In this retrospective exhibition, Josef Koudelka revealed a side of himself, which we rarely see as it is usually covered up by the striking aesthetical quality of his photographs. Over time this apparent globetrotter has shown himself to be an engaged photographer whose now world-renowned, fundamental subject matter is, internally, always related to his native land, whether as a conscious message or out of a subconscious need. In the work, the local dimension meets the universal.
The retrospective took stock of all the stages of Koudelka’s work and its main thematic areas. The exhibition opened with a set of rare original prints from the late 1950s and early 1960s. They were followed by two parallel topics from the 1960s – Koudelka’s key series ‘Gypsies’, a fascinating encounter with this special ethnic group, and, the other, his work for respected Czech theatres, consisting of photographs with intricate structures. In Prague, Koudelka met important figures in the arts, such as the theatre directors Otomar Krejca and Jan Grossman and the writer-dramatists Josef Topol and Václav Havel, who helped to maintain the continuity of Czech culture when it was under heavy ideological pressure from the totalitarian state.
An important part of Koudelka’s oeuvre was the ‘Invasion’ series shoot in Prague, in August 1968. Shortly afterwards, in 1970, he emigrated, and the resultant feelings of being uprooted found expression in photographs which formed a series entitled ‘Exiles’. The two series, ‘Invasion’ and ‘Exiles’, can be understood as a whole, that related to the Czech situation, its causes and effects. With increasing frequency and gravity his work came to include both politics (as concern for public affairs) and his own personal themes of searching and finding, all within the problematic reality of the contemporary world.
Shortly after leaving his homeland he began to work with Magnum Photos, and, in 1974, became the only Czech full member of this international agency.
After returning to Czechoslovakia for the first time since his departure, Koudelka photographed the devastation of the natural environment in the Ore Mountains of Bohemia, from 1990 to 1994. The photographs exhibited and published as ‘The Black Triangle’, tie into the set made with a panoramic camera in northern France, an area that has also been greatly affected by human intervention. These photographs became part of Koudelka’s large project called ‘Chaos’, which this retrospective concluded with. In the devastated landscape of today, Koudelka has found “tragic untamed beauty”, the search for which may be understood as Koudelka’s lifelong topic.
BIOGRAPHY ( by Stuart Alexander)
1938 Born January 10th in Moravia (Czechoslovakia).
C. 1952 Introduced to photography by his father’s friend, he begins to photograph his family and friends, using a bakelite camera.
1956-61 Studies engineering at the Technical University, Prague. Acquires an old Rolleiflex. Meets the photographer and critic, Jirí Jenícek, who encourages him to make his first exhibition at the Semafor theater in Prague, in 1961.
1961 At the opening of the exhibition at the Semafor Theater, he meets Anna Fárová, an important figure in Czechoslovakian photography, who becomes a friend and collaborator. Travels abroad for the first time to Italy as a musician in a group of folk dancers and folk musicians. Begins to photograph gypsies in Czechoslovakia and contributes as a freelance photographer for Divadlo (Theater) magazine.
1961-67 Works as an aeronautical engineer in Prague and Bratislava.
1963 Meets Markéta Luskacová, a social science student who begins to photograph gypsies in Czechoslovakia.
1965 Invited by Otomar Krejca, the director of the Divadlo Za Branou (Theater Behind the Gate), and begins to photograph performances there. Becomes a member of the Union of Czechoslovakian Artists.
1967 Resigns from engineering post to become a full-time photographer. Receives the Union of Czechoslovakian Artists annual award “for the innovative quality of his theater photography.”?Shows the photographs of gypsies for the first time in his exhibition, Cikáni---1961-1966, Divadlo Za Branou, Prague (Cikáni means gypsies in Czech).
1968 Travels to Romania with gypsy specialist, Milena Hubschmannová, to photograph gypsies. Returns to Prague the day before the Warsaw Pact armies’ invasion of the city. He photographs the confrontations between Czechoslovaks and Soviets wherever they occur and daily life in the streets throughout this tumultuous period.
1969 His photographs of the events of 1968, in Prague are smuggled out of the country and find their way to the United States. Without mentioning Koudelka’s name, Magnum distributes the photographs that are published in most of the major international news magazines. The story “by an anonymous Czech photographer” is awarded the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal. Elliott Erwitt, then president of Magnum Photos, makes a short film of animated stills from these photographs for CBS News. ?The Divadlo Za Branou theater group from Prague invited Koudelka to accompany them to the Aldwych Theatre, London, to exhibit some of his theater photographs in the foyer of the theater. It was his first visit to England.
1970 Leaves Czechoslovakia on a three-month exit visa to photograph gypsies in the West. Does not return after expiration of the visa. Becomes stateless and is granted asylum in England where he resides through till 1979.? Begins traveling and photographing gypsies, popular and religious festivals, and everyday life in various European countries.
1971 Elliott Erwitt proposes that Koudelka join the photographers’ cooperative Magnum Photos. He becomes an associate member. He meets Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Delpire and Romeo Martinez, who become close friends.
1974 Becomes a full member of Magnum Photos.
1975 Josef Koudelka, a one-man exhibition organized by John Szarkowski, opens at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Robert Delpire publishes in Paris, Gitans: La fin du voyage. Aperture publishes the American edition with the title Gypsies.
