A colour vision – Exercise – The Roma Journeys/Gypsies

There has always been a fascination with ‘others’ and the ‘exotic’ so it will be quite enlightening for me to study both the bodies of work that we are asked to examine next; Gypsies by Josef Koudelka and Joakim Eskildsen’s The Roma Journeys. I haven’t seen either of them before so will be interesting to see what their approach is and how they vary, if at all.
Exercise
Read the interview with Cia Rinne on The Roma Journeys.Research and compare Koudelka’s Gypsies and Eskildsen’s The Roma Journeys. Discuss aspects to do with the photographer’s intention and the distinctive aesthetics and approach of each body of work. 

Gypsies by  Josef Koudelka was published by Gitans. La fin du voyage, Delpire éditeur (Paris, 1975) and Aperture (New York, 1975) and reprinted in 2011 by Steidl.

 

The book contains 109 photographs of Roma society taken between 1962 and 1971 in what was then Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, France, and Spain; Koudelka embedded himself within their community living with and travelling with Roma people . The design is based on a dummy book originally prepared in 1968 by Koudelka and graphic designer Milan Kopriva. Like Joakim Eskildsen he also worked collaboratively with a writer. He had Roma scholar and sociologist Will Guy, write an essay for the 1975 edition; Guy contributed a new, in-depth analysis of the condition of the Roma today, including the most recent upheavals in France and Europe, in the 2011 edition.  Koudelka  stated:
At first, with the gypsies, I didn’t know where I was going or what I was doing…I was meeting people, taking their portraits, getting them to accept me, sharing in their lives. Then I organized my vision of the gypsies, taking into account the facts and issues, trying to talk about the way they live, leaving nothing out.
Despite the uncertain beginning he describes the book as ‘very structured.’
In The Roma Journeys Eskildsen documented his encounters with colour images alongside ‘sympathetic essays’ from Cia Rinne. In fact there is a mix of colour 4×5’s and black-and-white panoramas arranged in seven main sections, each representing the perspective of the daily lives of Roma Gypsies, who lived in seven different countries. The book also came with an enclosed CD with field recordings and music recorded on the authors’ journeys. They too state:
These Roma journeys were by no means meticulously planned, and instead the product of a number of coincidences that enabled us to come into contact with the Roma.
Koudelka was first drawn to the Roma due to their music and culture, a free spirit himself, he felt a deep connection with their way of life, whilst Eskildsen and Rinne were initially inspired to reconcile the ‘hidden differences’ in Europe, as opposed to the overt segregation observed in an earlier project in Africa.
A superlative linguist, Cia Rinne opted to learn the language in order to learn as much as possible about their subjects, a total contrast to Bieke Depoorter who traipsed around for six years, spending countless nights photographing perfect strangers whom she randomly encountered on the street in Russia. Her project began when she was travelling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, in 2008. She didn’t speak the language and she carried a letter written in Russian that explained her intent! But that’s for another blog post…
Back to Koudelka, who said:
From 1961 to 1966 I took pictures of Gypsies because I loved the music and culture. They were like me in many ways. Now there are less and less of these people so I can’t really say anything else about them.

 

You can see the influence and the photographic tradition of Andre Kertesz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and even Robert Frank. Whilst Koudelka’s book is said to open with the figure of a young man almost like a guardian – a ‘gatekeeper of the secret society of the Roma people’ – possibly making the audience feel slightly uncomfortable; Joakim Eskildsen’s book opens with a gentle serene portrait of a innocent sleeping child cradled in a knotted hammock, with protective parents hovering nearby.

The images in his book were  often made at dusk or in shallow light, whereas some of Koudelka’s images are obviously underexposed and have been described as almost ‘film noir.’ The colour palette  of Eskildsen immediately identify the photographs as contemporary, which lends itself well to the vibrant colours captured within the Roma community, highlighting the subtle differences between the various countries. In contrast the atmospheric grainy black and white photographs contained within Gypsies don’t allow you to easily separate one community from another.

Whilst on the subject of colour Eskilden has captured the different pigments but they aren’t gaudy, he has shown them as secondary, as part of the way of life, as opposed  to Kenneth O’Halloran’s project Fair Trade  where the colours are most definitely one of the first impressions you get of his imagery.

