Friday Inspiration – Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka was born in 1938 in Boskovice, Moravia. He began photographing his family and the surroundings with a 6 x 6 Bakelite camera. In 1961, he earned a degree from the University of Technology in Prague and had his first photographic exhibition that same year. In 1967, Koudelka decided to give up his career in engineering for full-time work as a photographer.

He had returned from a project shooting gypsies in Romania just two days before the Soviet invasion, in August 1968. He witnessed and recorded the military forces of the Warsaw Pact as they invaded Prague and crushed the Czech reforms. Koudelka’s negatives were smuggled out of Prague into the hands of the Magnum agency, and published anonymously in The Sunday Times Magazine under the initials P. P. (Prague Photographer) for fear of reprisal to him and his family.

His pictures of the events became dramatic international symbols. In 1969 the “anonymous Czech photographer” was awarded the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal for photographs requiring exceptional courage. With Magnum to recommend him to the British authorities, he applied for a three-month working visa and fled to England in 1970, where he applied for political asylum, in 1971 joined Magnum Photos and stayed for more than a decade. A nomad at heart, he continued to wander around Europe with his camera and little else.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Koudelka sustained his work through numerous grants and awards, and continued to exhibit and publish major projects like Gypsies (1975, his first book) and Exils (1988, his second). Koudelka has had more than a dozen books of his work published, including most recently in 2006 the retrospective volume Koudelka.

Koudelka’s images of the Prague Invasion of 1968 and other photos can be see at Magnum.

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