An evening with Koudelka in Istanbul

Koudelkas

Fotoistanbul 2015
Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University auditorium, Istanbul, Turkey
11 October, 7:30pm

The room is full, and dozens are sitting on the floor because there are no more empty seats. The mythical Josef Koudelka is about to show us his projects, followed by a Q&A session.

To many of us in the room, this talk was the main event of fotoistanbul this year, and we weren’t going to miss it for the world. And then there were a few of us who were still giggling like little kids, remembering our chance encounter with Koudelka on the street the day before.

Picture a bunch of street photographers, walking the streets with our cams, when a man walks to us to ask for directions to the train station. Realizing who he was, we stood there with our mouths open, mumbling like fools. That’s how legendary the man is. We rode the bus with him, each sneaking a few words, a group picture or two, before he finally got rid of us to continue his way. I had taken the opportunity to ask him about his visits to Lebanon shooting the Roman ruins, and he mentioned having spent quite some time photographing Heliopolis in Baalbeck. And then I went awkwardly silent.

Chance encounter on the streets of Istanbul
Chance encounter on the streets of Istanbul
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Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University Auditorium

Back to our auditorium, below are his answers on the various topics he was asked about during the evening.

Gypsies and Exiles

I photographed “Gypsies” with a 25mm wide-angle lens. I discovered this lens and it really helped me work in these little spaces where gypsies live. After 8 years, and after being totally done with the book Gypsies, I understood how the lens works and how I should use it. But I was starting to repeat myself and I didn’t like – and don’t like – to repeat myself. I wanted change.

So when I left Czechoslovakia a couple of years later, I started working on “Exiles”. But I didn’t work in these little spaces anymore. As a result, the gypsies in “Exiles” are different from those in the first book. I travelled all over to photograph them, but I never knew why. I tried to think about it, to come to certain conclusions, but I couldn’t find an answer.

Magnum and Henri Cartier-Bresson

Some photographers, especially those who left Magnum, don’t speak positively about the agency. I can’t say anything bad about it. To the contrary, thanks to Magnum, I became who I am today. But of course I was very careful to stay true to myself and not to get influenced by certain things.

Henri Cartier-Bresson helped me very much in that area. I met him in 1970 or 1971, and he was of extreme importance to me in helping me avoid the mistakes he did. HCB wasn’t really a reporter; it wasn’t his nature. But Robert Capa moved him in that direction. So the most important thing that HCB could do for me was to help me be who I was, and not fall for the compromises he had to do.

On photographing landscapes

I have been photographing for more than 50 years, and I’m finding fewer and fewer people I want to photograph. This is not to say that people are terrible or that the world is terrible. I’ve seen so many beautiful things in my life, and I’m very happy. But photographing people is very difficult for me now. I really want to be alone. I don’t want to see anybody around me. And I think that only when you’re alone you could start identifying with the landscape around you.

Photography Workshops

Many Magnum photographers are giving workshops and the reason is money. It’s becoming more and more difficult to make money as a photographer, and workshops help in that area. I never gave any workshops and I’m still alive. This doesn’t mean I won’t give any, but I hope I won’t have to.

This is not a criticism of the people who do workshops; not at all. I think it’s very good if the people who have the capacity to teach do so, especially if they like to be around people. I, on the other hand, like to be left alone. You know, after this talk, I’ll probably try to escape as quickly as possible. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pleasure to be here and you’re all wonderful, but it’s difficult for me.

Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes

The last project I did, of which you haven’t seen any photos here, was in Israel. I didn’t know anything and didn’t want to know anything about Israel. I generally believe that if I go to a place, and if I look enough, and meet people, then I could understand, not so much through my brain, but through my eyes.

My Magnum colleagues warned me that it’s not easy to photograph there. But I finally went there and I’m very happy I went. After seeing the project, photos of the wall separating the West Bank from Israel, an Israeli poet told me: “Josef, thank you for your photographs, because you made the invisible visible”. He meant that the wall is invisible to Israelis and they don’t want to talk about it.

