Josef Koudelka, Twelve Panoramas, 1987-2012 @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 large scale black-and-white photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two foyer rooms and the main gallery space (two in the foyer; 10 in the main room). All of the works are inkjet panoramic prints mounted on aluminum, made between 1987 and 2012. The images are sized 32 7/8 x 100 inches (the frames are 43 x 103 ¾ x 2 inches) and available in editions of 7+4AP. The exhibit is accompanied by hardcover catalog (4 x 11 3/4 inches), 12 illustrations in 34 accordion pages, with an essay by Julian Cox; it was published by Pace/MacGill and is available from the gallery for $45. The show has been jointly organized by Pace and Pace/MacGill. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Since 1986 Josef Koudelka has devoted much of his time to photographing desolate landscapes with a panoramic camera. That a sociable artist, initially acclaimed for his vivacious portraits of European Gypsies, and then for his gripping reports from the Prague streets during the 1968 Soviet invasion of his native Czechoslovakia, should have willfully excluded human beings from his frames for going on 30 years has mystified and frustrated critics and friends.

As his comrade Cartier-Bresson remarked after being shown a pile of prints depicting the stony shores of northern France: “Where are the people?”

This installation manages to finesse the problems of showing pictures that can be monotonous in their abstract artfulness. Koudelka is famously “difficult” in the presentation of his panoramas (and everything else). Rather than pick a fight, curators often surrender and hang too many.

This group of 12 conveys a warmth not associated with his world-view in recent decades. The soothing ambiance that enwraps the viewer in the gallery is aided by the fact that the prints are about half the size of those now in the traveling retrospective, currently at the Getty Center (and bypassing New York.) The compactness of the catalog also feels like a strategy to temper the perception that Koudelka’s prints have grown massive. (Some are eight feet across.) The foyer even features an image, taken in Greece in 1994, appropriate for the city outdoors this week: a snow-covered field centered by a low spiky tree.

Anyone expecting fresh material, however, will be disappointed. All but four of the images were published in the 2006 Delpire/Aperture monograph. Three pictures, taken at the seawalls and jetties at Nord Pas de Calais between 1987-89, have often been reproduced and date back to his earliest forays with the panoramic camera. The latest image is from 2012 and depicts the broken fingers of a colossal Roman statue amid the ruins of a Roman temple in Amman, Jordan. This is a variation on the sic semper tyrannis theme found in a pair of 1994 photographs: the first, of a Lenin statue on its back aboard a barge floating down the Danube; the second, of a broken statue’s arm strapped to a wagon on a quay. Both were taken in Romania after the fall of Ceaușescu.

It’s not that Koudelka’s panoramas aren’t impressive. The zooming angles of the structures in the frame and the rough beauty of his high-contrast prints is hard to resist, as is his unshakeable faith in black-and-white. In the last two decades he has moved beyond his comfort zone in Europe and explored the countries along the southern Mediterranean, including Israel.

What’s bothersome is that the panorama, like the fish-eye lens, calls attention to itself as a man-made invention. While such a self-conscious format may be fitting to the subject matter—humankind’s widening imprint on landscapes and seascapes—the elongated frame can also be distracting. We are being asked constantly to stop an admire his origami, how snugly he has folded this-or-that corner of the world into his rectangles when we would rather be studying and wondering about the life of things inside the picture.

This impulse to abstract everything began to infect Cartier-Bresson’s later work as well. It may be that Koudelka did not make his 1991 panorama of gnarly brambles against a battered white-washed wall in Beirut because he was recalling the paintings of Motherwell, Kline, Soulanges, and Tàpies, or the photographs of Siskind. But no other, better motive suggests itself, except perhaps that the vegetative whorls took him back to a 1958 photo he made of a thorny weed on a beach in Poland, or to Cartier-Bresson’s views of broken walls in the Spanish Civil War. The human specifics of the exhausting Civil War in Lebanon, one phase of which ended in 1991 are missing from Koudelka’s aestheticized take.

It may be that no curator has yet given his panoramas enough space, or the right series of linked spaces, so that his meditative vision (and that’s not too grand a word) of human vanity and nature’s eventual triumph could gather a storm force. Or perhaps the last 30 years of work have yielded a dozen superb photographs, and no more.  None of his books have avoided the black hole of entropic sameness, a risk you take when you leave people out of the picture.

