Sunday, June 1, 2008

Invaze 68: Anonymní Český Fotograf Josef Koudelka


When thousands of Soviet troops rolled into Prague on tanks in 1968 to quell what the Kremlin saw as reforms made by then Czech president Dubcek that threatened their hold over Czechoslovakia - it was a major turning point in the life of the photographer Josef Koudelka. The history that includes his leaving his country and remaining stateless for decades is a large part of the mystique and romance of Koudelka’s life but what I did not know was that he had just returned two days prior to the invasion from a trip that foreshadowed his own statelessness -- photographing gypsy encampments.

Koudelka hadn’t done “news” before as a photographer, all of his previous subjects were spurred by his personal passion and interest but this event was as personal, “I felt very strongly about what was happening. This was my country, my problem. I took these pictures for myself, not with the intention of publication.” Even though it wasn’t his intention, these photographs were published and that act may have led to his being granted a three-month working visa in England on the recommendation of Magnum and thus being able to leave Czechoslovakia and work freely.


A few of the Prague invasion photographs had been seen before and now a large format book has been published called Invaze 68: Anonymni Cesky Fotograf Josef Koudelka (Invasion 68: Anonymous Czech Photographer Josef Koudelka) published by Torst with an American edition being co-published by Aperture and distributed in the Fall of this year.

The subtitle Anonymous Czech Photographer refers to the photo credit given to the images distributed by Magnum that would eventually lead to his being asked to join the agency. Fearing reprisals on Josef if he were credited by name they were instead attributed to P-P (Prague Photographer) when they appeared in The Sunday Times a year later and a Robert Capa gold medal was given to an ‘Anonymous Czech Photographer.’

Invaze 68 contains 249 photographs within the almost 300 pages and is well designed for impact and to feel more like an epic magazine spread than an art book. Some of the images run as full double-page spreads while others are stacked into grids where 16 images appear at once. Throughout Invaze 68 there is much text that derives from interviews with participants, radio broadcasts, and news accounts of the events. (My edition is the Czech edition so much of the specifics eludes me until I can get my hands on an English edition.)


To have a book with so many images there is usually the problem of it not sustaining the power from cover to cover but this hasn’t left my hands since it arrived two days ago. Koudelka’s coverage of the events over 8 days is extraordinary and the character of his photography that we have come to know through Gypsies or Exiles is clearly at play here. Why we have only seen around 50 of these images before is a mystery. There is so much wealth among this work that it is refreshing to finally see what is often left behind on contact sheets or the editing floor.

I had the pleasure of seeing Josef while he was in NYC last week and I asked him this very question regarding why much of this work has not seen the light of day especially when there was a small Photo Notes book Prague, 1968 (Photo Poche series) which featured 51 images. His response was simply that he gave the work to Robert Delpire and Robert was the one who put that small edition together without much editing input from Josef. The rest of the work has never left the contact sheets before.

Invaze 68 is soft cover and beautifully printed and my only complaint is that some of the images that run across the gutter get their most important elements eaten by the split. I have one suggestion to diehard Josef Koudelka fans and that is to buy a copy of the Czech edition by Torst. The cover for that edition is made of recycled paper much like the cover of Black Triangle and it is such a nice element to the tone of the book. I have seen an advance copy of the Aperture edition and the only difference is that they changed the cover stock to a traditional soft cover stiff wrappers.

Koudelka is one of my two favorite photographers and my main complaint is not being able to see more unknown images in the recent books. The last Aperture retrospective (which is now sold out) had few pictures we hadn’t seen before but Invaze 68 has about 200 on its own. Not all of it is great work but a surprising amount is, but more importantly, all of it deserves its place within this remarkable historical book.

Note: The photos in the composites above are taken from the Magnum Photos website instead of my copy of Invaze 68.

Buy online at Torst

Book Available Here (Invasion 68)

10 comments:

Double E said...

i think that this is Josef's best book. a monumental document. can anyone think of another book that documents an event/uprising etc. in this depth? the book is a real page turner that you can't put down. the photos are DENSE with infomation. he is in close - very few photos with sky. order now - they will go fast.

Stuart Alexander said...

The Aperture edition is due in the fall but the Thames & Hudson edition is in UK bookstores now. It will also be in French, German and some other European editions, I think Italian and Spanish.

Anonymous said...

