Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful
November 11, 2014–March 22, 2015, GETTY CENTER
An aeronautical engineer by training, Josef Koudelka (Czech, naturalized French, born 1938) became intensely committed to photography by the mid-1960s and quickly emerged as one of the most influential, iconoclastic photographers of his generation. This exhibition—the first U.S. retrospective devoted to Koudelka since 1988—traces his legendary career with more than 140 works produced over five decades. It marks the first time that the work of one contemporary photographer will fill the Center for Photographs at the Getty.
This exhibition was co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago in association with Fundación MAPFRE.
After early experiments with photography, Josef Koudelka began his career in the 1960s by working for leading Czech theater companies. He photographed theatrical productions, working quickly and closely alongside the actors onstage as they rehearsed. During this decade he also spent long periods in Roma (Gypsy) encampments in Slovakia and the Czech lands of Moravia and Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic), creating thousands of pictures. He compiled a selection of these captivating photographs in his seminal publication Gypsies (1975), revised edition 2013. This retrospective presents exhibition and book prints from this series, as well as materials used to create the book.
In 1968, Koudelka risked his life to document the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, clambering onto tanks and mixing with protesters and soldiers. His negatives of the event were smuggled into the West, and the images were reproduced worldwide, ultimately forcing his exile in 1970. Unable to produce documentation that verified his birthplace as Czechoslovakia, Koudelka acquired the legal status of “Nationality Doubtful” while stateless in Western Europe. Undeterred by this, he worked continuously while in exile, traveling in the spring and summer months to photograph Roma gatherings and folk and religious festivals in Western Europe. In the harsh winter months he retreated to the darkroom. Work from this period, first published in the book Exiles (1988), is a cornerstone of the exhibition.
By the time he completed Exiles, Koudelka had already settled in Paris and begun working primarily with panoramic cameras to photograph the landscape and man’s impact on it. Since 1986, he has utilized the expansive panoramic format to showcase terrains that have been mined, stripped, exploited, scarred by industry, altered by time, and devastated by conflict. The exhibition will feature a selection of large-scale panoramic works, including images from Koudelka’s most recent project Wall on the West bank barrier and the land that surrounds it on both sides.