What Is It About Czech Photographers?
As this is a month of Cold War mania – the anniversary of the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring, etc., I thought I’d take the opportunity to feature yet another of my favorite Czech artists – the photographer Josef Koudelka.
Although Koudelka staged his first show in 1961, his photographs only received world-wide attention when he submitted – anonymously – photographs of the Soviet invasion of Prague on August 21, 1968. It was a devastating day for Czechs and a hard slap in the face to democracy. Many photographs had been taken of the event – smuggled out of Prague in most cases – but it was Josef Koudelka’s that grabbed us by the lapels, even if his photos came along a full month later when the news agencies had already moved on. You can see why – honest, innocent, painful – his photographs crushed any naïve hope that free (and un-free) people held that the world was becoming a better place. Or at least more reasonable.
In June this year, I was fortunate enough to watch a live interview with Mr. Koudelka (though I feel he wouldn’t mind if I called him Josef – he’s like that) on the Paramount Theater stage at the Look3 Charlottesville Festival of the Photograph.
He did not disappoint.
Josef Koudelka was warm, earthy, humble – truly, not faking it in order to get people to say he’s humble. He was funny, eccentric and filled with wild imagination. I learned he needed nothing but a mat to sleep on, a camera and a change of clothes. At 75, he moved with the passion of a man in his thirties. His mind was sharp and experienced, yet there was nothing jaded about him. That in and of itself is an enormous feat of humanity.