By Jessica McDonald
Initially drawn to their traditional folk music, Josef Koudelka (b. 1939) photographed the nomadic Romani people—or Gypsies—of Czechoslovakia and Romania for nearly ten years. Most of the photographs in his seminal 1975 book Gypsies were taken in Eastern Slovakia between 1962 and 1968. In his sensitive study of these communities, Koudelka examined the remnants of a threatened way of life after government efforts to assimilate the Gypsies confined them to grim settlements lacking basic utilities or sanitation services. Something of a nomad himself and forced to seek political asylum after escaping the Czech Republic early in his career, Koudelka has often lived as his subjects do, fostering a shared experience and sense of respect that is discernible in his photographs.
In the Ransom Center’s exhibition Radical Transformation: Magnum Photos into the Digital Age, on view through January 5, this photograph is presented with four others from the series, as well as a copy of Koudelka’s book, one of several pioneering publications by Magnum photographers highlighted in the exhibition. There were few publishers for photography books during Magnum’s first decades, but when photography gradually gained widespread acceptance as an art form in the 1970s, publishing houses began to embrace the medium. Photographers aspiring to use the book form to give a more sophisticated account of world events and personal journeys now had more models to guide them. These books employed complex sequencing and innovative combinations of images and text; they displayed a nuanced understanding of layout and design and a standard of printing quality not previously associated with works of reportage.
Koudelka will speak on a panel at the upcoming symposium “Magnum Photoso into the Digital Age.” The symposium takes place October 25–27.