Geometer of peripheries

Photographer Jan Reich did not live to see the large retrospective of his photographs at Prague Castle. His work was closely connected to Prague and the Czech landscape and you could see it in the Theresian Wing of the Old Royal Palace until August 19, 2012. Unfortunately, the exhibition does not go along the author’s perfectionism mostly due to its unavailing concept. An excessive number of exhibited photographs turns the gourmet experience into a needlessly protracted feast.

Two approaches are visible right at the beginning of the exhibition. Should Reich be introduced as a photographer through his work or as a human being through his life story? The information board called “Jan Reich – Photographs” provides very brief basic information about the author while the board entitled “Photographic chronicles of the family” tries to unveil the social background of the author. Unfortunately it does so only through pictures from family albums. Reproductions of these are not of a very good quality and there is almost no written information accompanying them. If there is some text, it is displayed on miniature labels under the reproductions. The visitor thus has to guess that Jan Reich was born into a successful, rich, Prague family meant for him.

Beginnings is Reich’s cycle that was probably created retrospectively. It is represented in the exhibit by some square photographs including the well-known picture of a boat on the Vltava River in winter or the picture of children in Platýz. These show us the power of Reich’s photographs – simple, compact images from the city.

The cycle called Marks of the Landscape is, unfortunately, accompanied by no information. It originated during Reich’s studies at FAMU but we do not know whether it was part of his studies or his free time activity. Photographs from this cycle are from the border region, probably from Doubovice. For the first time we can see a frontal view of a centrally located motif. An empty cross, a hole where a door used to be, a silhouette of a tree, an old window with a spider web. Images of deserted land through which frenzied history blew over.

Platýz, 1959. Beginnings cycle.
After doing various jobs such as a builder or illuminator, Reich started to work as a circus helper in the early 1960s. He gets to travel around former Czechoslovakia and to photograph. He takes pictures of his circus friends in the dim light of the circus tent or stables. They are standing still, sometimes holding an object that they need for their work (bear trainer’s rod, acrobat’s ball). Apart from the Circus cycle, Reich also works on Slovakia. Even though this cycle is mentioned on the main information board, it is not represented by any photographs. Considering the spatial options of this exhibition, this fact is quite strange, and the author of the exhibition could have explained it in one of the accompanying texts.

Josef from the horses, 1965. Circus cycle.

Reich leaves for Paris in 1969. His cycle Paris is an attempt to join the contemporary mainstream of snapshot photography. The cycle brings many photographic views from the side, profile or semi-profile. It seems that Reich is not able to or cannot face Parisians. He wanders through the streets and his best pictures are of those who are outsiders like him. Black people or children who play in the street are the only ones that Reich meets face-to-face. Even though he tries to meet the ideals of humanistic snapshots, the cycle is not dramatic. Reich does not have the feeling for street life and coincidence. He is not successful at finding the right types and when compared to Czech photographer Miloň Novotný’s cycle London, it does not leave such a strong impression. Reich returns to Czechoslovakia on the verge of so-called Normalization and he finishes his studies at FAMU. Reich is not the only one who voluntarily returns home after the Russion invasion to the former Czechoslovakia in 1968, e.g. Czech photographer Viktor Kolář does the same.
The chronology of exposition is disturbed by Still Lifes. Five shots from 1988 bring views of the old times. Coffee, cocoa, and tea cans or old matchboxes bring memories of the times of the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918 – 1939). Four photographs from 1994 focus on mirrors. What remains hidden is the fact that after returning home, Reich’s landscape photography is commercially successful. Three of his books published by Pressfoto are displayed in glass cabinets without the option to look at them. It is a pity that the exhibition does not allow us to compare Reich’s black-and-white photos and his commercial shots in color. Famous photographers Karel Kuklík and Bohumír Prokůpek also worked for Pressfoto at that time and thus there is no reason to leave his commercial work unnoticed.

Avenue d’lena, 1970. Paris cycle.

