Josef Koudelka - Biography and Legacy
Boskovice, Czech Republic
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.