Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Brush with greatness

There were two tables of guests at our wedding rehearsal dinner almost fifteen years ago. At one table sat the parents of the bride and groom and their friends. After dinner, the guests at that table, commenting on the raucous goings from across the room, lamented that they sat at the wrong table. The topic of conversation that caused the commotion at our table was this: personal encounters with celebrities. As you might expect, the most memorable events involving genuine face-to-face contact with well known people came at the beginning of our conversation. The dinner became really fun however once the big names got out of the way and we began to search our memory banks to "top" each other with what turned out to be less and less meaningful encounters with more and more obscure celebrities. Perhaps the highlight, or the nadir depending on your point of view, came when my friend and I discovered that his mother and my maternal uncle, were both high school classmates of the late comedian known as "Lonesome" George Gobel.

My wife-to-be remained silent during most of the dinner. I knew why she kept to herself; it would have ground the entire conversation to a screeching halt as her story of meeting a famous celebrity was head and shoulders above all the rest. As the dinner was coming to an end and our friends and family members couldn't scrape the bottom of the barrel any farther than poor old Lonesome George, I asked my bride to recount the tale of her most memorable celebrity encounter. Grudgingly she told of how one day she and her friend who at the time were working at an upscale Chicago restaurant, were invited to spend the evening with Jack Nicholson. With typical modesty, my wife claims that it was her friend that the movie star was interested in but I'm sure he was quite happy to spend the evening with not one, but two lovely young women. Before your imagination runs wild, the evening my wife assures me, was spent watching the French Open, and discussing philosophy and New Wave Cinema. In the end I'm happy to report, Mr. Nicholson was the perfect gentleman as he bid a fond adieu to the ladies sans shenanigans, when they told him it was time to leave.

Anyway that's my wife's story, she's sticking to it and I'm perfectly content to believe it.

It's no secret that our fascination with celebrities comes from the fact that all of us at one time or other, dreams of one day becoming famous, to have the world as they say, at our feet. Like any typical American boy, I once dreamed of being a great athlete. That dream was brought down to earth one day as I was riding my bike up Michigan Avenue and saw a large group of people gathered on the sidewalk and spilling out into the street. I had to see what was going on and it turned out the crowd was gazing intently into the window of a closed shoe store. Inside the store was Michael Jordan, presumably buying shoes. It dawned on me that living in a fish bowl as he did, was not all that it was cracked up to be. The guy couldn't even buy a pair of shoes without extreme measures taken to insure his safety and privacy. From that moment on, I no longer wanted to "be like Mike."

When I was a teenager, I set my sights upon being an artist. My other uncle, the brother of my father, was my inspiration. I first met my Uncle Jenda when he came to this country after emigrating from Czechoslovakia in early 1968. Jenda and my other relatives could not have been more different.  He had traveled extensively, and was uncompromisingly independent. He lived life exactly as he saw fit. In his case that meant residing in a cell-like one room apartment, with the bathroom down the hall. Like any artist, he wanted his work to be shown, but he refused to create work to please other people. He could not care less what others thought of him. As an adolescent, Jenda was hands down the coolest person I knew.

All these memories came flooding into my head these past few weeks as I just had my own brush with greatness, the honor and privilege of working with Czech artist Josef Koudelka. In all my years of working in the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, I have met many great photographers, some of them personal heroes of mine. Koudelka is both those things to be sure, yet on a very personal level, much much more.

Koudelka has had a long, illustrious career producing works that combine a strong personal vision with a powerful sense of humanity. Unlike the cool reserve and distance of most contemporary street photography, Koudleka's photographs of people, just like the photographer, are filled with passion; they are intimate works that could only be made by a man who spent a great deal of time, and in some cases, even lived with his subjects.

Koudelka's first monumental work was a series of photographs made in the early sixties of Gypsies living in Romania and the former Czechoslovakia. The original prints from his first exhibition of that work in Prague, have been assembled together for the first time in forty years and are currently on display in Koudelka's first American retrospective exhibition currently on view at the Art Institute. The sub-title of the exhibition, Nationality Doubtful, refers to the period after the creation of the original Gypsy pictures.

