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Josef Koudelka Photo

Josef Koudelka

Czech-French Photographer

Movement: Documentary Photography

Born: January 10, 1938 - Boskovice, Czech Republic

Josef Koudelka Timeline

Important Art by Josef Koudelka

The below artworks are the most important by Josef Koudelka - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

An Hour of Love (1965)
Artwork Images

An Hour of Love (1965)

Artwork description & Analysis: Koudelka contrasts the faces of a man and a woman: his expressionless, calm face and her expressive, articulate countenance. She faces the viewer head on, speaking directly to the audience, while he is seen in profile, gazing down. His head appears suspended in mid-air and his face is graphically abstracted into shapes of light and dark. While her head emerges out of the dark background, anchored by her neck and shoulders. The raw graininess of the black and white image lends drama to the scene, which pulls the viewer in, drawing an emotional response to the noise of the image which belies the silence of the photograph. As the art historian Anna Farova explains, "his theatre photography succeeds in effectively conveying the essence of every performance."

These images of Czech theater were an important first step in Koudelka's process of developing a unique way of depicting theatrical performances in the 1960s. His photographs of theatrical scenes foretell his love for the emotional and stylized rendition of drama. These pictures not only provided the material for his first exhibition in Prague, which took place at the Semafor theatre in 1961, but also the cover images for the important theater magazine Divadlo.

- Magnum Photos, New York, New York

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967. Gypsies. (1967)
Artwork Images

CZECHOSLOVAKIA. Slovakia. Zehra. 1967. Gypsies. (1967)

Artwork description & Analysis: Three young gypsy boys proudly display their toughness to survive the challenges of their nomadic existence, in spite of their thin bodies, as they puff up their chests like Western bodybuilders. Koudelka's empathy for these peoples living on the edge of society, defined by a homogenous nationalism, enabled him to capture the epic drama of their everyday lives. Koudelka described the gypsy series as the "theatre of the real," as he identified how their lives involved drama, large gestures, boldness, camaraderie, and loneliness.

Koudelka lived among the Roma (gypsies) in Slovakia and Romania in the 1960s, as well as among gypsies in other European countries, spanning a period of sixteen years. Through hard won trust, he established understanding and acceptance between subject and artist, and a symbiosis of respect. The Roma accepted Koudelka as an outcast and even considered him more of a displaced person by comparison. Thus they interchangeably observed one another as the viewer and the viewed. In the mid-1970s, Koudelka published his photo-book The Gypsies, in which he records and preserves the identity of these peoples, as they faced the need to integrate into socialist society in exchange for the promise of equality.

- Magnum Photos, New York, New York

Invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in front of the radio headquarters (1968)
Artwork Images

Invasion of Warsaw Pact troops in front of the radio headquarters (1968)

Artwork description & Analysis: Koudelka captures a male youth's bold gesture of dialogue and peace toward the armed soldiers sitting on top of a moving tank, during the Soviet invasion of Prague in the summer of 1968. He entered the heart of the resistance with an unflinching sincerity: he climbed tanks, mixed with the protesters, positioned himself between the demonstrators and armed soldiers with machine guns. Koudelka vividly documents how Czech citizens resisted by inciting dialogue with the armed soldiers to challenge them to question the reasons given for this aggression. He even photographed the many paintings and posters that appeared daily on the city walls, which were torn down by the invaders by each evening. His work documents the invasion by some 200,000 soldiers and 2000 tanks of Warsaw Pact troops on the night of August 20, 1968 to crush the Prague Spring.

Throughout the weeklong invasion, from August 21st to 27th, Koudelka reputedly took some 5000 photographs. He spent the winter selecting and printing the images. These photographs were published anonymously on the anniversary of the invasion in an ample reportage for the Sunday Times magazine in London and Look magazine in New York. These photographs were prepared from the negatives, which were clandestinely sent to the United States and entrusted to the Magnum Photo Agency. Not until 1984 did Koudelka identify himself as the photographer of these images, which are suffused with a sense of outrage, anger and disbelief. These photographs provide a unique record of a historical event as it unfolded, which is particularly poignant when viewed in relation to the political acquiescence that ensued.

- Magnum Photos, New York, New York

Parc de Sceaux, France (1987)
Artwork Images

Parc de Sceaux, France (1987)

Artwork description & Analysis: This photograph, taken in France, shows a dog crossing a railroad track in the desolate Parc de Sceaux in the middle of winter. It has become an iconic depiction of not only Koudelka's Exiles series, but is also seen as a portrait of Koudelka, the solitary exile who, despite later rehabilitation as a national icon in the Czech Republic, is still identified (and identifies himself) as a solitary figure. This series Exiles depicts the desolation experienced by those in exile. The fresh immediacy is achieved by what Koudelka calls his restless migration, "I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind."

