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Friday, 18 September 2015


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Did Josef really put no verbal scaffolding around his pictures? An arm with a watch recording the time of Invasion of communist troops in Czechoslovakia doesn't really have the same impact unless the title tells you that's what is going on. Isn't a title some kind of verbal scaffold - and totally necessary in this case? The titles are hugely important to his amazing shots.

And all that stuff about limits of creative energy. Means nothing. He could have spouted any other old rubbish. Not true in any case, but you know, those that are superbly skilled in a field can say any old crap they like about unrelated things and it sounds good. It's like if you are a famous musician, you must therefore be good at understanding politics. Or the environment. Nobody's going to quote that rubbish if Josef wasn't a genius photographer.

This is one of those posts, that if fully believed, can send me down a rabbit hole of depression. Can't one's writing practice inform and improve one's photography? Doesn't photography sharpen one's perception of the world and make one a better writer. Yes, we all are endowed a finite amount of time and energy to apply to our creative lives, but doesn't a variety of creative experience open new channels of thinking which can both make an individual's work unique and also streamline an artist's work flow making him more efficient and productive?

[I'm sorry, I didn't mean to imply there are rules. Duane Michals is a good example of a photographer whose art combines words and pictures. Jim Goldberg comes to mind. Just the other day I met an old woman whose art combines painting and quilting! --Mike]

How timely. Just yesterday a friend at work told me "there are picture takers, and there are photographers."

Koudelka's quote hit's pretty close to home. I feel like he may have put some energy into it. Writing provided a bit of my living for the past 30 years, but more recently I've re-realized I have more passion for making pictures. So my new goal is to re-become a photographer. At least in my own eyes.

This quotation is nicely complemented by this one from Philip-Lorca diCorcia: "Photography is a foreign language everyone thinks he speaks."
The parafernalia of digital cameras available today has made everyone think they can photograph. Yet only a small percentage has the compositional skills, originality, and taste to make good pictures. I believe that's the sense of these two statements.
English language establishes a conceptual divide by enabling to employ the terms "photograph" and "snapshots", the latter having no "artistic" aspirations, rather being the way people show images of what, in their judgment, are significant moments of their lives. Which is just about OK, save for the silly amount of selfies people like to take and "share".
When it comes down to photographs, however, what I see nowadays is akin to a contest to determine who can shout louder. Most pictures are overcooked, with excess post-production techniques like HDR, and incur the cardinal sin of being formulaic: from street scenes to astrophotographs (I'm up to here with circular star trails), everything I see from amateurs looks decidedly second-hand. Many play it safe and use themes and subjects that they're certain will catch everyone's attention on the internet, never trying to express anything new. They believe they found the fastest path to success, but this sort of defeats the purpose of artistic photography, which is expressing someone's personal view on a given theme or subject.
Even if I could be accused of having glass ceilings, I concur with Josef Koudelka (who, incidentally, is one of my oldest favourites). Having a camera doesn't make a photographer. It's not just a matter of technical skills; it's the way one sees and feels things that makes a good photographer. I look at Koudelka's picture of the young man arguing with invading soldiers during Prague's invasion and I can't help feeling it is one of the most accomplished photographs I've ever seen. It is a very powerful statement: tells us about the idealism of youth, about the revolt of Czech people for their country being bent by brute force, their dreams of freedom and happiness being murdered at the hands of the Red Army. It takes much more than having a Leica and a 35mm lens to achieve such high level of expression.

Ivan Mauger, six time World Speedway Motorcycle Champion, said you have about 10 good years. He won his first championship at age 29. Between 1968 and 1979 he won his six championships and was runner-up three times.

From what I've seen, 10 years is about right. Doesn't make any difference whether it's sports or arts.

Once you master the visual language, expressed in all and any shades of color and grey, there is no way back to the writen word in only black on white......letters.

What's next, writers will be asked to illustrate their words? Musicians to put words around their tunes........less silliness, more imagination!

A funny answer:


Great quote - quite timely in many ways. This has been a topic of conversation with many of my photography friends over the last few years. The link in my signature is to a photo from the Koudelka exhibit that may be a nice fit to this post.

Mike, your comment about verbal scaffolds really strikes home. I've always felt that artists should be seen and not heard. I'm not alone in that, either. Talking to visual artists, the thing I've found is that the really good ones push back--hard--against the "artist's statement" or any other kind of written explanation of their work. They often don't mind talking about their art, but they don't want to explain it. They see explanations as a distraction from, or worse, a denigration of, the art in question.

