Summary of Josef Koudelka
Josef Koudelka is a Czech-born French itinerant photographer known for his seminal photo-books about the gypsies in Eastern Europe, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the Black Triangle, a region of environmental devastation. The black and white images in these photo-books represent key moments in human history that afford us the opportunity to learn from the experiences of alienation, conflict, despair, waste, loss, and departure. He uses photography to distill and visualize human values that have shaped our current human condition.
- While working as a photographer for the Czech theater, Koudelka developed a visual, graphic language defined by its economy, high-contrast lighting, raw graininess, and effective compositions. He pre-visualized the image, used repetition, cropping, and even manipulated the image to capture the detail he was after. In this manner, Koudelka produced a striking image that engaged the viewer. Koudelka not only captured the essence of every theatrical performance he photographed, but also succeeded in documenting what was quintessential in the epic drama of life he subsequently photographed.
- His photographs of the Soviet invasion in 1968 are not only his singular foray into photojournalism, but more importantly, they stand as a definitive testament to the Czech people's spontaneous mass protest against Soviet military domination. Koudelka's photographs render this historical event from various viewpoints as it ensued in real time.
- Later, the panoramic format has become Koudelka's preferred approach. It allows him to visualize the spatial relationship between man and nature, the individual and the world. With this format, he has produced iconic images of man-made environmental devastation and the frailty of human civilization. His panoramic photography has also persuaded us to gaze at subjects we are prohibited from viewing for security reasons or that go unnoticed, because they are not part of our everyday world.
- He believes that one can acquire knowledge through one's eyes, as he states: "...if you look enough and give enough time, even if you do not have a fantastic brain, ... you will get to certain conclusions and I think I get to the conclusions." His philosophy is visualized poignantly in his photographs of the Roma gypsies and the way in which he learned how to live by observing their way of life and culture.
Important Art by Josef Koudelka
An Hour of Love
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
Biography of Josef Koudelka
Josef Koudelka, born in Boskovice, a town in Moravia, was fascinated throughout his childhood by folk music, planes, and family photographs taken by the local baker. He seems to have grown up in a close-knit family, which can be inferred from what he has said in interviews about his parents in general. At the age of fourteen, the local baker, also an amateur photographer, introduced him to photography. Koudelka saved up for a Bakelite 6x6 camera by selling wild strawberries picked from bushes on the roadside outside Boskovice. He started taking photographs of his family and the town's surrounding landscape until he left for Prague at the age of eighteen to take up a sensible career in engineering.
Early Training and Work
Koudelka attended the Czech Technical University in Prague to study aeronautical engineering from 1956 to 1961. While at the university, Koudelka met Jiri Janiček, who ran a photo club for students and helped him develop his keen interest in photography. He had his first photography exhibition at the Semafor theatre in Prague in 1961.
Entranced by the drama of the theatre, Koudelka continued taking photographs, and successfully obtained commissions from the theatrical magazines Divadlo (Theater) to photograph stage productions at the experimental theaters in Prague, namely Divadlo Za Branou (Theatre Beyond the Gate) and Divadlo Na Zábradlí (Theatre on the Ballustrade). All the while he worked as an aeronautical engineer throughout the early 1960's.
He was drawn to the Roma (gypsy) people living in Slovakia and Romania between 1961 and 1962, and eventually he ventured to explore gypsy life in other Eastern European countries. Koudelka felt an affinity with the gypsies' itinerant existence and perpetual displacement, as he moved from different villages and encampments with only his equipment, a rucksack, and sleeping bag. He shared his work and ideas about the gypsies with two Czech friends Markéta Luskačová and Dagmar Hochová, both of whom were photographers who could provide him constructive criticism and comments on his work. Koudelka had an inaugural exhibition of this work in the lobby of the theater of Prague in March 1967. That same year a series of these photographs were published in the Swiss journal Camera. Consequently, he abandoned his engineering career in 1967 to become a full-time photographer and to continue photographing gypsy life. Perhaps it was destiny that Koudelka returned from photographing the gypsies just one day before the Soviet invasion of Prague.
