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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com

Prague, not Denver: Koudelka

The second Soviets invaded Prague (Josef Koudelka)-1.jpg


Rhetoric abounds but there’s little indelible in terms of imagery in 2008’s domestic politics, at least in light of August 1968, at least in light of influential radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh’s repeated cry for insurrection in the streets of Denver in the coming week. [Iraq, Afghanistan, Georgia: other stories-in-pictures await.] Soaring, hopeful words, perhaps, instead of heart-breaking moments in time: I’d settle for that. Of the image above, by the then-30-year-old Josef Koudelka, among the thousands of images he shot as the Prague Summer died, taken at the second the Soviets rolled into Prague, time told courtesy of a passerby’s wristwatch: tell me one thing you can find wrong with it. [Larger.] Aperture’s published “Invasion 68: Prague,” and the 70-year-old Magnum contributor talked to Sean O’Hagan at The Observer. “[A] year after Russian tanks rolled into Prague, Josef Koudelka visited London with a Czech theatre group. One Sunday morning he was walking out of his hotel near the Aldwych Theatre when he saw some members of the theatre group perusing a copy of the Sunday Times magazine. As he passed, he saw to his surprise that they were looking at his own extraordinary photographs of that Russian invasion and the spontaneous street protests it provoked. The same photos have since become the definitive pictorial record of a pivotal event in 20th century history. ‘They showed me the magazine where it said that these pictures had been taken by an unknown photographer from Prague and smuggled out of the country,’ he says, shaking his head as if he still cannot believe it. ‘I could not tell anyone that they were my photographs.

koudelka-maximum.jpg

It was a very strange feeling. From that moment, I was afraid to go back to Czechoslovakia because I knew that if they wanted to find out who the unknown photographer was, they could do it.’ .. When I meet him today, in the back room of his new apartment in Prague, Koudelka unfolds a battered map of the world he has just found in one of the many boxes stacked along a wall. It is covered in spidery ink trails that trace his wanderings through Europe and beyond, his handwriting providing a runic commentary of the festivals and gatherings he attended along the way. The map dates from the Seventies and looks like a strange work of art, which, in a way, it is. The real art, though, lies in the photographs Koudelka produced when he began chronicling his restlessness – and rootlessness – as well as his newfound sense of freedom. His first major work, published in 1975, was called simply Gypsies, his second, from 1988, Exiles. Their titles alone tell you much about Koudelka’s own life as well as the lives of his subjects. ‘For 17 years I never paid any rent,’ he says, laughing and raising a shot glass of slivovic, a plum brandy he has produced to welcome me to Prague. ‘Even the Gypsies were sorry for me because they thought I was poorer than them. At night they were in their caravans and I was the guy who was sleeping outside beneath the sky.’ … At 70, Koudelka has, like his late friend Henri Cartier-Bresson, achieved semi-mythic status as a photographer. Alongside Robert Frank, he is the last of the great hard-bitten romantics of 20th century reportage, and, like Frank, he is a hero of mine. Gypsies was the first photography book I ever owned, and though I cannot remember now how I came by it, I can still recall its impact on me. I was studying in London for a degree in English, and Gypsies seemed to me to possess a more powerful narrative than many of the contemporary novels I was reading. I looked at it again in preparation for this interview, and found it still retains the power to mesmerise with its raw beauty, its essential sadness. There is something beautifully melancholic in Koudelka’s images, a sadness the Portuguese call saudade, a deep-rooted longing for which there is no equivalent word in English. When I mention this, he nods in agreement. ‘The mother of my son, an Italian lady, she once told me, “Josef, you go though life and get all this positive energy, and all the sadness, you just throw it behind you and it drops into the bag you carry on your back. Then, when you photograph, it all comes out.” Perhaps there could be some truth in that.’ [Much, much more at the link.] A look at a Prague-based exhibit on the era is at The Prague Post. “‘1945 Liberation — 1968 Occupation’ includes a small group of 1968 photos by Josef Koudelka, whose photos of the invasion by Warsaw Pact troops were smuggled out of the country and published around the world. To protect him and his family from possible retribution, he was identified only as “Prague Photographer.” “It is a unique reportage, if we consider it from a world view — how one man covered one event so widely, in the middle of everything,” says Irena Šorfová, curator of the Invaze 1968 show, which offers a much broader sampling of Koudelka’s work. “He took about 10,000 photos in one week. It is amazing how great they are, considering he was just starting out in his career.” Plus : Jiřina Vojáčková remembers: “When people heard the Russian tanks were approaching, they swapped or removed street names and house numbers, as well as directional signs, and the soldiers wandered around quite lost, unsure how to get to the centre of Prague. Some of them were convinced they were in Paris. They were hungry (no shopkeeper sold them anything, not even a crust of bread – their own mobile kitchens had been caught up somewhere and delayed), exhausted through lack of sleep and startled by their Czech reception. No wonder: they had been told they were about to liberate a nation, without even knowing which one. Instead of a welcome, they were greeted by raised fists and insults. For example, a large gathering of tank crews stood on Mariánské námĕstí, then known as Vackovo. They were surrounded by enraged Prague citizens. When people heard the Russian tanks were approaching, they swapped or removed street names and house numbers, as well as directional signs, and the soldiers wandered around quite lost, unsure how to get to the centre of Prague. Another group occupied Staromĕstské (Old Town) Square and Václavské (Wenceslas) Square. Here, the soldiers were again confused. Their tanks were aiming at the Baťa Palace, thinking it was the Czech ‘Pentagon’. They even begun to fire on the National Museum, convinced this was the Parliament, where the Government was having an important meeting.” [More.]


Koudelka - Russian Tank in Prague.jpg

2 Responses to “Prague, not Denver: Koudelka”

  1. T. Holly says:

    I really enjoy these linked to the nines pieces. What’s wrong with the top photo, other than it being badly cropped in the small version?

  2. Nothing… Meant rhetorically as in, “kind of sublime, I’d venture.”

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“Last night’s Oscar bizarreness was not just bizarre but bizarre in a way that is typical of this entirely bizarre time. The rhythm of the yes-they-won-oh-my-God-no-they-didn’t event, with La La Land replaced by Moonlight as Best Picture, was weirdly like that of… Election Night. First, a more or less expected, if “safe,” result was on its way—though Hillary Clinton never got all the way to the stage, so to speak, the result did seem safely in hand at 7pm., according to the polling—and the expected and safe people were ready to deliver their touching but obviously polished pieces. Then the sudden confusion and visible near-panic of people running around in the backgroun, with the same slightly horrified spirit that one felt on Election Night as shocking results began emerging from exurban counties in Florida. Then, yes—can this be happening?—the revised and unexpected result.

“In this case, obviously, the result was positive to all but the poor La La Land producers, with their earnest and spouse-approved speeches already delivered. Moonlight was no Donald Trump of cinema, and obviously a popular favorite. But the rhythm of the night was disconcertingly the same, and the sheer improbability of the happenstance scarily alike. Nothing like this has remotely happened before. This wasn’t just a minor kerfuffle. This was a major malfunction. Trump cannot be President. People don’t say “Grab ’em by the pussy” and get elected President. Can’t happen. In the same way, while there have been Oscar controversies before—tie votes and rejected trophies—never before has there been an occasion when the entirely wrong movie was given the award, the speeches delivered, and then another movie put in its place. That doesn’t happen. Ever.

“And so both of these bizarre events put one in mind of a simple but arresting thesis: that we are living in the Matrix, and something has gone wrong with the controllers. This idea was, I’m told, put forward first and most forcibly by the NYU philosopher David Chalmers: what is happening lately, he says, is proof that we are living in a computer simulation and that something has recently gone haywire within it. The people or machines or aliens who are supposed to be running our lives are having some kind of breakdown. There’s a glitch, and we are in it. There may be not merely a glitch in the Matrix. There may be a Loki, a prankster, suddenly running it.”
~ Adam Gopnik

“I think they were focused so hard on politics that they didn’t get the act together at the end,” President Trump said. “It was a little sad. It took away from the glamour of the Oscars. It didn’t feel like a very glamorous evening. I’ve been to the Oscars. There was something very special missing, and then to end that way was sad.”
~ Trump Offers Breitbart Exclusive On His Thinking About Oscar