I’m guessing (or am I just hoping?) that while Koudelka has been traipsing around industrial sites and the ruins of antiquity with his wide-format camera, he may also over the decades have taken another series indoors, handheld portraits of friends and anecdotal snapshots from his domestic life. He is one of the great living photographers. A personal side of him in these later years would be a pleasure to see. I’m betting there is one.

Collector’s POV: Prices for the panoramas range between $40000-50000. Koudelka’s prints have become more generally available in the secondary markets over the past decade, with recent prices ranging from $1000 to $44000.

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Read more about: Josef Koudelka, Pace Gallery, Pace/MacGill Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Enjoyed the review and very good gallery shots.

    And now to quibble a bit, if you don’t mind : )

    And to start with this quote, form an interview with Lewis Baltz, conducted by Matt Witkovsky at Baltz’s home in Paris, France, 2009 November 15-17

    http://www.aaa.si.edu/collections/interviews/oral-history-interview-lewis-baltz-15758

    MR. WITKOVSKY: Very interestingly, though, in the Prototypes at least, you eliminate the human figure. And you create compositions that are very nearly flat, which is – or at least that’s what it seems to be. Not all of them. There are a couple of interiors; there’s a poolside shot; there are other things. But the work that really stands out, if I may argue that, is of walls, and it’s of piping on walls, and it’s of parking lots where you can’t really tell if the parking lot is more than three feet deep, although you assume that to get a car in there – so tell me about this.

    MR. BALTZ: Okay, that’s at least two really good questions. Let me see if I can evade both of them. I don’t know when I had this little epiphany, but if you have a human subject, the person is in the picture. Right? And an uninhabited picture has the possibility of the viewer projecting him or herself into the picture. That interested me. The pictures are full of – and they’re all about, you know, manmade – or can we say that now – personmade environments. There’s no purely natural environment in any of my photographs. In fact, in most of them the only natural element may be the sky, and it’s not wholly natural these days either.

    My work is full of people – the traces of people – but they’re present in their absence – and maybe this is something I got from Wright Morris’s The Inhabitants. There’s an implied human presence in all my work.

    The second question was – I know if you’d asked me that question at the time, I would have given you this sort of hyper-literal, smart-ass, Frank Stella answer – photographs are flat.

    * * * * END quote

    I find Koudelka’s lanscape pictures are just as people-centred as Baltz’s are. They are full of a conspicuous human presence existing in many layers – not simply in the astounding artefacts but also conveying social and political ideas, mixing in surreal narrative, with lightning flashes of discourse about supra-history, and – of course – art. They are brimful with peopleness.

    RW: “The human specifics of the exhausting Civil War in Lebanon, one phase of which ended in 1991 are missing from Koudelka’s aestheticized take”. That image of the building with the hole in the wall speaks volumes, about our species creative and destructive character – it’s like a final message, a summation, for whoever comes and kicks over the traces of human life after we’ve gone. Aesthetic but deffo not anasesthetic in its handling of (that) conflict.

    I have gone panorama mad in the last 18 months. It might have been my 16:9 format TV that started it but, really, wide is liberating.
    RW: “What’s bothersome is that the panorama, like the fish-eye lens, calls attention to itself as a man-made invention”. But while a fish-eye lens makes a complete artifice of what’s in front of it the panoramic camera rather straightforwardly records the wide-view, telling it much more like how it is, how we survey an expansive scene, how we scan, not up and down so much but laterally. As a format while it’s not entirely an unfamiliar painting convention (Picasso’s Guernica and some Pollocks spring to mind) it isn’t a shape that is usual in galleries admittedly, being more cinema-like.

    OK, the kind of film that is showing may be a bit gothic horror – particularly those boiling skies and statuary – but in a funny kind of way it’s the same wonderment and consideration of both human presence and ‘the making of images’ that was at the heart of the New Topograhics photographers work of people like Baltz. What may be a stretch to far perhaps is perhaps is that the conceptual minimalist extremism of Hiroshi Sugimoto – another great black and white obsessive – may just be the other side of that same coin.

    Cheers,
    Pete

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