Czechs pay tribute to photographic great Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka, photo: Štěpánka Budková

Josef Koudelka, one of the greatest living Czech photographers and the only Czech to become a member of the prestigious Magnum Photo agency, turns 80 on Wednesday. Czechs will mark his anniversary with a series of events taking place throughout the year.

Josef Koudelka, photo: Štěpánka Budková
Josef Koudelka gained world recognition for his powerful images from the streets of Prague during the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. This is how he remembered the events some years ago in a rare interview for the Czech Radio:

“All I can say that is that when the unfortunate thing happened, I was fortunate enough to be there and take pictures of the event. I just took all my cameras and films and intuitively headed for the Czech Radio building.

“For some reason, I had this strange feeling that nothing can happen to me. This might be the reason why my pictures were different from those taken by other photographers.”

The pictures of the invasion, which Koudelka smuggled out of the country, were not published until 1969, when they appeared anonymously in the Sunday Times magazine. They were credited to P.P, an acronym for Prague Photographer, in order to protect himself and his family.

He is also known for his powerful black and white series called ‘Gypsies’, featuring portraits of the Czechoslovak and Balkan Roma as well as scenes from their daily life.

In 1970, Koudelka received a short-term visa to work with Magnum in London and didn’t return to Prague. Though he officially became a French citizen in 1987, he spent most of his life traveling and photographing disappearing landscapes and lifestyles, as well as destruction, chaos and war.

Koudelka’s most widely-recognised thematic works include Exiles, featuring photographs Koudelka made after leaving Czechoslovakia in 1970, echoing his feelings of departure and loss, and 'Chaos' which marks a fundamental change in his style, when he began photographing with a panoramic camera.

To mark Josef Koudelka’s 80th birthday, Czech Television will screen a documentary portrait of Josef Koudelka on Wednesday, mapping his career from the 1950s until today.

Koudelka’s pictures of the Soviet-led invasion in 1968, photo: Štěpánka Budková
At the end of March, Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts will showcase a major retrospective of his work. The core of the exhibition will consist of around 400 photos, which Koudelka donated to the museum some five years ago.

These will be complemented by pictures loaned by the Magnum Photos Agency, selected by the exhibition’s curator Irena Šorfová and Koudelka himself. The exhibition will also display some of the iconic images from the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

In August, which marks the 50th anniversary of the Soviet-led invasion, the National Gallery in Prague will showcase a complete series of Koudelka’s pictures from 1968.