1978 Awarded the Prix Nadar, by the Gens d’Images, Paris, for his book Gitans: La fin du voyage.
1980-87 Leaves England to reside in France. Still stateless, he continues to travel throughout Europe.
1984 First major exhibition, conceived by Robert Delpire and organized by the Arts Council of Great Britain, is held at the Hayward Gallery, London. To accompany the exhibition, Josef Koudelka, Collection Photo Poche, is published in English and in French by the Centre National de la Photographie, Paris. After the death of his father and after sixteen years of anonymity, Koudelka’s photos of the Warsaw Pact armies’ invasion of Prague are published for the first time with his own name. Before this date he wished to spare his family still living in Czechoslovakia, from any possible reprisal.
1986 Invited by the Mission Photographique de la D.A.T.A.R., he photographs through 1987 as part of a national project to document urban and rural landscape in France. It was for this project that he first began to photograph with a panoramic camera.
1987 Naturalized in France.?Awarded the Grand Prix National de la Photographie by the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication, France.
1988 Two large exhibitions organized by Robert Delpire are presented at the Centre National de la Photographie, Palais de Tokyo, Paris and at the International Center of Photography, New York. These two exhibitions travel throughout the United States and Europe. ‘Exiles’ is published by Centre National de la Photographie, Paris (published as Exiles by Aperture, New York and by Thames and Hudson, London). This book was granted the 1988 Photographic Book of the Year Award by the Maine Photographic Workshops, Rockport and in 1989 it received the International Center of Photography Publication Award for an Outstanding Photographic Book published in 1988. Begins photographing with a panoramic camera in the north of France for the Mission Photographique Transmanche, a project to record the changes in the region caused by the construction of the English Channel Tunnel.
1989 Receives the Hugo Erfurth Prize from the city of Leverkusen, West Germany and Agfa-Gevaert AG. He is unable to return to Czechoslovakia, but, as a holder of a French passport, he is invited with eight other French photographers to visit the Soviet Union. He photographs in Moscow. His work for the Mission Photographique Transmanche culminates in the publication of his first book of panoramic photographs: Josef Koudelka, Cahier Number 6 in the Mission Photographique Transmanche series. Awarded the Prix Romanes by the gypsy author, Mateo Maximoff.
1990 Returns to visit Prague twenty years after he left the country in exile. Begins photographing in Eastern Europe. Anna Fárová curates an exhibition in Prague. It is the first time his photographs of the Warsaw Pact armies’ invasion of the city (1968) are published and exhibited in Czechoslovakia. Begins to photograph one of the most devastated landscapes in Europe, the foothills of the Ore Mountains in northern Bohemia that make up the western portion of the vast region that includes southern Germany and Poland that is known as the “Black Triangle.”
1991 Received the Henri Cartier-Bresson Award (Centre National de la Photographie & American Express, Paris).? Photographs with a panoramic camera the war-devastated city center of Beirut.
1992 Receives the Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation Photography Prize. Named Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture.
1994 After four years of work in the “Black Triangle” region, conceives and realizes the exhibition and the book of panoramic photographs, Cerny trojúhelník - Podkrusnohorí: Fotografie 1990-1994 [The Black Triangle - The Foothills of the Ore Mountains], that is published by Vesmír in Prague. Invited by the producer of Ulysses’ Gaze, directed by Theo Angelopoulos, Koudelka accompanies the film crew to record his personal vision of the Balkan countries where the film was shot. These photographs were exhibited and published under the title, “Periplanissis: Following Ulysses’ Gaze.”
1996-97 Invited by the Cultural Foundation of the Free State of Saxony and the Siemens Culture Program to participate in the project, “Aufriss: Künstlerische Positionen und Industrielandschaft in der Mitte Europas.” Koudelka and eight other artists were asked to react to the region in Saxony, Poland and the Czech Republic where the landscape has been ruined by irresponsible industrial exploitation and rapacious stripmining.
1997-98 Receives a commission from Ffotogallery, Cardiff on behalf of Cardiff Bay Arts Trust to make a series of panoramic photographs in South Wales. The culmination of this project is the book and exhibition Reconnaissance: Wales, accompanied by exhibitions in Wales of other groups of his work.
1998 Awarded the Centenary Medal by the Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England for his “sustained significant contribution to the art of photography.”
2001 Completes a series of panoramic photographs for the Lhoist company, lime and dolomite producers. The photographs present Koudelka’s view of changes to the landscape as a result of the mining of limestone. Publication of this work as the book ‘Lime Stone’.
2002 Named Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. A major retrospective exhibition conceived and designed by Koudelka is presented at the National Gallery of Prague. Awarded the Medal of Merit from the Czech Republic by President Václav Havel.
2003 Completion of a project to photograph in Rome. The resultant exhibition “Teatro del Tempo” is accompanied by the publication of a book of the same title. Photographs archaeological sites in Greece for an exhibition to coincide with the Olympic Games in Athens.
2004 Presented with the Cornell Capa Infinity Award for “distinguished achievement in photography” by the International Center of Photography, New York.