The Czech-born photographer on freedom, landscape, empathy—and why good photographs are so rare
Josef Koudelka in the Getty Center galleries, November 2014
Josef Koudelka has been focusing an empathetic eye on the human condition for nearly six decades. The new exhibition Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtfulpresents a sweeping overview of his work, including poignant photographs of Roma (Gypsies), electrifying documents of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and massive panoramas of conflict-altered landscapes, most recently from his project Wall on the West Bank barrier and the land that surrounds it on both sides.
He spoke to us during the final moments of preparation for the exhibition.
Laura Hubber: You’re famous for not taking assignments. How do you choose your subjects?
I know what I want to do and I do it. And I’ve created conditions so I can do it—I’ve been doing it for 45 years. People who do assignments are being paid and they are supposed to do something. I want to keep the freedom not to do anything, the freedom to change everything.
LH: What’s the main motivation for you to choose a subject?
I’m an intuitive person.
LH: If it speaks to you, you go.
You know, people ask all the time why I photographed gypsies. I’ve never known. I’m not particularly interested to know.
LH: Is it possible that you were drawn to the way Roma are free from the state?
No, not at all [pause]. You know, I didn’t grow up with American cinema like many photographers. I was from a little village. I was never fascinated by the United States. But I remember seeing photographs from the Farm Security Administration and they moved me very much. It wasn’t because of the style of the photography—it was because of the subject. Maybe you’ll find something similar with Gypsies too.
Annelisa Stephan: You’ve talked about having “the eye.” What does that mean?
When you look at something and think, this is right.
AS: So it’s a feeling?
LH: How important is composition in your photographs?
It’s not a good photograph without good composition. Originally I’m an aeronautical engineer. Why do airplanes fly? Because there is balance.
A good photograph speaks to many different people for different reasons. It depends on what people have been through and how they react.
The other sign of good photography for me is to ask, “What am I going to remember?” It happens very, very rarely that you see something that you can’t forget, and this is the good photograph.
LH: Tell us about photographing the Soviet-led invasion of Prague.
I’d just gotten back from Romania, where for months I was photographing Gypsies, and my friend called me and said, “The Russians are here.” I picked up the camera, went out on the street, and I photographed just for myself. I’d never photographed events before. These pictures weren’t meant to be published. Finally they were published one year later, which is interesting, because they weren’t news anymore.
AS: The exhibition includes several panoramas. What attracts you to this format?
I love landscape. But I was never happy photographing the landscape with a standard camera. In 1986 I was asked to participate in a government project in France. They invited me to the office and I saw a panoramic camera lying on the desk. I said, “Can I borrow this camera for one week?”
I ran around Paris; I had to photograph everything. I realized that with this camera I could do something I’d never done before. The panoramic camera helped me go to another stage in my career, in my work. It helped me to remain interested in photography, to be fascinated with photography.
I’m going to be seventy-seven. When I met Cartier-Bresson, he was sixty-two. I’m 15 years older than Cartier-Bresson was then. And at that time Cartier-Bresson was stopping his work with photography.
It’s not normal to feel that you have to do something, that you love to do something. If that’s happening you have to pay attention so you don’t lose it.
AS: In an interview at the Art Institute of Chicago you said you’ve “never met a bad person.” I see much empathy and love in your photographs.
That’s up to you [laughs].
AS: Are people fundamentally good?
I’ve been traveling 45 years without stopping, so of course things have happened to me that weren’t right. But even “bad” people behave a certain way because you don’t give them the opportunity to behave well. When you start to communicate with somebody, things go a different way.
AS: Can you give an example?
Have a look at the Russian soldiers [in my photographs of the Soviet-led invasion of Prague]. Okay, they were invaders. But at the same time, they were guys like me. They were maybe five years younger. As much as it might sound strange, I didn’t feel any hatred toward them. I knew they didn’t want to be there. They behaved a certain way because their officers ordered them to. I become friendly with some of them. In a normal situation, I’d have invited these guys to have a drink with me.
