Review: Getty’s Josef Koudelka retrospective is grim yet riveting

Los Angeles Times Art Critic

Given subjects that repeatedly focus on human barbarism, whether between people or by people against the natural environment, you won’t find yourself smiling much in the large Josef Koudelka retrospective at the J. Paul Getty Museum. But again and again, you won’t be able to avert your eyes.

Bleak and powerful, the best images by the Czech-born French photographer merge incisive reportage with a keen sense of graphic design. A great Koudelka photograph creates an almost subliminal perspective, which burrows into your slowly awakening consciousness.

In a picture composed only of pure landscape, without a human being anywhere in sight, a 1994 photograph of ecological degradation in the Ore Mountains along the border between Germany and the Czech Republic conveys epic human violence. A barren tree rises up from the center of a shallow lake bed in a wide, horizontal visual field. Printed in a rich array of blacks and grays fading into dusty white, the desolate image seems sooty.


Jutting into the otherwise apparently placid scene, a long, thick, straight dark line angles in from the top. The Ore Mountain range is an ancient mining region, later instrumental in fueling the modern Industrial Revolution, and the jutting line appears to be a common metal chute erected to direct waste runoff into the lake.

But Koudelka has composed the banal scene with exquisite care. First, he’s chosen to make a wide panorama rather than an ordinary 8-by-10 photograph. (It’s one of 34 panoramas in an accordion-fold book, which stretches out in a huge vitrine more than 70 feet long.) A commonplace story assumes larger-than-life significance.

He’s also composed the scene so that the metal chute is aimed straight at the hapless naked tree. A conduit for dumping poison is likened to a cannon in a ferocious war photograph or the barrel of a rifle pointed by a firing squad. The haggard tree doesn’t stand a chance.

There is nothing natural about this landscape photograph. Directly below the weapon-like chute but way off in the hazy gray distance, smokestacks rise skyward from a power plant. The entire field of vision encompasses tensions of power and ruin. Humanity’s ecological violence slowly builds, finally reaching a reverberating crescendo.

It’s even possible to see this ruined landscape, brought on by brutal human incursion, in metaphoric terms. Submerged within is commentary on the fraught social history between two antagonistic nations. In the border region between Germany and the Czech Republic — or Saxony and Bohemia in earlier times — where this grim scene unfolds, allusions to ruinous battle imagery strike multiple chords.

Koudelka was born in the small Czech town of Boskovice in the pivotal year 1938. Whatever difficulties Czechoslovakia then faced, it was the only parliamentary democracy in Eastern Europe. But not for long. Before the year was out Hitler put an end to that, shifting regional alliances, redrawing borders and chopping up states.

So Koudelka arrived during an especially tumultuous time. That biographical detail helps explain the exhibition’s title — “Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful” — which was later stamped on official papers when he fled Czechoslovakia to London exile.

“Nationality Doubtful” even offers insight to the subject of his first significant body of work. In his early 20s, he began to spend time in Gypsy villages and encampments, photographing the dispersed Roma minority.

The exhibition was organized by Amanda Maddox of the Getty and Matthew Witkovsky of the Art Institute of Chicago, where it was seen last year. (The tour concludes in Madrid next fall). Reassembled within it are 22 of the 27 remarkable Gypsy photographs Koudelka presented in his debut 1967 show, held in the lobby of a Prague theater.

Today the Roma almost seem to exist outside of conventional time. Say “the ‘60s” to an American, and the mental images conjured look nothing like this.

Kids wrestling and playing with rambunctious dogs in a dusty field, musicians in black suits gathering in a public square, a man in shackles with a shell-shocked stare, dark-eyed lovers cheek to cheek on a town street — in style and content this could just as easily be 1917 as 1967, all things considered. The social and cultural displacement is many layered.

Partly the sense of dislocation comes from the wide-angle lens the photographer began to use. (In 1986 he started using panoramic cameras.) It doesn’t visibly distort so much as surreptitiously bend the view. The photograph of lovers is flat-black at the bottom and flat-white at the top, while their cheek-to-cheek faces at the center seem to curve forward to meet your waiting gaze.

A viewer is drawn in close. Koudelka was trained as an aeronautical engineer, which he later gave up for photography, and he understood structural dynamics. He combined that knowledge with his graphic design sense to create photographs of often startling intimacy.

The Getty show features more than 140 works made over five decades, most drawn from the artist’s personal archive. Perhaps the most famous are the pictures of Soviet-led Warsaw Pact armies invading Prague in August 1968.

Amid the chaos and bloodshed of those seven pivotal days, he captured such riveting scenes as a man opening his jacket to expose his chest to a machine-gun-toting soldier standing on a tank — an invitation to be shot. The thin veil separating life and death, freedom and coercion, human frailty and spiritual strength is vividly conveyed in a frozen image bursting with commotion.

More placid and ruminative but no less insightful is an anonymous portrait of an old man standing in a rubble-strewn street. Behind him is a bullet-ridden building. His shadowed, sunken eyes are echoed in the broken, burned-out windows behind him.

Koudelka’s Prague photos are how most of us know the turbulent events of those terrible days, since the negatives were eventually smuggled out of the country and published in the London picture press. Later, when “CBS Evening News” reported on the first anniversary of the invasion, a video in the exhibition shows that virtually all the images in Charles Collingwood’s story are Koudelka’s stills. The photographer is not identified and for years was known only as “P.P.” — Prague photographer — to keep him safe.

Koudelka has never worked in color, perhaps because black-and-white offers greater graphic punch. But given the popularity of large-scale color photographs in art of the last 30 years — Jeff Wall, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff, Catherine Opie and many more — black-and-white lends an archaic aura to the large panoramas he’s made since the mid-1980s.

This is not a bad thing. He wants historical sweep, which is italicized by the work’s simple difference from current fashion.

Algeria, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, etc. — people have largely disappeared from his big landscape pictures, which are titled with place-names. When people turn up, it’s second-hand.

In “Romania,” the slightly obscured profile in a monumental sculpture suggests Vladimir Lenin. (Perhaps the sculpture is the colossal one famously toppled in Bucharest in 1990 after three days of hard demolition work). Here, ropes lash it in fragments to a massive barge floating on the silvery expanse of the placid Danube River delta.

This particular monument is a rotting corpse, but its testimonial to authoritarian power has a panoramic life span. In Koudelka’s 8-foot-wide photograph, it might as well be an ancient statue of Ramesses II floating down the Nile.

Twitter: @KnightLAT

J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000 Getty Center Drive, Brentwood, (310) 440-7300, through March 22. Closed Mondays.