The strange beauty of wreckage

Josef Koudelka photographed Soviet tanks and Czech theatre. His vision was to transform them both. By Rachel Halliburton
The old man hunched before the backdrop riddled with bullet-holes says more about desolation than any words could. One shoulder slumps lower than the other, while his sunken cheeks sag on a face scarred with dejection. It is impossible to see his eyes - it is as if they, like the windows behind him, have been blown in as a result of the violence.

Tanks and guns have raped him and his surroundings of any meaningful existence; now - like so many others in war-zones across the world - he is a corpse just waiting to happen. The photographer Josef Koudelka took the old man's photograph shortly after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It was an image that was to become famous worldwide, proclaiming the photographer as a key witness to Russia's clampdown on Prague's increasingly liberalised socialism by sending the tanks in.

Koudelka was forced to remain anonymous at the time - but today in the Czech Republic his pictures remain, for many, potent symbols of Czech feeling immediately after the invasion. In one photograph, a youth bares his chest to a Russian tank, daring the soldiers to shoot him down. In another - shot seconds beforehand - two young Czech men triumphantly hold their flag above a street awash with the rubble and emptiness left by tanks that have gone before them.

These unblinking portrayals of human hardship form a small but significant part of the exhibition of Koudelka's work, "From Behind the Iron Curtain", currently on display in the Lyttleton foyer at the National Theatre. The rest of the exhibition lifts the curtain on photos Koudelka took of theatrical productions in Prague before communism crushed the theatres into silence in 1972. These pictures have never been exhibited in the West before.

To Westerners it may appear to be a strange juxtaposition - combining the harsh realities of the Soviet invasion with dramas made more trivial by the fact that they can be washed away at the end of the evening with the greasepaint. In fact, it is only by working out the links between the two sections of the exhibition that viewers will be able to get to the heart of what Koudelka's work really is about.

A simplistic conclusion might be that because censorship played such a significant part in Soviet oppression, the link between these two sections is rooted in politics. Put this to Koudelka, however, and he dismisses this as too pat. The grizzled, slightly mischievous-looking photographer huddles over a cup of tea and starts to explain.

"I did not hate the Russian soldiers who were there in 1968 - I felt sorry for them. I was part of the same system - I could have been sitting one night somewhere on a tank in Warsaw or Budapest," he says. "These pictures are about a foreign army entering a country, and the way people there reacted to it."

It is only after looking more carefully at Koudelka's photographs of 1968 that it is possible to see that his words are an affirmation of their more enduring qualities. It becomes clear, for example, after standing in front of these pictures of the old man for some time, that Koudelka's lens has a transformative power, which translates the image from the figurative to the symbolic. The man becomes far more than an individual standing in a street in Prague - instead, the emotions he is expressing elevate him into a symbol for desolation, which could be as relevant in the former Yugoslavia or in Northern Ireland, as in Prague.

Koudelka is emphatic that it is this kind of universality he is aiming for, and that any attempts by people to say his work is political is to miss the point. He explains: "I was never involved in politics. I think the best pictures I took were those where it is not important if the soldier is Russian, Czech, or American.

"The point is that one person has a gun, and the other doesn't."

Ironically, while the pictures shot in the streets of Prague have the emotional complexity of a five-act tragedy, Koudelka's photographs of the theatre - which are also black and white - seem initially to rob them of their dramatic meaning. Koudelka took these strikingly original photos at the Theatre on the Balustrade and the Theatre Behind the Gate in Prague.

Again, Koudelka's lens transforms, but in his most extreme photos the actors become more like a series of abstract forms than symbols - a dynamic composition of curves, lines, and irregular shapes which allows them to achieve another kind of universality.

In this way, King Ubu in jail becomes a jostling assortment of black and white stripes, while one of the actresses being cast for Chekhov's Three Sisters, looks less like a human than a gorgon, as her neck strains forward, and her spiky hair reaches towards the picture frame.

"One actor who came to the exhibition in Prague said: 'You know, you didn't photograph the theatre, you photographed the spirit of the theatre'," Koudelka remembers.

Koudelka's greatest power lies in drawing beauty from the devastated and the disinherited. In the Eighties he won further acclaim for his collection of photographs entitled Exiles and in a new collection of his photos, called Chaos, Beirut and the former Yugoslavia will provide some of the backdrops to his images of human and material wreckage.

He claims no fixed nationality - he lives in France, and says he does not have a Czech identity. It is perhaps a strong indication of hisfeeling of exile that he says at the end of the interview:

"I'm not really looking forward to the opening of my exhibition - it makes me nervous. In the past, the only Czechs who used to come were the secret police."

'From Behind the Iron Curtain' is at the Lyttleton foyer, RNT, London SE1. 'Chaos' will be published by Nathan; 'Exiles', revised edition, is published by Thames and Hudson, price pounds 32