I can’t say I met one bad person [while photographing] in Israel either. Once I was in East Jerusalem with a photographer friend who went with me. We were planning to eat sandwiches under the trees. Suddenly, soldiers ran over with guns. One of them hit and broke my camera. But when I looked in his face, he had the same fear as the Russian soldiers in ‘68. I’m sure if I’d had the opportunity to talk to this guy, he would never have done that.
LH: To be a wonderful photographer, you have to have empathy for the human condition.
We are all the same. And we are composed from the bad and the good.
LH: May we ask you to comment on a few of your photographs?
I wouldn’t talk about the photographs. No, I try to separate myself completely from what I do. I try to step back to look at them as somebody who has nothing to do with them.
When I travel, I show my pictures to everybody—to see what they like, what they don’t like. A good photograph speaks to many different people for different sorts of reasons. And it depends what sort of lives these people have. What they’ve gone through. It happens very rarely that you see something you can’t forget. That is a good photograph.
LH: What’s the role of the professional photographer today, when everyone is empowered to take photographs?
I think it’s wonderful that everybody can take photographs, just like I think it’s wonderful everybody can write. But there are very few writers and there are very few photographers.
Everybody has a camera, everybody can press the button. Everybody has a pencil, everybody can make a signature. But that doesn’t mean there are many great writers and it doesn’t mean there are many great photographers.
AS: What do you see as the difference between photography and art?
I never use the expressions “art” or “artist.” In Israel we were stopped every day, sometimes five times a day, when we were photographing. Once my friend turned to the soldiers and he said, “He’s not a reporter, he’s an artist!”
I’ve only said I’m am artist once—when I nearly got into trouble in Algeria [laughs]. If I said I’m a photographer, I would really get into trouble. If you’re artist, you’re all right.
AS: Why don’t you call yourself an artist?
I’m a photographer, that’s all. Like anything else, not all paintings are art. Not all photographs are art. They might be, but it’s not up to me to say.
- See more at: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/we-are-all-the-same-a-conversation-with-josef-koudelka/#sthash.SL0DB9iK.dpuf
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending some time with Pablo Inirio, master darkroom printer at Magnum Photos in New York. I was thinking about that interview recently as I heard the news of Kodak’s bankruptcy and pondered the precarious status of “old media” like books, film and silver gelatin prints.
As Magnum’s printer, Inirio gets to work with some of photography’s most iconic images. In his small darkroom, the prints lying casually around include Dennis Stock’s famous portrait of James Dean in Times Square (right) and a cigar-chewing Che Guevara shot by Rene Burri. Intricate squiggles and numbers are scrawled all over the prints, showing Inirio’s complex formulas for printing them. A few seconds of dodging here, some burning-in there. Will six seconds be enough to bring out some definition in the building behind Dean? Perhaps, depending on the temperature of the chemicals.
Of course, this kind of work is a dying art. Darkrooms everywhere have been closing as increasingly, photographers choose pixels and inkjets over film and silver gelatin. Over the last fifteen years, almost every photographer I’ve interviewed has waxed poetic about that “magical” experience of seeing an image develop in chemicals for the first time. You have to wonder whether today’s young photographers will rhapsodize as much about the first time they color-calibrated their monitors.
I was curious to see how the last few years of digital progress have affected things at Magnum, so I checked in with Inirio by phone this week. He was still there, bubbling with the good cheer that, along with his darkroom skills, have made him a favorite with Magnum photographers. In the three years since we met, he said, surprisingly little has changed at Magnum. He had to switch to Ilford paper when Agfa closed, and he hopes Kodak doesn’t take his stop bath away—but otherwise, things are the same. “Collectors and galleries still want prints on fiber paper—they just like the way it looks,” he said. He’s often called upon to print from current members’ film archives, and for the estates of various deceased members, like Dennis Stock and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The prints go to exhibitions, book publishers and private collectors. “I’m still pretty busy—in fact, I’m backed up,” he said with a laugh.
Magnum has been digitizing its archive, but so far, Inirio hasn’t been tempted to transfer his skills to the digital realm. “Digital prints have their own kind of look, and it’s fine, but fiber prints have such richness and depth,” he said. He thinks darkroom printing will always be with us—after all, he pointed out, “people are still doing daguerrotypes.”
