By Ray Pride Pride@moviecitynews.com
Prague, not Denver: Koudelka
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.
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.]