Majesty and simplicity. These two words hover on the surface of the images captured by Josef Koudelka’s lens. With the series Ruins, the famous French photographer of Czech origin has just put an end to a long journey of more than thirty years through the Greek and Roman ruins around the Mediterranean. Hundreds of panoramic photographs were born from his confrontation with this singular subject. The artist has produced an original route of 110 prints exhibited at the National Library of France (BnF).
In a vast space with a black background, the visitor wanders freely between the photographs, for the most part simply suspended between floor and ceiling, without support. He can multiply back and forth, retrace his steps, create his own resonances between landscapes. In this jet setting lit by skilfully dosed electric lights, the gaze is focused on black and white, whose subtle nuances unfold as attention is refined.
At a time when the possibilities of traveling abroad are limited, “Ruines” offers visitors a gripping journey and an intense change of scenery. Because these archaeological sites, some of whom have been photographed many times, appear here in unprecedented surroundings. Koudelka chose the panoramic format to replay the experience of the landscape, while diverting its usual use. No ambition to encompass these remains in their full scope, nor to claim to be exhaustive. Koudelka captures points of view, details, placing himself in high angle or low angle, sometimes flush with the ground, telling the visitor his intimate experience of the place through his compositions and framing. He offers fragmentary, fragmented, even tilted visions of it, when he makes the verticality of his subject waver.
Far from romantic ruins
It is not the romantic ruin that the photographer offers our gaze. “He does not relay the illusion of an eternal ruin”, underlines Héloïse Conésa, curator of the exhibition. It deploys a worried confrontation with time, with the precarious work of man, and therefore a reflection on his place in the world. As in these immense columns, placed on the ground, whose disarticulated pieces seem to symbolize the cogs of an interrupted mechanism of time. The ruin appears, inseparably, as what remains and what is threatened with a greater disappearance.
The perception of passing time is omnipresent in the play of shadows. It is explicit when a Doric column stands alone, playing with light like a sundial. The thickness of the duration becomes almost tangible in the stones, polished by erosion, the photography of which makes them velvety.
The mystery of life
In these very mineral landscapes where man has disappeared, his presence is expressed in hollow. Destruction and desolation have their part. Yet that which might draw on the side of death seems to be brought back to life, by the grace of beauty. “At Koudelka, art, and more precisely beauty, reaffirms its presence at the heart of what makes and undoes the world”, notes Héloïse Conésa. Nature makes its way through the stones, marking the resistance and the power of life. And the chaos of deconstructions itself seems to be the bearer of an intact creative force.
Something mysterious and stronger than man seems to be holding on, with fragile strength. The man passing through – the photographer, then the spectator following him – is placed in uncomfortable positions, at the foot of steep stairs carved into the rock, at the heart of almost labyrinthine compositions. But a vanishing point – near, sky or path … – is often seen. Like a possible escape.
There is a constant play between what Koudelka shows and what remains hidden or simply hidden from our eyes. It happens that delicate games of mirrors reveal unexpected dimensions of reality. As when the sky, absent, is reflected in the waters of the Gard, in the stagnant water at the foot of Hadrian’s Villa in Rome, and even in the black and damp cobblestones of the Appian Way. Because, in solitude, beauty opens up to the contemplation of the invisible.
A life of wandering
1938. Born in Moravia (current Czech Republic.)
1961. Begins to photograph the gypsies.
1967. He made the decision to resign from his post as an engineer to devote himself to photography.
1968. One of his shots of the invasion of Prague by Soviet troops, crowned in 1969 with the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award.
1970. Leaves his native country, becomes stateless and begins a life of exile and travels across Europe.
1971. Join Magnum Photos and make friends with photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
1980. Leaves England for France. Still stateless, he continues to travel.
1986. Photographic mission of the Datar.
1987. Naturalized French, National Grand Prize for Photography.
1990. Returns to Czechoslovakia after twenty years of exile. Begins to photograph Eastern Europe.
1991. Beginning of his work on the ruins.
1991. Henri Cartier-Bresson Grand Prize.