Magnum’s archive represents some of modern history’s best and boldest photojournalism. Its photographers have been at the front lines for over six decades, ever since, in an effort to gain more rights for photographers, the flamboyantRobert Capa brought together an unlikely group of friends in 1947 to start a photographer-run collective. In 1947 alone, the small group delivered work on Gandhi’s assassination, the foundation of Israel and life in the Soviet Union at the start of the Cold War. Since then, Magnum has continued covering world history with passion and visual flair. Last week, members Alex Majoli and Paolo Pellegrin won prizes in the 2012 World Press Photo Contest, for an image of shouting protesters in Tahrir Square and a photo-essay on post-tsunami Japan, respectively.
As an organization, though, Magnum has often teetered on the edge of collapse—either from financial troubles or because it attracts strong personalities who spend a lot of time fighting. The story of the agency’s first fifty years is entertainingly told in Russell Miller’s Magnum: Fifty Years at the Front Line of History, published in 1997 to coincide with the agency’s half century. Miller does a great job of conveying the amazing talent and bravery of Magnum members while also dishing about the agency’s dysfunctional family dynamics. (One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from photographer Ferdinando Scianna, who snarls, “Yes, Magnum is a family. I hate my family.”) My review of the book for the San Francisco Chronicle is here.
Capa’s own memoir, Slightly Out of Focus, was originally published in 1947 and is now available as a Modern Library paperback. As you’d expect, it’s lively and irreverent. I like the way it begins, with the story of how, in 1942, Capa was mistaken for movie director Frank Capra by a ship’s captain while on his way to London to photograph the blitz.. Happy to oblige, Capa regaled the captain with made-up gossip about Hollywood and “Capra”s numerous affairs with leading ladies.
Capa’s larger-than-life personality, and his dramatic life story, were ripe for fictionalizing—and indeed, last week I stumbled on Waiting for Robert Capa, a 2011 Spanish novel that has just been translated into English. The novel tells the story of the love affair between Capa and Gerda Taro, a young photographer who was killed in action in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a story that was also lovingly told last year in The Mexican Suitcase, an exhibition at the International Center for Photography. Apparently director Michael Mann has picked up the film rights to Waiting for Robert Capa. I look forward to reading it and will review it here in the near future.
Like darkroom photography, Magnum itself is undergoing a paradigm shift. As media space for in-depth photojournalism decreases, photographers are looking elsewhere for venues for their work. Agencies like Magnum are having to get creative about projects, partnering with nonprofits and corporate sponsors. But still, Magnum survives… and it’s nice to think of Inirio toiling away in the Magnum darkroom, continuing a tradition that started in 1947 with the first Magnum office.
The first commercially available color photographic process, Autochrome, was introduced in the United States in 1907. Alfred Stieglitz and George Seeley soon began experimenting with it, but it was not until the nineteen-fifties that color photography began to come into its own as an artistic medium, in the work of Ernst Haas, Helen Levitt, and others. This was the generation of the photographer Saul Leiter, the Pittsburgh-born son of a Talmudic scholar, who photographed the streets of New York City for six decades and died this week at the age of eighty-nine.
Leiter was perhaps the most interesting of the fifties color photographers in his use of form. His bold chromaticism, off-center composition, and frequent use of vertical framing attracted attention—the work reminded people of Japanese painting and Abstract Expressionism—and he was included in “Always the Young Strangers,” an exhibition curated by Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953. But Leiter didn’t court fame, and though he continued to work, his photographs almost vanished from public view. Then they came back to light in 2006, with “Saul Leiter: Early Color,” a monograph published by Steidl. The book brought him belated recognition, gallery representation, a stream of publications, and a new generation of fans.
