The presentation currently on display at the Ernst Leitz Museum is dedicated to the renowned photographer and Magnum member. The exhibition includes pictures from two of his most significant series. The selection of 68 pieces from the Exiles and Panoramas series, were chosen by the photographer himself with the museum space in mind, and offer a condensed look at his life’s work.
The Czech photographer Josef Koudelka (born 1938) is viewed as one of the most impressive and distinguished photographers of recent decades. There are very few 20th century events that our collective memory associates so closely to the work of one photographer: taken with a Dresdner “Exakta” camera, his photos of the suppression of the Prague Spring in August 1968 at the hands of Warsaw Pact troops, are legendary to this day; and Koudelka’s image of an empty Wencelas Square, his left arm with watch on the wrist extending into the forefront, taken on August 22, 1968, is still considered one of his most iconic motifs.
With direct and immediate pictures, Koudelka documented the street fights between desperate citizens and invaders. His negatives were smuggled out of the country in 1969, credited to “P.P.“ and distributed by the Magnum Photo Agency on the anniversary of the invasion. Printed and acknowledged around the world, the identity behind “Photograph Prague” remained unknown at first, until Koudelka moved to London for his own safety in 1970, and later to Paris in 1980. The pictures he produced during that time reflect his paradoxical feelings caught between alienation and commitment. “I found myself outside Czechoslovakia and decided to do things that I’d been unable to do whilst living there: get to see the world.” He found closure for that phase of his life with the publication of Exiles, though it was not to appear until 1988. The book served both to take stock and to come to terms with the past. In the accompanying interview with the curator and publisher Robert Delpire, Koudelka gave rare but open details about his experiences and feelings: “Being an exile insists that you must build your life from scratch. You are given this opportunity. When I left Czechoslovakia, I was discovering the world around me.”
Choosing to remain stateless and without fixed abode for a significant amount of time, he made a conscious decision to live distanced from society, and gave himself the freedom to work independently. “Without freedom to travel I wouldn’t have been able to take many of these photographs. Nevertheless, when I lived in Czechoslovakia, freedom for me mainly meant being able to do what I wanted and, within our limited freedom, I was able to find space for my work. I didn’t need to go somewhere far away to take photographs. I knew that if I was worth anything I had to prove it in my country. When I left, it seemed to me that keeping that kind of freedom was even harder outside Czechoslovakia, because, although freedom there wasn’t political freedom, the lack of another freedom there – the freedom to make money – forced us to do things we believed in, that interested us, and that we liked to do.”
With great consequence and very reduced material means, Koudelka went on to travel right across Europe. It was particularly after joining the renowned Magnum Photo Agency, that the photographer began working with Leica cameras. His Magnum membership was all the more important to him because it not only brought him in contact with fellow photographers, but also offered him the necessary social and existential connection to the world. As often as not, this network was useful for helping him find the next place to spend the night: “After I left, I tried to avoid owning anything. I didn’t pay rent for sixteen years. I realized that I could live and travel on the money that I would have spent on a flat. I knew that I didn’t need much to function – some food and a good night’s sleep. I learned to sleep anywhere and under any circumstances. I had a rule: don’t worry where you’re going to sleep; so far you’ve slept almost every night, and you’ll sleep again tonight. And if you sleep outdoors, you might have two choices – to be afraid that something might happen to you and then you won’t sleep well, or accept the fact that anything might happen and get a good night’s sleep.”
The exhibition at the Ernst Leitz Museum contrasts his Exiles series with his personal selection from among the panorama pictures he started taking as of the mid eighties. While his previous work had all been done with 35mm cameras, he has been able to discover a whole new world with the panorama camera: with expansive landscapes and stretches of coastlines in Europe and the Middle East, he goes in search of places that have at time been devastated by industry, conflict or the simple passage of time. While developing this series, Koudelka gradually discovered digital photography, not least with the help of Leica who put a digital panorama camera based on the Leica S2 at his disposal. In an interview he gave five years ago, he admitted, “I was very happy, because now I could pick up my camera, call my friends which I have all over the world, and just say, ‘Can I sleep in your house?’ I no longer need to carry 35 kilograms with me, so the digital camera makes it easier, and also more interesting. I can say, Vive la Revolution!”
Josef Koudelka was born in Boskovice, CSSR, on January 19, 1938. He studied at the Technical University in Prague from 1956 to 1961, after which he worked as an aeroplane engineer in Prague and Bratislava up until 1967. At the same time, he started taking pictures for a theatre magazine, worked as a reportage photographer, and began to develop an interest in the lives of the Roma. In August 1968 he photographed Warsaw Pact troops as they invaded Prague to strike down the so-called Prague Spring, the democratisation program of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party led by Alexander Dubček. Koudelka was granted asylum in England in 1970, and the country became the starting point for many of his journeys. He has been a full member of the Magnum Photo Agency since 1974. He was granted French citizenship in 1987. Koudelka has been the recipient of many honours and awards. Find more information at Magnum Photos.
LFI magazine issue 1/2018 dedicated a portfolio to Josef Koudelka.
The exhibition at the Ernst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar will run from March 6, 2020 until August 23, 2020.