I don’t like captions. I prefer people to look at my pictures and invent their own stories.
– Josef Koudelka
Josef Koudelka (1938) is a Czech-French Photographer. He is a member of Magnum Photos and has won awards such as the Prix Nadar (1978), a Grand Prix National de la Photographie (1989), a Grand Prix Henri Cartier-Bresson (1991), and the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography (1992). Exhibitions of his work have been held at the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography, New York; the Hayward Gallery, London; the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; and the Palais de Tokyo, Paris.
Initially, he used the Bakelite camera to photograph his surroundings and his family for practice and experimentation. From 1956 to 1961, he attended the Czech Technical University in Prague and received an engineering degree. In the same year, his first photography exhibition took place. For some time, he did aeronautical engineering in Bratislava and Prague.
Koudelka started working on commissions for theatre publications, and often took images of stage shows at the Theatre Behind the Gate in Prague, with his Rolleiflex. In 1967, he stopped working as an engineer and steered his focus completely towards photography.
In 1968, he returned from photographing Romanian gypsies only two days prior to the Soviet incursion. He not only witnessed but also documented the Warsaw Pact militants as they captured Prague and demolished Czech development. His photographic negatives were smuggled to Magnum Photos’ agency from Prague. The pictures were also anonymously published in The Sunday Times.
Magnum Photos recommended Josef Koudelka to the authorities of Britain, and this gave him an opportunity to apply for a working visa for three months. In 1970, he moved to England, where he filed an application for political asylum and managed to stick there for a decade. During this time, Koudelka roamed around Europe with a camera in hand.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, he sustained the flow of his work through several awards and grants. He continued to display his work and publish his chief projects, such as Gypsies, 1975; and Exiles, 1988. Koudelka has worked using a panoramic camera since 1986 and compiled these photos in his book in 1999, titled Chaos. Other than this one, Josef Koudelka has published more than twelve books of his photographic work.
Important exhibitions of his work have been held in places like, New York’s International Center of Photography, and Museum of Modern Art; London’s Hayward Gallery; Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum of Modern Art; and Paris’s Palais de Tokyo. Other than these, his work has been showed in many exhibitions around the world.
By 1987, he became a citizen of France and in 1990 he was finally able to return to his homeland Czech Republic. Afterward, he recorded the country’s worn out landscapes and named the project Black Triangle.
Koudelka’s photography in the later years of his life is based on the foundation of his early works. His work puts emphasis on cultural and social rituals, also on death. He also moved towards vigorous and detailed studies of the Romanian and Slovakian Gypsies. This work by him was displayed in 1967 in Prague.
In his entire professional life, Josef Koudelka has received admiration and acknowledgment for capturing human courage amidst murky landscapes. The usual themes that are reflected in his work are waste, despair, departure, alienation, and desolation. Despite all these negativities, there are some people who see hope contained in his work. His works in the later years focused on landscapes sans any human existence.