Disappearing Prague is one of his most significant cycles. It was created between 1974 and 1979 and Jan Reich discovers the theme of his life – border line between a modern city and landscape, post-industrial periphery. Prague neighborhoods Smíchov, Holešovice, Nusle or Bubny are not the vibrant working-class quarters of the 19th century. Time has stopped here, these places are fading away and they are about to disappear forever. Nobody is here. The railroad is the border line and the boulevard of these parts of the city. However, it is not the busy railway with crowded trains and beautiful art-nouveau train stations. Reich discovers dead ends, shunting tracks, and the silence of the unused tracks that are being guarded by majestic switches. Reich takes pictures of the disappearing marks of the old times. He gradually manages to get something like a basic visual alphabet of the periphery: triangle/letter, circle/barrel, square/boards of a pen, and lines/chimneys. His photographs take a look at space that is filled geometrically. Reich is thus a geodesist carefully measuring the periphery.

House in the Country / Landscape is a big cycle from 1973 – 1979. Jan Reich partly moves to the Sedlečany region. It is close to Prague but looks and feels completely different. This region has been inhabited since the Middle Ages and Reich takes pictures of the disappearing world of farmers and local people closely connected to their houses. Houses with their white gables are like lighthouses in the grayness of Normalization. The cycle is dominated by twilight and the feeling of the interim. The photographs are taken in the early spring or the short period between the fall and winter. We can see old villages through rushes, willows, or leafless branches. Reich notices forgotten signs of human presence in the country – crosses and devotional pillars and almost invisible tracks where farmers used to ride with their wagons. In the exhibition, these are combined with photographs from cycles Family and Pubs depicting Reich’s children and regulars at local pubs.

Willows, 1990. House in the Country / Landscape cycle.

Prague (1980 – 2000) could also be called Majestic Prague or Lasting Prague. Reich exchanged wandering around the periphery for walks in Hradčany, Lesser Side, and Old Town. Reich thus continues the tradition started by Josef Sudek and Karel Plicka and manages not to repeat what has already been showed and told. He photographs old Prague without cars and people. He introduces buildings as monuments that will stay here when we are gone just as they have been doing with generations before us.

Charles bridge II, 1986. Pregue cycle.

Vltava and Prague (1999 – 2001), seem to be the supplement of the one mentioned above. A more suitable name for Prague would be Prague’s Riverbanks as the river is only a supplementary line that shows Reich direction but is not at the center of his attention. Bohemia is Reich’s last large cycle. He shows his professional skills and expertise and publishes his photographs in a book that was awarded with Magnesia Litera. He keeps returning to places for ten years and waits for the right conditions that enable him to get the maximum out of the large format negative. His photographic perception is exceptional in the accuracy of his composition. The resulting images are elegant and simple but not banal. They draw the viewer in and when looking at them, one does not want to stand somewhere near the photographer but exactly at the photographed place. Right now.

Říp, 1996. Bohemia cycle.

Still lifes are Reich’s genre and his cycle Still Lifes (2005 – 2009) closes the exhibition. It does not matter whether he takes pictures of old cans or a Baroque castle; he patiently puts the individual visual elements together until they form a perfect picture. Reich loves order and even though his look at things is often not straightforward, his pictures make sense. It is a pity that his still lifes in this exhibition were not installed in a way that would stress Reich’s power but functioned as disruptive divides.

Excessive piety and unnecessary vastness diluted the overall impression into a stretched experience. The attempt to cover both the story of Reich’s life and the chronological development of his photography does not go hand in hand but works against each other. Hence the retrospective does not underline the essentials of Reich but repeats what has been told by Reich himself in his monographs. We also do not learn much about Reich’s life. Most of the information boards display texts that have been published in books or catalogues before. Even though Hrabal and Kroutvor’s texts are wonderful, it is a pity that Jana Reichová did not invite the young curators and did not attempt to provide space for a new or at least a different look at Jan Reich’s work.

Jan Reich: Photographs
Theresian Wing of the Old Royal Palace, Prague Castle
25. 4. – 19. 8. 2012

published: 9. 9. 2012