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Author: H. J. McCracken

Josef Koudelka: “La fabrique d’Exils” (Centre Pompidou, Feb 22-May 22nd 2017)

Josef Koudelka: “La fabrique d’Exils” (Centre Pompidou, Feb 22-May 22nd 2017)

Koudelka is the last. In an interview with a the journalist Sean O’Hagan in 2008 he tells this story “‘Once, Henri [Cartier-Bresson] rang me in Paris and said, “Josef, Kertész is in town, you must come to dinner and meet him.” He held Kertész in the highest regard as a photographic master. I said, “Henri, I love his pictures but I do not need to meet him.” The phone goes down. Then he rings back and says, “No, you do not understand, you have to meet him because we three, we are of the same family.” At the time, this seems to me to be an unbelievable thing to say. Now, though, when I look back from a distance, I can see that maybe there is something in that.’

Each of these three photographers made their own unique and vital contribution to photography. Although the oldest, Kertsesz was the most modern (Koudelka’s words). Cartier-Bresson was of course the master of lightly ironic, perfect compositions and “photoportraits”. He managed to be invisibly present at many of the defining moments of twentieth century history, taking pictures of those who were there and not the thing that was happening. Koudelka, like Kertész, was a rootless exile with an approximate command of language. But unlike Kertész, he never did a job he didn’t want to do. And Koudelka is the last of these three still alive.

We are fascinated by creation and the artistic act. We always wonder how the sculptor reveals the head buried in the block of marble. We want to know what the trick is, how it’s done. What’s behind the curtain. Here in Paris, Josef Koudelka recently gave a selection of prints to the Centre Pompidou (Beaubourg). These works form the basis of a new exhibition, “le fabrique des exiles”, which runs until May. Yes, it is in some senses a “making of” of one of the great photography books of the 20th century, “Exiles”. The book is accompanied by a essay by Koudelka’s friend and collaborator of 40 years, Michel Frizot, which follows closely the path that Koudelka took to create his work.

“Exiles” comprises around a hundred black-and-white photographs taken mostly in the 1970s and 80s. Certain have carved a place for themselves in our collective photographic consciousness as deep as any other works from the 20th century. Many of them have a certain strangeness or melancholy; others are graphic and expressionist. Seeing large prints of these photographs in Beaubourg amplifies their power. The grain becomes razor sharp, the blacks become inky black. There is that lost dog silhouetted in a wasteland of grimy winter snow at the Parc de Sceaux or outline of a man with an umbrella and flowers against the graceful curves of a wall somewhere in Europe.

Spain, 1973

The broad details of Koudelka’s life are well known. The publication of his pictures of Russian tanks rolling into Prague in the spring of 1968 made “P. P. – Prague photographer” an international celebrity — and especially someone highly sought after by the communist authorities in his native Czechoslovakia. Soon enough, there would be a trip abroad from which he would not return, transforming him too into a perpetual exile. He would spend the next decades photographing at festivals and country fairs in a half-dozen different European countries.

He was not interested in the events themselves but rather what was happening at the periphery, the edges. Before and after. He was not an anthropologist, and this work was not reportage.

Frizot reveals Koudelka’s notebooks. Trained as an engineer, Josef K. planned his journeys with meticulous precision, and one can see these detailed agendas. But there are also other wonders, such as the chart of constellations together with details on the stars and planets. A useful thing to have if you need to get somewhere.

He traveled with almost no possessions and made no place his home, sleeping outside in the spring and summer and in the Paris Magnum offices or at friends’ houses in the winter which he’d spend developing or printing from the many rolls of films taken that year. He said that he didn’t want to take pictures of people who were worse off than him, although his aim was too low: the gypsies at least lived in caravans and had television and heating whereas he slept outside every night and had one pair of trousers for the whole year. In the exhibition we see for the first time self-portraits of Koudelka asleep on office floors or outside the ground in the open air, sometimes a city skyline or a stand of trees in the distance behind him.

Star-chart (Carnet-Agenda 2005, Archives Koudelka, Ivry-sur-Seine)

That is the romantic image, the vagabond artist creating effortlessly great art. But in reality the amount of work required was staggering. Each year Koudelka would shoot more than a thousand rolls of film. Over a twenty year period, that amounted to more than 300,000 images — and from that, only around a hundred pictures found their way to Exiles. Most years would only result in a few images. Photography is ultimately a work of selection, and Koudelka was merciless in selecting images from his own work. On the contact sheets, images were graded into categories, with only the ultimate, highest category leading to possible inclusion in a book. One must learn to be a good critic, and in fact I learned that Koudelka was the only photographer at Magnum who responded to Cartier-Bresson’s request for criticism.

Koudelka is the last, and his work has not been exhibited in any significant way Paris for many years. I hope that one day before too long we will have a retrospective of his work. Recently, Koudelka has returned to the panoramic images which have fascinated him since his early days in Prague; these images would certainly benefit from gallery space. But today, it is wonderful to see these photographs from Exiles on the walls of Beaubourg, and I will try to return again before the end of May.

