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Legends of Photography #07: Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka was born in Boskovice, Czechoslovakia in 1938. He first came in contact with photography as a teenager, when he was only 14 years old he managed with the small income that he had from selling strawberries at the market of his village to buy his first camera. In 1967, at the age of 29, he decided to leave his career as an engineer, which he had studied in Prague, and fulfill a deeper desire, his exclusive occupation with photography. Nowadays, Koudelka is considered one of the most famous photographers in the field of Art, mainly because he captured with his lens important historical events. One of them is the Russian invasion in Prague in 21 August 1968, where Koudelka recorded through his lens this historical moment from the roof of a building at the Wenceslas square.

Josef Koudelka

It is worth mentioning that this photo was published as anonymous, entitled “Prague Photographer” for the protection of Koudelka.

However, despite the historical importance of the work and life of Koudelka, in this article I will try to describe the importance of a photographic work as a form of art, uncoupled from its deeper emotional value, because of the information it carries. And the reason why is not that a photographic work cannot have a historical character or carry the autobiography of a person, but because my goal in this column is the analysis (if I may use the term) of the artistic side of a photographic work.

At this point, Koudelka’s words can help us understand that a work of art should provoke different interpretations to each one of us and to create a different story in our own imagination.

‘’I tried to be a photographer. I don’t know how to talk. I’m not interested in talking. If I have something to say, perhaps it can be found in my photos. I’m not interested in explaining things in saying “why” and “how.” “I leave it to others to say what they mean. You know my photos, you published them, you exhibited them, and so you can say whether they have meaning or not.”

He would never use a title for his photographs, other than a date or location, leaving the conclusions to our imagination.

Josef Koudelka

Besides the titles in his photographs, Koudelka also attempts to remove any emotional bonding that may happened during a shot, in order to be objective regarding the process of screening his photographs. Since our photographs remind us of a particular moment in the past, it would be a paradox not to maintain certain feelings about them. The moment of capture is very important for a photographer but insignificant for the viewer. A photograph should speak for itself and it would be meaningless if it spoke only through a specific memory during shooting. For this reason, Koudelka explains to us that a very important phase in the creation of a body of photographic work is the strict selection of photographs:

“I’m willing to show my photos, not so much my contact prints. I often work on small prints. I look at them frequently, and for a long time. I put them up on the wall, and compare them, to make sure of my choice.”

Josef Koudelka

Koudelka, despite the success of his photographic work – which it has been characterized as work of great reportorial importance – never considered himself a reporter or his work as documentary:

“There’s no such thing as fine art photography or documentary photography; there is only photography…"

Being photographers, it is very important to understand that we are marked by our time. It is obvious that each photographer’s work goes along with his life, and often the latter shines strongly through his photographs. Whatever motivated Koudelka to shape the work we witness today, is not a reportorial research but a deeper need, similar to the one that drove him buy his first camera when he was 14 years old.

‘’Too often people with some talent go where there is some money to be made. They begin to trade a bit of their talent for a bit of money, then a little more, and finally they have nothing left to themselves. In Czechoslovakia we didn’t have many freedoms, and particularly not the freedom to make money. But that led us to choose professions that we really loved. I always photographed with the idea that no one would be interested in my photos, that no one would pay me, that if I did something I only did it for myself.”

Josef Koudelka

“I photograph only something that has to do with me, and I never did anything that I did not want to do. I do not do editorial and I never do advertising. No, my freedom is something I do not give away easily. And I do not follow the war because I am not interested in photographing violence.’’

Josef Koudelka

Additionally, Koudelka’s criteria with respect to the photographs’ content and form vary significantly. One of his most ubiquitous work, ‘Gypsies’, constitutes a good example in order to understand that sometimes, certain technical issues may alter the result we aim for.

“The ‘Gypsies’ project is a product of wide-angle lenses. I bought them by chance, from a widow who was selling everything. It changed my vision.”

Josef Koudelka

However, in our photographic course we may realize that it is more important for a photographer to experiment with different equipment, than obtaining technical training. While we mature photographically it is even more important to see the world differently than we used to acknowledge it. Besides, through our lenses we perceive a different reality.

“When I went out of Czechoslovakia I experienced two changes:

The first one is that there wasn’t this situation any longer. I didn’t need wide-angle lenses. And I had understood the technique very well, I was repeating myself, and I’m not interested in repetition, I wanted to change. I took a 50mm/35mm Leica.

The second change was that I started to travel the world. I had this possibility and I had a look at this world.”

Josef Koudelka

Apart from experimenting with different cameras or lenses, Koudelka discloses that the secret for his photographic result is far simpler than we imagine when looking at his photographs. At the same time though it is equally difficult to be so spontaneous as Koudelka, and have our finger ready on the camera’s shutter. His passion for photography is what ultimately drove him to create such a truthful photographic journey. A passion which, even today, keeps him photographically, and literally, alive.

“Many photographers like Robert Frank and Cartier Bresson stopped photographing after 70 years because they felt that they had nothing more to say. In my case I still wake up and want to go and take photographs more than ever before. If I couldn’t shoot lots of photos, I would not be the photographer that I am’’

Regarding us, plain viewers and aspiring photographers, Koudelka offers a very simple advice: don’t think… just press the button when you feel like it.

‘’When I photograph, I do not think much. If you looked at my contacts you would ask yourself: ‘What is this guy doing?’ But I keep working with my contacts and with my prints, I look at them all the time. I believe that the result of this work stays in me and at the moment of photographing it comes out, without my thinking of it.”

Josef Koudelka

“I don’t pretend to be an intellectual or a philosopher. I just look.”


  • Richter, Jan (2010-03-02). "Art historian Anna Fárová dies at 81". Radio Prague. Retrieved 2010-03-02.

  • Josef Koudelka at Magnum Photos

  • Estrin, James. "Josef Koudelka: Formed by the World". The New York Times. The New York Times. Retrieved 13 June 2014.

  • Books by Koudelka: Aperture: Koudelka, Gypsies, Exiles, Prague Invasion, Chaos

  • Films: Josef Koudelka: The Art of Photography


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