There is a lot to think about when you realise that Koudelka did his best work (the gypsies and that extrordinary document) before he joined Magnum and never reached the same heights again.

Gary said...

Like you, I have tremendous respect for Koudelka and his work (and now I'm wondering who is the other half of your top two photographers!)

Most photographers spend a lifetime trying to find a personal, distinctive style. For many, that style gets tied to particular subject matter. A few, like Friedlander, find an identifiable style that they can port from one subject matter to another. Kouldelka is one of a handful who have managed to develop a distinctive personal style (the Gypsies / Exile fusion of Cartier-Bresson and Arbus) and then give it up to develop another (the later large format work). It really is a stunning achievement.

However, I'm not so sure I agree that the 'character' of this work is as closely linked to Gypsies and Exiles as you suggest. A clear sense of marginality and alienation pervades the Gypsy work -- a reflection of the outsider status of the subjects. From what I've seen of the Prague photos (I haven't seen the new book), there is much less of that and a much greater sense of connection and community. There seems to be more Cartier-Bresson and less Arbus than in the Gypsies and Exiles photos.

Double E said...

what makes the Prague 68 work interesting and good is that there is no "other" there. josef is connected to the subject and shows it by being in so close. perhaps more Robert Capa (if you are not close enough etc...) than HCB - who somehow is never connected to the subject (this is not necessarily bad).

Anonymous said...

How can a major publisher do such a book with those photos?
The printing is quite poor and the design terrible.
That work deserved so much better...

Jeff Ladd said...

Anon,

I am all for differing opinions so it is interesting to hear someone from the other side.

The book's design and printing were approved by Josef and he is very happy with the results. What is the problem with the printing in your opinion? It is rich with no lack of ink on the page.

The design may not be for everyone but I think a more conservative approach would have dampened the impact of these photos.

I think it's great and I don't even have the english version to read.

Stuart Alexander said...

Anonymous,

Is there a good reason to remain anonymous? Anyway, I can only guess that you got a bum copy of that book as the printing quality is excellent. I know design is a matter of taste so not everyone will be pleased but I think the design is very strong. I would make a few complaints here and there about image placement in relation to the gutter and there are a couple of double page spreads loaded up with pictures which begin to weaken the overall impact but on the whole I think the design is great.

Anonymous said...

I don't remain anonymous. It is just that I don't have a Blogger account.
I sometimes sign "SL", or Susanna Laaksonen if you prefer.
Is it ok that way?
Now, the book.
I find the work unique, needless to say it. So as I am kindly encouraged to express an opinion on the book, I can only say that I find its realisation poor. The design strongly reminds me Peress's great "Telex.Iran", and also "Farewell Bosnia" and a few others as well. The main problem with "Invasion 68" is that another form would have been more appropriate - too long to describe my intuition here but I strongly feel the layout and the design weaken the strength of the photos.
The photos are intense, their use isn't.
To be more general, I find the artwork lazy. The fonts aren't well chosen (were they even chosen?) and the object seems to me inconsistent, not in touch with its subject and its time - 68 seen from 2008 could have been a more stimulating perspective.
It uses recipes that were successful with Peress but never questions JK's work and doesn't adapt those recipes to the context.
And if JK is happy with the result, I'm glad for him, but it doesn't mean the publisher or the graphic designer were ambitious.
They were not.
In case it wasn't clear, what I express here isn't my disappointment in front of the photos but of the bad editorial choices.

(And the printing : I have the Thames and Hudson book. I just looked at it and I stick to my position).
My English isn't as fluent and refined as I would like, but my name will tell you English isn't my everyday language.
Regards.

Baltasar said...

Last Monday July 7th, I bought the Czech edition in Prague, in a bookshop in Václavské Námesti, exactly one of the streets where many of the pictures were actually taken those days in August 68. I had just taken some photos as my personal tribute to the people who had taken to the streets to fight for their freedom. I´m linking a page at an Internet site where I have posted one: http://contaxg.com/document.php?id=32149 . I love the edition; as you mention I agree the cover is great. My only regret is that the texts are in Czech, and I do not speak the language. Now I learn that there is a Thames and Hudson edition which I may become interested in. But I'll keep this edition I have now, as it was purchased in Prague and in the same location as many of the published photos. Greetings from northern Spain. Baltasar