a place in history

if you live in new york , you know that this is the biggest small town in the world….i run into people on the streets all the time who are old friends…..i do not say "howdy" to everyone i meet on the street, but this town is small enough that you really can’t get away with anything!!!

and so it was yesterday afternoon….i was rushing to drop off a fedex box on the most beautiful spring day of the century ….sitting there in the late afternoon good light, perfectly positioned at the best corner table, was joseph koudelka and gilles peress and his wife alison…you do not meet joseph koudelka without getting a  big bear hug…..joseph always appears to be in good humor…when joseph walks into the magnum office he literally goes around and hugs everyone in the room….joseph is a lot of fun…but, joseph is also deadly serious…..

i sat down to join joseph , gilles and alison….whatever i was rushing to do suddenly became unimportant….i was now basking in the glow of the afternoon light with two of photography’s greats….i did not speak, i just listened…..gilles and joseph were in the middle of a conversation about a place in history and how you must control your work even after your death……

the discussion was based on the henri cartier-bresson exhibition currently at the International Center of Photography featuring 300 of henri’s  "scrapbook" photographs….photographs he never showed anyone…but photographs that show henri’s thinking process at an early age….they show his  evolution….show his life and what he cared about…but, not his "selects"…not the work that he showed the world….not the icons with which we are all familiar….

joseph was upset with this henri cartier-bresson collection at ICP….henri had often used joseph as an "editor"…someone he trusted to pick one picture over another……."i am sure henri never would have showed this work….he would be angry with this exhibition" joseph said…

gilles countered "well, all of this work is interesting for all of us…if you are going to show your  early evolutionary work or if you know it may someday be "found", then you have to publish it and control it before you die"….

i started wondering if leonardo da vinci would have liked the show at the Met of his early sketches….but, i stayed silent…..

gilles then offered to help joseph put together his early work in a book….a special book of the evolution of joseph…..gilles is a very special thinker…..he sees things in ways that few see….gilles can put a twist on something that makes you think about whatever it was you were going to edit in a whole new light….in my opinion, gilles would be an amazing editor for joseph…but my opinion does not count…only joseph can decide….

joseph is 70 years old….like everyone in magnum and everyone who has spent a lifetime dedicated to their work, he thinks about his "place in history"…certainly joseph already has a place….but he does not want to be misunderstood now and he does not want to be misunderstood after he is gone…..this was a heady conversation in the afternoon sun…i was soaking up every split second…..just feeling to be a little part of history sitting at the table with these guys even having this discussion….

it is something to think about….since none of us knows our departure point, at what point in time do you organize your work in such a way that nobody can mis-use it after your death??…..photographer control….."place in history"….this is what magnum is all about….

the afternoon sun was now hitting joseph square in the face and twinkled off of his glasses….gilles joked that joseph always kept up his "tan"….joseph would smile, laugh heartily,  and then suddenly he would look like the weight of the world was on his shoulders….

joseph is here in new york to make a presentation of his most recent book "Koudelka" (Aperture) at the Aperture Foundation next Thursday evening….suddenly our little cafe gathering broke up and gilles and alison went on their way…joseph and i walked alone up 7th avenue heading for magnum…we both remembered sharing chinese takeout right where we were walking now  several years before……joseph noticed i was limping a bit and asked about my leg…he said he had a bad leg too…..when you are with joseph you remember every little thing..

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i asked joseph how he would present his book…joseph does not make speeches……he said " i will just show the work and then take questions only"…….the presentation at Aperture  will be packed……everyone in the room will know that THEY are part of history and that they will be witnessing a presentation by an icon in the world of photography whose place in art history is assured…..only joseph will be "concerned"  about his next book…

i hugged joseph goodbye at the office  and stepped back into springtime…..in the concrete jungle i saw a little dogwood blooming white….everything sparkled…..i felt heady and light…..i got the first cab i saw….even a friendly driver who did not mind taking me home to brooklyn…..i had to get back to my loft soonest to start organizing my work….i have a long long way to go……i really am concerned about my next book!!!

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koudelka at the magnum meeting in london 2006

11 Responses to “a place in history”


  • Wonderful story!

    I am curious what Mr. Koudelka think about our new reality in photographic world.

    and what would think Henri cartier-bresson about dying out photoreportage.

    Martin

    ps. I think, show sometimes something personal and something what photographer or artist would have never showed it approximate and bulids a legend. People like when their masters are usuale somethimes.

