Street Photography Book Review: “Gypsies” by Josef Koudelka

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

All photographs in this article are copyrighted by Josef Koudelka / Magnum Photos

To continue my street photography book reviews, I wanted to write about “Gypsies” — one of my favorite street photography books of all-time, shot by Josef Koudelka, Magnum photographer.

To give you a bit of background, Josef Koudelka is one of the greatest living black and white photographers of the century– both revered for his phenomenal photography and his obsessive passion for photography.

Apparently  he hasn’t had a “job” in the last few decades, and he has only focused on his photography. Even in Magnum, he would refuse any commercial-related photography assignments. Rather, he would get film donated to him by friends and colleagues, and sleep on the ground of any apartment he could find. There are even stories of him sleeping on the floor of the Magnum offices, because he couldn’t pay for rent elsewhere.

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

Josef Koudelka (back in the day)

In an interview when asked why he decided to live this way, he explains the freedom when it comes to living simply:

I’ve never aspired to have the perfect home, to be tied to something like that. When I bought my home, my main requirement was that I could work here. I live in Paris – this is just another part of my traveling life. I don’t need to fill houses with clothes. I have two shirts that last for three years. I sleep in them. I keep my passport in the top pocket and some money in the other. I wash them in one go and they dry quickly, it’s very simple. *I only carry things that are needed – my cameras, film and a spare pair of glasses.

Even when he was photographing “Gypsies“, he chose to live in poverty to focus on his own work:

For 17 years I never paid any rent [laughs]. Even the Gypsies were sorry for me because they thought I was poorer than them. At night they were in their caravans and I was the guy who was sleeping outside beneath the sky.”

Gypsies” to me is his strongest body of work. “Exiles” is a very close second (I know a lot of fellow photographers who prefer Exiles over Gypsies).

Background of “Gypsies”

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

To give you some background of “Gypsies” — he lived with and traveled with Roma people (the politically correct term for “Gypsies”) from 1962 to 1971 in what was, at the time, Czechoslovakia (Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia), Romania, Hungary, France, and Spain.

Therefore for close to 10 years, he became insides of the lives of the Roma people he befriended. For those of you who don’t know, the Roma people have been persecuted and discriminated for hundreds of years. Whenever you hear people referring to “Gypsies” — there are all sorts of negative connotations.

Personally when I was traveling to Paris for the first time, I got all sorts of advice to “Be careful of the Gypsies– as they will try to swindle and steal your money, or trick you somehow.” Therefore outsiders generally look at the Roma people with caution and suspicion.

So what initially drew Koudelka to photograph the Roma people, for nearly 10 years? 10 years to work on any single project is a huge dedication– especially when it comes to photography. In an interview Koudelka shares what first drew him to photograph the Roma people:

“From 1961 to 1966 I took pictures of Gypsies because I loved the music and culture. They were like me in many ways. Now there are less and less of these people so I can’t really say anything else about them.”

Koudelka felt a certain connection to the Roma people– because he loved their music and culture, and found that he could relate to them. I think this is the fuel that kept him photographing– his personal connection to them and passion for their way of life is what kept him fascinated, to keep clicking.

“Gypsies” — the book

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When Koudelka was first preparing publishing “Gypsies” — he put together a maquette (dummy book) titled: “Cikáni” (Czech for Gypsies), which was prepared by him and graphic designer Milan Kopriva in 1968. It was originally intended for publication in Prague in 1970, however wasn’t ever published in that form– as Koudelka left Czechoslovakia in 1970 after extensively documenting the Russian invasion of Prague in August 1968.

However the first edition of Josef Koudelka’s “Gypsies” was first published in the United States in 1975, through a collaboration of Robert Delpire, Aperture and Koudelka. It was called Gitans, la fin du voyage (Gypsies, in the English-language edition), a selection of 60 photographs taken in various Roma settlements around East Slovakia.

Recently “Gypsies” has recently been re-published by Aperture and printed by Gerhard Steidl (the world’s master printer).

What I love about “Gypsies”

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

I own a lot of photography books in my library, and “Gypsies” is one of the books that I keep finding myself going back to.

What I love about “Gypsies” is the soul, emotion, and the story-telling that Koudelka does so masterfully. I think that to create a great body of work, one must immerse him/herself with their subjects– getting to really know them on a personal and cultural level.

I think it might have been easy for an outsider to simply visit a few Roma people and snap some photos here and there– showing how “different” they were from us.

