Koudelka at the Royal National Theatre

Alan Forgan

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The present exhibition of photographs by Joseph Koudelka at the National Theatre upper foyer revives memories of his first showing in Britain at the Hayward Gallery in 1984. It is difficult to realise that it was so long ago, as the memory of it is still so vivid to me. I was glad then that I did not have a camera with me, as afterwards, I would have been inclined to throw it into the Thames. It was three weeks before I was able to bring myself to take another photograph.

What is there about Koudelka's photographs that provoked so strong a reaction in me, and other photographers I knew, and is the magic still there in the present exhibition? The answer is yes, but the work shown comes from his great period before he left Czecho-Slovakia In 1970. The Hayward Gallery exhibition showed two series of his photographs: the life of the Gypsies of the republic and the reaction of the people of Prague to the Russian invasion of the country in 1968. It was the two together that had such an overwhelming impact. Koudelka had shared the life of the gypsies and this shows in the immediacy and intensity of the photographs. Above all is their humanity. Death Is here as well as life. Cartier - Bresson and Salgado photograph and pass on. Other photographers make beauty out of famine victims for the Sunday supplements. After we have seen Koudelka's pictures, we know the people in them as if they were our neighbours.

These pictures of the gypsies are not in this exhibition, but twelve of the pictures from the Russian Invasion series are. In the fourteen years since the previous exhibition, Czecho-Slovakia has been freed and the two halves have split up. As a result, some of the impact has been lost. The pictures are a record of what is now an historical event, but what a record. Koudelka has encapsulated the hatred and defiance of a people to their oppressors. A young man confronts a puzzled Russian soldier standing up In his tank. Two young men defiantly wave a Czech flag in the middle, in a pose reminiscent of Soviet heroic sculpture. One of them appears alone in another photo. Has his friend been killed ? All sum up the bitterness of a people defying an invader who has brought only oppression.

The other photos are from Koudelka's theatre work. The requirements of English stage photography are to produce the illusion that the beholder is in the audience at a particularly funny or taut moment. All must be well lit and pin sharp. Koudelka uses slow speeds and blurred impressions. He is on the stage as we are as well. It is almost an actor's point of view, or rather the character's and we share in his passion. These are from Prague productions of the sixties. Feeling as strongly as I do about the importance of Koudelka's work, I have to admit that what he has done subsequently , since he moved to western Europe, does not come up to the three series I have referred to. He may be compared to Solzhenitsyn, who in spite of the novel 1914, seems in his writing to have lost the passion of his years of protest in the old Soviet Union. All the same, at his best Koudelka stands alone in his mastery of the medium, and the way he uses it with an heroic integrity and absolute sincerity.

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