Jesse’s book review, Exiles by Josef Koudelka
Jesse’s next book is one that is personally very important to me. This is my favourite photo book and a body of work that is important to me. This is my go-to book for anytime I am looking for inspiration, or when I want to learn more about how to see. I hope that you enjoy this one as much as I do.
Exile whether self imposed or forced is common across a number of artistic mediums from the Lost Generation to Fritz Lang. The interesting context then become what is it about being away from one’s own land that either sparks or diffuses this creativity. It seems however for Koudelka to be the very nature of his existence, which is marginally different from any one else.
Czech born with asylum in England, he has now become a French citizen, and during his life he has photographed gypsies in Romania, recorded the invasion of Prague in 68’, and wandered Europe for Magnum thereafter choosing subjects that come off existing as either forgotten or misplaced. One quickly feels that even his subjects are in a sense exiles, rather politically, socially, or literally, just as he is. This is what Exiles is…in all sixty-one photos shot in Europe from 1968-1987.
When I first got into photography, I was driven by Flickr and what unconsciously was the one shot (bit of a Freudian slip I actually typed shit first) mantra if you will. An explanation isn’t necessary, but I was drawn to it in the few photo books I was picking up mostly Cartier-Bresson and Kertesz greatest hits books. Amazing photos, but when thrown together say nothing. I don’t believe it was until I was introduced to Japanese photo books that I understood (as with most books lol) they should actually say something complete, meaning in a way that there are themes, a reasonably discernible prose, and for all purposes symbolism and other literary devices.
When you pick up Exiles, it looks very much like a greatest hits book, even looking at the index of photos with dates that span three decades. Yet the literary devices are there and by the end of it you get the impression that he sought to construct reality whether than to represent it, an explanation that would also account for his ability to depict such images in exile making up the story. The existential ramification of Exiles is hard to overlook as its central theme. He is free refusing all labels and national codes shooting whoever wherever he wants. Vanishing points, shadows, and lines are placed together forming his prose and symbolically both humans and animals are used completing a classic piece of photo literature.
The photos in the book are numbered so I will proceed in describing them by number. Photo 2 is really the opening photo of the book ignoring the classic image from Prauge in which the photographer overlooks an empty city with his watch in the foreground indicating that it is mid day yet the streets are empty due to the impending invasion (not numbered). Photo 2 emphasis the symbolism of Exiles featuring a man in the foreground looking right away from what symbolically is framed the option to go left or straight which leads to a vanishing point in the background.
Photo 8 remains one of the most iconic images of a dog with the other two photographer’s photo being Elliot Erwitt’s and Daido Moriyama’s in Hokkaido. Unlike the aforementioned, Koudelka’s dog is silhouetted giving us no discerning details. It prose is aggressive as it blocks the way for the photographer to what all leads to a vanishing point in the background. Aesthetically alone the contrast between the perfect black of the dog and white of the snow is the first point to draw you in.
A much quieter image featuring an animal can be seen in photo 12 that is of a turtle on it back before yet another horizon leading to the top. A turned over turtle is the best example of what would be missing from a greatest hits book of Koudelka’s, yet works well in the context of Exiles. Perhaps my favorite image of the book is photo 27 that features three people and a horse on a hillside. The two lines, the hillside & dirt path, both lead the eye to the photos subjects perfectly i.e. the horizon to the horse and dirt path to the three people. On the top of the hillside there is a shed that acts as a compositional square. The three people then come to form a triangle with a young woman laying down, a hunched over man on the right looking at the other man who is throwing a ball. The ball then comes to serve as a compositional circle. Then for good measure both the man and woman have on polka dot shirts…the precise framing and timing create an exceptional quality for this image that gives it so much value. I suppose I could go breaking down each photo, but instead will opt out and say that these images will haunt your mind’s eye due in part to their mysteriousness that represents the photographer’s point of view.
Unfortunately it is difficult to find this book in good condition under $300. This copy itself was lent to me for the purpose of this review by Bellamy himself and as he informed me this is without a doubt his favorite book from his collection. I suppose you could (and usually I’d advise against it but due to the price) compile three or so of his greatest hits type of books and nearly piece together the content that is here…but it just wouldn’t be the same, and not because I advocate book collecting or anything snobby, but just because the profound emotional effect that Exiles offers would be missed.
Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
You can more of his work and passions at the following places:
This one is very personal to me as it is my book. I have wanted to have a review of this book for a long time and I really feel that Jesse has done it justice. I can remember vividly the moment I first read this book, it shook me and made me really think about many things, not just photography. It is a very strong book and I still find it as powerful as I did the first time I saw it. Many thanks to Jesse for putting this brilliant review together.