|Written by Max Houghton|
|06 May 2010|
Diving into a turquoise sea, bathing in bluebell woods, inhaling pungent wild garlic. It’s as though I am following in his footsteps, as I pursue the capricious cliff path around the perimeter of the island.
Since leaving Czechoslovakia at the age of 32, Josef Koudelka has chosen a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving between apartments in Paris and Prague, preferring a rootless, wandering existence. I have flown to Guernsey, to the island’s first festival of photography, to interview him, but somewhere in the short journey across the English Channel, Koudelka changed his mind. Jean Christophe Godet, the festival organizer, is profusely apologetic and embarrassed by this turn of events. Koudelka’s erratic reputation precedes him, so though I find such behaviour rude and inconsiderate, it is not entirely unexpected. It’s uncomfortable to be introduced to someone who has said he does not wish to speak to you, but given that we are there for the same purpose, staying in the same hotel, contact is inevitable, and I feel there is an onus on me to somehow persuade him that I am worthy of a conversation. I decide not to try, and spend time, as does he, seeking out the prodigious beauty of the island.
A walk with Simon Norfolk, who along with Tim Hetherington and Judah Passow, is exhibiting his work, yields much interest. As I snap wildflowers, Norfolk tells me I photograph like his mother, and, as well as giving me much-needed flash instruction, proves to be acutely observant, his eye drawn to the strange and unexpected in the pastoral scenes.
While I photograph the whole dead rabbit...
Norfolk focuses in on the gruesome part: its empty eye sockets.
He spots a pair of black rubber gloves at the edge of the path, and harnesses their sinister quality...
The things we notice as we walk through the country lanes are imbued with a new significance the more we learn about what actually happened here. Unbeautiful trees are a reminder of how Nazi soldiers pruned trees in order to gain better visibility across the island – it's easy to imagine the casual brutality of a young private chopping a limb-like branch to the ground.
Later that night, just past midnight, Koudelka and I arrive at our hotel in separate cabs at exactly the same moment. We stand beneath Cassiopeia and Centaurus, luminous in the expansive, clear skies. That one, that is the North Star, he says. He pulls a battered map of the constellations from his notebook, and indicates the tiny precise handwriting that encircles the complex astral web. It’s too dark to be certain, but it looks as though routes through the stars have been traced with a black pen, like synapses linking labyrinthine neural pathways. Josef Koudelka has documented the position of the stars from Romania, from Arizona, and today, from Guernsey. He will talk of the stars, of music, of language and patriotism, but not of himself, nor his work. His work is of course ‘about’ these things. He bids me goodnight with kisses to both cheeks and then we walk in silence to our rooms, which face each other.
The story of Koudelka's pictures from Prague, taken as Russian tanks rolled into Old Town Square in 1968 is photographic folklore; his revered status as wandering exile ever since as deeply embedded in legend as the photographs themselves. That he prefers to sleep on a floor, that he likes to eat mashed potato with caraway seeds, that Cartier Bresson found in him a kind of brother … this much we know. Today, Invasion Prague is set up as an installation with projections in Market Square of the island’s capital. The beautifully designed cube is one of four centerpieces to Guernsey’s first photo festival, the fruit of the ambition and passion of Jean Christophe Godet, a Frenchman whose work in arts administration took him from The Barbican in London to Guernsey two years ago. Koudelka’s work was first on his wish list.
This new setting for the Prague photographs carries with it a surprising resonance, the more so for Guernsey residents, whose antecedents experienced in different ways five years of German occupation during World War II.
It’s the 65th anniversary of the liberation of Guernsey on 09 May, and my usual cynicism about anniversary journalism is extinguished by a palpable sense of history on this idyllically pretty island and by the very present stories still on the lips of the local people. One man, photographed by Nick Despres, befriended the young German officer who lived in their home and the two men have maintained a lifelong friendship, describing themselves as brothers.
Mark Windsor returned to photograph the rectory where his mother’s family lived under occupation (his photographs are exhibited at Dix Neuf Brasserie). A cab driver told of his wife’s discovery of a German grandparent, a huge family secret that was revealed by accident, through a series of memories and anecdotes that didn’t quite tally. Photographs gleaned from the rich but underused archive of The Guernsey Press are posted up in shop windows for the festival and they help conjure the roar of war to the now placid streets of St Peter Port.