After having been there 7 times in 4 years, I came to the conclusion that Israel became what it didn’t want to become, and that Palestine has no chance whatsoever.

Turkey

I have been documenting Greek and Roman archaeological ruins in the countries around the Mediterranean. I visited all 20 of these countries twice, luckily including Syria in the period where I was able to do so. And of course I discovered Turkey, and discovered that it’s an archaeological treasure.

I’m preparing a big exhibition for 2017 in the Panthéon in Paris on all this work I did in the Mediterranean. The text for the accompanying book will be written by the director of the Louvre.

Even after all of this is done, I would like to come back to Turkey to continue to work; I’m fascinated by the place you have here.

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The importance of being Candid: From Diderot’s 18th century Salons to Street Photography today

Is your photo candid or was it staged?

Ask a Street Photographer this question and you only have yourself to blame for the war of words that ensues. The indignations will run the spectrum. From “How dare you question my integrity?” to “Who cares if it’s candid or not? It’s either a good photo or it isn’t.”

Street Photography is not Photojournalism. The latter carries an implied ethical responsibility to showcase reality that the former does not. When it was uncovered that Giovanni Troilo staged a scene in his documentary series on Charleroi, Belgium, many demanded that he be stripped of his ‘World Press Photo’ first prize. Eventually he was, but supposedly for different reasons.

If instead these were the ‘International Street Photography Awards’, would the reactions have been the same after finding out the photo was staged? Yes they would have been. Without a doubt. So if Street Photography is an artistic pursuit and doesn’t have any inherent attachment to reality, why does candidness matter?

The short answer is: because Denis Diderot said so about painting around 250 years ago, and since photography is a young art form, it inherited all the rules from older art forms, mainly painting and theater, including Diderot’s ideals.

But the short answer isn’t going to cut it, now is it? Let’s trace our steps.

In 18th century France, the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture scheduled exhibitions, or salons, for its painter members in Paris. Denis Diderot, encyclopedist, art critic, and all around wunderkind, was asked to review these salons. He did so for over two decades, crystallizing along the way the tenets of the ideal painted scene in the Age of Enlightenment’s waning years.

Diderot disliked ‘mannered’ people and disliked ‘mannered’ paintings that included them as subjects. “Maniéré”, the word he used in French, is chock-full of negative connotations about artificial behavior. He saw pretentiousness as a “vice of regulated society”, and attributed them to ‘theatrical’ people who act one way when alone and the opposite way when they know they’re being observed.

He saw that the sure way to rid a painting of any affected characters, and thus to cleanse it from any ‘theatricality’, was to have its characters be so engrossed and so absorbed by the action they’re undertaking, that it would be impossible for them to notice they are being watched, and consequently incapable of acting artificially. The beholder — first the painter, and then the viewer — must disappear; the scene is not meant for their eyes. This self-forgetfulness, or oubli de soi, that the characters exhibit is the guarantee of the anti-theatrical ideal.

To showcase this pictorial practice, here are two paintings by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin: Soap Bubbles, and the Card Castle.

Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles (Bulles de Savon), New York, Metropolitan Museaum of Art.
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Soap Bubbles (Bulles de Savon), New York, Metropolitan Museaum of Art.
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Card Castle (Le Château de Cartes), Washington, National Gallery of Art.
Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, The Card Castle (Le Château de Cartes), Washington, National Gallery of Art.

In Soap Bubbles, the man is so focused on his task that he seems unfazed that his shirt is ripped near his shoulder. In the Card Castle, the ‘proof’ that the boy doesn’t know he is being observed resides in the open drawer in the foreground. His unbridled attention is directed towards the folded cards in front of him; he can’t see the Jack of Hearts, but we can. Given the medium’s limitations, anti-theatricality was implied through these compositional means, and it was left to the viewer to sense whether a character’s absorption is genuine or not, and whether the fourth wall separating the painted stage from the beholders is unbroken or not.

