Josef Koudelka, interviewed by Anne Wilkes Tucker…How cool is that?
Named by Time as “America’s Best Curator”, Tucker took us through a chronological selection of Koudelka’s work, taking pause with each passing milestone to ask Josef questions. A lot of material was covered and a lot of insight and knowledge was shared.
Josef came onto the stage to a standing ovation. Having never really taught any classes or conducted any workshops, he had not been the most accessible of photographers. He admitted to being uncomfortable sitting in front of the packed Paramount Theater.
Koudelka started shooting when he was 14. He studied engineering and graduated in 1961—the same year that he staged his first exhibition. A few years later, he quit engineering and photography became his sole focus. He was hired by theater companies to photograph productions. He was 23 at that point. Czechoslovakia was experiencing “socialism with a human face” and Josef enjoyed the freedom to experiment, as that was increasingly prevalent. He wanted to know what could be done in photography. He agreed to shoot the theatre productions, but insisted on having control over the final result.
“Freedom is an essential thing in my life,” Josef explained to a captivated LOOK3 audience. Not too fixated on the script or the story, he would sit through rehearsals and maintain spontaneity in his work. He insisted that he be allowed to walk between the actors during three actual performances, evaluating the results each night, and trying to improve upon them the next day. Koudelka was trying to create art as much as he was trying to document. The owner of the theater told him, “Josef, you were lying, but you were lying to tell the truth.”
Koudelka embarked on a project to photograph gypsies in Romania. He vividly remembers how the entire village walked towards him as he approached. Building a relationship with them was important and he didn’t start shooting right away. Instead, Josef shared his love for folk music and played songs on an old tape recorder he carried. It gained their confidence and exposed the depth of his character. The resulting work was published in his book “Gypsies” some years later.
With the gypsies, Josef learned that he didn’t need much to live and to be alive.
In August of 1968, he returned to Prague. A few days later, the Russians invaded. Here he stressed, “I am not a courageous man.” It was an extreme situation, and when his girlfriend woke him up and told him the Russians had invaded, it was a natural reaction to pick up his camera and make pictures. He didn’t make the images so they could be sold into publications; he made them for himself.
Everything that followed was pure chance. His negatives were smuggled out of Prague and into the hands of Magnum, who syndicated them, crediting “P.P.” or “Prague Photographer” to protect his identity. Koudelka won the Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1969, still anonymous. He left the country because it was dangerous. It would not take the authorities long to find out who P.P. was.
Josef told us that the authorities were pulling people off the plane just before takeoff. You could imagine his relief when the flight took off.
From there, Koudelka became akin to the gypsies he once photographed. Travelling constantly, never staying longer than 3 months in any location. He traveled with a sleeping bag and had never paid rent for at least 16 years. Owning little, he continued to shoot for himself, never taking a full time job. “I need to travel. If I stay too long in one place, I will go blind.”
More books and awards followed. Josef stopped shooting with a 25mm and moved to a panoramic by chance. He learned composition and cropping, and his minimalistic sense continued. The panoramic gave him a new challenge—an opportunity to change and to develop. He focused on landscapes and stopped shooting people. “I love people, but I like to be alone,” he noted. His travels continue. “I go to places because I know there is a picture there waiting for me.”
In each place he visited, Koudelka would walk alone, feeling the place much as he had felt the theater. Each book that was published was different: an attempt to cover a new aspect of life. Practical and progressive, he embraced digital photography because it was less expensive to produce, liberating him from the need to raise funds. It was also lighter, which became more important as he grew older.
At the start of the event, Josef asked that we not judge him by anything that he said but by his pictures. He judges other photographers the same way and doesn’t have any heroes. He wasn’t moved to photography by the work of other photographers. The motivation was inside of him.
When asked where his home was, he said “Your home is the place where you leave from. So for me, my home is here because tomorrow, I go away.”
His journey continues.
(Story by Anil Ramchand / Corbis)