Josef Koudelka: Photos from the Underside of Europe

Josef Koudelka, a Czech photographer, was born in Moravia, Czechoslovakia, in 1938. He began to take photographs as a student in the 1950s. He started a career as an aeronautical engineer in 1961; during that time he began photographing Gypsies. He also worked part-time taking photos of theater performances in Prague. In 1967, he became a full-time photographer. In 1968, Koudelka documented the Soviet invasion of Prague, publishing his photographs under the initials P. P. (Prague Photographer) for fear of reprisal to him and his family. In 1969, he was anonymously awarded the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa, Gold Medal, for those photographs.

Koudelka left Czechoslovakia and applied for political asylum in England in 1970. In 1975, he brought out his first book Gypsies, and in 1988, Exiles. Since 1986, he has worked with a panoramic camera and issued a compilation of these photographs in his book Chaos in 1999. In 1987, Koudelka became a French citizen and was able to return to Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1990. He has two daughters and a son. Koudelka published more than a dozen books of his work,

His early work emphasizes social and cultural rituals, the transitory dimension of human life, as well as death. He developed a personal, in-depth style with haunting black-and-white photos that document the life of Gypsies in Slovakia and Romania. This work was exhibited in Prague in 1967. Koudelka has the ability to capture the presence of the human spirit in the midst of dark landscapes. His themes are human desolation, waste, departure, despair, and alienation. His later work focuses on dark or empty landscapes, devoid of human subjects.

Here is a short video clip where he talks about the 2014/2015 exhibition of his photos with the Art Institute of Chicago and at the Getty in LA. He states that he is a citizen of the world, and that to have a nationality is nowadays a very doubtful identity.

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