© Josef Koudelka, 1963, Gypsies, Jarabina, Czechoslovakia

After completing a degree in aviation engineering, Josef Koudelka, born in Moravia in 1938 and a resident of Paris today, took his first steps as a photographer by working for a theatre magazine. In the early 1960s, the photographer, who would go on to become a Magnum member, began exploring the life of the Romani.

His social documentary Gypsies, published in 1975 and still considered one of the most important photography books of the 20th century today, depicts the life of these people in moving black-and-white images. Their circumstances, often marked by poverty, desolation and isolation, frequently leave the viewer with a depressing, oppressive feeling.

With this photograph, Koudelka, who foreswore the use of artificial lighting, impressively demonstrates the power of natural light in such a scene. Daylight streaming through the small window onto the open coffin creates a bright corridor, while the mourning family on either side is shrouded in dark grey. (+)

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© Josef Koudelka, 1966, Gypsies

Current Exhibition: ‘Gypsies’
Les Rencontres Arles Photographie, Arles / France
02.07.2012 - 23.09.2012

In 1975, the first edition of Josef Koudelka’s photographs was published by Robert Delpire in a book that became a myth and was never published again. In 2011, Josef Koudelka exhumed a former dummy of the same book and decided to re-publish it with a larger amount of photographs. Exceptional pictures, exhibited for the first time together, unique prints, the show tells, through unpublished documents, the story of those two books published with a thirty-six-year gap.


In the 1975 edition, Robert Delpire said about this special project that impacted the twentieth century history of photography:

‘In the very stillness of the characters Josef questions and who question him, there is a kind of tension, a quivering, the muffled murmuring of flowing blood suddenly contained. It is not so much the temporary nature of immobility, the suspended time peculiar to the snapshot, as the feeling that this precarious immutability is only a surface phenomenon. Beneath each of these weather-beaten and hairless complexions silently glides the ice of all fears. Rooted like dried trees inside these bare, white walls, men mark out lines, indicate the masses of a statistically geometric order. Prisoners of the attention that they bring to bear, without naivety, on the photographic event, they are both witnesses and actors of their own presence. Whether they keep watch over the victim of a murder, show their pathetic treasures or flaunt themselves in front of Josef in the ironic ostentation of an accepted impoverishment, they give to the image its weight of classicism and tradition.’

Robert Delpire, excerpt from ‘Josef ou la fureur de voir’, 1975.

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© Josef Koudelka, 1966, "Gypsies", Moravia (Czech Republic)

Josef Koudelka talks about his master work “Gypsies” with Vogue Italy - watch the video here.

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© Josef Koudelka, Aug. 1968, Vinohradska Avenue, Prague, Czechoslovakia

In 1968, Josef Koudelka was a 30-year-old acclaimed theater photographer who had never made pictures of a news event. That all changed on the night of August 21, when Warsaw Pact tanks invaded the city of Prague, ending the short-lived political liberalization in Czechoslovakia that came to be known as Prague Spring. Koudelka had returned home the day before from photographing gypsies in Romania. In the midst of the turmoil of the Soviet-led invasion, he took a series of photographs which were miraculously smuggled out of the country.

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