Josef Koudelka and Composition

In his feedback on my submission for Assignment 1 my tutor recommended that I study the work of Josef Koudelka. This comment was made in the context of composition.

“The term ‘composition’ has been mentioned in your feedback and I cannot emphasise its importance enough at this level of study and in particular at this stage of the programme.  In order to help and support you making appropriate compositional decisions [IE: what you choose to include and exclude from the frame, prior to taking the image] you must closely study the work of other practitioners. I normally recommend the works and writings of Henri Cartier-Bresson to my new Level 4 students … but I note you are already fully engaged with this old master, which is very good to see.  I’d therefore like you to take a close look at another very prolific Magnum photographer called Josef Koudelka.  He rose to prominence in 1968 with his coverage of the Russian invasion of Prague.  He is still an active photographer and very worthy of your attention, especially in relation to his ability to compose an image.”

I have received the first of two books that I have ordered on Koudelka. Koudelka, Josef. (2007) Josef Koudelka: Thames & Hudson Photofile with an introduction by Bernard Cuau. London: Thames and Hudson.

This is one of the Thames and Hudson Photofiles which I am beginning to build a little collection of  having already acquired editions on Sebastiao Salgado and Henri Cartier-Bresson. These publications are a straight forward collections of photographs, 66 in the case of Josef Koudelka. The positive is that they are inexpensive, the disadvantage is that the prints are only 160mm x 106mm and therefore fail to present the artist’s work in the way they intended. However, they are an excellent way to study a series of images as a prelude to deeper research.

Koudelka is one of the many great modern photographers who have been invited to join Magnum and there is a portfolio of his work on their website.**

I wanted to look at Koudelka in the context of my tutor’s comments, that is to look at his compositional skills. There is no silver bullet as even the limited amount of his work that I have seen is varied in subject matter and in style. It would be naive to think that I could analyse a few of his images, identify his compositional techniques, note them down, use them and move on. My first objective is to look at as many of his images as possible and to try to absorb something of their magic, to add to my own mental library of compositional templates. These might be templates based on a single image or on several images.

He has been a prolific photographer and I am only seeing a fraction of his published work so I am not suggesting that my analysis is either comprehensive or worthy of anyone else’s attention but as a second objective I want to look closely at a few selected images to try and understand why he composed them in the way that he did and see whether I can learn anything from this.

Magnum break his work into four periods:

Theatre 1958 – 1968

Prague 1968

Gypsies 1962 – 1970

Exiles 1968 – 1994

Some of the theatre work is ethereal with silhouettes that might be reflections in a disturbed pool, they are dramatic and theatrical and whilst this was where he laid the foundations for his later work they are quite different in tone and atmosphere to Gypsies or Exiles. Bernard Cuau in his introduction to the Thanes & Hudson Photofile* makes the point that theatre photography involves watching the same scenes played night after night.  There is time to experiment and find the decisive moments, the definitive angles, the significance of the scene. Many of the images in his later work that speak most strongly to me have a sense of theatre about them. The man nearly sitting on the shoulders of the women in Slovakia 1967, the two women sitting across a table in Moravia 1967, the three men in Ireland 1978. I presume that Kouldeka was comfortable with posing his subjects and that the relationship he built with the communities he photographed meant that people were comfortable posing for him.

However, also included in his early work are landscapes that bear strong similarities to his much later work, “Chaos”.

Fig 1 Sketch of Josef Koudelka Slovakia 1958

Fig 1 Sketch of Josef Koudelka Slovakia 1958

In this photograph of an oxen car loaded with hay in Slovakia in 1958 he has used a panoramic crop. In Chaos he uses a panoramic camera to capture industrial landscapes. There are three main areas of composition that I can see in Slovakia 1958, tone, shape and line. Firstly to look at his composition of tone. Apart from the puddle in the foreground the lightest and darkest tones are in the oxen and cart. There is a strong contrast between the white oxen, the dark load and the deep shadows in the cart and these tones are not generally repeated elsewhere in the composition. As a result the oxen and cart stand out and are the sharpest part of the image because of these internal contrasts..

Secondly there are five large shapes, in varying tones, that are layered to the left of the oxen. The near white sky, the misty hills, the darker grassland and the mid-toned road make four large areas, each of a single tone. Rather than flowing towards the subject these shapes seem to start at the subject and flow out into the photograph. Apart from the small area of grass to the extreme left all these shapes directly connect to the cart.

Thirdly there are some strong lines created by the junctions of these shapes. the most important being the top and bottom lines of the central grassland which point away from the cart and out of the image on the left giving us a potential direction of movement for the cart when it restarts its journey.

Overall the image is balanced by the large tonal shapes which create four strong horizontal layers with the hills and the road being much the same size. The cart spans the layers and is therefore at the apex of everything.