However Koudelka’s images of the Roma people are very sincere and heart-warming. He doesn’t portray them to be these “mischievous crooks” or “swindlers”– he shows them as loving, fun, and community-oriented human beings– whom value family, religion, and their self-identity.

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Gerhard Steidl, the master printer

Not only that, but the printing of “Gypsies” is absolutely phenomenal. For those of you who don’t know Steidl, he is the world’s best printer. His books are seriously pieces of art in terms of the printing, paper choice, and binding (to learn more about him, I recommend watching: “How to Make a Book with Steidl“)

The book itself is printed on matte paper, which is soft and silky to the touch– and the black ink on the paper almost looks like it were printed in a darkroom. The images have a silver-like vitality, and the images breathe with soul.

Also a fascinating thing that they did in this new edition is that there are certain pages which fold out horizontally (a bit hard to describe, but I will show it in photos later).

Analysis of “Gypsies”

The book “Gypsies” includes 109 photographs, and of course not to bore you– I won’t talk about all 109 photographs. I will write about the photographs I find personally interesting, and provide some of my personal commentary on them:

Opening image

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One thing I am fascinated by is the use of blank white pages in a photography book.

In the opening image of “Gypsies” by Koudelka, you see a mysterious man standing alone. The left page is left blank intentionally– to give that one image on the right even more power and authority. We analyze the image more below:

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

The book starts with an enigmatic portrait of a man with tasseled hair and a rugged wall, looking straight at the viewer. He has his hands in his ominous black coat — and looks over with a bit of suspicion and power in his eyes. It is a piercing gaze, which I think is a great way to start the book. It sets the tone that the man is the “gatekeeper” of the secret society of the Roma people. He seems a bit suspicious of the intentions of the viewer — and perhaps makes the viewer feel a bit uneasy.

As a note, I always try to pay special attention to the first and last images in a photography book. It always sets the tone, and has incredible amounts of intentionality from the author.

So whenever I look at the opening photograph in a book, I always ask myself the questions:

  • Why did the photographer choose this photograph to be the opening image?
  • Does the image have some sort of special meaning to the photographer?
  • What kind of mood is the photographer trying to set?
  • How does this leading image invite me into the book (or doesn’t)?

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

The second image in the book (also another really important image in a book to set the pace) is a more uplifting and fun one. You see a family and a man with a horse– perhaps running towards you (the viewer). It is interesting how this is such a huge contrast from the previous image (which was much darker and menacing). This image makes me feel like I’m going to have fun– to explore the lighter side of the Roma people.

The way I interpret this image is that there is this man and horse will be my “tour guide” for the rest of the book– and guide me.

Then it brings us to the first spread in the book with two vertical images:

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You see what seems to be a young mother relaxing with her infant daughter on the left photograph. Then on the right of the photograph you see a little boy standing on top of chairs.

When I see two photos on opposite sides of the pages, some questions that come to mind are:

  • Why did the photographer choose to pair these two images together?
  • Is there some sort of connection between the two images?
  • Are the two images supposed to tell one larger story?
  • Are the two images similar, or dissimilar?

For this spread, I think Koudelka is trying to say something like this:

On the left of the frame, you have the lovely connection between a mother and her daughter– and on the right photograph you see a boy, all alone by himself. There is a juxtaposition between the feeling of belonging, warm, and family on the right– against the boy on the right who is isolated, small, and perhaps wishing he had some connection.

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To analyze the first image, I love the mirroring of the expressions of the mother and the daughter– both looking relaxed with their elbow over their shoulder. Having the little girl look straight at me, the viewer– makes the image much more engaging.

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An interesting thing to note for this book, Koudelka shot it with a 25mm lens (very wide). He did so because a lot of these quarters he photographed in were very small and cramped.

Koudelka shares the importance of shooting with a wide-angle lens:

The “Gypsies” project is a product of wide-angle lenses. I bought them by chance, from a widow who was selling everything. It changed my vision.”

I find the wide-angle effect quite striking in the image above with the boy. This is because Koudelka shot it standing up, looking down– which makes the boy look even smaller than he is. Not only that, but Koudelka has left a lot of negative space on top.

Usually when I see all of that negative space– I think it doesn’t add to the image and can be removed. But Koudelka didn’t crop the photograph on purpose.

