BOOK REVIEW / Grim panoramas of a stinking homeland: The black triangle - Josef Koudelka: Sagga, pounds 35

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There is from time to time a burst of hyperbole about the latest photographic book. Now a real one has come along.

Josef Koudelka was exiled from Czechoslovakia in 1969, when the Soviet tanks rolled in, for taking the kind of breathtaking pictures that no fraternal forces could tolerate. He tried to settle in London without getting citizenship and wandered; based in Paris, he was famously homeless, often using Magnum colleagues' homes as his bases.

He did the occasional news story but was never one of those photojournalists who race around the world looking for the latest front line to show us.

Instead he developed a cycle of working in long steady drives, shooting in the summer and processing and editing in the winter, working in 10-year spans. The result was two prize-winning books that take their names from descriptions of himself: Exiles and Gypsies.

In the mid-1980s he started to use a panoramic camera and invented a new way of seeing the world. While Koudelka remained a humanist photographer, people themselves started to disappear from the photographs.

His subject became mankind itself. Industrial landscapes in northern France -commissioned by an enlightened regional arts board in Lille, in connection with the Channel tunnel - showed what he could do. He went to Beirut and made pictures of that devastated city which are one of the truly unforgettable bodies of photographs that we have. And finally, in 1989, it became possible for him to return to the Czech Republic, carrying all the virtuosity and all the immense integrity and desire to communicate in the pictures that he had developed in his years of exile.

The result has just been published: The Black Triangle, The Foothills of the Ore Mountains (Sagga Co-operative, Prague). In essence this is simply a report on a region of northern Bohemia that has been devastated by mining the brown coal on which first Austro-Hungarian and then Czech industrial activity depended.

It is a beautifully produced book, a massive concentration of exquisitely-printed panoramas wrapped in a muted brown wrapper of striking modesty. A lean introduction by Vaclav Havel, a brief text retailing some statistics about the region and then 50 or 60 feet of marvellous photographs, unrolling like a great stream as one turns the pages. Koudelka simply dives in to the environmental horror that is there and makes a series of perfect pictures of it. It is a hell of a homecoming.

The panoramic format has in recent years become something of a gimmick. All sorts of photographers use it for no better reason than its novelty.

Koudelka is emphatically not in this category. He designs the images within their long thin frame to guide our eye around and uses the shape of the panorama to guarantee that we cannot see the whole picture at once. You find yourself moving your glance through the photograph at a pace measured and dosed by Koudelka himself. Light tends to bounce from the surface of photographs, while it snags and catches in the roughnesses of the surface of paint. By composition alone Koudelka compensates for this and makes us feel that we cannot lift our eyes from the page. Not a gimmick: sheer mastery of his craft.

The pictures are grim witness to a disaster: mile after mile of stripped topsoil and acid-burnt forests, desert where once there were villages and towns, lakes which look dead even in a photograph. By a miracle of Koudelka's skill the ugliness is transformed, the ravaged landscape of spoil- heaps and stinking puddles remade by a Capability Brown of the mind.

Koudelka has been to a place as barren as the Moon, and blames us all for sending him there. That it was his homeland makes it all the worse. But this is one of the great photographic books of recent years, one of the great books of any sort. Few human tragedies find a chronicler great enough to cope with them: add The Black Triangle to the list.