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Born in 1938 in Czechoslovakia and trained as an engineer, Josef Koudelka turned to photography very early on. His first professional work began with photographs taken for theater companies and magazines in Prague. The first exhibition space of the Rencontres was mainly dedicated to these images. In 1962, the photographer embarked on an 8-years’ project, a photo-essay in the tradition of Life magazine as revisited by Eugene Smith and Cartier-Bresson, on the Gypsies of Czechoslovakla. The work was noticed by Anna Farova, a famous Czech critic and curator. She showed Koudelka’s photographs to Allan Porter, the editor of Camera (Switzerland), and to John Szarkowski, the director of photography at MoMA. Porter published the work as a portfolio in Camera in 1967 and then as a monograph in 1979. Szarkowski included Koudelka in his famous Looking at Photographs show and catalog of 1973 and in 1975 gave Koudelka a one-man show at MoMA while Aperture published the accompanying book Gypsies.
This vast body of work was showcased at the 2002 Rencontres in a large exhibition room at the Espace Van Gogh, the only light sources being the halogen lamps lighting the photographs, giving the impression that the exhibition was held in a church. In tune with the somewhat solemn atmosphere, the visitors seemed to be aware of the close proximity of the Saintes Maries de La Men, a well-known Gypsy shrine, and to pay respect to the ancient Gypsy culture which has played an important role in the local life, the Camargue life-style, with its music, its strong religious feeling and its love of horses.
The third body of work on display at the Rencontres was composed of the images that launched Koudelka’s career as an international photographer and opened the doors of the prestigious Magnum agency to him.
Dramatic events had taken place in Czechoslovakla in the spring of 1968 and Koudelka had witnessed...