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Thursday, 12 June 2014


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I saw these pictures in Arles a couple of years ago; they are great, stunning, a delight. They are compositionally innovative and have a tremendous graininess, which adds to an atmosphere of raw sponteneity that fits the subject. Everyone should see them in the flesh just once, at least. The grain works so much better in the silver prints than in any of the reproductions that I have in the monographic collections so far published.

What I find fascinating though is how an individual, however talented at that time, can survive doing the rounds of exhibitions on the same old frozen body of work. Does it only happen in photography?

As always TOP educates!
I'd seen mention of Koudelka many times, even briefly browsed through some books of his photos and come away unmoved to buy, but this short essay taught me two important things...
1/ I should have another look at his work
2/ The man is still alive - I had no idea!

Thanks Daniel & Mike.

Watch this:



Good report, Dan! That's basically the story. I'd like to add a few remarks to your report.

There are those who would ask why Josef Koudelka is worth the attention today? It's a fair question since his most renowned bodies of work were completed nearly 30 years ago. In fact, the most recent body of his work in this show, his "Panoramas", is nearing 20. So why has he become a cult-like figure in photography? Why was the Art Institute of Chicago's Fullerton Hall filled to standing-room-only capacity with people of all ages eager to see and hear this 76 year-old guy?

Answers will vary. My own: (a) because Josef Koudelka is one of the very few remaining colorful and enigmatic characters from photography's history, and (b) because his camera has truly been his eyes AND mouth for much of his life. He is a personification of a life following a lens.

Josef Koudelka, 2010

I first met Josef Koudelka at a reception hosted for him during his visit to MoMA's Henri Cartier-Bresson retrospective which had just landed at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC). (He hated the show, by the way, and felt it did not do much justice to his late Magnum colleague and friend. Many shared similar feelings.) What I remember most of him from that evening was his ever-twinkling eyes behind those round glasses, his bear-paw hands and his vice-like handshake. I knew little about his work or lore at that time. But he sure seemed like a fellow who would rather be out dancing or making pictures than drinking wine with a bunch of suits. At one point I noticed the pocket of his vest bulging heavily. At a quiet moment I leaned to him and asked, "Is that a Leica in your pocket?". He just smiled and winked.

Fast-forward to the next time I encountered Josef in the flesh, the opening reception held the evening before the lecture Dan reported. Here was a man of 76 who was even more energetic than the man I met four years earlier! His eyes still twinkled every bit as brightly, his step was just as lively, and his handshake was every bit as ... owww! Wearing his more formal attire of black shirt and slacks on this celebratory evening Josef seemed in his prime. And no need to ask what camera he was using this evening; he had a Fujifilm X100s slung over his shoulder.

If you watch this brief video made during the show's installation you'll "get" Josef Koudelka. You'll get his energy and intensity. Most of all, you'll get his core message: the concept of "nationality" IS doubtful for all of us citizens of the same planet.

My good friend and principal curator of Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, Matt Witkovsky, has devoted substantial hunks of six years toward creating this retrospective show, Koudelka's first in America in over 25 years. It's been an epic effort that has required tremendous patience, relentless persistence, a sublimated ego, and an unwavering vision. I suspect that the work of Getty assistant curator Amanda Maddox might have been a wonderful just-in-time reinforcement when the Getty signed on as a second venue.

It may not be immediately apparent to the casual stroll-thru visitor to Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful but that hard work is definitely on the walls and, perhaps even more importantly, on the pages of the show's excellent catalog. The show is truly retrospective and spans Koudelka's entire photo career to-date from his earliest theatrical and abstract work through his panoramas. I guarantee that everyone can learn and see something new in this show. You may, for example, think you've seen "Gypsies" but you've never seen these prints. They're the complete surviving set of prints from the 1967 debut of the Gypsies work. Many of the materials come Koudelka's personal estate and have never been published or exhibited. Ten of the "Invasion 68" prints, for example, were made by Josef himself shortly after he captured the images. So if you visit the show, either at the AIC, the Getty, or Madrid's Fundación MAPFRE take your time and pay attention!

If you cannot visit any of the show's venues the catalog will serve as an excellent proxy. In fact, it's an essential for anyone interested in getting a comprehensive view of Koudelka. With its plain khaki-colored cover (an allusion to Koudelka's ever-present khaki shirts) the Yale Press book features an excellent design (by the in-house AIC group) and equally excellent reproductions of some challenging material. (Tip: don't wait too long to order the catalog, either from amazon or even directly from a museum shop. They're selling surprisingly fast.)

Catalog for the show

Early theatrical work

Experiments in abstraction

With his Magnum colleague, Henri Cartier-Bresson

So why devote attention to Josef Koudelka? Visit the show or thumb through its catalog and I suspect that you'll find your own answer.

Wow! Thanks, Ken, for the very helpful context, and delightful detail.

I hope everyone who has an interest in Koudelka, and the opportunity to attend, will visit the exhibit. I went in knowing next to nothing about Koudelka, but hoping to learn. I not only learned a great deal, but came out convinced that Koudelka's is a body of work that rewards repeated viewing.

Congratulations to Matt, Amanda, and all who were involved in putting on the exhibit. I definitely plan to go back and learn more.


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