The 1968 Soviet invasion was a pivotal moment in his career as a photographer. Equipped with meters of East German film and his Exakta Varex camera, Koudelka just started photographing what was happening in the streets, as he immersed himself in the public outrage of the Soviet invasion of Prague. He captured the heavy-handed manner with which the Soviets crushed the Prague Spring, a brief period of reform and liberalization under the Czech government of Alexander Dubček. His negatives were smuggled out of the country and published anonymously in The Sunday Times Magazine in London with the help of Elliott Erwitt, who was president of Magnum Photos, an international photographic cooperative owned by its participating members. Fearing reprisals from the Czech authorities these photographs were published under the initials P.P. (Prague Photographer), for which he was awarded anonymously the Overseas Press Club's Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1969. Much later, Koudelka published a collection of these photographs in his book, Invasion Prague 68, in 2008.
For the first time, Koudelka saw his published photographs of the Soviet invasion while in London in 1969 on a trip with the Czech theatre group, Divadlo. When he returned to Prague, he lived with ever increasing fear that his work, although published anonymously, could be attributed to him. In 1970 he asked his Magnum colleagues to help him emigrate to England. They wrote to the Czech Ministry of Culture saying that Magnum wished to give Koudelka a grant to photograph gypsies in Europe, on the strength of which he was given a visa. Once in England, he applied for and was granted political asylum. Koudelka officially joined Magnum in 1971.
During the eight years before his exile in 1970, Koudelka had captured the daily life of the Roma (gypsies), drawn by his fascination with their music and culture. In collaboration with the French publisher Robert Delpire, he published a series of photographs on gypsy life in his first photo-book titled Les Gitans (The Gypsies).
Koudelka spent his years in England from 1970 through 1989 traveling: "His international wanderings," as he called them, enabled him to photograph folk life in the United Kingdom and Europe. He organized his life and photographic work around the principal gypsy festivals and religious events in Europe. His travels therefore began in the spring and ended in October. Koudelka spent the winters printing and selecting photographs. During this time, the United Kingdom became his headquarters, as he established a network of contacts which included his fellow Magnum photographers and other photographers and editors, such as Allan Potter, who he met along his travels. Koudelka was known as a disciplined, hard worker, and amiable colleague. Because of his ascetic way of life, long hair and beard, he was nicknamed "Saint Joseph" by his Magnum colleagues.
During the late 1980s, Koudelka dedicated himself to working with panoramic photography, which fascinated him since the beginning of his career. He took on a commission from a government organization for land use, the La Mission Photographique Transmanche, when he learned they had a panoramic camera he could use. As a result, he documented the effect of the building of the Channel Tunnel on the French landscape with a panoramic camera that afforded him the opportunity to capture the expanse of the landscape, which his wide-angle lens could not do. This panoramic format became the mainstay of his later monumental work, which inspired Leica to help Koudelka with his transition from film to digital photography by creating for him the legendary, one-of-a-kind panoramic version of the Leica S2.
Koudelka eventually moved to France in 1987 to become a French citizen, when he was unable to obtain British citizenship. His encounters with new places and realities and the physical and psychological state of displacement he experienced throughout his travels over the last twenty years crystalized into his next project, the photo-book Exiles (1988). This project explored the emotions of loss, alienation, the stark isolation, and disconnection as well as the freedom that came with living an itinerant life.
The fall of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1989 enabled Koudelka to visit Prague in 1990 for the first time in 20 years. He spent the next two years traveling around Eastern Europe to chart the ravages of industrialization on the land that occurred under Communist rule. These pictures of environmental disasters and wastelands formed part of his book Black Triangle that he published in 1994. It signaled a change in subject matter from life experiences to landscapes. This change was confusing to many Magnum colleagues, especially Henri Cartier-Bresson who asked him why he had moved away from documenting human experience, which had been the main focus of his work during his years of exile. It was not that Koudelka gave up on the subject matter of his early years, but rather he desired to move on. Perhaps, it was also due to his age, which encouraged his inclination to observe. As Koudelka explained it, "If you photograph people, all of the time you are running after something. With landscapes you are waiting all the time. It is much more relaxing."