Having returned to college to pursue a bachelor's degree, I'm exposed to a lot of student art. I visit the art building once or twice a week to see what's going on and I go to every MFA thesis show. With only two exceptions, the MFA shows have been absolute garbage. Even the two shows that were visually interesting and engaging (and one of them was very very very good indeed) were spoiled when I read the artist's statements. They were overconceived, poorly written, patronizing, pretentious, and insulting pieces of blather that had tenuous connections to the art--or indeed, to reality. They were, however, just as good as all the "real" artist's statements that I've read.

Now, with that out of the way: I once wrote an artist's statement myself.

I entered an art contest for southern artists and they would not accept my submission without one. So I sat down and slaved away to come up with the shortest, punchiest, least-art-ruining statement I could. My statement was along the lines of:

"There are no confederate flags in my photos. There are no pickup trucks. There are no caved-in barns or old swimming holes. I am southerner, not a caricature."

Now, by way of background: I'd gone through the entrants and winners of this contest for the last few years and it was all conceptual art and good ol' boy southern schmaltz. I'd never entered an art contest before (and indeed, haven't since), but I figured I had a real chance to win--I'm a Virginian born and bred, I'm competent photographer, and I've produced some very good photos over the years. Certainly, I felt that the best of my work was much better than anything I'd seen in the past winners. I assembled a small portfolio, submitted it, and waited patiently to be notified that I was either the winner or the honorable mention.

I was neither, of course.

The honorable mention went to someone who drove around in their car with a GPS unit, then plotted the GPS points onto foamcore, stuck pins in at every waypoint, and wound yarn around them. Her statement was all about capturing the soul of the south with yarn and thumbtacks because something something something place something something heart something something.

The winner was a photographer. A photographer who shot in black and white and made sepia toned prints. His winning protfolio included a pickup truck with a confederate flag bumper sticker, a barn with a hole in the roof, and a bunch of kids at the swimming hole. His statement was all about capturing the soul of the south with a camera because something something something place something something heart something something.

The next time I was asked to write an artist's statement, I boiled it down to one word:


It seems to me that the view specified here places limits on ones skills and the perimeters of their creativity. Never place limitations, either by yourself or via others. One needs to find a balance of skills needed for the efforts and energy to be expended. For any given project you might have in mind, a specific skill set will be applied. But what of hybrid projects like book publishing? To do this, the skills of writing, editing, design and layout, photography, printing, plus your own personal taste, will all come into action and focus where they are needed--for each element of the project, and the final assessment before printing.

It is the accumulated knowledge that allows you to push all the boundaries successfully into a successful finished project--be it a great line, paragraph, story, novel, or the prettiest dog photo every taken.

As we all have seen, a photograph that is in focus and acceptably exposed...and, one might add, composed and processed according to one of several agreed upon, easy-to-learn formulas...is no longer a rarity. That stuff has been automated.

The quote is inspiring for me, a photographer for nearly 50 years.

Should I be afraid of the tsunami of popular digital photography? Should a writer fear anyone who has a pen?

In the immortal words of Joey Ramone "Hey Ho, Let's Go!"

"Josef Koudelka has steadfastly made a refusal to construct verbal scaffoldings around his photographs."

I respect that decision a great deal. I believe (at least in most cases) that a photograph should be able to stand on its own as an image presented by the photographer. "Verbal scaffolding" can come later, perhaps, to help less sensitive and attentive viewers get closer to understanding. But starting with the "scaffolding" is like imaging that the meal will taste better if you describe it to me first or that the book is better if you sing about it.

Koudelka could have used a *few* more words. I've always been haunted by a photo he published in "Gypsies" of a man who'd just been convicted of murder. The man stands in a road, looking g at the camera, and behind him, there's a crowd of his hometown people, looking after him. But Koudelka doesn't say (in the book) what happened to him. Was he awaiting execution? Going to prison? What? I've always wondered.

I am slightly above average at a few things, so I try and find those rare jobs that require all of them at once. That way I have an evens chance of being more than averagely useful...

Is that why I underperform in writing, photographing, cooking ... ?
Well... There is still some hope, then!

John, if you still have those questions about the photograph in "Gypsies," Koudelka would probably consider it a success.