Ru 2600.8 001
Neither bodies of work appear to present the Roma situation as ‘a social problem that can somehow be fixed’ but instead reveal communities that share the universal human condition; a combination of joy, amazement, sorrow, death and community. Koudelka did not portray the Roma to be ‘mischievous crooks or swindlers’– he revealed them to be loving, fun, and community-oriented human beings– to whom family values, religion, and self-identity was very important. Symbolism of crosses, family portraits and other traditional ephemera can be seen throughout both projects.

 

 

Both sets of photographers encountered some difficulties in capturing their images; Koudelka had to take time off work to visit the Gypsy camps and villages, his subjects mistrustful and the Communist Government was unhappy, whilst Eskildsen came across communities who did not wish to be photographed and an official who tried to denounce their Roma origins. Similarly both spent a considerable length of time living amongst the Roma whilst learning about and photographing them.

Another parallel would be the variety of shots: still life, individual portraits, family portraits, candid moments and landscapes. Another comparison would be that whilst Koudelka’s compositions were frequently more ‘loose’ with off kilter horizons, a lot of negative space and surreal imagery, Eskildsen’s appear more measured.

 


As you can see by the images I have paired, the imagery overlaps almost seamlessly in places. Even to the parting shot in Gypsies and the last shot on Eskildsen’s website from the Russian section.


Both photographers hold onto traditional compositional rules such as implied triangles, rules of odds or evens, frames within frames, juxtaposing melancholy with frivolity and movement within the frame/ kids having fun. However I do feel there is more movement and energy in Koudelka’s, the images in The Roma Journeys seem to have a slower pace to them.


Thematically Koudelka did not shy away from the traumatic aspects of life, including murder and the poignant reality of the death of a child, whilst Eskildsen plays it safe with his depiction of the harsh Roma way of life.


Koudelka’s use of light is stunning.

As yet I haven’t discovered what equipment Eskildsen used, although as mentioned already Eskildsen opens his chapters with wide panoramic shots in black and white, this seems a strange aesthetic choice. Having said that on looking further at his website it does say that Kodak and Fuji films were used and all photographs were taken using natural light, with the occasional use of a tripod. Koudelka chose to use a wide-angle lens as space was cramped and he wanted to capture as much as possible and it would appear that he too only used natural available light.

The ‘Gypsies’ project is a product of wide-angle lenses. I bought them by chance, from a widow who was selling everything. It changed my vision.

 

 

On comparing the two bodies of work I find more similarities than differences. I have read other students blogs who comment on Koudelka’s aloofness and failure to be an ‘insider’ and that there is a coldness to his imagery. I find I can’t agree with this stance and find myself more in agreement with Eric Kim who describes the book as having ‘soul and emotion.’

 

Conclusion

 

In conclusion, although there are many similarities to the work, there are enough subtle differences between the two, and not just due to the use of colour, to say that The Roma Journeys is not just a direct copy of Koudelka’s Gypsies. Although their initial inspirations were not the same they have both managed to portray various aspects of day to day life although I feel Koudelka captured more. When a culture has not significantly altered, even after a few decades, it is tricky to go back and capture something totally new. Through comparison there are many overlapping themes, but feel this in someways was inevitable, unless the shots were overly constructed. However, this exercise does underscore how topics can be revisited or approached from a slightly different angle to produce a contemporary and relevant body of work.

Research

Anon, Gypsies. Aperture.org. Available at: http://aperture.org/shop/josef-koudelka-gypsies/ [Accessed March 25, 2017].

Art of Photography on Josef Koudelka https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVNZNi8gXp8[Accessed 22 march 2017]

Josef Koudelka at Magnum https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYD1KHF54 [Accessed 22 march 2017]

Cia Rinne interview http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/ciarinne.pdf[Accessed 22 march 2017]

Eric Kim. http://erickimphotography.com/blog/2014/01/30/street-photography-book-review-gypsies-by-josef-koudelka/ [Accessed 25 March 2017].

Jmcolber.http://jmcolberg.com/weblog/2008/01/review_the_roma_journeys_by_joakim_eskildsen_and_cia_rinne/  [Accessed 25 March 2017].

Joakim Enskildsen http://www.joakimeskildsen.com/default.asp?Action=Menu&Item=113[Accessed 22 march 2017]

Joakim Enskildsen https://www.lensculture.com/articles/joakim-eskildsen-the-roma-journeys[Accessed 22 march 2017]

Nytimescom.http://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/09/arts/photography-view-josef-koudelka-s-melancholy-visions-of-gypsy-life.html [Accessed 25 March 2017]

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