After a year of trying to persuade Koudelka to participate in his project This Place: Making Images, Breaking Images - Israel and the West Bank, Frédéric Brenner convinced Koudelka to visit Israel and the West Bank in June 2008. Koudelka returned to visit this place seven times over the next 5 years, while working on this collaborative project. He agreed to participate in the project, because he was granted full control over what he wanted to do and how he wanted to present it. As a result, Koudelka photographed the wall to show how this barrier devastated the land and produced a photo-book Wall: Israel and the West Bank as part of the project.
After this first foray into collaborative projects, Koudelka, together with the Milan collective, Studio Azzurro, and American artist Lawrence Carroll, participated in the exhibit "Un-creation." It was part of a multi-part exhibition Creation, Un-creation, Re-creation (Creatione, De-creatione, Re-creatione) organized by The Vatican for The Holy See Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2013. The art critic Charlotte Higgins described Koudelka's contribution to the exhibit "Un-creation" as "stark images of man's destructiveness."
His long career has resulted in a visual archive that constantly has been revisited due to its contemporary relevance. In 2017, the Pompidou Centre in Paris held an exhibition La Fabrique d'Exils (The Making of Exiles) in homage of Koudelka's 1988 book Exiles. This series of photographs addresses the theme of displacement from a philosophical and broad perspective, as it is not limited to any specific epoch or group. With this series, Koudelka not only celebrated the camera's constant documentation of real and everyday experiences, he was also inspired by the personal connections that these experiences made possible.
Koudelka was named Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture and has been lauded as a national icon in his home city of Prague. More importantly, he has taught us to use our eyes to look deep into the social fabric of ethnic communities, who have much to teach us about life. Koudelka concedes that from the Roma he learned "nothing is permanent" and so there is no need to worry about the future. They also taught him that he does not need much to be alive, as he has stated: "So I never worried about money because I knew in the past if I needed the money I borrowed it so I didn't lose the time."
Koudelka has three children; a boy and two girls from three different relationships. As he has stated: "I am not a family man and I can never be a family man. But I am very happy, I have children and I hope that they are happy that they exist." When asked by his teacher what his father did for a living, his 13-year old son replied that "He's a nomad." Koudelka continues to work as a peripatetic photographer, splitting his time between Prague and Paris.
The Legacy of Josef Koudelka
Koudelka's seminal photo-books on gypsies, the Soviet invasion of 1968, and exiles have become major points of reference for photographers working in the documentary tradition. The American photographer Cornell Capa said of him, "Koudelka's unsentimental, stark, brooding, intensely human imagery reflects his own spirit, the very essence of an exile who is at home wherever his wandering body finds haven in the night."
Koudelka believes that the narrative in the photographic series should be sufficient to convey meaning to the viewer. He therefore rarely explains his photographs. Instead he emphasizes the importance of composition and captures only what he needs to destill a detail or expression. Consequently, Koudelka has influenced his own generation of Czech documentary photographers, such Markéta Luskačová, Dagmar Hochová, as well as the next generation, such as Gilad Baram.
Influences and Connections
- Gilad Baram
- Eric Kim
- John Szarkowski
- Anna Farova
- Cornell Capa
- Documentary Photography
- Landscape Photography
Useful Resources on Josef Koudelka
- Josef Koudelka: ExilesOur PickBy Josef Koudelka
- Josef Koudelka: Wall - Israeli & Palestinian Landscape 2008-2012Our PickBy Josef Koudelka in collaboration with Ray Dolphin
- GypsiesOur PickBy Josef Koudelka