This analysis makes the image seem complex, which it is not. Like much of his work, that I have seen, the composition is simple, the image uncluttered, everything has a purpose and the tones away from the oxen and cart are subdued and understated and as a result do not detract from the subject. This seems to be an important message when processing black and white. I need to ask myself what the subject is and balance the tones within the subject to make it stand out and then balance the tones outside of the subject to compliment and support the subject but not to distract from it and overwhelm or clutter the image.

Fig 2 Sketch of Josef Koudelka's Poland 1958

Fig 2 Sketch of Josef Koudelka’s Poland 1958

Another image from 1958 and another panoramic crop is of a nun standing on a beach. There are similarities to Slovakia 1958 in the composition. The main subject is in three tones, black, white and one grey. There is therefore a strong internal contrast which makes the subject sharp and defined. There is no other white in the image and the only other black or near black is the sharp triangle of sea behind the nun which points into the centre of the image. The beach has texture but is nearly featureless and at the end of the beach there are people, some sports facilities and, what looks like a small tower. The nun is looking down at her umbrella which lies at her feet.

Similar to Slovakia 1958 we have an isolated subject to the far right of the frame but it is dominant because of the strong tonal contrast and everything starts with her. The beach flows from her to the boats and people, the sea is behind her but points into the same place. You might have expected Koudelka to use eye-line to take us to the end of the beach but she is looking down so we are still led across the image, from her to the umbrella and then up the beach to the tower and striped post and then across to the boats.

Again very simple, nothing spurious, nothing wasted. A lot of neutral spaces and shapes layered from sky to sea to beach. The subject is in touch with the three major layers.

The other key aspect is that both Slovakia 1958 and Poland 1958 are telling a story and asking us to connect with the subjects. Where is the cart going, who is the tiny figure driving it, where did he come from in this empty landscape? Who is the nun, why is she on the beach, is she really all alone and, if so why, why has she dropped her umbrella when we can see it is a sunny day with the sun at its zenith, is she connected or isolated by her vocation from the people having fun in the distance?

The more I look the more I see this is as a theme of his work or maybe it is even the essence of his style. He tells stories, he asks us to connect and he asks us to question what we are seeing. His images do not seem to judge his subjects or pre-judge our reaction to them. He is not asking for our sympathy or telling us what is right or wrong, he is just saying “here it is, look at it, think about it and ask yourself some questions. I’m not giving you instructions or answers either in the images or my captions.” I ask myself whether this is the essence of documentary photography.

Sketch of Josef Koudelka Czechoslovakia. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967

Fig 3 Sketch of Josef Koudelka Czechoslovakia. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967

The next image I want to consider is taken nearly 10 years later and is part of his work documenting Gypsies. This image, Zehra 1967, is one of many Koudelka images that works in threes. He often photographs three individuals and is masterful in how he fills and balances a frame with any three subjects. The two men, one with a violin and a small child in Kendice 1966, the three musicians in front of a crowd in Moravia 1966, the three men with sticks in Ireland 1972 and many more.

In Zehra there are obviously far more than three people but has he arranged his subjects into three areas that balance and fill the frame. In the centre we see a small girl with a significant amount of space around her, to her right a tight group of three and to her left a tight group of 6. The tightness of the groups is important to the composition. It is not 10 people, it is three groups, three shapes that balance each other. Because we first see three shapes the eye is drawn to the centre and the girl surrounded by empty space. However, for me, the artist has created an image that gives one impression on first glance, i.e. we look at the centre but then has a totally different feel when we look at it more carefully.

My sense is that nothing has been left to chance in this composition, for example the eyes are remarkable, only the central subject is looking at the camera, the others are looking either out of the frame to the left or towards the bottom other than one boy who is looking up at his next door neighbour. I believe that these eye lines lead us around the image, Koudelka is directing us in every direction to explore every detail, to look at every face, nothing (and nobody) is unimportant in the frame and he ensures that the sight lines, the broom in one girl’s hands, the hand and arm shapes, even the base of the wall right and left point us to more information  and demand that we keep looking. Obviously we will keep coming back to the central figure who is looking right at us, and whom we are able to study in detail as she is the only person not interwoven with others,  but she is literally framed by all these other people.

Koudelka clearly had an emotional connection with these people, he must have been trusted by them to be able to direct a group pose of this nature. He does not polish them up for the photograph and nor does he hide them. They are shown as they are with empathy and dignity. The variety of expressions communicates individual personalities and I think that Koudelka wants us to see the humanity of these people, mostly children, to recognise some of the expressions and body language, to relate them to our children or grandchildren, to understand that these outcasts of the system are just like us so why are they outcast?

There is a strong contrast in style between these first three images. In the oxen cart and the nun we have a single subject in a large neutral background. With the gypsies in Zehra we have a main subject surrounded by 9 other people. The first two images have a landscape that seems to flow from the subject and there is a sense of space, of isolation that is key to story being told. Zehra is the opposite, we have a crowd, a large group that has been directed, in the theatrical sense of the word, into three distinct groups to give organisation and structure to the story. We see the central subject in the context of the people around her.