The photographs of Simon Norfolk act as a further disruption to the pervading tranquility. Godet chose Norfolk’s work from Afghanistan, Chronotopia, for the festival, and again, I find another resonance in this new context. They are immaculately presented, in a world-class installation by Chris Humber, mounting the flawless prints between glass onto local Guernsey rock. Norfolk immediately registered future possibilities for outdoor presentation, and was making mental calculations about Kabuli stonemasons within seconds of seeing it.
© Carl Symes
The positioning of Norfolk and Koudelka side by side in the square invited contemplation of the differing functions of their respective works. Koudelka’s photographs show none of the beauty but much of the poetry of Prague, a city showing its spirit through the people who are fighting – without ammunition of any kind – for its, for their, very survival. They show the spectacle of war in the present tense. Norfolk’s work of course refers to the layeredness of time; how the landscape endures war, regime change, attack, invasion and occupation.
That both men decided to put their trust in Godet for this inaugural festival bodes well for the creation of a calendar event, one to put in the diary a couple of months before Arles. With the two photographers’ work highly respected and sought after commercially, this was not an event they needed to attend. Norfolk spoke of wanting to support the new venture, it was also evident that he delighted in taking the time to explain and present his work to visitors. Norfolk is lucky – if that is the right word – in that he can slip into extrovert mode when necessary, and can hold a room of 100 people rapt with his talk about his work, punctuated by references to Keats or Marx or Caspar David Friedrich. Yet he also – in trying to help me understand the elusive persona of Koudelka – spoke of the loneliness of the long distance photographer. Norfolk disappears frequently to the uttermost parts of the earth for weeks, even months at a time, to rise at dawn to photograph a rocket launch, and then sit in a hotel room, devoid of internet access, without a phone signal for nights on end, staring at the walls, as he describes it. Not everyone can slip easily back into the other mode, he suggests. The Koudelka I met and observed seemed capable of changing modes, however. He was something of the showman at dinner, raising toasts to all, apparently relishing in the role of celebrated guest as he entered the restaurant kitchen twice to confer with Lorenzo, the owner. He could even be described as flamboyant, certainly warm, but still uninterviewable.
The conversation between Koudelka and Norfolk at breakfast takes a more sober turn. I join them during a discussion about archives, or at least I thought I did. It transpired that Koudelka was on the verge of discussing his new project with Norfolk, but on sighting me – cast in the role of ‘journalist’ instead of ‘human’ - abruptly changed the conversation, saying ‘not in front of the girl’. Leaving a polemic on terminology to one side, my image of Koudelka as a fundamentally shy, slightly awkward individual, who played a game of hide and seek with me at the opening reception of the festival, who hid behind another man when his name was mentioned, shifts at this moment to be replaced by a shrewder, more artful persona. This is borne out by the ensuing exchange about what happens to work after death. Norfolk is weighing up the idea of photographers selling archives to American universities for several million dollars, although in gaining financially, revoking all control of the presentation of images in the future. This kind of decision seems especially pertinent to a practitioner like Norfolk, whose relentlessly political works turn on the accompanying captions.
Koudelka is putting his faith in the nascent Magnum Foundation, which will exist to protect the legacy of its brotherhood. That it was not operating in time to prevent publication of the Cartier Bresson scrapbook is a source of frustration to Koudelka, who knows his friend and ally would not have sanctioned such a project – one that comprised images that had been expressly rejected by the photographer. The thought that someone may some day misinterpret his photographs – or his words (he spoke of precious notebooks detailing frank exchanges with Cartier Bresson which taken out of context could appear as a rift in their long friendship) – is clearly a troubling one to Koudelka, and may go some way to explaining his refusal to be interviewed now, save for by the local press, whose hagiographic article must appear beyond reproach in some unfathomable way. His faith in Magnum is unstinting. He has after all had a 40 year relationship with the agency, which must be the one constant in his peripatetic life. Yet for someone as seemingly philosophical as Koudelka, someone who prefers walking to talking, stargazing to glad-handing, it is somewhat anomalous that his desire to control his image and his images after death is so potent.