Josef Koudelka

But I believe that that the truly creative periods are those when you live with intensity. If you lose intensity, you lose everything.              – Josef Koudelka

What is the source, the impetus, for creativity? For some it is the love of beauty which drives them to create, for others it is the need to be different and the desire  to express their individuality which drives their ever-changing creative forces and outlets. Then there are some who create out of necessity, whose troubles, demons, and incessant questions egg them on in their art, music, or writing. For many creators of art (whether it is literature, painting, photography, etc.), I believe it is this subconscious attempt to answer to questions about life that fuels creativity. Perhaps writers do not directly tackle the question of life in their novels, but the themes of humanity, truth, equality, nature, and others, are direct consequences to the questions of life and existence. For what reason do we seek truth, and by what standards do we determine equality? If we discover them in their purest forms, will we attain happiness? For that matter, perhaps true happiness is unattainable–why is it that some men are easily satisfied, while other go through their lives tortured by money or ideas? The natural inequality that is programmed into humanity seems to be a tantalizing riddle that promises eternal happiness if only one could figure out how to fix it, or at least how to subvert it.

Or perhaps the meaning of life is contained within a photograph of morning dew, of natural sunlight in a peaceful glade. Or of an impish child grinning while sliding down a hill of dirty ice.

In any case, that was a bit of a long tangent, originally I had merely wanted to discuss the characteristic intensity of Josef Koudelka’s photography. The quote at the top is from an interview where Koudelka discussed where his drive for photography comes from. Known to be something of a nomad, Koudelka’s photography took him from the Russian invasion of Czecholslovakia in 1968 to France, England, Italy, and various other European countries.

Czech citizens stands on top of a Russian tank during the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

You can see from each of these photographs that there is an intensity and exploration of danger, the dark undercurrents of life. The edgy and hard feel of the photograph comes not only from its content but also from the positioning of the objects in the photo. The tank seems to be crawling towards the viewer, its barrel angling out from the top of the image yet simultaneously growing larger and giving the photo a three dimensional feel, as if the barrel could at any second swing towards the viewer and fire at will. One can imagine how close Koudelka himself must have been in order to capture this shot.

The following picture follows the same train of thought; it uses sensational subject matter, prominent diagonal lines, and multiple observing figures. The man in the foreground of the photo is testing a rocket, his left leg partially obscured by smoke, giving him an unnatural look. The crowd in the background of the photo and hanging off the balconies show that the event being photographed is something of a spectacle. The men in suits are all in motion and facing several directions, some looking at the crowd and others at the photographer. The confusion of the photograph adds its uneasy feeling, and the black, ‘stern’ suits coupled with the rockets (and all of the connotations they come with) lend the image a dangerous, military feel.

Spain, 1971

Rakusy (Gypsy Boy)

Lisbon, 1975

The photograph below of the old men in Ireland reads almost like a surrealist painting. Its beauty lies in the confusion that it creates with the simple placing of a few old men in a corridor. The figures clad in long coats are anchored in diagonal lines by the man at the far end, moreso by his even and wide-set stance. The viewer is in fact, the ‘fifth’ character in the photograph.

Ireland 1976

France 1987

This last photograph is probably one of Koudelka’s most famous. The image seems simple at first; there is a black dog on a snowy field. But the image is intensely captivating. The stance of the dog is tense and he seems about to spring into a run. The lack of detail on the animal renders him into a black mass, albeit with the crisp edges of a dog. The true black of its form, contrasted by the true white of the snow, gives the image an eery feel. What is the dog doing, and why is it alone in this empty field? The dog almost seems to be a specter encroaching on mankind, or humanity, as represented by the buildings in the far horizon of the image.

What drives Koudelka in his photography is not known to anyone but himself, and could probably never be articulated clearly even if he wanted to. But it is clear that the intensity with which he approaches life and photography is what electrifies his images and brings him, if not happiness, then perhaps an exploration of how he looks at life.

One of my favorites


~ by robinlam on September 29, 2010.

2 Responses to “Josef Koudelka”

  1. I like that you put on your Art Historian, Philosophy, and Photographer hat to write this entry. 🙂 keep writing!

  2. buiaccaro is better

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