Thirty Minutes With Magnum Photographer Josef Koudelka

julius motal the phoblographer josef koudelka

I was standing with a group of street photographers at a bus stop in Istanbul when an old man sauntered up to us to ask for directions. “That’s Josef Koudelka,” said one of our group and we collectively froze the moment we turned to look. There he was, the photographer in exile, Magnum member since ’71, author of GypsiesExiles and more. He looked as though he had just gotten back from an expedition, the pockets of his vest stuffed with papers and his one-of-a-kind Leica S2 hanging off his shoulder. For all of us standing there, he’s an icon, and for 30 minutes, we helped him find his way. Koudelka was in Istanbul for a presentation at FotoIstanbul, an annual photo festival, and he was due to present new work – a series of 145 black-and-white panoramas of Greek and Roman ruins in Turkey.

julius motal the phoblographer koudelka 01

As our Turkish friend helped Koudelka navigate the map he had, the rest of us were understandably gobsmacked. When you meet someone, you’re meeting everywhere that person has been and everything they’ve experienced, and in Koudelka’s case, the list of his places and experiences is almost immeasurably long. None of us really knew what to say until one of us broke the silence with, “Hello, sir. I know it may be a silly question, but would it be alright if we took a photograph with you?” He assented, and we formed up around him.

We didn’t pepper him with questions because it wasn’t the right setting for it, particularly when he’d be giving a Q&A the following evening. The conversation was light. Some asked about his camera, the gargantuan custom-made S2 that Leica hardwired to take black-and-white panoramas. It’s the only one in existence, and probably worth far more than the $25,000 price tag of your run-of-the-mill S2.

As the conversation moved away from and back to photography, Koudelka said, “Photography is big. There’s room for everyone.”

It was an invigorating thought, particularly from a photographer of his stature. It wasn’t really a passing of the baton. Rather, it was an acknowledgment that the field is much wider and inclusive of more than just a few key players. Had that statement been said by someone just a few years into their career, it wouldn’t have carried nearly as much weight.

Our time with him both at the bus stop and on the bus was short, but it did afford us a glimpse of who he is, a remarkably candid and funny man with a certain zest for life. This played out in spades during the Q&A that followed a presentation of old and new work, from Invasion 68: Prague to his latest panoramic work. The transition from Invasion 68: Prague to the landscapes was striking. When you ask someone about Koudelka, you’ll hear about Gypsies and Exiles. The panoramic landscapes are devoid of all human presence, save for Koudelka’s behind the camera, and they are comprehensive in their subject matter: Greek and Roman ruins in Turkey. They’re quiet, too, and an important historical record.

The questions ran the gamut from why Magnum photographers give workshops to his ability to still see beauty after having witnessed so much tragedy.

Here is a selection of quotes from that Q&A:

“I don’t judge photographers based on what they say. I judge them based on their photographs.”

“I never knew why I photographed the gypsies, but I think I photographed the gypsies because of the music.”

“I saw much more beautiful things than terrible things.”

“I do exactly what I want to, and I photograph what I want to. I have no regrets.”

“If I look at my photographs, it seems to me that I reacted correctly. And that’s enough for me.”

“I don’t like to repeat myself.”

“I never did any workshops. I’m still alive.”

“The most important thing is to enjoy taking photographs.”

Towards the end of the session, he raised a bottle of water to his mouth and said to laughter and applause, “It’s not vodka, but anyway.”