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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.

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…

Paris, 25th of February 2017 (in Bergger Pancro400)

Paris, 25th of February 2017 (in Bergger Pancro400)

Yesterday, the weak winter sun came out for a few hours and I went for a walk around town. Always the same places, but always something different to see. I was curious also to try a new film that I had just received, Bergger’s “Pancro400”. Like a lot of people I have been following closely the slow re-awakening of analogue photography and the film industry. In the last few months, several new films have been announced, and I am anxious to support any such initiative to bring new emulsions to the market.

Before Bergger, there was “Guilleminot” a French photographic company which was founded in… 1858. When they closed operations in 1995, the technical director of operations, Guy Gérard, decided to start Bergger. I guess this is like the Ferrania story, but twenty years before! Bergger have created a solid reputation for themselves as producers of high quality photographic papers and chemistry. Recently, the photographer-owner of a photographic supply firm and development laboratory, Aurélien le Duc, bought a controlling stock in Bergger. Realising that fewer and fewer people were printing in the darkroom, and more and more people were scanning, he decided that it would be interesting to provide some new emulsions (I am taking this information from a few articles in French I found and this nice interview with A. Le Duc).

Bergger don’t have their own production facilities, they are renting time on a German coating factory, which obviously makes sense given the small volumes involved. I think it is the famous Orwo Filmotech company (isn’t it Orwo film that Josef Koudelka shot on all those years ago?). However, Pancro400 is a new formula, unlike Bellamy Hunt’s “Street Pan” and Ferrania’s “P30”.

Well, I have only shot one roll. Nevertheless, I am posting my thoughts here as I think a few people might be interested. Physically, the film is reassuringly solid and thick, and I had no trouble loading it. I developed in good old HC110 using the times on the Bergger website. As is claimed, it does have nice tones and nice shadows. Yes, there is a certain ambience in the photographs for sure, probably accentuated by the fact that I am using one of my older Leica lenses which has less contrast. I would have to develop my other four rolls to really decide how this film is compared to Tri-X or HP5+, but this first roll seems very promising indeed. It does seem less contrasty that Tri-X in HC110. Here are a few photographs:

In parc Montsouris (where else)

Now on the quais and near Notre-Dame. Since the berges rive droite have been closed to traffic a few months ago, it always feels either post-apocalyptic or eternal summer, depending on your point of view.

That’s all! As a rule, there is only one or zero good photographs per roll, and I have put three here, so that is asking for trouble. Thanks to Bergger and friends for providing us with another choice for film…

Thinking about photography, once more: my article on EMULSIVE

Thinking about photography, once more: my article on EMULSIVE

Over Christmas I had some time to walk around Paris, which I never tire of doing, and to think once again about photography and film photography. In 2016 I had decided to try the project of shooting (at least) one roll of film each week and posting the best photographs from each roll on the 52 rolls web site. I quite enjoyed this, and I got to thinking, as I did when I started film photography in 2015, what the origin of this attraction for film photography really was. As a scientist, of course, I want to understand! I tried writing about this on Leicaphilia a year ago, but I learned a lot about photography in 2016.

So I started to read more books with the idea of eventually perhaps writing an article for EMULSIVE, because after all that was where I found out about 52 rolls. Early on, I came across on a quote from John Szarkowski, writing in the 1960s, which I thought was great:

“Photography had become easy. In 1893 an English writer complained that the new situation had “created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? …They spy a view, it seems to please, the camera is focused, the shot taken! There is no pause, why should there be? For art may err but nature cannot miss, says the poet, and they listen to the dictum. To them, composition, light, shade, form and texture are so many catch phrases…” (John Szarkowski, from “the Photographer’s Eye”).

Szarkowski’s introduction is one of the most interesting things I have read about photography. He was concerned with creating a new language to describe photography which was not based on the pictorial traditions of the past. Photography is not painting after all. This book was the exhibition catalogue for a show he organised at MOMA, where he was the director of the photography department. Many of the excellent photographs in that book are from unknown photographers. On one side, his quote just demonstrates to me that at each period in time people have had the same complaints as today. Mobile phones are destroying photography!

Moreover, there is no special reason that film photographers should not not suffer from the same equipment-malaise afflicting some digital photographers today. The image below is from a 1952 newspaper I saw in a recent show, where Cartier-Bresson reluctantly explains his philosophy in taking pictures (if you can read the captions they are particularly amusing to us today, especially about how to take pictures at night with very slow film, I think of all those people who complain that their highly sensitive digital cameras are not sensitive enough):

“Du bon usage d’un appareil (Using a camera correctly)”

Of course, he studiously refuses to talk about lenses and emulsions!

But is — this is the question — is there really, really a qualitative difference between digital and film? I would need to look at more recent books. After a visit to a show at the excellent “Musée European de la Photographie” I went downstairs to their well-stocked library, and asked them for a few books about photography and digital imagery. A very helpful librarian gave me a pile of books to read. I even left the library at mid-day, went out in the freezing cold streets on the last day of 2016, ate a sandwich, and came back again. It was kind of fun, it was like studying again as a student. I came across some interesting ideas, some of which I discuss in my article, What I learned shooting film for a year for 52 rolls.

So here’s the thing: in the end is seems the key difference between film and digital is the mutability of the digital image and how the content of that image is largely defined by software. You could say that the same is true for film, just substitute “chemicals” for “software”. But there is no guarantee that the digital image is real as it is detached from reality: the link to the underlying physical support is most definitely broken. Moreover, there is no reason either that digital imaging should resemble “photography” as idea of capturing only a single image a time is completely arbitrary. It is worth remembering the world’s most popular camera, the iPhone, is largely because it has the best software and not because it has necessarily the best lenses or detectors.

No doubt about physical reality here…

Then, of course, there are all the considerations of what the images actually look like, and how the processes of producing images and photographs are different in both cases. It seems to me now that those are secondary concerns, although they certainly influence how the image is created. Leica have now expended a lot of effort in producing a new digital rangefinder which has exactly the same dimensions as the film cameras which made them famous, but it seems to be missing the point. You can feel that there are earnest people at Leica HQ who understand film, and who sense that something has been lost. This is after all the company that brought us digital cameras which only take pictures in black and white or which have no displays to review images. And today although they have now perfectly replicated the action of taking a photograph with a film camera … it is still a digital camera, even if it is a bit smaller, or has no screen, or only takes pictures in monochrome. Amusingly, an internet search for one of the photographers promoting their new camera (Matt Stuart) reveals that he shoots 2-3 rolls of colour film for his personal photography each day, despite also having a previous-generation Leica digital rangefinder.

My artist friend Danny says that in his field the debate between digital and analogue ended years ago. It’s hard not argue with the statement that the most important thing is the content and composition of the image itself and not the support it was produced on. It is all too easy to lapse into a technical discussion, because after all we live in technological times. Despite this, the conclusion is that I will continue to shoot film. I would love to just make contact prints for a year and not scan anything at all, but that would mean a lot more time in the observatory dark room…

An expanded version of this article has been published on Leicaphilia.com.