Josef Kouldelka

In the mid-1950s, when a new youth culture characterised by an open mindset was beginning to emerge in Czechoslovakia following the death of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and after two decades of brutal repression, Josef Koudelka (born in Czechoslovakia in 1938 and nationalised French) left his village in Moravia and moved to the capital, Prague. An aeronautical engineer by training, Koudelka became very actively involved in photography in the mid-1960s, contributing to the creative renaissance that took place in his native country.

Koudelka not only immortalised these years with his camera but also embodied them. He spent lengthy periods in gypsy encampments in Slovakia, he compulsively photographed actors during play rehearsals, and he mingled with demonstrators and soldiers in August 1968 in order to capture the invasion of Prague by the Soviet troops. When Koudelka went into exile shortly afterwardshe acquired the official status of “nationality doubtful”, becoming a stateless person as he was unable to produce documentation proving that he was born in Czechoslovakia. He refused to be intimidated by this situation, however, and continued to travel and take photographs, allowing gypsy communities and traditional and religious festivals to decide his destinations.

Koudelka settled in Paris in the 1980s and after the fall of Communism returned to Prague in 1990 where he now has a second home. Nonetheless, he continues to be a traveller, committed over the past twenty-five years to the creation of panoramic photographs that depict landscapes around the world which have been altered and often devastated by the hand of man.

This exhibition encompasses Josef Koudelka’s entire career, spanning more than five decades of work. The comprehensive selection of images on display includes his first experimental projects of the 1950s and 1960s and his historic series Gypsies, Invasion and Exiles, concluding with the great panoramic landscapes of recent years. In addition, visitors will see important documentary material, most of it previously unpublished and including layouts, leaflets and magazines of the period which contribute to a deeper understanding of this artist’s work and creative process.

The exhibition has been organized by the Art Institute de Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Museum in association with Fundación MAPFRE.


Bohemia, 1966
Gelatin silver, print 1967
The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of the artist, 2013.1256
© Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos