* “Master Profiles” is a series profiling all the great photographers of uncontrolled life. Unlike the rest of the blog, I’m doing these in a straight profile format to make it easy for quick access to facts, quotes and knowledge on all the masters. I’ll also group them together here every time I add a new one.
Josef Koudelka (1938-present)
Czech photographer famous for his black & white work capturing the human spirit amidst dark landscapes.
Born: January 10, 1938 in Boskovice, Czech Republic
As a child, Josef Koudelka started photographing his family and environment with a 6×6 Bakelite camera. Later he studied engineering at the Czec Technical University in Prague. While he did focus on photography in his free time, he began work as an aeronautical engineer in Prague and Bratislava.
After performing commissioned photography work for theatre magazines, Koudelka decided to quit his engineering career in 1967 and take on full-time work as a photographer.
His first big project was photographing gypsies in Romania, but as soon as he returned to Prague, the Soviet Invasion started. Koudelka decided to record the happenings of the invasion and his negatives were smuggled to the Magnum Photo agency under a fake name to protect himself and his family.
With help from Magnum, Koudelka was able to get a British working visa and fled to England in 1970. He ended up staying for over a decade as a political asylum, but continued to travel around Europe with his camera.
Koudelka has famously spent his career and life as sort of a nomadic photographer. Through grants and awards, he’s worked on a variety of large projects around the world, while having more than a dozen books of his work published. Starting with his full immersion into capturing the gypsies of Slovakia and Romania, he approached photography as a complete life devotion. Koudelka has captured darker themes from desolation to despair, but also shows hope from within the human spirit. Looking at his work is almost like a masterclass in photography.
In 1987, Koudelka became a French citizen and was able to return to Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1990. He currently resides in France and Prague. More recently, he has shifted his work’s focus from the people to the landscape of Europe.
- Social and cultural rituals
- Complete devotion and immersion into his work and subject
- Human spirit amidst dark landscapes
- Black & White, contrast
- Darkness, despair
Cameras: Leica M, S2 / Lens: 25mm, 35mm, 50mm, and panoramic
Koudelka used an Exacta camera with a 25-millimeter Flektogon f4 lens for his first project photographing the Gypsies. He shot this project at a max of a 30th of a second on an East German 400 ASA movie film, but pushed it as far as possible in a hot developer. Sometimes up to 3200 ASA.
After Gypsies, he moved away from wide-angle to a Leica 35 and 50 mm lens on a Leica M rangefinder. He didn’t feel the need for the wide-angle since he wasn’t shooting inside small spaces anymore and he also wanted to avoid repetition in the look of his work.
More recently, Koudelka has been attracted to capturing European landscapes with a panoramic lens and has also switched from film to digital.
“What matters most to me is to take photographs; to continue taking them and not to repeat myself. To go further, to go as far as I can.”
“If I am dissatisfied, it’s simply because good photos are few and far between. A good photo is a miracle.”
“I have to shoot three cassettes of film a day, even when not ‘photographing’, in order to keep the eye in practice.”
“I don’t pretend to be an intellectual or a philosopher. I just look.”
“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.”
“I don’t like captions. I prefer people to look at my pictures and invent their own stories.”
“I never stay in one country more than three months. Why? Because I was interested in seeing, and if I stay longer I become blind.”
“One world is disappearing. I am trying to photograph what’s left. I have always been drawn to what is ending, what will soon no longer exist.”
“I would like to see everything, look at everything, I want to be the view itself.”
“It never seemed important to me that my photos be published. It’s important that I take them. There were periods where I didn’t have money, and I would imagine that someone would come to me and say: ‘Here is money, you can go do your photography, but you must not show it.’ I would have accepted right away. On the other hand, if someone had come to me saying: ‘Here is money to do your photography, but after your death it must be destroyed,’ I would have refused.”
When Koudelka started using a panoramic lens and wanted to jump from film to digital, Leica made sure to help his transition. Leica created a one-of-a-kind panoramic version of the S2 just for Koudelka.
He had been using a Fuji panoramic film camera, which had become increasing difficult due to the cost, weight and lack of 220 film developers. For Koudelka, Leica seemed to have taken a S2 medium format camera and made it panoramic by cropping out the top and bottom sections of the image.
After working with Leica’s creative gift, the long time film user said, “I no longer need to carry with me 35 kilograms, only about 10 kilograms, and I don’t need to go through the X-ray machines which I really dislike. So the digital camera makes it easier, and also more interesting. I am 77 and I can say, Vive la Revolution!”
Josef Koudelka might be my favorite black & white photographer of all-time. There’s no one else like him. Tell me what you all think about his work life in the comments below! Do you have any favorite shots? Does his work impact you as much as others?