Josef Koudelka Could Locate Beauty Anywhere

Koudelka’s personal uniform featured sturdy workman’s shoes. “I wake up,” Koudelka said, at Pace. “I walk all day. Every year a new pair of shoes.” He was a lithe, muscular man who could cook and wash his clothes anywhere, mend any hole or tear, and remain agile with multiple cameras dangling from his neck. He favored thick military-style olive-green shirts with deep, secure pockets where his passport and his cash could be held close to his self-sufficient heart.

Only once was the system breached by thieves. “At least twenty years ago,” Koudelka recalled. He refuses to say where it happened. “I try to forget about it. I was photographing for a month and a half, and it was raining all the time. I was sleeping outside. One day I lost everything. I accepted it. The only way you can get rid of it is the next year, I go back and you do something better. I can’t tell you if I did do something better, because I don’t know what I lost.”

At Pace, Koudelka wore baggy black Levi’s jeans, a black thermal sweatshirt with a frisson of olive-green fabric visible beneath it, and a frayed khaki vest with several pockets. Although his beard and hair are wispy and white, and although he now uses a cane, he insisted that nothing significant about him had really changed. “I don’t need to be anywhere,” he said, cheerfully. “I do what I want. I’m interested in everything. I spend my day looking. And three rolls is the proof I looked.”

How does one take in the world as he has? “Of course, you must have good eyes. But the guy who has good eyes can take very bad pictures. The good photographer must create conditions to be a good photographer,” Koudelka said. “What’s nice for me is to walk on the street. Nobody ever surpassed me on the streets of Prague. Now most people are passing me. I’m very at peace with it, because none of you will walk so many miles like me. How many, I have no idea.”

He was planning to sleep that night in the hotel room that his gallery had booked for him. But, if the hotel’s pillow seemed menacing to an aging neck, Koudelka wouldn’t hesitate to bed down in the familiar way: “I still can.”

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