Photographer Josef Koudelka: “I don’t believe in inspiration”

Photographer Josef Koudelka is world famous for works such as his Gypsies series, indelible shots of the 1968 Soviet-led invasion of his native Czechoslovakia and, in more recent times, powerful landscapes. Now 83, Koudelka has donated many of the key parts of his collection to the Czech state. While in Prague recently he discussed that priceless gift – and his outlook on photography and life.

Earlier this year 30 large wooden crates were transported from Paris to Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts. They contained many of the most important works by the great photographer Josef Koudelka, who left Czechoslovakia for exile half a century ago.

Koudelka, born in 1938, made a global impact with his stunning black and white shots of the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, though they were initially credited to P.P. (Prague photographer) to protect his identity.

Koudelka’s initial donation to the Czech Republic contains nearly 2,000 works. The vast majority of these will remain at the Museum of Decorative Arts, with the rest going to Prague’s National Museum and the Moravian Gallery in Brno, which are also state institutions.

The valuable donation follows a decade and a half of discussions and was delayed further by the Covid situation.

“I know that my years are limited – I’m doing my best to complete all of the things that are important.”

While in Prague in September for the formal handover, the photographer, wearing his trademark military-surplus style green shirt, spoke at the Ministry of Culture in Malá Strana.

Koudelka, now aged 83, said he had recently been taking an unprecedented delve into his extensive archives.

“I am at an age where I know that my years are limited and I’m doing my best to complete all of the things that are important.

“I used to think that once I was no longer here nobody would be able to touch the stuff that I did… I now realise that I have 30,000 contact sheets, stuff that I photographed over the course of 50 years.

“Understandably it’s not just a document of what I’ve photographed, but a document of the entire era.”

Ruins - Temple of Hercules,  Amman,  Jordan | Photo: Josef Koudelka,  Magnum Photos

The photographer, a long-time member of Magnum, one of the world’s most celebrated photographic agencies, hinted that the works handed over were only the beginning: The Museum of Decorative Arts can likely look forward to further such donations from the Josef Koudelka Foundation in future.

“I think that all the documentation, and the negatives are the most important part of that, should come to the museum.

“Naturally, this depends on the museum handling the negatives correctly. At present it’s not the best in this regard.

“If you go to any museum in the world, you have to go through three sets of doors, with the temperature lower behind each one.

“That hasn’t been set up here yet, unfortunately. But we will discuss things that should be done in future.

“At present my contact sheets are in Paris. I expect that they should come to Prague within two years.

“Along with the negatives, my contact sheets should also arrive.”

“I have never spent more than four months in any one country.”

One of his more recent projects, the exhibition Ruins, is also ultimately destined for the Czech capital.

“I have visited all the countries around the Mediterranean Sea at least twice – and visited more than 200 of the most important archeological sites.

“The result of this is a large exhibition that began in Paris and continued on to Rome. There is talk of it going to Athens next year.

“It is clear that once the exhibition’s wanderings end, it will come here to you.

“That donation comprises 40 three-metre photographs and 120 of around one metre 20. So it requires a certain amount of space, as well as care.”

Koudelka said being grounded by the Covid situation had led him to undertake the kind of work that would be hard for others to accomplish in future.

“While I am still alive, I’m doing my best to go through the 30,000 contact sheets, to find out what is there.

Josef Koudelka | Photo: Štěpánka Budková,  Radio Prague International

“Because when I’m no longer here, nobody else will go through them like that.

“I could do a book about Czechoslovakia, from the time when I started taking photographs: May Day and stuff like that…

“The most important thing for me has always been taking photographs. Looking after what I have has been secondary.

“Only now that I can’t photograph much, because I can’t travel, am I trying to sort out and group these materials.”

After leaving his native country at the start of the 1970s the photographer lived for the best part of a decade in the UK. He then moved to Paris and eventually obtained French citizenship. But, as he tells it, he has been constantly on the move over the decades.

“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.”

“When Cartier-Bresson got into Magnum he suddenly discovered photo-journalism and that ended his first, most interesting period.”

Koudelka has tended to travel light and to live frugally – sometimes to the consternation of others.

“One time I met a Czech photographer who was taking photographs in the same place I was.

“At that time I was squatting in an old building. I invited him there so that he could save money.

“I also invited him for breakfast every day, though I could never afford cafés.

“And when we were saying goodbye he said, Josef, you really shouldn’t live this way.”

'France,  Parc de Sceaux',  1987 | Photo: Josef Koudelka,  Magnum Photos

The octogenarian said, however, that he had benefited artistically from never having been motivated by money – and referred to the great French photographer who had championed his work.

“I have the great fortune to have never had to work for anybody. I never did fashion, I never did reportage.

“I’m grateful to many people who helped me. For instance, speaking of reportage, I could mention Cartier-Bresson. Naturally he was an excellent photographer.

“When he got into Magnum he suddenly discovered photo-journalism and that ended his first, most interesting period – the period of discovery and greatest enthusiasm.

“A danger of getting into Magnum was that you could go anywhere and be well paid. But the limitations that I had were extremely important.”

Ruins - Myra,  Turkey,  2013 | Photo: Josef Koudelka,  Magnum Photos

Despite living out of a rucksack for much of the last half-century, Koudelka did manage to keep a series of diaries. Along with another book dedicated to him, some of these are destined for publication.

“When I travelled I made various notes, in which my life is quite glossed. What’s interesting is that it’s very authentic.

“We’re preparing to publish a book that will simply be entitled Diaries.

“Somebody else, an American writer, has been preparing a biography of me for three years. It’s from an entirely different perspective.”

“I do my best to make sure my photographs don’t evoke any emotions in me.”

Getting back to the extraordinary work that makes him one of the greatest Czech photographers of all time, the 83-year-old gave a short explanation of his approach.

“I do my best to make sure my photographs don’t evoke any emotions in me.

“For me it’s important that I be able to look at my photographs as a printed piece of paper and judge the quality alone – nothing else.

“Photographers take pictures with emotion, but sometimes those emotions don’t make it onto the paper.”

He has always been happiest, he said, when he could just pick up his camera and wander.

“I don’t believe in inspiration. I’m a kind of labourer.

“For me it went like this. I liked to wake up and go out and discover the world.

“I would go out and look and photograph whatever interested me – and then take a look at what came out of that.”