Josef Koudelka, Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscape, 2008-2012

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2013 by Aperture (here). Hardcover (14 ¾ x 10 ¼ inches), 120 pages, with 54 duotone photographs. Chronology, captions, and lexicon by Ray Dolphin. Project advisor Gilad Baram.

Comments/Context: In Josef Koudelka’s stark portrait of the walls—metal slabs, concrete blocks, cement-filled barrels, coiled barbed wire, and electrified fences–that divide Israeli-held territory from ground claimed by Palestinians on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, it is as though a neutron bomb had gone off. Except for one photograph in the Old City of Hebron, showing three children peering at us through a railing, there are no people to be seen.

His panoramic camera sweeps over the landscape like a Mars probe, searching in vain for signs of movement or life. Automobiles, apartment complexes, satellite dishes, and lots of graffiti pop into view as evidence of human invention or rebellion. But inhumanity, under the oppressive hand of the security state, dominates the foreground and seems to have extinguished any small chance for joy. Koudelka’s high-contrast black-and-white, the standard palette in the post-‘60s work of many European-based Magnum photographers of his generation, adds another layer of bleakness.

Koudelka is aware that totalitarian regimes often seek solutions to political issues by erecting walls, having fled his native Czechoslovakia in 1970.  He is not so spurious or glib to equate Israel and the Soviet Union, however, and his project is part of a larger one called “This Place,” initiated by Fréderic Brenner, who has invited twelve photographers to interpret Israel as landscape and metaphor.

Barriers of various sorts, mental as well as physical, have preoccupied Koudelka since the 75 year-old began to photograph in earnest during the 1960s. “Wall” fits snugly into earlier book-length projects, “Reconnaissance Wales” (1998) and “Limestone” (2001), both of which featured examples of ancient stony obstructions built to keep foreigners outside the pale.

Photographing in the Middle East, Koudelka has tasked himself with making compelling pictures of walls that are ugly in materials as well as intent. Mostly, he has succeeded. His double-spread of a two-kilometer loop in the Wall in Bethlehem City where, to appease Israelis, it encircles the supposed tomb of Rachel, illustrates an historical absurdity without making too much of the circumlocution. His ironies are often so embedded in a Biblical context or post-1967 incidents that they need Mr. Dolphin’s captions to be fully understood.

Many Israelis are ashamed of their “security fence” or, as the Palestinians call it, the “apartheid wall.” Erected in many areas to protect settlements that are either illegal under international agreements or at the very least contentious, these makeshift barriers are in Koudelka’s photographs like a scar spreading across the body of the land or perhaps a dystopian vision of “Running Fence” by Christo and Jean-Claude.  The meaning of these Israeli walls could hardly be more different from that ephemeral 1976 earth-work riding up and down across the hills of northern California to the Pacific Ocean. American readers would do well to consider the permanent wall going up along border with Mexico and how much they want their country to resemble the Middle East.

As a reminder, Koudelka has included views of the Western Wall (or “Wailing Wall”) in Jerusalem. Constructed by the Romans in the time of Herod the Great at the foot of the Temple Mount, the towering limestone structure has for decades irritated Muslims who have come to see its revered status among Jews as advancing nationalist claims by Israel. Most of the walls elsewhere in this book are unlikely ever to be sacred to anyone.

Collector’s POV: Josef Koudelka is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York (here). 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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