Josef Koudelka’s Gypsies

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Romania, from the series Gypsies, 1968, printed 1980s. The A
Romania, from the series Gypsies, 1968, printed 1980s. The A© Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos. Courtesy of Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York

The visionary photographer Josef Koudelka is celebrated in a new publication that ranges across his images of Roma gypsies, acrobats and war

Born in 1938 in the historical Czech land of Moravia, photographer Josef Koudelka would find international success by capturing one of the defining events of the twentieth century: the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. A year before this, in 1967, he exhibited a more intimate series of works, a collection of photos taken in the Roma communities which he had been visiting regularly for nearly a decade. While still living in Czechoslovakia, the itinerant photographer would spend weeks at a time in encampments and villages throughout the Czech lands and Slovakia, capturing the daily lives of Roma families. As part of a retrospective of Koudelka’s Gypsies and other series at the Art Institute of Chicago, titled Josef Koudelka: Identity Doubtful, a remarkable new volume brings together some of the most important work by one of the world’s most fascinating living photographers.

Out of hundreds of photographs Koudelka chose only 22 for his first showing of Gypsies. Often elusive about his work and his motivation for choosing certain subjects, Koudelka once said, “I don’t pretend to be an intellectual or a philosopher. I just look.” Curator Matthew S. Witkovsky says of his approach that Koudelka, “gave his subjects room to articulate their own sense of themselves.”

Often turning to themes of displacement, alienation and unstable national identities, after the Soviet invasion Koudelka would find himself a man without a homeland. Fleeing to England in 1970, he applied for political asylum and stayed for more than a decade. A roamer at heart, he then spent years travelling around Europe with his camera, and now resides between France and Prague.

Giving up a career in engineering to pursue photography full time, early on Koudelka worked for several theatre companies, taking photos of performing actors, and working with graphic designer Libor Fára to manipulate images that were used on the front cover of Divadlo (Theater) magazine. In these early days he developed many of his techniques for both pre- and post-exposure interventions.

Koudelka became the stuff of photography legend when he captured first-hand the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Smuggled out of Prague and published anonymously in The Sunday Times magazine, the photos show the 1968 confrontation between the Russian army in their tanks, and unarmed protestors in the streets, brandishing only flags.

A leading member of the Magnum agency, started by his friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson, since 1986 Koudelka has been taking photographs for publication using only panoramic cameras. To philosopher Gilles A Tiberghien, the message in these people-less landscapes is that, “this land is our land in spite of everything. Disrupted, laid waste, polluted, gutted... they are portraits of our changing world”.

Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful is out now, published by Yale University Press.

Text by Ananda Pellarin