This is the second installment of the new weekly series on my blog, where I intend to take a closer look at iconic photographs, and write 1000 words about each. For those readers who have returned after last week’s entry about Diane Arbus, I say “thank you.” And to those new readers… welcome. I hope you find this exercise as interesting and as thought provoking as I do. I encourage you to leave any comments at the end of this entry. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This week I will discuss this fantastic image by Josef Koudelka, “Czechoslovakia 1966. Straznice. Festival of gypsy music.” First some background information on the artist himself. From the Magnum Photos website:
“Josef Koudelka, born in Moravia, made his first photographs while a student in the 1950s. About the same time that he started his career as an aeronautical engineer in 1961 he also began photographing Gypsies in Czechoslovakia and theater in Prague. He turned full-time to photography in 1967. The following year, Koudelka photographed the Soviet invasion of Prague, publishing his photographs under the initials P. P. (Prague Photographer) for fear of reprisal to him and his family. Koudelka left Czechoslovakia for political asylum in 1970 and shortly thereafter joined Magnum Photos.”
I believe so much can be gleaned from knowing the biographical details of a particular artist, and how these details affect their creative work. This is especially true when looking at the photographs of Koudelka. His history of challenging political oppression and his ultimate exile most definitely inform his work.
Which brings us to this specific photo. What do I see? I see a black and white photograph. It is a street scene. Most likely shot with a 35mm camera and a wide-angle lens, judging by the format of the framing and the wide view. It looks as though it was shot during some kind of public event or celebration, perhaps a parade or a festival. Without any previous information about the location, I would say that the location is either in Europe or possibly Central or South America. The appearance of the musicians looks vaguely Mediterranean, but they seem to be from somewhere different than the crowd of people behind them. The composition of the photo brings the attention of the viewer firstly to the three musicians in the foreground; two violinists and an upright bass player. The crowd that spreads out behind them fills most of the remaining frame, and most of the people seem to be looking off at another situation, not paying attention to the three musicians that have caught Koudelka’s eye. Lastly, I keep studying the crooked tilt of the lines of the building in the far background. The lack of alignment with the edge of the film frame is creating a feeling of unease in my mind. Now, to dive deeper into the main subjects of the photo. The three musicians have a striking difference of appearance. They do not appear to be related to each other. The man on the far right is darker skinned than the others, and he is resting his chin on his instrument, revealing his amazing teeth in what looks like the beginnings of a smile. His eyes though, seem slightly lost in his own world, slightly introspective. The musician in the middle looks like an Italian to me, with his hair slicked back, and his causal white shirt slightly unbuttoned, collar tucked under his jacket. His hand on the neck of the bass is gripping delicately. His gaze, though. Looking directly at the viewer. He doesn’t look sad, but perhaps a bit tired? A trace of pride? A look of longing, but for what? Now we look at the musician on the left. Older than the other two men. Balding. Wrinkles visible around his eyes, mouth and across his forehead. A striped suit that does not match the wardrobe of the other two men; this is no formal band uniform. He looks as though he is in the middle of playing a piece of music, judging by the position of his hands and the bow on the strings of his violin. He is looking out of frame, either in his own world of the music, or looking as if he is lost in his own thoughts. It is striking to me that the three subjects of the photo seem not only disconnected from the crowd around them, but also disconnected from each other.
Why did Koudelka take this photograph? I think there is plenty of information within the image itself to answer this question. The three men, it turns out, are gypsy musicians. They are performing as part of a music festival in Moravia. The year is 1966, but to me, it looks like it could be at least a decade or more before that date. The musician’s are part of a transient population, and thus, do not have a specific homeland to call their own. By their appearance, they look as if they are together by circumstance, not bound by familial connections, or even a specific ethnic / geographic background, in my opinion. They are not part of the crowd that surrounds them. They are not the focus of the crowd’s attention, but certainly Koudelka felt a connection with them. Are they strangers in a strange land, as they appear to be? This must be the connection Koudelka felt when he took this picture. The photographer himself was exploring a theme that he most definitely was feeling himself. Relating to the rootless nature of the gypsy life, which he went on to document more deeply over the years that followed this photograph. And, of course, then Koudelka himself became an exile, a stranger in a strange land himself. Unmoored from his homeland, for what ended up being most of his life, to date. He, no doubt, related completely with the wandering artists he shows us here.
The work of Koudelka was a revelation for me when I first discovered it. It introduced me to another world, literally. Though my familial roots are European (Italian and Sicilian) my life in middle-class America is very different from the people and places that Koudelka shows. Imagining the lives of others, who are struggling beneath oppressive regimes, or are living a life on the margins of society for whatever reason, these photos expanded my world view, and are a lesson in empathy. From a more strictly photographic standpoint, the work of Koudelka is an inspiration to dive deep into the world, with a camera in hand, and try to see the things that are universal to all of us, regardless of where we live, what we own, or where we call “home.”