Therefore I think the reason why Koudelka left all that negative space on top was to further enhance the concept of the boy being small. The boy is also standing on top of a chair, trying to look older and more powerful– and is dressed quite well, with his right hand on top of the chair, in a very adult-like pose.

The photograph is a great symbolic image of a boy trying to grow up and become an adult– but still small and a child.

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The fifth image of the book also creates a wonderful sense of mood.

You have two men, both sharing a bottle of wine outside on a picnic bench. You see a bunch of people in the background (doing something)– and the two men have strong emotions in their face.

The man on the left looks like he is very concerned about something, with his eyebrows furrowed, arms crossed, and cigarette-in-hand. The man on the right looks quite suspicious or concerned about something, and I love both his hat and the way he covers up his mouth.

The photograph works for me because of the strong emotion and mood of the photograph. The feeling of concern, anxiety, and melancholy. The wine bottle is the “cherry on top” in terms of a detail– because when you think about alcohol it could have a negative connotation.

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The next shot is quite powerful from the previous photograph– as this image is very fun and exciting– all of these Roma people playing music on the streets.

Therefore Koudelka sequenced these two images well– one image with a dark and melancholy feel, followed up by a fun and cheerful image. It sort of puts you on an emotional roller-coaster ride, which both magnifies the sadness of the previous shot and the happiness of this shot (due to the contrasting emotions in both images).

In the photo above, you can see how well Koudelka employed his 25mm lens. He is right in middle of the action, and you feel as a viewer that you are there. You can hear the music, and hear the excitement of the crowd in the back. In terms of the composition, I love how he got 3 of the musicians perfectly spaced out on the left, middle, and right of the frame:

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Also when it comes to composition, multiple subjects often work well in 3’s. This is also why triangular compositions work so well.

Koudelka then sequences the next photo very well, by putting in another “multiple subject” photograph:

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In this shot, it works well because of the spacing of the 4 subjects in the frame, and the strong “figure-to-ground” (contrast) of the subjects in the photograph. For example, in the top left you see the man smoking in a black jacket against a white background. In the middle of the frame you have the guy in the white shirt against a black background. The man talking to the woman also has a black outfit, and is perfectly situated against a white wall. And the woman on the far right is also wearing white, which is a nice contrast.

A trick I learned from Adam Marelli (the master of photography composition, and much more knowledgeable than me) is to blur your eyes to see if you can see your subject separate from the background. This is called the “figure-to-ground trick”. Even if we blur the subjects, you can still see them clearly:

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Not only that, but the direction in which all of the subjects are moving is very engaging. The man on the far left is looking straight at us, the viewer, the guy in the white is moving left, the guy on the right is facing right, and the woman on the right is facing left. It creates a symphony of directions and movement, which makes the photograph feel more three-dimensional and alive.

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The image doesn’t have too much emotion or stuff “going on” — but is a nice compositionally pleasing image.

The next photograph puts a grin on my face:

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You see a guy, arms crossed, legs crossed (he looks very relaxed)– while smoking a cigarette. He is perfectly framed in-between the door opening, and the mirror on top shows how empty and bare the room is.

The emotion bursts with this feeling of cockiness, relaxation, and macho-ness of the guy in the center. He looks like he is having a great time, and very confident in himself. His little grin makes me chuckle as well.

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In this next image, Koudelka continues with his emotional rollercoaster. We are constantly thrown from extremes in emotion: from great happiness, joy, and excitement– to the more sad and moody images.

In this image, you first see the man sitting on the chair, who looks full of despair, and his wife and 4 children are sitting around the cramped bedroom.

You can see the look of exasperation and in the man– who looks overwhelmed. Perhaps the story I see is the man is worried about finances, his future, and his family– being the man of the house he feels he needs to provide.

Interestingly enough, his kids don’t look too concerned, except the other girl close to him, who grasps her concerned looking father.

Commentary:

Once again, the emotion of the photograph is what captivates me– and a great aspect of Koudelka’s work. Not only is Koudelka’s work well-framed and composed, they burst with life.

Another interesting thing to note about Koudelka’s photos is that they are all consensual– and the people know he is photographing them. Yet their expressions are very candid– and it almost looks as if the people are totally oblivious to Koudelka. He is able to put his subjects at ease to show genuine expressions and emotions, without having it look forced or posed.