Sketch of Josef Koudelka's Czechoslovakia, Slovakia. Bardejov. 1967

Fig 4 Sketch of Josef Koudelka’s Czechoslovakia, Slovakia. Bardejov. 1967

The forth image that caught my eye is Bardejov 1967, another one from his Gypsies collection. Zehra hints of poverty, Bardejov shouts about it. We have a girl in her wedding dress with her bridal bouquet. Like any bride she is happy, perhaps it is her wedding day, there is a faint but distinct smile, a thing I have not see very often in his photographs. However, she stands amongst rubbish, perhaps holding the hem of her dress out of the mud and behind her is a wall of flaking stucco, gaping holes, exposed internal timbers and a damp looking foundation. The wall is pierced by two dirty windows in twisted and skewed frames, through the grime we can see two faces, one older and one younger. The brides’ mother and sister or grandmother and sister?

Looking first at the composition, we again have three subjects, they are spaced evenly and the bride is framed by the the two other women. A balance that is often seen in his images but the power of the photo is in its contrasts, the clean white dress against the dirty and dilapidated background, the bride’s smile set against the dire circumstances of her house and the expressions of the women watching her. The neat floral arrangement against the rubbish under her feet. She is dead centre in the image and the windows are not symmetrically positioned so we simultaneously have a neutral position for the subject and dynamic tension from the irregular shapes and their positions. I find the image to be unsettling, it needs organising, it needs tidying up and I think Koudelka is very consciously evoking that tension in the viewer. A happy bride in an unhappy setting.

The common theme is that we are being told another story, the caption tells us that this is a gypsy family and we can presume that they have been forced into a static settlement that is not part of their culture. The accommodation is dire, damp, dilapidated, nearly falling down. However, we can see that their traditions are not about dirt and neglect, the bride’s dress is perfect, she has a bouquet, her hair is brushed, her shoes are clean. We are being shown the contrast between their current reality and their traditions, she looks out of place because they are out of place. It is photograph of sadness on a day that should be about happiness.

Not all of Koudelka’s images from these early years are posed. The obvious examples being his images of Prague during the Soviet suppression of its bid for freedom in 1968. In the Gypsies collection there is an unposed trio, Spisske Bystre 1966, where a small boy runs from one women to another. This image is more Cartier-Bresson than Koudelka but there are recurring compositional themes. Again we have three people, again one of the subjects is central, again the background is dilapidated and untidy, again there is a sad feeling to the scene. Neither women shows any joy in the moment, no mother or grandmother’s doting smile as the child runs between the two women. The dwellings are of the slum and the earthen street is strewn with rubbish and all the signs of being dry mud.

Clicking through the Gypsy images on the Magnum site my overwhelming emotion is one of sadness. Even when the image is of strong men, posing in their smart suits as in Kaden 1963 (another trio) we see one man seemingly detached from the photograph, projecting defensive body language, looking on, not wanting to be part of the scene. His part of the image seems more run-down, dirtier. The strength of the other two men is being contrasted and through this contrast the overall impression is not one of strength and smart suits. I suspect that the two men in their smart suits believe that they are portraying a strong image, they are proud of their clothes and want to show that they are strong men. However, by showing them in the context of the other man who has not joined in with the display and the tired room we are being told that these are proud people who are not in a good place.

Another example of how Koudelka uses contrast to change the message might be seen in Romania 1968 with the photo of the women in a bright patterned dress in a bleak room with soot from an open fire and badly marked walls. She appears to be smiling, she is in colourful and probably traditional clothing, she seems to be striking a pose but she is in a bleak windowless room where a fire has be made on the floor and has created a large soot stain on the walls. The contrast seems to say that this person is not meant to be here, like a photograph of an animal in a zoo. Put this women in beautiful countryside and we have a classic gypsy image, her smile would become a statement of content. Here in this dirty and bleak room it is a sad contrast that tells the continuing story of displacement and misery.

There are several headlines that I would like to carry forward into my own work.

  • Do not be afraid to use the centre of the image. Koudelka often centres his main subject even when the space around the subject is quite neutral. (Half naked women Vinodol 1969, war damaged buildings and man Vinohradska Avenue 1968, handcuffs Slovakia 1963, hovercraft France 1973) He uses space to help tell the story.
  • Use three. A repeating theme of his work is the use of three people, or three strong shapes. (Half naked boys Slovakia 1967, men with sticks Ireland 1972)
  • Process to achieve more internal contrast in the main subject and less in the surroundings to emphasise the subject.
  • If the intent is to document do not shy away from arranging or directing the subjects for the best visual or documentary effect.
  • Documenting means photographing what is there without comment and without embellishment. (Rubble, Naples 1980).
  • Black and white photography lends itself to thinking in tone and shapes, maybe more than lines.
  • Use line (including eye lines), tone and shape to direct the viewer around an image. Consider how you want the image to be viewed and design around that idea.



*Koudelka, Josef. (2007) Josef Koudelka: Thames & Hudson Photofile with an introduction by Bernard Cuau. London: Thanks and Hudson.


**Magnum Photos, first accessed 2013,

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