Josef Koudelka – Wall

Bethlehem From the Shepard's Field 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Bethlehem From the Shepard’s Field 1944. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

I recently reviewed Stephen Shore’s book, From Galilee to the Nagev, and became aware of the This Place *(1) project that took twelve photographers to Israel to capture their own personal perspective of that country. Having thoroughly enjoyed Galilee to Negev and having become interested in the wider project of which it was part I wanted to look at how a different photographer had approached the some assignment and chose to order Josef Koudelka’s Wall *(2) partly because I had looked at his work much earlier in this course (here) and partly because I instinctively felt that he would offer a stark contrast to Shore’s quirky perspective on life.

(Note: the two photographs included here are part of a small collection of my Father’s wartime photos which are discussed in the context of Koudelka’s Wall in a later post here.)

Josek Koudelka was born in 1938 in, what is now, the Czech Republic, he is part of the Magnum cooperative and a prolific photographer having published eleven books. A search of the Magnum site returns 7,536 of his pictures so it is unwise to attempt to summarise his career in a paragraph or two. He rose to prominence by documenting the Soviet invasion of Prague in 1968 and became a refugee from his homeland just two years later. This experience. when he was still in his thirties, has clearly been a major influence on his later work and he has become famous for documenting displaced people in Gypsies 1976 and Exiles in 1988. He is the epitome of a gritty, black and white documentary photographer with his own sense of exile and displacement projecting through his photographs communicating an empathy with his subjects and anger at their condition. Koudelka has an exceptional eye for composition and Wall is another master class in how to compose and frame a subject, a lot of his recent work is panoramic and Wall continues that trend.

When Koudelka looked at Israel it was, perhaps, unsurprising that he selected the so-called “separation barrier” as his subject. As someone from behind the “iron curtain” he understands walls and how they impact the psychology of the people they exclude, contain or separate and how the grand stroke of a planner’s pen has dire effects on the lives of ordinary people. Shore was conscious that he was working in a place that was politically charged and his work in Galilee to Negrev is somewhat open to interpretation, it is not overtly critical and our own prejudices allow some scope to decide whether he is being directly critical of the Israeli state or just documenting what is there.

Koudelka’s Wall is not ambivalent. From the very first page he sets the tone by describing the history of the barrier highlighting the UN’s condemnation of the project and its negative impact on the Palestinians. Before considering a single picture we are informed that 85% of, what will eventually be a, 708 kilometre structure will be built inside, what many people, see as Palestinian territory. David Shulman, in his powerful article for The New York Review of Books *(3), asks whether it was built for protection or as part of “the on-going land grab that is the real, indeed perhaps the sole raison d’être of the Occupation”.

With this context established we can start to look at Koudelka’s beautiful panoramas. I recently read an article asking whether aesthetically pleasing documentary images detract from the message and Koudelka’s work continues to show that the opposite is true. His images are wonderfully composed exploring the depth and subtle monochrome tones of the landscape, frequently contrasting natural beauty with the aggressive concrete block of the wall. Out of context they are art exhibition beautiful. in context they are powerful statements about the inability of politicians of all persuasions to find a solution to one of the longest running confrontations of modern times and how this failure has led to the construction of a divisive barrier that separates farmers from their land and people from their place of work, schools and hospitals. The powerful elegance of his work demands our attention and strengthens the message.

To return to a theme that has run through a lot of my recent research we can again see the part that captions play in photography. These are powerful and unambiguous images so they could have been presented with nothing more that a place and date but Koudelka and his publishers have used captions to expand the narrative, to take our thoughts beyond the image, to ensure that we don’t miss the point. This is communication as a blunt instrument.

