Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Josef Koudelka: The Black Triangle

Josef Koudelka’s powerful black and white panoramas of the Black Triangle bear witness to the environmental destruction of this Czech border region
Feature, Magnum Photos — April 2017

Photo: Josef Koudelka

The panoramas of Podkrusnohori, located at the western tip of the infamous Black Triangle, which fill the pages of Josef Koudelka’s seminal photobook of the same name, capture the barren landscape of his homeland. This photoessay marks the first time Koudelka returned to the Czech Republic after the global publication of his photographs of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 compromised his safety. Ravaged by open-cast mining since the fifteenth century, Koudelka’s images offer a record of the immense and irreversible environmental damage inflicted by man on this region, located between Germany’s southern Saxony, Poland’s Lower Silesia and the Czech Republic’s northern Bohemia in the foothills of the ore mountains.

Despite the enforcement of emission-reduction measures since the mid 1990s, the area remains one of Europe’s most devastated territories, with over fifty percent of the region’s coniferous forests having been destroyed between 1972 and 1989, when production was accelerated by the industrial revolution. A quotation from Václav Havel at the start of the Koudelka’s book reads “man is not an omniscient master of the planet who can get away with doing whatever he likes and whatever may suit him at the moment.” Particularly poignant today, with the deterioration of the environment now both such an immediate and contentious political issue, Havel’s text provides a powerful introduction to the smoking factories, waste heaps, devastated forests and dried up lakes, which dominate the pages that follow.

In the mid-1980s Koudelka began experimenting with panoramic photography, which had fascinated him since the beginning of his career. He made his first panorama in 1958, however it was not until the late 1980s that Koudelka dedicated himself to working systematically in this format. He was persuaded to take up a commission from a government organization for land-use, photographing the French countryside, after learning they had a panoramic camera he could use. His transition to panoramic photography was thus also accompanied by a shift in his work’s subject-matter. After spending decades living along-side and documenting Europe’s Roma people, during this period Koudelka’s photographs became increasingly devoid of any human subject-matter, focusing instead on landscapes, first those of France and then later the wastelands of the Black Triangle.

Ever a humanist photographer, Koudelka was however disinterested by the picturesque French countryside, writing that he was most fascinated by “the kind of landscape influenced by contemporary man”. Indeed, Podkrusnohori bears the harsh imprint of its inhabitants; it was this destruction that drew Koudelka to it. The book is a witness to a man-made environmental disaster: a booming industrial region, once littered with villages and towns, now reduced to stretches of deserted, acid-burnt terrain. Yet the panoramas also emanate an eerie beauty, which Koudelka attributes to his images being a testament to the strength of nature: a record of a “wounded landscape” struggling to heal and slowly beginning to recover and renew itself.

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