Josef Koudelka: On the Road

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday November 17, 2016

Listen, I have never had any hero in my life or in photography. I just travel, I look and everything influences me…. For 40 years I have been traveling. I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind.—Josef Koudelka

The Czech photographer Josef Koudelka (b. 1938) perhaps invented the road trip as a way of life. Trained as an aeronautical engineer, he took up photography as an interest; after several years of working with a Prague theater group, he quit his job and made photography his life’s work. Starting in 1961 he lived for weeks at a time with the Roma of Czechoslovakia, in their villages, and later with other groups across Europe. This body of work, titled Gypsies, was published in 1975. Above: © Josef Koudelka, Region of the Black Triangle (Ore Mountains), 1992.

The freedom of traveling light and living lean gave Koudelka a tremendous advantage. Always scraping to get his hands on his next few rolls of film caused him to use his eyes—and all of his senses—before snapping the shutter. The freedom he derived from being the sole director of his work took hold, forming his independence and way of life.

“When I first started to take photographs in Czechoslovakia, I met this old gentleman, this old photographer, who told me a few practical things,” he said in a recent interview. “'Josef,’ he said, ‘a photographer works on the subject, but the subject works on the photographer.' I have the camera’s viewfinder and I am trying to put the world — for the world — in the viewfinder. But in the same time the world is forming me.”

© Josef Koudelka, Beirut, City Center, 1991; Magnum Photos.

When the Prague Spring collapsed under Soviet oppression and finally gave way to the invasion in 1968, Koudelka was among several photographers who shot the oncoming tanks. As he was known as the one who shot the most film, he kept his work anonymous, to protect his family from reprisals, and had the negatives smuggled out to Magnum Photos, in London. In one week, he took over 5,000 photographs in the streets of Prague, under extremely difficult and dangerous conditions.

On seeing his images published in the Sunday Times magazine the following year, during a trip to London, Koudelka knew it was time to permanently leave his homeland. He contacted Magnum and received a letter stating that the agency would sponsor his work photographing gypsies across Europe. Later that year his invasion photographs were awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award by the Overseas Press Club, attributed to “an unknown Czech photographer.” When his visa expired in 1970, he remained in London and applied for political asylum.

So began Koudelka’s self-imposed exile. He became a member of Magnum, and subsisted on small grants and awards, shooting in the summer and working on his negatives and prints during the winter. By 1975, his work with the gypsies was finished; the book was produced and published by Robert Delpire that year, alongside an exhibition of the photographs at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Koudelka's exile and nomadic way of life became the nexus of his work. From the Roma, perpetual outsiders shunted to society's margins through the Westernization of Central Europe, to his 1988 book, Exiles, in which a powerful sense of estrangement among people in Spain, Ireland, Great Britain and France as well as Romania and Czechoslovakia seems locked together with landscapes from the past, and his own statelessness.

In an image where a group of men are setting off fireworks at a festival, the surreal graveness and formality of the scene subsumes any joyousness the occasion might inspire, creating a metaphor for Koudelka's choice.

Since the late 1980s Koudelka has made panoramic landscape photographs in areas massively defiled by industry (Black Triangle, 1994), territorial conflict (Chaos: Beirut, Lebanon, 1991), the dignity that the limestone industry brings to miners in the UK (Reconnaissance Wales, Paris, 1998) and most recently, the enforced separation of Arabs and Jews in Israel (Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Landscapes, 2013).


© Josef Koudelka, Entrance to Roath Basin, 1997; Magnum Photos.

In the later years of his career, Koudelka has curtailed the sale of prints of his images, concentrating instead on the production of books with innovative formats and high production value. Currently, bookdummypress, located in New York’s East Village, is offering signed copies of several of the photographer’s most unusual books, including Black Triangle and Limestone. The bookdummypress pop-up store is located at 36 Cooper Square, NY, NY. Info


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