London, winter (21-23 February 2017)

London, winter (21-23 February 2017)

After Budapest, London. I had a short meeting at the Royal Astronomical society in Burlington house, certainly a hallowed hall of learning. There was some time before and during the meeting to walk around town and take pictures. It’s challenging taking pictures at night on film, but I think I am learning…

The lights of Leicester Square at night,

Lester Square at night

Polite people queuing for a party,

Going to the party

A business dinner at night, yes these are serious people,

Business dinner

Narrow streets,

In the narrow streets

Having a drink at night, of course,

A drink at night

And now in Burlington house, a great seat of learning in Picadilly,

In Burlington House (1)

But see how serious everyone is ! It looks like being in church.

In Burlington house (2), no-one smiles.

And that is it!

Budapest, winter (8-13 February 2017)

Budapest, winter (8-13 February 2017)

I made a short trip with ML to Budapest a few weeks ago. Budapest is one of those cities I visited when I first ‘discovered’ Europe in the early 90s before leaving for Canada for two years. Quite a few of those cities I have never returned to since then: Budapest, Prague, Vienna. You see, back then, I was attracted to this part of the world. For me Europe was above all Mitteleuropa, it was not the Mediterranean Europe of France, Spain and Italy. In fact, during those first few visits to Europe, I didn’t even visit Italy. Coming from the North, for me Italy seemed to be chaotic and noisy. Today, of course, I feel differently. But meanwhile, in my mind, Budapest rests frozen in the summer of 1991. What it would be like today?

After a short flight from Orly, we arrived at night:

it was bitterly cold, but I had my heavy coat for the mountains.

There is certainly a particular atmosphere in this city at night,

and at the same time there is no question that things have changed,

and the city is not as it was before. Although Budapest, as I learned, was always even in the depths of communism, a city known for its cosmopolitan lifestyle. But now some strange choices are being proposed:

Are you sure?

However, some things do not change, people still swim outside in at Széchenyi in winter when the temperature is barely above freezing:

You must swim fast

There are still a few mysterious things to see,

Many buildings have been restored, but not all of them,

there are still a few traces left from before the arrival of modern-day plate-glass windows,

Certainly food is important,

and during our stay we went to some wonderful bars and restaurants,

and outside in streets, you certainly need to wrap up warm:

And suddenly it was time to leave. Waiting at Budapest airport to board the plane in the depths of winter is a unique experience:

… and we were back in Paris once again. I enjoyed immensely our short visit, and hope to return soon…

Aki Kaurismaki’s “The other side of hope”

Aki Kaurismaki’s “The other side of hope”

I’ve long been a fan of the films of Aki Kaurismaki. I think, actually, I have seen every single film he has made (mostly at cinema festivals in Paris). So I was very happy to see that his new film, “The other side of hope” would be coming to the cinema screens in Paris this week. And this is less than six months since Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”, two directors who are always linked together in my mind.

I won’t say that “The other side of hope”, Kaurismaki’s new film, breaks stylistic grounds. It is merely the perfection of a cinematic style and atmosphere that Kaurismaki has spent his whole career refining. Every beam of pale, weak northern light falls through the windows at a slanting angle. Interiors are a muted pallet of blues and red, shot beautifully by Kaurimaki’s longtime cameraman, Timo Salminen. I admit I also felt relief, in the first few minutes of the film. Seeing the blue morning light on Helsinki docks together with that faint shimmer in the sky, I realised that Aki, unlike Jim, was is shooting on film. In fact, I find remarkable echoes between some photographs of Harry Gruyart and Kaurismaki’s films.

Welcome to Finland !

The plot is easy to summarise. Like his last film, “Le Havre”, Kaurismaki tells the story of an immigrant. In this case it is a Syrian, Khaled, who escapes Aleppo after almost his entire family are killed. He wants to start a new life. There are a few adventures, an arbitrary decision at the hands of the law, and after escaping “justice” he meets a traveling salesman turned restaurant owner, Wikstrom. Wilkstrom is also looking to start a new life. He is played by Sakari Kuosmanen, who’s been in Kaurismaki films since the 80s.

When people speak in Kaurismaki movies, there are no body movements. You would never expect someone to run into a room and shout “Freeze!”. You’ve perhaps heard the joke: how do you tell an extroverted Finnish person?” Answer – “He looks at your shoes”. There are long cold silences, and if one word will do, then one word is all it takes. In one scene, Khaled is is talking with a fellow refugee who advises him how to behave in Finland. “Don’t look too sad or they will send you back!” he says. But also, “Don’t smile too much, or they will think you are crazy!”

What would a Kaurismaki film be without a Volga station wagon?

Most people in the film behave with a simple common decency. We have become too accustomed to cinema where people display their emotions and the film is all the more resonant for it. Wilkstrom employs Khaled in his restaurant because it is the obvious thing to do, and no hands are wrung over the matter.

Kaurismaki has announced that this will be his last film, that he will not complete the “port city” trilogy that this film and “Le Havre” were part of. Ominously, Kati Outinen (who has been in many of Kaurismaki’s films) comes onscreen for a few minutes early on. She buys our traveling salesman’s stock of shirts at at a knockdown price, but refuses a job with him, announcing that instead she is moving to Mexico. I sincerely hope she can be persuaded to stay and Kaurismaki continues making films!