On a recent trip to Los Angeles I attended an exhibit at the Getty Museum featuring the work of Josef Koudelka, whose photographs mostly depicted gypsies and impoverished people in mid-century Romania and Czech Republic. I don’t know much more because I don’t spend much time reading the labels. An art history professor of mine in college frequently and vehemently chided museum-goers who believe they’re learning more by reading the wall captions than they would looking at the art. Every time he said it I felt shame for ever having bothered to read a caption at all, and henceforth spent my museum time looking hard at the art, holding my gaze for longer than is comfortable. Careful, though, not to stare past the point of social acceptability, because almost as bad as the label-readers are the art hogs who look for so long they make everyone else in the room feel as though they’re missing something.
I had never heard of Koudelka and was taken by his photos, enough to want to kick all the other tourists out of the room so I could be alone with the images (is there any better way to experience art?) and was even scolded by a suited security guard for taking a photo of one with my phone. “No photos, please!” he yelled, but there were photos everywhere. We wouldn’t be here if someone hadn’t seen something and thought, I must photograph that. The others snapped their necks at me and lost interest just as quickly.
I could easily have found the same photo online (which I have, above), but the one on my phone reminds me that I saw it in person, that I was there to see the result of Koudelka actually having been there, to witness these elegant contrasts: the girl’s youngness against the finality of a wedding day, the white of her dress against the crumbling wall, the bitterness in the face of the girl in the window behind her against her own expression of annoyed impatience, as though she is saying, Do we have to do this right now? Adolescence is the same across time and space and understanding. I take great comfort in that—it makes me feel human. And if that is not at least one of photography’s promises, then I have learned less than I suspect, or than I’ve hoped.