I’ve recently purchased ‘Industries’ a most impressive book featuring monochrome industrial landscapes by the legendary Magnum photographer Josef Koudelka. Aside from the large format of the book and the unusual, calendar style wire binding, what is notable is that all the photos are in the panoramic format, having been shot on either a Fuji 617 panorama camera or his custom made digital Leica S2 that Leica converted to a panorama format.
Koudelka is one of the best known, yet most enigmatic, photojournalists of his time. Trained as an engineer in his native Czechoslovakia, his parallel career as a photographer was picking up speed when in 1968 Russian and other Eastern Bloc Forces invaded to crush the Prague Spring. His photographs from the streets of Prague were smuggled out to the Magnum Photo Agency in New York where they were published under the pseudonym P.P. (Prague Photographer) to protect him from reprisals. It is maybe his photograph of Wenceslas Boulevard, wristwatch in the foreground, that is his best known of these events and the one that I immediately associate with Kouldeka, yet he is also well known for his work documenting East European gypsies, as well as other projects that have kept him a magnum member since 1971.
Consequently, it was a surprise to hear that a book of his panoramic industrial landscapes had been published a few years back.
Panoramas of the industrial landscape – or any landscape – are nothing new. I’ve been rummaging round the American Library of Congress digital archive for several years now, and this contains tens of thousands of scanned negatives, including thousands taken by the Detroit Publishing Company. These 8×10 glass plate images were taken from the late 1890’s up to the early 1930’s, a period of extraordinary growth and change in America. Among the 25000 or so negatives from the Detroit Publishing Company are a number of individual negatives that were taken to form sections of a panorama. I imagine creating a panorama from 8×10 glass negatives was a complex feat in what must have been a very large commercial darkroom, but in Adobe Lightroom, it can be done in seconds, albeit with varying degrees of success. I don’t know if large scale – single sheet panoramas were ever produced, I suspect not, and probably not as seamless as a computer can do. Even now, to print something this big at full size would require a colossal inkjet printer and would cost a lot of money!
These panoramas are vast in terms of both the landscape they portray and the size of the finished image. Most have ended up around 15000 pixels long (depending on how many component images there are), which Photoshop says is equivalent to 555 cm at 72PPI, but the Holland America dock photograph is 24000 pixels which at 72PPI would give an image size of 862cm long!!!!! The images were digitised using a medium format camera and the level of detail is stunning, but suffers from a degree of motion blur of moving people, etc, presumably due to the slow shutter speeds used (the emulsion on the glass plates of this time would have had what we now call ISO sensitivity in the single figures).
I acknowledge that beyond the subject matter and format this is a strange comparison, but humour me as I found it interesting to contrast the two approaches. Koudelka’s is to isolate a slice of the landscape, picking out one aspect of a much larger scene (almost like you would with a telephoto), while the Detroit Publishing Company photographers opted to capture as much as possible using as many frames as needed, anything up to 8 or more. The panoramic format is sometimes called the letterbox format, and Koudelka’s images are very much akin to looking through a letterbox, i.e. a wide field of view, that is at the same time limited in the vertical direction. This is exaggerated when used for the photographs that are of subjects close to the camera rather than the conventional approach of distant landscapes.
The photographs in this book are a collation of work from different projects. Some are from the commission to photograph the Sollac steel mill in Dunkirk, others are from his Black Triangle project that he undertook when he returned to his native Czechoslovakia in 1991 to photograph the coal mined landscape of Bohemia.
Given my recent photography of the steelworks at Scunthorpe, the photographs of the Sollac steel works at Dunkirk made for an interesting point of comparison. As has been alluded to above, there’s a world of difference between deliberately composing in a panoramic format, and cropping afterwards, plus, Koudleka wasn’t on a moving train when he was making his photographs. But the beauty of cropping afterwards is that you are not limited to a particular aspect ratio. However, constraints foster creativity and I love the precision of Koudelka’s composition. I suppose working only in this format forces you to see in this format and after a while it becomes natural.
The coal mine images have a wonderful bleakness about them. I wonder if this was deliberate – the area had been countryside when Koudelka left in the 70’s but the pastoral scenes had been brutally ripped from the landscape by the coal industry.
But there are some strange inclusions. The majority of the photographs are of the steelworks, the Czech coalfields and other coal / quarrying operations as well as some from The Azerbaijani oilfields. But the inclusion of photographs of the Eiffel Tower, the concrete walls in Jerusalem and what appears to be a promenade wall in Italy are miles off topic, and can only be there as filler material. Yes the aesthetic is maybe appropriate but they aren’t congruent with the overall theme. The book is no weaker for their inclusion, but it’s no stronger. Maybe I should just tear them out, like a previous month on a calendar – the books binding certainly makes that possible (only joking, I never abuse my books in such a way!).