Five Favorite Photos is a feature in which one of the writers here at CP picks a well-known photographer and takes on the near-impossible task of picking just five favorite shots from that pro. Today’s FFP comes by way of Chris, and the shooter spotlight is on Josef Koudelka. Enjoy.
Josef Koudelka is a man without a country, and a photographer who works beyond the constraint of any particular genre. These two things about Koudelka are inextricably linked, just as the trajectory of Koudelka’s life and work is very much linked to the trajectory of the former Czechoslovakia.
Koudelka was born in Czechoslovakia in January, 1938. Before he was a year old, the first Czechoslovak Republic was dissolved by Adolph Hitler. Weeks after he turned ten, Czechoslovakian Communists, with the aid of the Soviet Union, seized control of the government. The Czechoslovak Socialist Republic would remain in power for forty-two years, until the division of the Czech Republic and Slovakia took place in the early 1990s.
Koudelka became interested in photography in his early twenties and began working as a photographer in the early 1960s, ultimately leaving a career as an aircraft engineer to pursue photography. In 1968 he photographed the uprisings in Prague, the negatives from which were smuggled out of Czechoslovakia to Magnum, and published anonymously in the Sunday Times.
While the images from the Prague Spring may represent Koudelka’s most iconic work, they are not the end of his portfolio, nor are they very representative of the rest of his work. Since 1968, Koudelka has been continually on the move. Though he’s been a French citizen since 1987, he claims no homeland. He has never stayed in one place for more than three months in the past four decades, and this has forced his work to evolve continually with his worldview.
To Koudelka, the trip is essential. While he always knows where he wants to go, he seems to relish in his ability to change his trajectory, both in his travel and in his work. As he said in this New York Times interview “I am still going on because I don’t put so many limitations on myself. Take for example Bresson and Klein. As Henri started, he finished. With the exception that at the beginning he was the best.”
To Koudelka, evolution and creative mobility is essential to his work. While I could easily populate this feature with five images of Prague in 1968, to do so would be a disservice to Koudelka. These five images are meant to roughly break down his long and varied career, beginning with his work with Gypsies in the mid-1960s, and carrying us right up to the present day.
Gypsies, Slovakia, 1963
Koudelka’s earliest work is some of the most challenging to engage with. In his work with Romanian Gypsies and the Roma, Koudelka became very closely embedded with the people he was photographing. Being closely embedded allowed him to capture how the gypsies lived in a very honest way, where truly nothing was off limits to the photographer.
The subjects and compositions varied, and Koudelka was allowed to capture the extremes of emotion in a very un-filtered way. In the image above, a manacled man is being led away from the village, presumably to his death. The subject is heavily distanced from the other gypsies, and the only people near to him are a handful of police officers and Koudelka. The image is stark, isolating, and indicative of the distrust the Roma had towards the landed people of the area. The curve of the landscape is as much a character in the scene as the prisoner. Where the Roma were often self-policing, the visible officers of the State are separating the guilty from his people.
Koudelka’s involvement with the Roma ended in mid-1968, and within two days of returning to Prague, he was greeted with another challenge.
Citizen on Tank, 1968
Koudelka photographed the Prague invasion on re-purposed cinema film that he rolled himself as the crisis developed (as if documenting the unfolding calamities in Prague wasn’t urgent enough). The works captured in this time include this photo, which has long been among my favorites by any photographer, though I’ll admit it’s an easy choice. The overt theatrics of the Czechoslovakian waving his flag over a Russian tank make for an extremely striking image. Indeed, the first time I saw this image it was a very, very small thumbnail, and I thought he was holding a sword, not a flag.
Koudelka didn’t publicly acknowledge that he had photographed Prague during the invasion for a full sixteen years. His identity was only known to a select few people within Magnum. Magnum initially attributed this image, and others to “P.P.,” short for “Prague Photographer.”
Thus distanced from his most famed work, Koudelka began a decades-long period in exile.
After leaving Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s, Koudelka became extremely mobile. While he found his primary residence in England in the 1970s, then France in the 1980s, Koudelka was continually elsewhere. He followed folk festivals, and his outgoing nature opened many doors for him. By his own admission, he was relatively competent in many languages, but fluent in few.
His openness with people while he worked seemingly invited him into many ostensibly private situations. The few photos he produced of his own life during this period showed him to be extremely isolated, living under the stars, and often away from populated areas. He valued this freedom, which came with it a freedom from assignments. “I know what I want to do and I do it. And I’ve created conditions so I can do it—I’ve been doing it for 45 years. People who do assignments are being paid and they are supposed to do something. I want to keep the freedom not to do anything, the freedom to change everything.”
During this period in exile, he produced a number of wonderfully candid images of people from all walks of life, and I just love this one. This boy, wrapped in paper towels, clearly has not reconciled what just happened to him with what he needs to do next. It’s probably not this child’s happiest moment, but it’s a great image.
Romania, Danube, 1994
Beginning in the 1990s, Koudelka’s work shifted to landscape panoramas. Rather than documenting the authentic human experiences he sought during his period in exile, he seemed to address more directly people’s impact on the land. This shift puzzled several people at Magnum, including Henri Cartier-Bresson who reportedly asked what Koudelka had done with all the people when he first viewed the early panoramas. Many of his panoramas from the 1990s are centered around the Mediterranean basin, and show the impact of mining and industry on the region.
This particular image is a bit different. The statue of Lenin on the barge is a leftover prop from the movie Ulysse’s Gaze. Like his earlier photo of the gypsy prisoner being led away from the other gypsies, this image uses several very strong diagonal lines created by the orientation of the barge, and of a breakwater on the Danube.
While the scepter of the Soviet Union had hung over Koudelka for decades, this image seems to lend some closure to that part of the photographer’s life. The broken and collapsed statue of Lenin appears to be quite literally heading downriver to its final resting place.
Israel-Palestine (From the Shu’Fat Refugee Camp), 2010
It is critical for Koudelka that he continues to work, and his projects continually overlap. The photo above is from the “Walls” series that he photographed in Israel and Palestine, documenting the divisions between the Israelis and the Palestinians. To Koudelka, the transition from working with people to landscapes has been a revelation as he has aged. “If you photograph people, all of the time you are running after something, and you are losing all the time. With landscapes you are waiting all the time. It is much more relaxing.”
Despite the more relaxing nature of landscape shooting, Koudelka does not shy away from subjects that are mentally and emotionally taxing. The divisions and marks people have made on the land are central to his work, whether he is dealing with Greco-Roman ruins, as he has since 1991, or with Israel-Palestine in more recent years.
To Koudelka, the subject and its aesthetics are two parts of a complex whole, lending additional depth to his work with the wall. “I can imagine that somebody who is in engineering when he sees this wall might say ‘this is really good engineering.’ I like airplanes, and I am very emotional, but some of these warplanes are pretty, beautiful, yet they are so terrible. I think that’s the conflict. Beauty is very relative, and it depends on each person, and the beauty is everywhere, and the beauty is even in the tragedy.”