Frank Horvat : Actually, I was mistaken in saying that you were not prepared: the work that you had done during the ten preceding years had been a kind of preparation. Without that work, you wouldn’t have been able to photograph the Prague Spring as you did.
Joseph Koudelka : Certainly not. But I do not agree with what that person had written about me. I don’t care what people think, I know well enough who I am. But I refuse to become a slave to their ideas. When you stay in the same place for a certain time, people put you in a box and expect you to stay there.
Frank Horvat : What seems important to me, is that during those days you knew precisely how to see, because you had spent the ten preceding years in training your vision.
Joseph Koudelka : I agree with that. But I don’t pretend to be an intellectual or a philosopher. I just look.
Frank Horvat : And you spend your life looking and saying “yes” or “no” to what you see, by releasing or not releasing the shutter, by choosing or not choosing a contact. It is like the binary system of computers, except with many more a “no” than a “yes”. What seems interesting to me, are the ten years of “yes” and “no” that prepared you to make, at the moment of the Prague Spring, photographs that others didn’t make. Even though the events were the same for all.
Joseph Koudelka : Another reason was that I hadn’t been parachuted into Prague, like the rest. I was a Czechoslovakian, I was photographing in the country whose language I spoke, whose problems were my own problems. And I was working for myself. Too often people with some talent go where there is some money to be made. They begin to trade a bit of their talent for a bit of money, then a little more, and finally they have nothing left to themselves. In Czechoslovakia we didn’t have many freedoms, and particularly not the freedom to make money. But that led us to choose professions that we really loved. I always photographed with the idea that no one would be interested in my photos, that no one would pay me, that if I did something I only did it for myself.
Frank Horvat : I understand. But what seems the most important to me is what you just said about the maximum. Someone else might have made a few well composed photographs, from behind a tree, and then gone home. You went forward, to search further. Because you had a certain idea of that maximum.
Joseph Koudelka : The maximum was in the air. I knew that all the things that could happen in my life were happening. There was a girl I kept running into all the time. At first I was suspicious of her, I imagined KGB spies everywhere. Then that girl approached me, opened her bag and said : “I meet you all the time, you must not have eaten for three days.” So I fell in love with her. Everything that could happen did happen. I met all the people whose existence I had imagined. The power of the situation was so great, that it created all those possibilities.
Frank Horvat : Yes, but if you had not been prepared by the work of the ten preceding years, the situation might have brought you the same intensity, the same love story, but not the same photos.
Joseph Koudelka : That comes from my way of working. After having seen my contacts, I do not only print the good photos, but all those that seem to me of some interest, even if I know that they are botched. And I keep looking at them, so as to integrate that experience into my system. Now I can almost photograph without looking through the viewfinder, I have mastered it so well, that it’s almost as if I were looking through it. What I want is to find a passage from the unconscious to the conscious. When I photograph, I do not think much. If you looked at my contacts you would ask yourself: “What is this guy doing?” But I keep working with my contacts and with my prints, I look at them all the time. I believe that the result of this work stays in me and at the moment of photographing it comes out, without my thinking of it.
Frank Horvat : Like a computer program. You spend a lot of time preparing your program, so that at a given moment, in front of a very complex situation, that program permits you to react instantly and correctly.
Joseph Koudelka : I would have liked to show you a kind of catalog that I made ten years ago, where I classified my photos according to their composition. If there is something that you like and that you are interested in, and if, in addition, you have some ability and a little energy to spend, it’s bound to work. The program will function. But what is important, afterwards, is to leave the program behind and to move ahead. It would be too easy to let yourself become a prisoner of what you have built, to let the results come out automatically. At some point, one must destroy the program, and start a new one from scratch.
Frank Horvat : Yes. When I was doing my essay on trees, I realized that as my work was proceeding, my program would get more and more precise, to the point that in the end it became a limitation, making me do the same photographs over and over!
Joseph Koudelka : I am not interested in repetition. I don’t want to reach the point from where I wouldn’t know how to go further. It’s good to set limits for oneself, but there comes a moment when we must destroy what we have constructed.