It was a twist of fate that made Josef Koudelka for a very brief period a photojournalist, and for a very long time, a man without a country. Koudelka arrived in Prague on August 19th, 1968, after a trip photographing in Romania. As it so happened, on the very next day, the brief period of the experiment of "Socialism with a human face" known as the Prague Spring, came to an abrupt end as Czechoslovakia was invaded by troops of the Warsaw Pact nations under the leadership of the Soviet Union. Armed with a 35mm Exacta still camera and hundreds of feet of bulk-loaded East German movie film, Josef documented the invasion from the streets of Prague, as citizens of that city confronted Russian tanks with nothing more than their fists and their rage. His photographs, for all intents and purposes the only visual documentation we have of that tragic event, (which from a distance, I can still remember almost as if it happened yesterday), show the emboldened public demonstratively expressing their outrage, as well as the perplexed faces of the soldiers, few of them over twenty, who were told by their superiors that they would be welcomed into the city as liberating heroes. Placing himself in harm's way, Koudelka was as much a part of the citizen's revolt as a documenter of it. Not only did he shoot pictures of unarmed individuals on top of Russian tanks, but at times he too was on top of those tanks as some of his pictures testify.

Koudelka spent the weeks after the invasion processing his film and printing the negatives. The prints were smuggled out of the country and fell into the hands of the Magnum photo agency. They were published shortly thereafter, first in the London Sunday Times magazine, then all over the world under the credit line of "P.P." (Prague Photographer). Koudelka high-tailed it out of Czechoslovakia in 1970 by seeking a three month work visa, then applying for political asylum in England. He would not return to his home country until the Velvet Revolution, some twenty years later, when he would finally claim authorship of the invasion photographs.

During his years in exile and continuing to this day, Koudelka has traveled the world making pictures. For much of his career, his was a hand-to-mouth existence, relying on grants and the kindness of strangers (and friends) to keep him going. He once said:
For 17 years I never paid any rent. Even the Gypsies were sorry for me because they thought I was poorer than them. At night they were in their caravans and I was the guy who was sleeping outside beneath the sky.
It has been a peripatetic existence as well. Koudelka by his own admission never stays in one place very long:
I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind.
Perhaps Koudelka's most evocative and poetic work was produced between 1968 and 1987, culminating in a book appropriately titled Exiles. The book opens with the photographer's most iconic image, a view up a deserted Wenseslaus Square (Vaclavske Namesti) in Prague moments before the invasion. A watch on a borrowed wrist in the foreground marks for eternity the time, (12:22PM) of the impending doom.

The late playwright Vaclav Havel described the period in Czechoslovakia between the invasion and the Velvet Revolution and his own ascendance to the presidency of his country, as a time of great inertia. It was as if the wristwatch in Koudelka's picture stopped functioning at that very moment, and time had stood still.

Unlike his native country, Joseph Koudelka was just getting started in 1968. The pictures from his wandering years found in Exiles are drastically different from his earlier work. No longer were his images exclusively of people. Instead, found objects, discarded little fragments of things that once meant something to someone began to populate his pictures. One picture is of an impromptu meal of Josef's, spread over a copy of the International Herald Tribune. When he did photograph people, rather confronting his subjects head on as in the Gypsy photographs, Koudelka began photographing people from the side or behind. One memorable picture is of a man from behind, as he looks toward a massive hovercraft in the background. Another, an ambiguous photo of several older men in a bunker-like structure, also seen from behind, suggests that these are pictures of wanderers who like himself were in search of something. Perhaps that something is profound. Or perhaps they're just looking for a place to take a pee; life is funny that way.

Death is a recurring theme in Koudelka's work. In one picture, a dead raven is strung up on a clothesline. In a heartbreaking image, a young woman is laid to rest as the lid is placed over her coffin while her grieving mother and family wail in the background. In a most peculiar picture, one that did not make the cut in our exhibit, we are in a room which appears to be a preparation room for a mortuary. An elderly man with sunken eyes reclines on a gurney, looking over at a bier with flowers strewn upon it. In the photo the man appears to be awaiting his turn on the bier.

For the past few decades, Koudelka has almost entirely excluded people form his pictures. Instead, photographing with a panoramic format camera, he has been documenting the hand of man on the landscape. Barriers and borders abound in these pictures. One project represented in book form in the exhibition, depicts the wall in Jerusalem that was built to separate the Palestinian and Jewish communities in that divided city. From his last words in the Art Institute produced video below shot by my friend Bill Foster, you can tell exactly where his sentiments lie.

His most recent work centers around the ruins of ancient civilizations scattered throughout Europe and the Middle East.