The sequencing continues to work well, with Koudelka following-up this image with two other family portraits. Take a look to analyze both images yourself, and see the expressions, emotions, and overall mood of each image:

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1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

We then approach another spread with two vertical images:

This spread is interesting, because we see the first “still life” photo on the left– of a religious figure (not sure who it is) with a photograph of a man and his hung-up hat on the right of the frame.

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What I think is interesting about this is how the circles mirror themselves in the shot (the circular shape of the picture frame) and the circle of the man’s hat:

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I will continue to analyze both images:

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

What I feel really works in this “still life” photo is that of the soft light coming in, the textures on the bottom of the frame, the patterns of the wall, and the religious iconography of the painting. It symbolizes and shows the religiosity of the Roma people.

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This portrait of the man is also very powerful. The look of the man is very kind and gentle, and even though he has a huge deformation on his face, it doesn’t look like it bothers him. Above him, you see a hat which is hung up, perhaps what he wears to cover up his deformation.

This makes me think: how did Koudelka make this man feel comfortable enough about his deformity to put up his hat, and pose for him?

Small details which make this shot work for me include the patterns of the wall, which add nice texture and a sense of softness to the image.

At this point forward, I am going to start skipping around a bit– and not comment on every single photograph in sequence.

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What is also great in this book is how it has a nice variety of images: still life photos, individual portraits, family portraits, candid moments, as well as landscapes.

In the above image, you see a lovely landscape of a small house on the hill. I love how he included this landscape in the book, as it breaks up all of the portraits he included previously– which gives the viewer a break or a chance to catch his/her breath and relax a bit.

In photography books and project, there is this concept of “pacing.” That you want to build a certain rhythym or cadence to your images — for the images to flow well. You don’t necessarily always want all of your only strong images put next to one another. Sometimes you need “quiet” photos next to your more “action-packed” images.

Balanced compositions

In terms of composition in the book, you will see a lot of triangles. Koudelka is a master of them, and uses them to balance out his images. For example, he can use something as simple as a black figure on the wall to balance out his frames. For example, take a look at the two images below:

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1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

The two things you can see in both images are the little black thing in the background. I believe it is a religious icon. But you can see how he used it to create nice triangular compositions:

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1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

I think one of the most difficult things to do is to take a portrait of someone. It is the job of the photographer to show a person’s life, individuality, thoughts, emotions, and concerns in a single image. This is even harder to do when you ask for permission. But once again, Koudelka is able to create a strong sense of emotion and mood in his portraits of his subjects– and does it masterfully even when he has a couple:

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This is one of my favorite portraits in the book. You see a man and a woman, with the man’s hands placed tenderly over her shoulders. You can only see half of the man’s face, his eyes are closed with a deep sense of what appears to be spirituality.

The woman has her fingers crossed, looking straight at the viewer— with a mixed expression of confidence and also concern.

What captivates me of the image is the connection between the man and the woman, as well as the tight and intense framing of the photograph.

You feel like you can almost see right through the couple. It feels intimate. You are right next to them, experiencing their emotions, and entering their home.

Also the composition of the image is beautiful, with the strong geometric shapes in the photograph:

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Theme: “Movement”

In the book, there are also a lot of shots with energy, excitement, and movement. These photos bring vitality into the lives of the Roma people, and the images unfold like a moving picture:

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Triangular compositions

I talked about this a bit before, but I wanted to highlight some of Koudelka’s best images where he employs triangular compositions in his work:

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1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

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Theme: Death

One of the themes that emerges in “Gypsies” is this concept of death:

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To start, you have a photograph of this man who is convicted of homicide, and is handcuffed– about to be hung for his crime. I read an analysis of this image by John Szarkowski saying that the leading line of the right of the frame almost looks like a rusty hook– about to drag the man to his imminent death:

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In the book, there are also many crosses — which are a sign of death as well.

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

For example we see in the book a photograph of a grave and crosses, which paints a sad and gloomy mood. This can be seen as symbolic of the persecution and genocide of the Roma people they have suffered over countless generations.

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In the above image is also one of the most powerful images in the book– of a woman and a dead child. This is an incredibly intimate moment, and it shows testament to how much the Roma people trusted Koudelka. I don’t think any outsider would have had the ability to take this photograph.

In the image, you can see the heavy mood in the woman’s face, and the tragedy of the death of the young girl. It looks as if the girl has coins over her eyes, which I heard is “payment” to the underworld (to gain a safe journey to the spirits).

Not only that, but the way the woman holds her hands tenderly over the little girl’s face is pouring out with love but despair.

