Josef Koudelka’s photographs best capture real emotion through some distinctive events in Europe’s history.

Koudelka’s entire oeuvre is presented in “Koudelka: Returning” are on display at The Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague from now until the 23rd of September.

Koudelka was born in Czechoslovakia in 1938 and became a French citizen in 1987. After the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, which he famously documented, Koudelka emigrated to the West soon afterward and proceeded to continue traveling. He lives a nomadic lifestyle, documenting different people and landscapes wherever he goes.

The exhibit shows Koudelka’s work chronologically in sections titled: Beginnings, Experiments, Theatre, Gypsies, Invasion 68, Exiles, and Panoramas. The layout of the exhibit is somewhat confusing, but the works make up for it. Koudelka immersed himself in his work; he was never just an observer, but rather a man living in the action of the pictures he documented. He traveled amongst his subjects, immersing himself in their culture and lifestyle.

SPAIN. Andalucia. Grenada. Guadix. 1971. Photo by Josef Koudelka.

Gypsies was Koudelka’s first major series. He documented Roma mainly in eastern Slovakia throughout the 60s. His ability to capture the emotions of these individuals, as well as tell a story without captions is remarkable. While documenting the people he encountered, Koudelka was living amongst the gypsies himself. He carried only what he could on his back and slept outside amongst the people he met that day. The next day he would get up and move again. His ability to empathize with these people and literally step into their shoes allowed for his photographs to be so intimate and personal. He paints a clear picture of what life was like for them, unchanged and unaltered.

One of the most well-known series done by Koudelka, Invasion 68, capture the pure emotions felt by the Czechs as the Warsaw Pact tanks invaded Prague. The invasion put an end to “Prague Spring,” a brief period of liberalization in Communist Czechoslovakia. Koudelka arrived in Prague from a trip just one day before the invasion and this series marks the first time he captured a news event. Koudelka originally had to smuggle these photos out of the country because the police could have easily traced him to them and he would have been arrested. The series captures Prague for newspapers abroad with destructive tanks, blasting guns, yet remarkably brave and defiant people. Koudelka says, “What’s important is that one person has a gun and the other hasn’t. And the one who hasn’t is, in fact, the stronger, even though that’s not immediately apparent.” The quote from the exhibit is an accurate depiction of the photographs and emotions highlighted in this series.

Koudelka began his next series, Exiles, after emigrating from Czechoslovakia. The relevance of this series is that Koudelka was living like an exile himself. He escaped after the invasion because he did not want to be traced back to the incriminating photographs. His pictures give you an inside and personal look at the trials and tribulations of being on your own and running away. He traveled throughout Western Europe in the 70s and 80s, capturing the different barren landscapes and alienated people he encountered. A primary focus of these photographs is the idea of humans searching for their place. Koudelka claims that he didn’t have a “home” and didn’t want to have something he had to return to, yet he captures these people searching in vain for something to cling to. They highlight the emptiness of situations and the sense of loss.

One of the most recent series produced in his career is Panoramas. He uses a panoramic camera, focusing on the human destruction of landscapes and the idea that this destruction cannot be reversed. He shifts his focus from people and emotional stages of life to landscapes and destroyed sites instead. The images he captures are taken from places all around Europe and the Middle East and give a sense of hopelessness in a way. He shows sites that have been destroyed through war, classic historic sights that have fallen, and places that have been abandoned. The balance between humans and the environment is fragile and can easily be destroyed, and Koudelka tries to highlight this instable relationship through the destructive landscapes.

Koudelka is well known for his wide array of subject matter, from landscapes to a major historical event to exiled individuals. The exhibit is a way of remembering and celebrating Koudelka and is used to mark his eightieth birthday. All of Koudelka’s images are used without captions and are a prime example of his remarkable ability to tell a personal story without the use of words.

Museum of Decorative Arts

Opening Hours:

  • Tuesday: 10.00-20.00
  • Wednesday-Sunday: 10.00-18.00