Witness to history

The Prague Post

In two photo exhibits, new views of a turbulent time in Prague

The shocks of 1968 reverberated around the world. The United States was riven by demonstrations against the Vietnam War and the assassination of two great leaders, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. In Paris, students rioted in the streets. And Prague was the unwilling host of Soviet tanks.

Two new photo exhibitions bring this era back to life. The Prague House of Photography presents 1945 Liberation —1968 Occupation, a study in nearly 300 photographs of the wildly divergent feelings the arrival of Soviet soldiers triggered in those two pivotal years. A second exhibition, entitled Invaze 1968, is a one-man show by Josef Koudelka, whose photographs brought the events of 1968 in Prague to the outside world, but whose identity remained a secret for years afterward.

The Prague House of Photography show is the culmination of four years’ work by curator, photographer and PHP board member Dana Kyndrová. She scoured city, state and museum archives, records in ČTK, the national press agency, and more, searching for photos. She even went into the homes of photographers and their relatives looking for negatives.

As word of the project spread, people began coming to her.

“All the photos were donated,” she says. “There was a feeling that these photos needed to be shown.”

Many of the photographs have never been seen before, particularly in juxtaposition with one another. The placement of seemingly similar images, but from events 23 years apart, illustrates the intensity of emotion that both events created in the people of Czechoslovakia. As an example, Kyndrová points out a photo from 1945 that shows people cheering as Russians ride by on tanks. In a 1968 photo, people are jeering the Russians and their tanks.

An even stranger twist lies in the genesis of the idea for the exhibition.

“The beginning was in Moscow — it’s a paradox,” Kyndrová says. After she had shown a series of photographs on the final departure of the Russians in 1991, the Moscow House of Photography thought it would be interesting to exhibit those photos, along with some from 1945 and 1968. Moscow officials, however, did not like the idea, so the exhibition was never held. Now the photos will finally be shown in Prague. (Space constraints didn’t allow for Kyndrová’s 1991 photos to be included.)

Kyndrová’s research took her all over the country, and into Slovakia. One of her most interesting stories is how she discovered the identity of a photographer who took a famous 1968 photo in Liberec. It shows a Russian tank crashing into city hall, with people gathered around staring. No one ever knew who took the picture, so Kyndrová went to Liberec to see if she could track down some information.

Surprisingly, it was a cleaning woman at city hall who identified the photographer, Václav Toužimský. When Kyndrová went to meet him, he told her that he got back all his negatives from the police when they opened their files in 1990. Kyndrová commented to the cleaning woman how smart she thought the police were for saving all the negatives.

“No,” the woman told her. “They wanted them so they could identify the people in the photos and punish them.”

Different eyes

1945 Liberation — 1968 Occupation includes a small group of 1968 photos by Josef Koudelka, whose photos of the invasion by Warsaw Pact troops were smuggled out of the country and published around the world. To protect him and his family from possible retribution, he was identified only as “Prague Photographer.”

“It is a unique reportage, if we consider it from a world view — how one man covered one event so widely, in the middle of everything,” says Irena Šorfová, curator of the Invaze 1968 show, which offers a much broader sampling of Koudelka’s work. “He took about 10,000 photos in one week. It is amazing how great they are, considering he was just starting out in his career.”

Koudelka had given up a profession in aeronautical engineering to devote himself to photography. He had just returned from a stint photographing Gypsies in Romania when the tanks rolled in, and spent the next seven days documenting the turmoil and destruction in Prague.

Magnum Photos published the photos in 1969, on the first anniversary of the invasion. They were distributed under the name “P.P.” for Prague Photographer. That same year, the “anonymous Czech Photographer” was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal from the Overseas Press Club. Sixteen years later, after his father died and his family was no longer in danger, Koudelka was revealed as the photographer at an exhibit of his photographs at the Hayward Gallery in London. (It wasn’t until 1990 that Koudelka’s photographs of the invasion were published in Czechoslovakia, in the weekly newspaper Respekt.)

“It is interesting that he didn’t earn his respect as a photographer through these photos,” Šorfová says. “It was more for his series on Gypsies and his projects called Exile and Chaos.” Koudelka’s interest in Gypsies actually got him out of the country; in 1970, he was invited to photograph Gypsies living in Western Europe, and Magnum advised him not to return to Czechoslovakia.

Both exhibits offer accompanying books. Koudelka worked with graphic designer Aleš Najbrt to choose the photos for Invaze 1968. The text was written by three historians drawing on eyewitness accounts of the event, including police reports, broadcasts from Czech Radio and newspaper accounts. The book has been picked up by eight international publishers, and translations of it are scheduled to appear in the fall.

Two photo exhibits on the events of 1968 showing at the same time may seem like overkill, but Šorfová makes a good point about the value of attending both.

“You can see the same events through different eyes.”