“It’s in the right hands”: Josef Koudelka donates collection to Czech state

Josef Koudelka – whose pictures of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion were seen around the world – is regarded by many as the greatest living Czech photographer. Now the 83-year-old has donated many of his most important works to institutions in his native country.

Works such as his Gypsies collection, unforgettable shots of the 1968 invasion and more recently stunning landscapes have helped make Josef Koudelka famous around the world.

Now aged 83, French citizen Koudelka has donated many of the photographs that comprise his life’s work to Czech state institutions.

Josef Koudelka | Photo: Michal Krumphanzl,  ČTK

Wearing his characteristic military-style green shirt, he spoke to the media at the Ministry of Culture in Prague on Tuesday.

“For my whole life I have been receiving. Suddenly I find myself in a situation where I can give… I see that I now have the certainty that this donation is in the right places, and the right hands, and that it will be well handled.”

The long-time Magnum Photos member said that, grounded by Covid, he had recently been taking stock after living like a nomad since leaving Czechoslovakia at the end of the 1960s.

“In the course of those 50 years I realised I have never spent more than four months in any one country.

“Another rule of mine was that every year I spent at least 40 nights sleeping in the open. It was very important to me to be in contact with nature.

“Also when I emigrated I had no other possibility. I had no money and couldn’t speak any languages, but I wanted to see the world.”

Invasion 68 | Photo: Josef Koudelka,  Magnum Photos

The donation presented on Tuesday comprises nearly 2,000 photographs.

The vast majority are going to the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. Its director is Helena Koenigsmarková.

“We are really happy about it, because our photography collection is quite important regarding Czech and Czechoslovak photography.

“So to complete it now with Josef Koudelka’s work is perfect.

“First of all, just now, we are working on the catalogue of all the donation, not only in our museum.”

Gypsies  (1966) | Photo: Josef Koudelka,  Magnum Photos

Minister of Culture Lubomír Zaorálek says the new addition to the Museum of Decorative Arts collection represents the continuation of a strong tradition.

“In this museum we have photographs by Funke and Hak and Drtikol and now we will also have the negatives and positives of Mr. Koudelka.

“This is something like a lineage of big Czech photographers. I see some connections and some relations between, for example Sudek and Koudelka.

“That’s why I am not enthusiastic that this continuity will be seen. We can show this continuity in the future publicly, and that’s why it’s great.”

Efforts to secure the Koudelka collection had been going on for years.

However, now that this first step has been taken the photographer says he will be making more such donations to his native country in future.