Shore wanted us to see the stark beauty of the land, to know that there were grass hills as well as stoney plains and harsh deserts, he says conflict is not the only thing in this place. Koudelka says there is only conflict here, it dominates every image, its ugliness throws a shadow across any beauty, there is no escaping its overwhelming presence. He explores how the landscape has been negatively altered by this structure:

“This country is divided, each side reacts to that division in a different way, but the landscape can’t react.” *(1)

The photographs are, in every sense, dark. He prints for high contrast but skies are nearly universally dark grey not Ansel Adams black, the wall is harsh concrete grey, the razor wire dark greys with sharp white blades glinting in the sun. Most of the pictures are oppressive, reminiscent of the atmosphere and architecture of the old Eastern Block and each landscape is dominated by the barrier. We see that the wall divides modern high-rise housing, office blocks and large institutions from low rise townships and villages. He looks through reinforced fences into empty spaces and often tilts the camera to capture as much wall as possible into the frame. In many of the photos there is a significant difference between the landscape on either side of the barrier but it is perhaps where there is little difference that his point is most strongly made. Palestinian olive groves or residential areas divided by the wall or boarded up shops separated from their customers.

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea. Photograph by Norman Middlehurst 1944

River Jordan & Red Sea from the Wilderness of Judea 1944 . Photograph by Norman Middlehurst

Land that once boasted olive groves or vineyards now supports nothing more than monolithic concrete blocks, fertility and beauty replaced by sterility and ugliness. In recent years Koudelka has photographed a lot of walls with studies of archeological sites in Turkey, Greece, Albania, Morocco, Tunisia and Italy *(4) and it is interesting to see how differently he treats the architecture in Wall to the walls of Troy or Hadrian’s Villa in Lazio. Whilst all his images explore texture, tone and how architecture sits in a landscape Wall is darker, there is nothing uplifting here, no celebration of the art of the builders or the comfortable relationship that can exist between the natural and the manmade. The Temple of Poseidon in Attica or the runis of Delphi have settled into the landscape, the natural stone of their construction has weathered and as the decades pass man’s efforts to form the stones into shapes and to construct them into monuments is slowly being reversed, they are as much part of the landscape as a farmer’s field, we know it is a modified landscape but it feels natural, unobtrusive, complimentary to the beauty of nature.

There is no sense from Koudelka’s photos of the separation barrier that he sees this process being repeated in Palestine, he presents the wall as unnatural and invasive, something that can never be one with the land. It is not just the subject that gives us this impression it is the way in which he approaches the subject. In his archeological studies he offers us softer images, they are still very much Koudelka, a black dog laying in the foreground in front of the Acropolis providing strong contrast but the marble of the structure is low key. Eleusina is photographed in the context of the modern city but the tones of ancient and modern are shared, there is a sense of each being part of the same jigsaw, both are in place, comfortable with each other. The aqueducts in Rome share the landscape with tall weeds and young trees, they might be a natural occurrence, a sense that they rose from the earth as bricks and blocks but are now returning as the dust of clay and stone.

In Wall there is no such comfortable relationship. The blocks on route 443 are imposed on the landscape, the partially built parts of the wall carve great wounds into the earth often in otherwise pristine landscapes. The tonal contrasts are strong for both the landscape and the wall, it is as if nature itself has been hardened by the presence of the barrier. When people appear they are dwarfed by the construction, they are there, the wall is there but they are both out of place, not related to each other in the way that travellers in large railway station are in place despite the difference in scale. His compositions and exposures consistently emphasise the malignant presence of structure and even when he shows feeble attempts to beautify the Israeli side with architectural features or the Palestinian side with graffiti and wall art the pictures are depressing and full of foreboding.

He tells us that one day this wall will fall, it might never be finished, but it will never be as one with the landscape upon which it has been imposed. Koudelka has photographed it as an alien presence, an imposition, a blot on the landscape. It will never quietly decline into being a tourist destination, it can only depart, as it came by the will of man and the forces of man’s machines.

Sources

Books

(1) Koudelka, Josef. (2014) Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Lanscape 2008 – 2012. New York: Aperture.

Internet

(1) This Place – http://this-place.org/

(3) Shulman, David. (2013) Bitter Faces in the Holy Land. The New York Review of Books.  – http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2013/oct/30/bitter-faces-koudelka-wall/

(4) Magnum Photography. Josef Koudelka Archeology Photos – http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&VBID=2K1HZOQP1BCRJW&SMLS=1&RW=1459&RH=810

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