“Review of Next by Melissa Harris: A Tribute to a Nomadic Luminary, Josef Koudelka”
In 2008, I visited Prague for a short period of time with Josef Koudelka, the photographer who captured the city’s iconic images during the Russian tank invasion on August 20, 1968. He had recently returned to his home country and was going to be recognized with an exhibition of his photographs from that significant event. This exhibition only displayed a small portion of the 5,000 photos he took during the first week of the invasion.
On this occasion, they were being presented there for the first time and as expected, he was in a contemplative state. He shared with me, “For a while, no one here showed any interest in recollection, but I believe they are beginning to remember once more.”
For a significant period, Koudelka, who is currently 85 years old, appeared to have little inclination to reminisce – at least publicly – about the extraordinary journey of his life as a photographer. Approximately two years after the Russian invasion, he departed from Czechoslovakia and embarked on a prolonged exile, during which he adopted a nomadic lifestyle, constantly travelling. His vagrant existence became the stuff of legend, particularly among his colleagues at the Magnum photo agency: Koudelka would consume slivovitz (a potent Czech plum brandy) for breakfast; he would sleep under a desk at Magnum’s office in Paris or on the floors of friends; he would unexpectedly vanish for months at a time with only a sleeping bag and a rucksack containing a change of clothes, his camera, and as many film canisters as he could carry.
Elliott Erwitt, a close friend and fellow photographer, once described Koudelka as an eccentric who has a unique perspective on the world. Erwitt also mentioned that Koudelka is very much aware of his own reputation and the impact of his work.
Melissa Harris’s book, titled Next, is a captivating visual biography that was written in collaboration with the subject himself. It provides a comprehensive and informative look into the life and works of this renowned photographer. Filled with personal memorabilia such as family portraits, snapshots, and excerpts from his numerous journals, it traces his journey from Boskovice, a small town in Moravia where he aspired to be an engineer, to his current status as one of the most revered photographers in the world. Koudelka is portrayed as an intensely focused individual whose constant movement is a symbol of his freedom. In one of his diary entries from the 1970s, he writes, “Never stay in one place for too long…things start to stick. Moving from one place to another is like cleansing oneself.”
Koudelka, who left his home country, seemed to have an innate understanding that he would never feel at home anywhere else. The Roma community he resided with and captured in his first notable work, Gypsies (1975), affectionately referred to him as the “romantico clandestino”. His unrelenting restlessness, which was even seen as extreme by them, influenced his early subject choices: Gypsies was followed by another book called Exiles. In both works, his keen eye for poignant human scenes and harsh, unforgiving landscapes was evident, particularly in his photograph Slovakia (Jarabina) (1963), featuring a young Romani man in handcuffs standing on a hill with a group of villagers and a few policemen in the background.
In 1973, the Museum of Modern Art in New York included this piece in a group exhibition. However, the accompanying description mistakenly portrayed the subject as being taken away for execution for a murder he committed. In reality, Koudelka captured the scene when the local police had brought the man back to the crime scene to reconstruct the events accurately. Over 20 years later, when Koudelka returned to the Slovakian village, he was able to locate the man and show him the photograph. The man was overjoyed and even embraced Koudelka, exclaiming “It’s me! It’s me! It’s me!”
This specific photo, more than any other haunting images of remote Roma communities captured by Koudelka, portrays a complexity in its depiction of solitude and belonging. It represents a key theme in Harris’s book and Koudelka’s renowned photographs: the idea that, despite his solitary travels, he is far from being a detached observer. Instead, he is a photographer who deeply identifies with and empathizes with his subjects, which informs his immersive style and results in photos that often exude a gritty, romantic realism.
Harris chronicles Koudelka’s numerous romantic affairs, known for their intensity and short duration. She also details his relationships with his three children, including Rebecca, who he didn’t meet until 2000, nearly three decades after her birth. It becomes clear that Koudelka’s passion for his work and constant desire to travel made it difficult for him to commit to long-term relationships. In one of his journals, he writes, “No one can help you, it’s up to you to help yourself.” Despite being alone and constantly on the move, he found fulfillment in his interactions and formed lasting friendships. As depicted in Harris’s book, he was not merely odd but more of an enigma. Koudelka tells her that his thousands of photographs serve as proof that he truly lived and that it wasn’t just a dream.