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)