Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos
One afternoon in early September, the Czech photographer Josef Koudelka was administering a bottle of cognac to a group of well-wishers at the Pace/MacGill Gallery, two placid, spacious rooms on the ninth floor of an office building on Fifty-seventh Street in Manhattan. The occasion was the opening of an anniversary exhibition of photographs Koudelka had taken forty years earlier, during the invasion of Prague by Warsaw Pact forces tasked with extinguishing the Czech spirit of political reform. At the time, Koudelka was 30 and a relative newcomer to his art. He had never taken photographs for the purpose of reportage (his portfolio at the time mostly featured pictures of Gypsies and the theater), but he turned out to have a natural gift for documentary photography.
I sampled a glass of cognac and strolled around the gallery. The mood was decidedly midday. Two schoolgirls had piled their satchels and jackets next to the entrance; crayon drawings were scattered nearby. A mixture of Czech, French and English wafted casually throughout the rooms. People lingered in front of each of the eighteen black-and-white photographs on display, most of which are reproduced in Invasion 68: Prague (Aperture, $60), the elegant, well-researched book that served as the basis for the exhibition. A much larger selection of the book’s contents was to be unveiled later that evening in a companion show at Aperture Gallery in Chelsea (open through October 30).
Koudelka’s greatest strengths as a photographer are his emotional acuity and narrative sensibility. At Pace/MacGill, there was a shot of two Czech men who look like students triumphantly bearing a bedraggled Czech flag while small fires smolder near their feet. The Soviets, who enjoyed cementing their sense of destiny with monuments to military victory, could not have come up with a more stirring composition. Koudelka’s knack for storytelling is apparent in a photo in which two Russian troops struggle to leave an ambushed tank as a third, his gun cocked, contemplates a nearby Czech who holds his jacket open, daring the soldier to shoot his exposed chest. The most wrenching photo shows a dumbfounded old man standing in front of two singed, bullet-ridden apartment buildings, his eyes as dark as the vacant spaces behind him that were once outfitted with windows.
Through a series of underground connections, a smattering of the nearly 10,000 photos Koudelka took during the invasion were smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and shown to the president of Magnum Photos. A year after the invasion, a handful of them appeared in Britain in the Sunday Times. To protect Koudelka, who rightly feared for his safety, they were attributed to “P.P.”–or Prague Photographer. The photos were suppressed in the Soviet Union, but in the West they became award-winning and iconic. It’s easy to see why: the photos spoke clearly to the concerns of a generation. For those who fretted about a cold war suddenly turning hot, the photos expressed the fear of conflict and disorder. To aspirants of radical political change, the photos delivered the message that progress could be suddenly and violently halted. The recent short war between Georgia and Russia gives the photos a renewed resonance–they are stark reminders of how boundaries and lives can be violated by fear and force.