The "watch on the arm" photo didn't record the time of the Warsaw Pact invasion (they arrived in the middle of the night), but was a photo of an empty Wenceslas Square, shot from the Mustek department store at the bottom of the square. The Russians had started a rumor that there was to be a huge anti-invasion demo there in the afternoon. The resistance radio put out the word that the call for a demonstration was a provocation, intended to get anyone who showed up beaten or worse, and urged everyone to avoid the square that afternoon. The photo of the empty square (except for the tanks), taken about an hour after the demo was to start, showed that the warning was heeded. But I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't read Koudelka's book of photos of the invasion - he did place it in some sort of context.

John Camp: The man was indeed awaiting execution (he is not looking at the camera though, but in the direction he is walking). This is part of the description in Szarkowski's Looking at Photographs: "The young man has been found guilty of murder, and is being led to the place of his execution."

Some years ago, I picked up my new copy of Aperture and was dumbfounded by the dense critical analysis of the meaning of a middling quality portfolio of photos. I sent an e-mail to the publisher, copied to the subscription department, asking them to "suspend my subscription forthwith, as I am no longer willing to watch, nor to participate in, this sort of intellectual masturbation."

The result was that I was thanked for my feedback and my subscription was extended for two years.

Gettin' here late, again. Just a few points I can offer.

First, Josef Koudelka most certainly does, or at least did, embody someone who put his entire being into his photography. As the title of his current large traveling retrospective show suggests (Nationality Doubtful) he has lived most of his life following his lens.

Today, now in his 70's, Koudelka is enjoying the glow of being regarded as an elder statesman of a bygone era of photography. He is an extremely sociable fellow with eyes that twinkle and hands like a dockworker who loves to tower (literally and emotionally) over mostly young audiences and young curators whose jaws slacken as he utters such "For centuries to come years will pass" adages, such as the one Mike quotes above. (I've heard him say it, and seen it quoted, several times in the past few years.) He can also be rather mercurial, especially with curators and gallerists.

The degree to which photographs should have, or need, "verbal scaffolding" (I love that expression, Mike) depends entirely on the work. For example, several years ago I viewed a show of large-ish prints of what appeared to be clothing. Each scene showed neat and clean clothes laid out onto a bed or over a chair. It appeared to be just another bland MFA-thesis-style project, until I read the description. The project began as a personal memorial to carefully photograph favorite clothing of the photographer's mother who had recently died. Friends saw the work and began asking her to do the same for their deceased family members. And on and on. The show's images were some results of this work after several years. Kaboom. The project needed words to resound.

Elliott Erwitt's images really need no words to resonate. Ditto many of Winogrand's best, Kertesz's, Metzker's, etc., etc. It's not that they're necessarily better, just that they're self-contained.

In Josef Koudelka's case, much of his best early work really is surrounded by a tremendous amount of "verbal scaffolding", much of it written by others using seeds provided by Josef through the years (like sourdough bread). It's just that he generally refuses to speak publicly about his pictures. There are probably two reasons. First, Josef is wise enough to know very well that his photos generally benefit from a little mystery. "Who is the guy with the horse?", "Who is in the coffin?", "Was that dog rabid?", all questions best left unanswered at least in the moment.

Second, language is not Koudelka's strong suit. He speaks many European languages but probably can't be considered very strong in any. Even those fluent in his native Czech say that he's not strong there, either. No, Josef Koudelka's language is written with his lens. And the world has become just a bit richer because of it. He is a unique character in photography's history, one we shall not see again.

(I apologize for writing a mini-essay. Had too much time waiting for another event.)

If any TOP readers are planning to visit Madrid this fall, there's a Josef Koudelka exhibition I can heartily recommend. More info here: http://exposiciones.fundacionmapfre.org/exposiciones/en/josefkoudelka/

Did i say that? Somewhat presumptuous of me. Those were the days when you were in a photography program so maybe that’s some excuse. You’ve gone a long way with both photography and writing since your days at the Corcoran and it’s obvious from your success at at various magazines and then of course TOP you’ve managed to combine both your interests in a way that’s given a lot of pleasure to both writers and photographers. And now you’re going to start up some workshops at your new house and that seems like a very positive step. I look forward to seeing how that venture goes. I’ve tried various online teaching schemes but none have worked out very well. As you said you can’t replace the excitement of face-to face exchange of ideas and images with the somewhat stilted virtual world. And I must add, I often think when reading TOP that I let an opportunity slip away by not having you in any of my classes at the Corcoran; we could have had some great talks. I think there were scheduling difficulties or maybe I wasn’t teaching as much then; I was cutting back my hours preparing for retirement as I remember.

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