JK: I [have] been traveling all the time; I'm still traveling, 43 years. I think probably somebody asked me, "Did you ever stay in one place longer than three months?" I don't think I ever stayed. And today at breakfast somebody asked me about home...

AWT: Well, no, because I was trying to say, you don't have a television, you don't have a computer. You already said--and you've said many times--"What I don't have, I don't need." You travel very light. You have a sleeping bag and minimal things. You don't plan the trips, do you?

JK: I [do] plan the trips…I know where I go. Before it was different. Now I have a really tight schedule. Before I used to go for three months to one country. I took the train from London, I get to Paris, I stayed there, I went to Milano, then I stay in Florence, then I went to Sicily for one month, two months. Now it is slightly different.

AWT; But that would have been true for Exile. 

JK: Yeah, yeah...I have been traveling all the time. In fact, [for] 16 years I never paid any rent, and I never take any job. First job which I take was before my daughter was supposed to be born, and I was afraid that I should have certain money. 

I'm the photographer who needs to travel. If I stay long in one place, I become blind.

Chaos, 1986-1997

AWT: The catalyst for change in your work is the technical change. When you left Prague, you stopped using the 25 mm lens. You felt you needed to do that. And then when you began [the Chaos work] you were lent at first a panoramic camera. Is that chance, conscious, or a combination of both, to make yourself change your vision by changing the technical process?

JK:  In my case things are happening by chance. [Before I got] a panoramic camera I was determined to shoot landscape, [but] I was never happy with the result. [I used] a Rolleiflex 6x6 and I just cut out whatever I didn't need. That's in fact in the [early] period. I really learned composition by cutting away, making different frames from 6x6. That's how I learned composition, and how I learned how to cut to the essentials. So when I heard this photographer say pictures shouldn't be cropped I thought [he] must be the most crazy guy.

Then by chance I discovered this camera, which was the panoramic, and asked, can I  rent it for one week just to test it? And I'm really extremely happy that I discovered this camera because it helped me to do something which I never did before. It helped me go on with the photographing, to try something else, and I still [haven't] got to the end of what I can do with it.…The life of the photographer is very limited. I think [of] all the photographers [who] died [creatively] before being 40 years old. I am 75. I might be dead, I don't know, but I still like taking the pictures.

AWT: Another major change of  this series [Chaos] is that there are no people, or rarely people.

JK: You know, I love people, but I like to be alone. I came here, I probably was nasty to quite a few people who run up to me. [When] I [arrive at a new place], I want to go alone, I want to feel the place. If I am in the landscape, I want to be alone, I don't want to see anybody. I like to close the eyes, I like to listen to sound, I like to feel that I'm part of this landscape

AWT: So no guide, no entourage, no other photographers…

 JK: Listen, I don't have a car, and I don't drive. So of course there are other people who drive me around. I was in the United States [photographing] and I traveled with this great guy. Every morning when it was before sunrise, I said, "Peter, get out of your bloody bed. Life is cruel, but beautiful. Get out!" 

After one month, he came to me and said, "Josef, I want to tell you: thanks to you I realize there are only limited sunrises which I can see in my life, so I make a promise that I won't lose one."

AWT: You have not given that many interviews, and I read as much as I could. The biggest surprise is that no one asked you about [Czech photographer] Josef Sudek [who also shot panoramics, and is best known for his images of Prague]. I don't know whether you responded against his pictures? He was around Prague when you were a young man, he's close to [people] you're close to, he works in panoramic photography, but he is nowhere mentioned [in your interviews]. I'm curious.

JK: You know, I have never got any heroes in my life, and in photography neither. I don't think I've read photographers that write [about] photographs. I remember when [someone I met] showed me some books, even Robert Frank's. It didn't [mean] anything to me. She showed [Henri Cartier] Bresson. I was not excited. 

The relationship which I have got with Bresson, which was very different than most of the Magnum photographers or maybe other photographers outside of Magnum, because probably I didn't come to photography  because I liked his photographs. in fact there are certain photographs which I don't like, and I was able to tell it to him and he was, eh, maybe he was not happy but…and he was,  "Why are you having this spaghetti panoramic, just nothing [photography]," and it was perfectly all right.

So Sudek, I remember seeing pictures from [him] which I really hated. These were these pictorialist pictures which were out of focus. I was using a 25mm lens [and] I wanted to have everything in focus. I think he's a fantastic photographer, like Bresson's a fantastic photographer, Frank is a good photographer. But I never met him. I never felt [the]  need to go to see him. 

Black Triangle, 1990-1994

AWT: This is monumental.  You can go home, back to Czechoslovakia after 20 years. Why did you choose in your first project [back] in your homeland to go up to the northern border and photograph this place that had been so decimated by industrial pollution?

JK: I knew the place before I left and I was very much interested in [it]. When I got back, I re-discovered [it], and I was fascinated. It was the period when I was getting more  and more involved with my panoramic photography. I thought it was the right thing to do, and also because the devastation that was going on there was enormous…In fact I [have] continued the project farther, in Poland and in Germany. Every time I go back to Czechoslovakia again I go to all these places, and I'm photographing how they change. 

