Josef Koudelka: Industry | Pace Gallery, New York

BY Jake Romm, May 1, 2024

Czech photographer Josef Koudelka began his incredible, long (and ongoing) career as a photographer in the early 1960s, initially photographing theater and dance productions at Prague’s “Theatre Behind the Gate” for theater magazines. But since departing his native Czechoslovakia (as it was then called) in a semi self-imposed exile after photographing the Prague Spring in 1968, Koudelka began living mostly as a nomad, traveling across the world in pursuit of his art. His work, regardless of subject, is meticulously composed while retaining an air of serendipity that prevents his compositions from becoming too rigid, too studied, and, in a kind of existential sense, false. It is this solitary traveler’s sensibility – his foreignness and his radical openness to chance – that partially accounts for his singular eye. 

For all his interest in the human subject – in particular in Gypsies (1975), his work on European Roma communities; and Exiles (1988), his great testament to solitude – Koudelka has largely abandoned people as a subject since the late ‘80s, turning instead to landscapes, shot almost exclusively with a large-format panoramic camera. Pace Gallery showed six of these panoramas along with ten miniature, accordion-style maquettes of Koudelka’s landscape photobooks. The gorgeously detailed prints – each a massive eight feet long – are taken from various bodies of work (Palestine and Israel, Azerbaijan, the United States, Italy, and Germany), and the photobooks cover an even wider range of geography. As these photographs suggest, Koudelka is interested in the damage wrought upon the earth by its human inhabitants.

Josef Koudelka, Israel, 2009. ©Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

The shift to landscape represents a thematic progression: Having spent so long plumbing the existential depths of his human subjects, Koudelka’s turn to the land can be seen as an exploration of the conditions that shape those subjects, of the context from which they emerge, and upon which they continue to leave their traces. This context, in Koudelka’s eye, is one of perpetual ruin.

In Azerbaijan (1999), Koudelka renders an abandoned oil field as if it were a destroyed city. Semi-circles of bent iron appear in the foreground completing themselves in their reflection in a large pool of water. In the background we see decaying derricks, oil rigs, and power lines. Shot at a slight angle, the infrastructure looks as if it were captured mid collapse – the angle giving the image a sense of action accentuated by the black smoke, which anchors the center of the photograph. In between the foreground and the dilapidated oil field in the background yawns that large placid pool of water, reflecting the sky that has been largely excised from the image by Koudelka’s severe composition. The environmental devastation, the image suggests, stretches beyond the land into the water, into the air. The image of the oil field as destroyed city evokes military action, the fallout of a bombing raid – our destruction of the earth is, Koudelka suggests, a type of war as well.

Josef Koudelka, USA, 2000. ©Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

This violence done to the earth manifests, inevitably, as violence done to people as well. In Israel (2009), taken from his series Wall, Koudelka sets his camera at the entrance to an Israeli checkpoint. The road to the exit, which stretches into the background is made to appear longer by the wide-angle lens, which accentuates the horizontality of the frame, and it appears choked and squeezed by the imposing concrete walls on either side of the image. The walls move the eye towards the vanishing point in the center of the frame, but the viewer comes up against another fence and a guard tower, heightening the sense of claustrophobia. The image is entirely closed save for a slight bend in the road on the bottom right, leading us off frame. Everything screams: turn back. 

Despite Koudelka’s repeated insistence that he is not a “political” photographer, his humanism irrepressibly leaks into his intense focus on image-making. In a 2020 interview, he commented: “… if I start to work in a country where there are problems, these problems will become part of my problems. That’s how I work.” Even though these images are entirely devoid of humans, humanity implicitly lurks in the background, indelibly a part of the remarkable human behind the camera.