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Josef Koudelka

Czech-French Photographer

Josef Koudelka Photo

Born: January 10, 1938 - Boskovice, Czech Republic

"What matters most to me is to take photographs; to continue taking them and not to repeat myself."

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.

Key Ideas

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.
Josef Koudelka Photo

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.

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