Koudelka and the Stage

When Shakespeare’s Jacques offers that “All the world’s a stage/And all the men and women merely players,”[1] it is to remark on the coinciding, simultaneous variety, contrast and resemblance of every life and scene that transpires in the world.  It is to remind his companions that  all are fated to follow the same plot of life, each one only differing in the appearance of its “woeful pageants,” that in this “wide and universal theatre,” “we are not all alone unhappy.” The photographs of Josef Koudelka reflect a similar sentiment.

Koudelka’s photos tend to beguile.  The 72-year-old Czech photographer has a penchant for crafting surreal fantasies (“woeful pageants”) out of the mundane.  The photos in his 1988 book Exiles often make the worldly appear fantastical.  This quality can be seen in two photos from Koudelka’s book Exiles.  One depicts a scene from a Holy Week festival in a Spanish village.  A group of townsmen in dark suits stand around in a loose conglomeration as a “resurrection” rocket is propelled toward the top right of the frame by a plume of smoke illumined and radiant in the light of the sun. In another, a trio of men loiter in a stark field.  One man tosses a ball into the air.  Behind them stands a lone bridled horse and a strange unknown box, perhaps a structure of shack of some kind.  Koudelka makes us see the sublime and the disconcerting in human landscapes that search for resonance and symbolism in the juxtaposition of familiar elements.  Many of his pictures fabricate the illusion of three-dimensions with their emphasis on angled lines and planes, in a way recalling the paintings of Magritte or Dalí and their challenging representation of reality and space.  These are dramatic and vivid images in which the suspension of time serves to unify the impossible into a concrete photograph.  These pictures are, to our understanding, documentary records of real events, but their framing gives us the sense of theatricality.  Koudelka began his career as a theatrical photographer, so it is not surprising that he has continued to render his photographs through the conventions of the theater even after he turned to documentary subject matter.

The opening image in Exiles looks down at an empty city square and down a deserted street to a grand domed building.  An arm stretches over the bottom third of the frame, displaying its wristwatch to the lens.  The cobblestone square is dissected by curving streetcar tracks and electrical lines.  A few parked cars sit on the side of the road.  Several tiny figures sit against the buildings at the bottom left of the street, another stands with crossed arms in the doorway of a shop, but it is impossible to tell who they are or what they are doing. They appear as if they are waiting, but waiting for what?  Up the tree-lined avenue a few dark hard to discern shapes – possibly tanks – sit in the middle of the otherwise vacant street.  The emptiness of the streets in broad daylight, the trash strewn on the sidewalk and the jumbled suggestion of upheaval midway up the road would make for an intriguing, if somewhat inert image on their own.  The circumstances suggest something out of the ordinary is happening, a civil emergency or natural disaster, but the vacancy is reticent.  The grainy black and white emphasizes the starkness of the picture’s lines and perspective.

The picture operates on two levels: one is as a work of art removed from its context, the other is as a piece of photojournalism, dependant on a knowledge of its historical circumstances. This is the photo that, for all intents and purposes, launched Koudelka’s international career.  In 1968 the photographer had just returned to his home in Prague from shooting images of gypsy life in Romania when the Red Army invaded Czechoslovakia to stifle the reform movement of the Prague Spring.[2] Koudelka turned his camera on the tanks and demonstrations and assumed the role of photojournalist.  His negatives were smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and published in The Sunday Times under the pseudonym PP (for Prague Photographer) in order to protect Koudelka and his family from reprisal.[3] The photographs came to define the invasion in the West, and won “the anonymous Czech photographer” the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1969.[4] It depicts Prague’s central Wenceslas Square at the time that a demonstration against the Soviet invaders is supposed to take place.  Koudelka shows up and finds a vantage to look down at the whole scene only to discover that the demonstration has been cancelled and no one has shown up.

The intervention of the photographer’s arm introduces a sense of tension.  The two planes of the photo compete; our eyes are not sure where to travel first.  The perspective of the arm gives the viewer the sensation that they are looking out through the photographer’s eyes, almost as if his arm is our arm.  Koudelka’s watch adds an even more interesting dynamic to the image.  A special quality of photographs is that they are inherently atemporal.  They capture a split moment in time and then go on existing, immutably preserving a vision of the past.  Yet photos often do not provide much information in the way of what exactly is this moment they are preserving.  We can often tell if a photo is taken at night or at day, during summer or winter, but often identifying temporal features or hard to come by, or even when present, can sometimes mislead. The watch in this photo grounds it definitively to a tangible moment.

With a knowledge of the photo’s back-story we can imply that Koudelka is illustrating that the demonstrators have missed their appointment: “I showed up at the appointed time and place; where are you?” he seems to say.  Its inclusion introduces the photographer into the frame, not only physically, but psychologically as well.  It reminds us of the photographer behind the lens, that the camera is not just an inanimate recording device.  What was he thinking or feeling that seized him to break down the fourth wall of the stage in front of him? What does the watch signify? Impatience? Disappointment? Perhaps Koudelka is simply documenting this missed appointment with history: documentary photography taken to the extreme of veracity.

It is fitting that this photo opens the retrospective of Exiles.  It marks the moment that Koudelka’s vision exploded upon the world’s stage with his images of the Soviet invasion. Like many of Koudelka’s photos, it is precise and contained in its simplicity, but there is something disparate about it in relation to the rest of his portfolio.  This one is much more earnest and matter-of-fact.  Unlike the others, it does not suggest the abstract presentation of reality of a theatrical production on a stage. Instead, here Koudelka shows up for the show, the hour arrives, the curtains rise, but the stage is empty and the actors are nowhere to be seen.  Chronologically and symbolically this photo represents the pivot-point between Koudelka’s early theatre photos and his post-1968 documentary photography.

The eminent Czech art historian Anna Fárová, who passed away earlier this year, wrote that Koudelka “does not photograph reality as it is, but as he imagines it and feels it.” Though Koudelka exercises a particularly firm and palpable hold on the reality he depicts in his photographs, this statement could easily be applied to all art.  In fact, this is the role of art in the human psyche: to reflect our world back to us through a prism, and by so doing, show us something that in some way illuminates the world we are familiar with, to show us similitude in the foreign and the unusual in the mundane, to remind us of the “wide and universal theatre” in which we play.



[1] As You Like It. 2:7

[2] “Josef Koudelka and 1968, summer of hate.” http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article3886309.ece

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.