AWT: You said that too much in Europe is disappearing, and you are drawn to what is ending, but you also said this magnificent landscape no longer exists, and you found it tragic but beautiful. That twist of finding the horrific beautiful: these are not about the campaign [of activism], you're not an environmentalist, it's not news, it's something else for you?

JK: One Mexican writer, [former minister of culture in Mexico] when the book Black Triangle came out, he wrote something in a Mexican magazine and he said "Josef is dealing all the time with death, but his pictures are not morbid. on the contrary. he said only if you understand death, you can understand life, too. He said If you take Gypsies, this is the end of this free, traveling life. iIf you take the [Prague] Invasion, this is the end of this fantastic dream about social justice. if you take Black Triangle, this is the pend of] the dream about this romantic landscape. if it is true or not, I don't know. I know that everything is going to finish. I don't look so much to photograph things which are contemporary things which will exist, but the ones which might not exist anymore. 

The Wall [separating Israel and Palestine], 2007-2012

AWT: This is monumental. 

JK: Every book is different. With this last book [The Wall] there are 54 pictures, and every picture has certain reason to be there. And for every single picture I [returned] many times to photograph again and again.

I didn't want to participate [with 11 other photographers on a project about Israel], but when I saw what was happening to the landscape, and I had a guarantee I could do what I want, after four visits to israel, I signed the contract.

Vestiges, 1991- (ongoing) 

AWT: Another big technical change here is digital. You are not working with film, it's digital. Yesterday you cited two big differences that this makes for you.  One, you don't have to carry so much, and [two], your relationship with light, the leeway…

JK: In fact second change is much more practical. I don't need to find people to sponsor my trips, who pay [to] develop all the film, and make the contact sheets. What is fantastic now is that I can pick up this [digital] camera. I can buy the ticket by myself. and I can go. 

People ask, "For the last 30 years, you have just been photographing panoramic?" No, I have been photographing all the time with 35mm. Nobody saw these pictures, but I don't…want to deal with [them]. I don't want to lose more time in my life. I want to photograph. I know the time is going to come [when]I won't be able to work, I won't be able to do what I am able to do now. It can happen any time. So I want to take pictures. And I still I hope that eventually I will have the time to sit down and to look through everything throughout the years that I did with this other camera. 

But I didn't understand the question about the light.

AWT: You were talking about when you are only in a place for a day or two, and you see a situation you want to photograph, and you can only be in one place once…

JK: You know you only have two days to be in this fantastic place, and you can't [go back to re-do the picture].

I go into places because I know there is a picture, and I know I have to get it. How many times I go--one time or ten…sometime I can't do it, and when the money is involved,you know that you can't buy the film, you are thinking about every frame. With digital, I can continue [to shoot frames], and then eventually I know that it is good. I can eliminate what is not good.

Questions from the Look3 audience

Donna Ferrato: There's this ancient Magnum tradition that goes way back to the old brotherhood of Magnum days, of photographers visiting other photographers they respect, with a little box of prints. And you give your box of prints to each photographer, and you have them initial the ones that they like the most. and I know that this is how many Magnum photographers learned to define their vision. It helped a lot, right?

JK: It is not defining the vision, it's about something else. I don't know maybe one photographer who can say that he's an extremely good judge of his photographs…. I need three people who I have as a reference, if my pictures are good or bad. I need somebody who knows something about life, maybe not much about photography or about composition. Then I need somebody who knows something about composition, and then I need the third one just for correction who knows something about both.

DF: And so Josef...

JK: Let me finish. And if I like picture, if I think it's good, and these three people like the picture, too, I have more reason [to think] the picture is good. Many times  I liked the picture, and none of them liked it. But I'm not going to shoot myself, because maybe there still is something. They know before what I was like, but they don't know by this picture what I'm going to be later.

Audience member: I was going to ask you if you could share anything about your editing process, not just what you are looking for in your pictures, but also when you sequence them, what is it you are looking for?

JK: I will use for the example the last book, called The Wall, which is not only about the Israel/Palestine wall but also about the landscape. You go there, you have four years to go back, you have maybe 8 trips, so you go around, and you try to realize what it is about. For me, [unintelligible] pictures in this book are that each picture has certain importance… I try to fulfill this idea. Of course when you do the book, and the viewer still has to feel that he wants to turn the pages. So you have to tell two stories: stories about what want to say, and then this is the graphical story: it works if you turn the pages.

Audience member: To what extent were you familiar with, or did you come into contact with Czeck intellectual Jan Patočka? I have a [once-banned] book here of his lectures, that he dedicated to you.  I'm not sure if you are aware of this.

JK: No. (laughter)

Questioner: It also has your photograph on the cover of the book. 

JK: When I was in Czechoslovakia, I was just a photographer, I didn't get mixed up with, ah, I knew Václav Havel, because he was working in the same theater as me. But I considered myself  just a photographer. I was really not intellectual. I was just a simple guy doing the job.

Another audience member: Home. You alluded to that earlier. Can you tell us what that word means to you? and is there's one place in the world where you feel at home?

JK: When I photographed the archaeological places [for the Vestiges project], I [came] everywhere across Emperor Trajan [a second century Roman emperor]. He was this guy who traveled everywhere. He was never in Rome. . One thing he said was, "Even though I was thought [of] as a foreigner in every country, I didn't feel like a stranger in any place."

 

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