Jean-François Millet, L’Angélus, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
Gustave Courbet, The Wheat Sifters (Les Cribleuses de Blé), Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Gustave Courbet, The Wheat Sifters (Les Cribleuses de Blé), Nantes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Diderot’s aesthetic ideals remained influential well into the 20th century, crossing over into other art forms. It isn’t known if philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was borrowing from Diderot when he wrote the following in 1930, but it’s hard not to see the similarities:

“Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone engaged in some simple everyday activity, when he thinks he is not being watched. Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, sitting down, etc. so that we are suddenly seeing someone from the outside in a way we can never see ourselves; as if we, so to speak, witnessed a chapter from a biography with our own eyes, – surely this would be uncanny and wonderful at the same time. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could produce to be performed or spoken onstage. We would be seeing life itself.”

It was only a few years prior that the 35mm camera had started becoming popular. It was portable, lightweight, and inconspicuous enough that photographs could now be taken without subjects taking notice and altering their behavior for the camera. Photography, the only medium that could genuinely put into practice Diderot’s philosophy and Wittgenstein’s view of “life itself”, was ready to take over.

In 1938, fresh off his work photographing for the Farm Security Administration, Walker Evans did exactly that. He took a seat on the New York subway, hid his camera inside his coat, and for three years he sought to capture on film the ever mysterious “quality of being”. In “On Photography”, Susan Sontag would corroborate: “There is something on people’s faces when they don’t know they are being observed that never appears when they do… their expressions are private ones, not those they would offer to the camera.”

Walker Evans, Many are Called
Walker Evans, Many are Called
Walker Evans, Many are Called
Walker Evans, Many are Called

The tradition of Candid Street Photography evolved in the following decades, reaching mainstream popularity following Henri Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’. It was then that this tradition became closely associated with the Street Photography that we know today.

But after relying for centuries on ideals borrowed from different mediums, photography would have to wait until 1980 for Roland Barthes’ seminal book, “Camera Lucida”, to give Diderot’s notes on anti-theatricality their own photographic character.

Barthes essentially differentiated between what he referred to as the studium and the punctum. The studium is what the photographer intended to show us in a scene. It consists of the elements that might be interesting to us; those from which we would express a general liking of the photograph.

The second element is what breaks the studium. In the words of Barthes, it is something that “goes from the scene, like an arrow, and pierces me.” The latin word aptly used to describe this wound, this prick inflicted by a sharp object, is the punctum. He saw photographs that only had a studium and no punctum to be lukewarm, bland, and uninteresting. Because the studium was restricted to the photographer’s intentions. And he remarked: “Certain details prick me. If they do not, it is doubtless because the photographer has put them there intentionally.”

Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Faces
Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Faces
Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg
Thomas Struth, Hermitage 1, St. Petersburg

Roland Barthes’ view, however influential, remains one voice among many. Evidently, other artistic approaches to photography have attributes that Candid Photography is unable to match. There are even ethical concerns about privacy violations in an age where public surveillance is becoming increasingly common and intrusive.

However, Diderot’s remarks about theatricality being the vice of regulated society rings truer today than it would have at any other time. In our days where almost everything is staged: from public personas, to carefully manicured Instagram feeds and facebook timelines, to airbrushed selfies, candid photography seems to be a tiny antithesis to inauthentic behavior. This type of photography still shouldn’t aspire to show ‘reality’ the way photojournalism is supposed to, but it is obliged to remain firm in its portrayal of ‘realism’ when there are barely any sources left to do so. Otherwise, be candid; don’t call it Candid.


Sources:

  • Barthes’ Punctum, Michael Fried
  • La Chambre Claire: Notes sur la photographie (Camera Lucida), Roland Barthes
  • Staging Absoprtion and transmuting the everyday: James A. W. Heffernan
  • Les Salons de Diderot: théorie et écriture, Pierre Frantz and Élisabeth Lavezzi