Frank Horvat : I agree that we should change the program, but I believe that there are some principles that we shouldn’t touch.
Joseph Koudelka : Which principles?
Frank Horvat : If only I knew! If I do these interviews, it is precisely to find out. One principle could be to always aim for a maximum, as you say. I know photographers who have given up on that. They do a good job, showing what they choose to show, and what indeed is the representation of some reality, but to me that is not enough.
Joseph Koudelka : And why do you think some people give up searching for the maximum?
Frank Horvat : I only know one answer, which scares me: because they don’t have enough energy left.
Joseph Koudelka : That scares me, too. We already talked about it in our first meeting, and I told you that the limit could be around forty. It happens to all of us.
Frank Horvat : On the other hand, Titian made some of his best paintings at eighty. And so did Renoir, Rodin, Picasso. But painting may be a different matter…
Joseph Koudelka : Possibly. It’s also true that Kertesz made some beautiful photos in his last years – but those were not the kind of photos we are talking about, which demand a certain physical fitness, if only to seek out the situations. It seems to me that in painting there is less difference between a masterpiece and a work that is not altogether a masterpiece. Or at least less difference than in photography: because in painting technique is more important.
Frank Horvat : Whereas photography depends on the intensity of the moment. I have great admiration for people like Munkasci, who worked with large format cameras, which allowed them to make only one photo in a given situation. He could never give himself a second chance.
Joseph Koudelka : You may be right. But I am the product of a different era. If I couldn’t shoot lots of photos, I would not be the photographer that I am. Still, the cost of film h as often been a problem. At times, to save money, I had to work with remainders of movie-film, and even to buy film that was stolen. But when I have only three rolls of film left in my bag, I panic.
Frank Horvat : I understand that. Sometimes I shoot fifteen rolls in two hours, just for a studio portrait. But that does not keep me from feeling that each sitting is a unique event, which can never be repeated.
Joseph Koudelka : When I wake up in the morning, and I feel good, I tell myself: “Today may be the last day of my life.” That is my sense of urgency. But I keep wondering about what you just said, that I am a conscience. People have told me that. People much younger than myself have told me: “I would like to work as you do.”
Frank Horvat : Only they don’t.
Joseph Koudelka : Perhaps because they have an idea of me that doesn’t correspond to reality. When I left Czechoslovakia, I used to live on milk, bread and potatoes. It became something I was known for. So much that once, at the home of some friends in Holland, whom I was visiting, they put in front of me a plate of potatoes, while they treated themselves to goulash. I don’t want to be the slave of my legend!
Frank Horvat : You refuse to be the slave of money, the slave of your legend… Are you the slave of something?
Joseph Koudelka : I am the slave of my mind. I travel alone, I sleep outdoors. Even when I get a lift in someone’s car, I separate myself from that person in the morning, and only join up again in the evening. When I arrived in the West, I didn’t speak the local languages, so even when I had the money I didn’t know how to get served in a restaurant. I’m still unable to write French, I feel like an immigrant worker. I have spent much of my time by myself, with the result that I’m stuck with certain ideas, that may not always fit with reality. I am the slave of these ideas.
Frank Horvat : But don’t you think that the real slavery is the one that we choose? Being a slave to money, as I am, is to some extent the result of a choice. The limits of your mind may be something that you have chosen.
Joseph Koudelka : I was born with this mind. It comes from someone who was there before me. But in a certain sense, I chose to be as I am, and it is to this degree that I do not feel it as slavery. It may seem slavery to others, who see me from outside-but for me it’s freedom. Which doesn’t mean that it couldn’t change: now I’m the father of a little girl, and I have to earn money like everyone else. I am fifty years old, it’s the time of reckoning. I have done what I wanted, now I have to make good use of the time and energy that are left. Look: all these files contain my contact sheets – which doesn’t mean that they contain many good photos, only that I have done a lot of work. It will take years to really look at all that. Even if I fall ill, or if I am immobilized for some other reason, there is plenty of work to be done.