    I did not apologize for my terrible english long ago. sorry :)

  • Thanks David for this little marvelous story. This is a small world. A friend of mine worked years ago at the Pictorial services in Paris, and got to know Koudelka. I´ve heard some stories of Koudelka told by my friend. And now yours.

    The mis-use topic is very important i think. I believe Robert Frank sold his negatives because he wanted to avoid mis-use in the future. Like the “unknown images of The Americans” for example. There is only one editor of his work, and that is him.

    regards

    Jorge

    jorgeprat.blogspot.com

  • martin …

    few artists are able to embrace new trends….or radical shifts in style….cartier-bresson was , in fact, against some of the newer members of magnum….it has been written about many times how much he was against martin parr for example….ironic, since both cartier-bresson and parr are two of the top print sellers in magnum!!!

    but, what would magnum or any group of artists be like if they did not grow and evolve into something else?? not to match the current “trend”, but to “copy” the past would be the death of any artist i think…your thoughts??

    david

  • jorge…

    well put…and that is exactly koudelka’s point!!

    gilles peress would agree, but thinks that the publishing of the “process” is also important…he just thinks the artist should control these “works in progress” before someone else does….i can see where the “process” could be very interesting and important work…

    you know the old adage that the “journey is as important as the destination” … but, i suppose, each of us has to decide exactly what goes into print and what does not…

    david

  • Thanks David. I have mixed feelings concerning my own work. I don´t know if I would ever have time to edit all of it, and on the other hand, who knows if after I past away, some creative and talented curator would be able to take more powerful “mise n scène” of my work, and that i must confess, exites me.

    Jorge

  • David

    I think, it would be stupidity unagree with changes, and it duty of any artist to look forward, evolve and search new solutions and new ways. Even if I complain sometimes, it’s not because I don’t agree with changes, and artist choices. I love seeing and experience something new and fresh. Probably I would have a little fight with Cartier-bresson about Martin Parr.

    But I must say I am in between of this, because I’m painter too and I saw decay of paintings in our times. Not art at all, but paintings. There no more grates painters, because it is no more wanted and important. We like to think about paintings as something great and special by the past, but now everybody wants use new media, sound, video, performance. Paintings? Who care? And I should say the same… paintings? Who care?

    But I can’t. I don’t want.

    When I have been reading your post I think my self: how Koudelka could change if he was youngest? Should he changing? He must!

    Picasso changed many times, but not because he should or must but he want. He was the change.

    I think if photography (photographers) must be changed (not wont) it never be good thing. But its happen and we must agree with it. It’s evolution, and it’s only good.

    believe me it’s not schizophrenia to agree and disagree with changes.

    Martin

  • martin…

    you always apologize for your english , but your last line in your letter is very very cool english!!! l love it!

    “it is not schizophrenia to agree and disagree with changes”

    perfect!!!!

    david

  • Wow David, thanks for sharing such a special encounter. Koudelka’s always been a touchstone for me. If I had to be stranded on a desert island with one body of work it would be his. In the intro to my tattered copy of his Photo Poche book, he’s called a ‘secretary to the invisible’, I always thought that was a great phrase.

    Through Koudelka as a kind of portal, I later discovered other great Czech photographers: Vojta Dukat, Viktor Kolar, Karel Cudlin, Bohdan Holomicek… Each with their own unique voice, aesthetic, sensibility… but certainly with varying degrees of debt to Koudelka. I would encourage people to seek out their work, though Dukat’s stuff is especially hard to find (I think he may be the greatest unknown photographer alive).

    For a year or two I was a photo editor and had the chance to browse Koudelka’s stuff in the Magnum archive. So many strong newer images haven’t been seen… Hope that’s his next book!

    I’ll be in NY for the Aperture thing, wouldn’t miss it.

    Cheers, Bill

  • Well, lunch with Koudelka….

    Imagine a guy like Winogrand. Thousands of undeveloped photos. Hundreds of rolls.

    I wonder if you have given this question much thought. Its rather a depressing thought isnt it though? How can you control anything after death.

  • jinju…

    sorry i just cannot remember your real name at this moment, but i know you are one of the Polish guys….

    well, i can barely control anything BEFORE death!!! afterwards, well, i hate to think about it when they dig open all those cardboard boxes!!

    david

  • Thats why I changed my Name in the sig when I post:) So you dont have to remember;)

    The cardboard boxes..beauty of digital, the crap gets erased;) Although I tell you, thats the danger…lots of the stuff I thought was crap I actually started liking later….so you run the chance of erasing what will turn out to be a good photo later on.

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