“I don’t like captions. I prefer people to look at my pictures and invent their own stories.”
Josef Koudelka celebrated his 75th birthday earliest this year. Born during the advent of World War II in Czechoslovakia, Koudelka’s age and initial location exposed him to some of the most drastic conditions to be found in western civilization. Fortunately for fans of photography, his camera has rarely left his side.
Initially, Koudelka explored the world of photography with a 6 x 6 Bakelite camera, his family and nearby surroundings being his first subjects. His pragmatic side led him to an engineering degree from the Czech Technical University in Prague. The same year he graduated, 1961, he staged his first exhibition. After 6 years of employment primarily as an aeronautical engineer, Koudelka decided to commit to his love of photography permanently.
Koudelka’s nomadic tendencies fall in line with one of his most common subject: gypsies, or the Romani of Eastern Europe. This enduring fascination has led to a vast array of photographs that often push beyond their anthropological tangents and percolate highly dramatic narratives of humanity. Aiding this dramatic sentiment is the darker hair, complexion, and black and white garb that is favored by the Romani, acerbically contrasting their oft-muted gray backdrop. The results are works that often display desolation, despair and alienation.
Koudelka’s breakthrough in popularity didn’t present itself through his Romani work, however. A year after fully dedicating himself to his craft, the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. Koudelka was returning from a project in Romania as the Soviets arrived in Prague. The subsequent photos that arose from the opportunity were smuggled out of the city and into the hands of the well-respected Magnum photo agency. Magnum provided them to Britain’s The Sunday Times, who ran them with a byline of “Prague Photographer” instead of properly crediting Koudelka – this was done out of fear for any repercussions Koudelka might have felt at the hands of the Soviets. The success of the photos, combined with support from Magnum, allowed Koudelka to apply for a visa and then political asylum in England in 1970. He became a member of Magnum a year later. Koudelka didn’t return to Czechoslovakia for two decades.