Color is in the mainstream of photographic practice now. It is essential to the inspired street work of Gueorgui Pinkhassov and Joel Meyerowitz, the large-format portraits of Rineke Dijkstra, the architectural views of Candida Höfer, the personal journalism of Nan Goldin, and the stately landscapes of Andreas Gursky. But for a long time, it was considered superficial and suspect. Henri Cartier-Bresson was firmly against it on the grounds that it interfered with formal priorities. John Szarkowski, the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, dismissed most color photography before he began championing William Eggleston’s in the nineteen-seventies. This was the milieu—which, if not hostile, was not exactly encouraging—out of which Saul Leiter created a series of breathtaking, almost miraculous, photographs. He shot Kodachrome slides, and many of them were not printed until decades after they were exposed.
One of the most effective gestures in Leiter’s work is to have great fields of undifferentiated dark or light, an overhanging canopy, say, or a snow drift, interrupted by gashes of color. He returned again and again to a small constellation of subjects: mirrors and glass, shadows and silhouettes, reflection, blur, fog, rain, snow, doors, buses, cars, fedoras. He was a virtuoso of shallow depth of field: certain sections of some of the photographs look as if they have been applied with a quick brush. It will come as no surprise to a viewer of his work that Leiter was also a painter, that his heroes were Degas, Vuillard, and Bonnard, and that he knew the work of Rothko and de Kooning well. There are points of contact between his work and that of photographers like Louis Faurer and Robert Frank, the so-called New York School; but Leiter was an original. He loved beauty. To make a living, he photographed fashion spreads for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and the levity of his commercial work seeped into his personal work.
But the overriding emotion in his work is a stillness, tenderness, and grace that is at odds with the mad rush of New York street life. “In No Great Hurry,” the understated film made about Leiter last year by the filmmaker Tomas Leach, contains an exchange that gets to the core of Leiter’s practice. Late in the film, Leiter said, “There are the things that are out in the open and then there are the things that are hidden, and life has more to do, the real world has more to do with what is hidden, maybe. You think?” I loved this confirmation of Leiter’s loyalty to concealed realities, but loved even more his doubt, his interrogation of the hard-won insight. Leach, the filmmaker, replied off-camera, “That could be true.” Leiter then asked him, “You think it’s true?” “It could be,” Leach said. “It could be very true,” Leiter said, still not committing fully. “We like to pretend that what is public is what the real world is all about.”
Leiter’s best photographs lack all pretense, and are full of a productive doubt. When I heard the news of Leiter’s death, I asked Leach what the experience of working on the film—over a period of three years—had been like. “He was funny, intelligent, and insightful,” Leach wrote to me. “He was full of curiosity and mischief.” The Magnum photographer Alex Webb, who is celebrated for the sophistication of his color work, said Leiter had “an uncanny ability to pull complex situations out of everyday life, images that echo the abstraction of painting and yet, simultaneously, clearly depict the world.”
Undoubtedly, the charm of some of Leiter’s pictures lies in the fact that they depict fifties places, fifties cars, and fifties people (we rarely dress so well today), and that the analog reds and greens are more moving, somehow, than what our own digital cameras or streetscapes can offer up. But pictures such as “Through Boards” (1957), “Canopy” (1958), and “Walking With Soames” (1958) would be winners in any era. They are high points of lyric photography which, once seen, become—like all the best pictures and poems and paintings—a permanent part of our lives.
I asked the photographer Rebecca Norris Webb, whose own work is similarly concentrated and subtle, about Leiter. She praised his quietness, singling out the images taken through a window or some sort of glass: “some a delightful puzzle of reflections, and others softly aglow in the muted light of a storm, one of the few natural forces capable of slowing us New Yorkers down long enough to send us into a kind of reverie.”
The content of Saul Leiter’s photographs arrives on a sort of delay: it takes a moment after the first glance to know what the picture is about. You don’t so much see the image as let it dissolve into your consciousness, like a tablet in a glass of water. One of the difficulties of photography is that it is much better at being explicit than at being reticent. Precisely how the hypnotic and dreamlike feeling is achieved in Leiter’s work is a mystery, even to their creator. As he said in “In No Great Hurry,” laughing, “If I’d only known which ones would be very good and liked, I wouldn’t have had to do all the thousands of others.”