 

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In the next scene, we see another funeral — of a young woman’s body in a casket, with many people around mourning the scene. This photo (and the prior photo) are sequenced in a row– to show this connection of death. But also in many other photos in the book, you see lots of children and life.

Memorable images

Below are some of the most memorable images from the book to me (not to say that the other photos I showed aren’t memorable), and I will share what makes them so special to me:

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One of my favorite images from the book is this of the mans moking a pipe. It is dark, mysterious, cool– with the smoke enveloping his head. You also have two mysterious looking characters (one also in a fedora looking over) — adding to this “film-noir-esque” type of image. It is very stylish.

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

Another of my favorite images in the book is of this musician. He looks so powerful, tall, and dignified— and the way his body is almost makes him look like a standing cross:

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Because of the cross, the photograph has almost of a religious feel to it for me.

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Another image which is embedded in my mind is this photo of a man gesturing to a horse on his left. It almost looks like as if he is talking to the horse– having some sort of personal 1:1 dialogue. Perhaps the man has some sort of special power to communicate to animals? The white horse, powerful, muscular, and devoted– bows its head in almost a sense of reverence to the man, and understand what the man is saying to him.

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This image is a combination of elegant and also horrifying. You see a pretty-looking woman, turned around, hand on her head. Her pose looks quite elegant and engaging.

However in the background, you have this white wall with all of this darkness enveloping around. There almost looks like there is blood splatter all around the walls. This causes the image to have an ominous feel– perhaps a bad scene is going to happen — is someone going to come in and murder this beautiful woman?

1x1.trans Street Photography Book Review: Gypsies by Josef Koudelka

Towards the end of the book, you see this intimate image in which it is filled from corner-to-corner with kids. They are all looking away– whereas this one little girl (who looks cute and bossy), has her hands on her hips– showing off her strength to Koudelka. She has the eyes of confidence, and I am certain that one day she will become a strong woman.

Concluding image

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The last page in the book is of a woman, covered in a patterned cloth (with a nice single tree on top), turned around to Koudelka. It is a nice parting photograph– as if she is walking away and saying “goodbye” to the viewer. Perhaps this woman is the older version of the younger, sassier girl in the prior image?

Koudelka chose this as the concluding image for a reason– therefore it has a personal significance and impact.

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Conclusion

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Click to see “Gypsies” on Amazon

Gypsies” is an incredible journey– it takes you through the lives of the people Koudelka traveled with and lived with. The images stir a sense of familiarity, love, compassion, sadness, despair, and death in the heart of the viewer. It is certainly one of my most treasured black and white photography books, and a book that I highly recommend to everybody.

Gypsies” is currently out-of-print, but you can still purchase copies on Amazon for around ~140 USD. It is expensive, but if you want to own a piece of art, I would say it is certainly worth the investment.

You can also see all the images of “Gypsies” online on the Magnum Photos website for free here.

If you want to learn more about the work of Koudelka, you can read my post: 10 Lessons Josef Koudelka Has Taught Me About Street Photography

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  • Jaibo Wang

    That was awesome Eric! Lot of analysis. Have u thought of sending this book review to Koudelka for his comments?

  • L

    Eric,

    Right the fuck on.

    L

    PS – I’m convinced that the last image, the woman , the look, the love of the camera for her, the hello and goodbye…that was koudelka’s lover, if not in reality, than in his mind, and that’s what makes the image so raw and powerful…as if to say “this moment in time, the mystery of it, was all for you…”

  • joy

    Yap, this is a wonderful book. Good advice

  • binotto

    Thanks for another great review Eric! I love the book too – it moves me every time I read it. I was a bit sad that so many of the photographs were double spreads with subjects lost in the center spine. But Steidl’s printing creates such a strong atmosphere in itself that you just don’t get from web versions of these photos. By the way, the Thames & Hudson release of the book (identical Steidl book) is still available in Europe for a much lower price than the sold out Aperture release.

  • Tzen Xing

    Thank you for such an insightful and heartfelt article about a great photographer, Joseph Koudelka!

  • d_horton

    Don’t know why, but this book hadn’t made it into my library—probably due to the cost. But after reading your review and careful analysis, I bit the bullet and paid the $200. Arrived last week and not an ounce of regret. Gorgeously reproduced, stunning work, beautiful format. I can’t believe it took me so long to get it. Thanks for the nudge. Great review.

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