Had he only made the invasion photographs, Josef Koudelka's place in history would be secure. As the one piece of visual evidence of that event, the photographs served to bring the acts of a brutal, morally bankrupt regime to the attention of the world. It may not be an overstatement to say that the invasion and Josef's document of it, freezing the moment forever in time, helped contribute to the eventual downfall of the Soviet Union.

But in a career that has spanned well over fifty years, Koudelka has produced many distinct bodies of work, all of which hold up to the highest scrutiny. He is the consummate perfectionist, never satisfied with resting upon his laurels, constantly striving to get better and better with each new project. My guess is that if you asked him what his favorite picture is, he would reply, "the next one."

As such he is a constant source of frustration for anyone who has to work with him.

"Who has the bigger ego, the artist or the curator?" he is fond of asking whenever he is in a museum setting. The fact that he feels compelled to ask such a question should give us the answer.

Those of us who struggled for several months putting together his show at the Art Institute were not slightly taken aback when we met with Koudelka and our colleagues from the Getty Museum, the next venue for the show. Josef said: "We will make the next show even better than this one." Sensing that he had stepped on a few toes, Josef added that we all must strive to get better in everything we do, never stay the same.

If you were a film producer casting the role of the quintessential eccentric, difficult artist, Koudleka would fit as the model; it's as if he walked directly out of central casting.

The day his show opened, there was a public event featuring Koudelka, Matt Witkovsky, the curator of the exhibition, and Amanda Maddox from the Getty. Josef got the rock star treatment as the museum's Fullerton Hall was filled to the rafters, SRO with people lining the aisles and sitting on the stairs. He had the crowd eating out of his hands with his typical charm mixed with occasional irascibility. Never one to pull any punches, Josef said exactly what was on his mind, even as it often came at the expense of the two curators sitting beside him.

Had I had known of Josef Koudelka while I was in art school in the late seventies, I certainly would have liked to model my life after his. To this day part of me longs to live the life of an uncompromising artist, completely devoted to his work at the expense of everything else.

Yet as with being like Mike, that's all a fantasy. Koudelka's work consumes him; he eats, sleeps and drinks photography. Fixer flows through his veins; bus, train and plane schedules are his pacemaker. The man brags that he owns only two shirts and continues at 76 years of age to be restless at being in the same place for any period of time. More than twenty years my senior, he can run circles around me.

My life by contrast is consumed by many diverse passions. I have lived in the same city all my life and for the last 13 years, (not coincidentally, the age of my eldest child), have seldom strayed more than couple hundred miles from home. I don't exactly live in the lap of luxury but I live like a millionaire compared to Josef. Contrary to what he says about himself in the Art Institute film, I don't have a trace of his courage either. Meeting Josef Koudelka for the first time, no matter who you are, you are treated as if you have been lifetime friends. The consummate man about town, Josef can converse in several languages. I witnessed him in one conversation with people of at least four different nationalities, speak without any hesitation to each person in his or her own language.

But it was when he spoke Czech to my friend Milan from Prague, that part of my life's history flashed before my eyes. It brought back the long lost conversations of my father and his brother in a language that I cannot speak, yet still remains very much a part of me. Except for Koudelka's great fame and success, he and my late uncle are almost like two peas in a pod.

Koudelka and my friend Milan. They had just met
but you'd think they were bosom buddies.
Koudelka has certainly earned enough money to slow down in his "golden years", but that just doesn't seem to be in the cards. His daughter who lives in Paris (one of three Koudelka children scattered across the globe) joined him on this trip to the States. My colleague asked her what is was like to be Josef's daughter. "He was always working" was her terse response. After he introduced me to his daughter he added: "Imagine having an asshole like me for a father."

During our two weeks together Josef expressed a great deal of genuine interest in my own children whose pictures are prominently displayed above my desk. For a brief moment I had the feeling that my conventional life was as intriguing to him as his spartan, globetrotting, earth-shattering existence was to me.

At the end of his visit, we parted with a great bear hug, exchanging thanks and our mutual respect. Josef left for Prague or Paris or London or wherever his muse would lead him. I left to watch my son play baseball.

That last day as I left for home, it occurred to me that both of us were headed exactly where we belonged.


The Exhibition Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful, will run until September 14th in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago.

After that it will travel to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles where it will be on display from Novermber 11, 2014 until March 22, 2015.

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