The series is a powerful photo essay on the subject of alienation, which took Koudelka twenty-five years to compile. And it is as relevant today, as when it was made. It has been recognized as one of Koudelka's most important photo-books. He produced it to explore the everyday lives of migrants like himself, that he found roaming around Europe over twenty years. It gave rise to the book Josef Koudelka: The Making of Exiles (2017), which explores the origins and making of his journey to describe the travels and everyday life of these migrant people of Europe.

- Magnum Photos, New York, New York

The Ore Mountains, Czech Republic (1993)
Artwork Images

The Ore Mountains, Czech Republic (1993)

Artwork description & Analysis: Koudelka turns to a panoramic view to capture the irreversible damage inflicted by man on the landscape at Podkrusnohori, located at the western tip of the Black Triangle, which is situated between Germany's southern Saxony, Poland's Lower Silesia and the Czech Republic's northern Bohemia in the foothills of the ore mountains. In this photo essay, he provides us with a new understanding of what homage to nature may mean. Instead of a sentimental depiction of a lost world due to the brutalism of industrialization and urbanization, he finds an aesthetic beauty in the utter devastation of the land.

Returning to his homeland for the first time after his exile in 1970, enabled by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Koudelka registers the human presence, despite the absence of people, through the scars left upon the land from the long years of open-cast mining, deforestation, and accelerated industrialization. It is this wasteland that drew Koudelka to this region. As Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, states in the introduction to Koudelka's book, The Black Triangle, "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."

These images of smoking factories, waste heaps, dried up lakes are a unique view of "the kind of landscape influenced by contemporary man" (to borrow Koudelka's own words). Koudelka's photo-book The Black Triangle documents this man-made environmental disaster zone. A place once dotted with villages and towns, which is now reduced to a deserted, acid-burnt terrain in the aftermath of booming industry. His images also capture nature's redemptive qualities, how it struggles to heal and regenerate itself. As irreversible the changes may be, as devoid of hope the scenes may represent, their overwhelming beauty testifies to the everlasting strength of the natural world.

- Magnum Photos, New York, New York

Gilo Settlement, Israel (2008)
Artwork Images

Gilo Settlement, Israel (2008)

Artwork description & Analysis: In 2007, the photographer Frédéric Brenner invited Koudelka, together with 11 other photographers, to participate in a collaborative project to document the wall erected to separate Israel and Palestine. Once Koudelka received formal reassurances that he will own the copyright, have final approval of all images and texts, and a freehand to do what he wanted to do, he officially signed on to participate. From the very beginning, he imagined that his project would be a series of photographs presented in the format of a book that opened accordion-style to symbolize the wall. A mock-up of this photo-book defined the display of his photographs in the traveling exhibition This Place: Making Images, Breaking Images - Israel and the West Bank, which included the work of all 12 photographers.

This wall, erected by the Israeli authorities around the West Bank, measures nine-meters high and 700 km long, and is made of steel, concrete, and barbed wire. This barrier is intended as a deterrent to (almost daily) terrorist attacks, and yet the massive man-made structure devastates the land. Koudelka's own experience of growing up behind the iron curtain informs how he viewed this barrier - this "security fence." He states that he intentionally "look[ed] beyond dominant political narratives - not to judge, but to question and to reveal".

Koudelka concedes, "I hate the Wall. But, at the same time, it is pretty spectacular." This series embodies Koudelka's artistic philosophy of allowing the viewer to interpret the photographs by what they see and feel, and not be influenced by titles and text provided by artists and curators. As he has said, "I prefer people to look at my pictures and invent their own stories."

- Magnum Photos, New York, New York

Amman, Jordan (2012)
Artwork Images

Amman, Jordan (2012)

Artwork description & Analysis: The archaeological ruins in this photograph, located in Amman, Jordan, reveal our human hubris in creating monumental works intended to stand the test of time. Here, the oversized, fragment of human fingers that seem to struggle to keep a grip on this land, seen in the foreground, are all that is left of a colossal sculpture. Koudelka's exploration of archaeology was his attempt to record the existence of early civilizations, covering 200 sites in 20 countries. These panoramic photographs remind us like memento mori of the frailty and mortality of civilization. They measure 1.2 to 1.8 meters in length, and suggest the scale of an actual window. To stand in front of one of these panoramas is to sense at once the land's proximity and inaccessibility.

Created for the Holy See Pavilion with its theme of "Creazione, De-creazione, and Re-creazione" (giving a nod to the Book of Genesis) at the Venice Biennale in 2013, Koudelka chose 18 photographs to express the themes of "De-creazione" the idea of destruction and the conflicting purposes of the natural and industrial world. In many ways, Koudelka's work over the last thirty years has been concerned with man's creative and destructive effects.

- Magnum Photos, New York, New York



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Content compiled and written by Zaid S. Sethi

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Zaid S. Sethi
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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