“I needed to know that nothing was waiting for me anywhere; that where I needed to be was precisely where I was at that moment. If I found there was nothing more to photograph, I knew it was time to move on.”
In 1978, the legendary Director of Photography at MoMA, John Szarkowski, organized an exhibition titled “Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960.” His thesis was elegantly straightforward—a photographer’s personal vision can be understood as either a reflection of the individual’s inner life (a mirror) or a frame through which to discover the exterior world (a window). Szarkowski did not mean his idea to be reductive—clearly, the best photographers’ works range across and complicate this binary. But still, as a starting point and framework, Szarkowski’s idea remains relevant today.
For example, this tension between interior and exterior, reflection and clarification, is embodied powerfully in one of the 20th century’s great photobooks—Josef Koudelka’s Exiles. Published originally in 1988 and then subsequently re-released twice, the book has become one of the major references for photographers working in the documentary tradition. In acknowledgement of its importance to the history of the medium, Paris’ Centre Pompidou has organized a small but potent exhibition titled “The Making of Exiles,” which reveals the intimate humanity behind the book’s almost mythic proportions.
Taken plainly as documentary photographs, Koudelka’s work offers a stark, piercing portrait of Europe from 1968-1988 (particularly 1970-80)—a window into a bygone world. The project’s starting point was Koudelka’s forced escape from his homeland, Czechoslovakia, in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion. What followed were Koudelka’s ambulatory, nomadic wanderings over the whole of the continent for the better part of two decades. In 1988, Koudelka pieced together the images of Exiles, step-by-step, and revealed a western Europe in the grips of the Cold War, at a time (much like today) when exiles, outcasts and wanderers abounded.
Yet as the Pompidou exhibition so deftly uncovers, Koudelka’s work resonates on a level beyond its position as a series of outward-facing documentary pictures. Rather, his images continue to have relevance and power because they also reveal an intimately relatable inner life.
While many of us agonize about where we’re going in a larger sense, Koudelka spent 16 years without a fixed address, soothing himself with the following thought: “Don’t worry about knowing where you’re going to sleep; up till now you have always slept somewhere, and you will sleep again tonight.” In this time, he slept at friends’, acquaintances’, in the great outdoors or on the floor of Magnum’s offices in Paris or London, comfortable with the fact that “nothing was waiting for me, anywhere.”
Ever-armed with his camera, Koudelka was making pictures of both external outcasts as well as his own personal circumstances of exile. The show’s greatest revelation is a series of “Réveils” [“reawakenings” or “alarm clocks,” depending on how literal you want to be]—a dozen never-before-shown images of Koudelka’s self-portraits from the road, taken immediately upon waking up. Balanced with the iconic images of alienation and distance in Exiles, these interior pictures show an essential slice of human proximity and hospitality that Koudelka experienced during those years.
By the end, this exhibition makes it clear that the strongest photography is both a window and a mirror, revealing something about the world while simultaneously telling us something about the person behind the camera—and ourselves. As Koudelka reminded the assembled visitors during the exhibition’s opening press conference, “Everybody today can press a button, but the person who calls themselves a photographer must have something to say.” In his book Exiles, and in the arduous process that produced it, Koudelka had something to say about Europe at large—but also about the internal journeys we all undertake.
Or as Cornell Capa once wrote, “Koudelka’s unsentimental, stark, brooding, intensely human imagery reflects his own spirit, the very essence of an exile who is at home wherever his wandering body finds haven in the night…”
Editors’ note: La Fabrique d’Exils will run from February 22 to May 22, 2017 at the Pompidou Center in Paris.