Josef Koudelka - Uncertain Nationality

14/09/2015 10:48 BST | Updated 13/09/2016 10:12 BST

Josef Koudelka is something of a legend among photographers. He achieved worldwide fame by capturing the seismic shock felt by his fellow Czechs when, in the summer of 1968, Red Army tanks stormed into Prague to crush a government that had dared to depart from the Kremlin's diktat.


In such pictures as above, you can smell the smoke and the diesel fumes, and taste the shock, fear and defiance on the faces of the protesters as Koudelka got down and dirty in the heart of the action. It was a style he had adopted early in his career when photographing theatre groups in rehearsal.

His invasion photos, published the following year around the globe, symbolised the spirit of the resistance movement. Yet, despite anonymity, a fear of reprisal led to his fleeing his homeland for many decades of exile.

He became a member of the prestigious Magnum photo agency, though remained fiercely independent. Koudelka was not a photojournalist. Before and after his exile, he concentrated on photographing gypsies, spending years visiting Roma communities in Slovakia and other areas of Europe.

Later in life, he turned to panoramic landscapes in which he explores such themes as man's dominance over and abuse of the environment.

Now, in a rare treat, Koudelka, now 77, personally opened a comprehensive retrospective of his work at the Fondacion Mapfre Exhibitions Hall in Madrid which runs until 29 November. The 150 works on show, all in black and white, include many prints never exhibited before, others not for half a century.


Among the latter is the poignant shot (above) of a Roma family taken in 1963. Curiously, though the body in the coffin is the focus for the family members, the face of the young girl on the left, caught in natural light looking at the camera, steals the scene.

Though gypsies were a popular subject for photographers at the time, Koudelka's work shows a quality born of obsessive persistence. He'd take thousands of pictures, revisiting scenes again and again until he got what he wanted. He'd discard brutally. His 1967 exhibition comprised only 27 prints, 22 of which are exhibited again here.


He did not want to stereotype his subjects. Among the haggard, poverty-stricken figures, are joyous celebrations of life represented, as above, in local festivals. Others show well-dressed couples with fancy hairdos and bride and grooms preparing to tie the knot.

Born in 1938 in a small town in Moravia, Koudelka studied aeronautical engineering before taking up photography. For 16 years in exile he was stateless, seeking asylum in the UK before moving to Spain, Italy and France. He felt an assimilation to his subjects. As he said at the opening media conference, "For 16 years I didn't have a passport, didn't work for anyone, was travelling all the time and spent countless nights sleeping in the open or standing at borders waiting for the police to go."

Hence the exhibition's title, Uncertain Nationality. It also describes a sense of not belonging and a disorientation present in his oeuvre, from the invasion of Czechoslovakia to his abiding interest in territories in conflict. Koudelka became a French national in 1986.


The photographs in his exile years and beyond reflect an alienation - not only displaced gypsies but other symbols of isolation. One such is the dog (above) taken in 1987 in Paris. Its features have been reduced to a silhouette to contrast with the whiteness of the snow. The pointed ears contrast too with the softness of the background. The sinister nature is accentuated by the position over a drain. The timing could come straight out of Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moments".

Since 1986, Koudelka has been using a larger format panoramic camera to show territories devastated by conflict or affected by the ravages of time. In one series shot in Israel on the borders of the West bank and territories such as the Golan Heights, barbed wire, walls and borders dominate.


In Jordania (above) taken in Amman in 2012, we see the ruins of a past civilisation. The hand gripping in the foreground gives a sense of the surreal, a symbol perhaps of the role of man in the destruction.

Like many artists, Koudelka remains very reticent to explain his pictures. When I asked him for the story behind one he took of a Roma in handcuffs, all he would say is that his subject killed a woman who was even worse than him. When I tried to press him on this piece of tantalising information, he laughed and literally ran off - out of the building and into the street, to melt into the midst of a Madrid afternoon.

It's a curious paradox in Koudelka's work, that so many of the faces and objects he depicts have a timeless quality about them. Yet the current migrant crisis in Europe and the wanton destruction of ancient temples in Syria make them very timely. The invasion pictures are constantly evoked when injustice in the world rears its head. The man who refuses to cover a current affair finds his themes remarkably current. That's a rare talent indeed.

The images are used with the permission of the gallery, Josef Koudelka and Magnum Photos.