Fotograf Magazine

In memory of Jan Reich

Very few photographers – not just from our country – enjoyed the respect and understanding that Jan Reich did. And I don’t have in mind here the fact that such giants as Bohumil Hrabal or Milan Kundera wrote the forewords to his books. This respect was general and applied not only to his work but also to his person and life.

His works reaped perhaps a one-sided admiration, because the path to them was opened by the old craft of wooden, large-format cameras, tripods and contact positives, tied to repeat trips to the past inherent in the present, (in search of) unique views, of moments portraying the relationships between heaven and earth, of light. Since the time of Sudek everyone has understood the difficulty of this work, and Reich belonged among its most important continuers.

Very few people held respect just for Reich’s difficulty work, because they could hardly escape the logical question of the meaning of such activity. The complicated and indirect answer essentially led to reflections on the possibilities of the photographic medium and imaging in general, to thought on visuality and sight, nature and civilisation. Reich’s photographs are an endless trip to questions and answers producing further questions. They are not photos meant for one-time reading, rather for reflection and returns.

The artist’s first “cinefilm“ phase (roughly 1958-1970) indicates Reich’s later gravitation toward static photos. His snapshots are, right from the beginning, convincingly “definitive“ in their image content and subject matter. One of the most original is the mother with children in the Tuilleries Gardens (1970). They are like a group of statues that belongs in the park (the actual statues are in the background). Certain shots of the Eiffel Tower are conceived in a similar way. Reich clearly distanced himself from photojournalism and as one of few he documented   mundaneness.

In the spirit of the time he came to terms with contrejour lighting as well as the drab and foggy atmosphere. But mainly he brought a calculated, monitored and well-thought-out testimony to the reality that caught his eye, whether in Paris or in Prague. One time he would reduce illusion to the shapes on the surface, another he would build it in spatial planes and air perspectives: but “how“ was never more important than “what“ (if it’s at all possible to separate the two). Robert Doisneau would likely be glad to take credit for his (photo of) two girls at the market in Paris‘ Rue Mouffetard (1970). Cirkus Circus (1964- 65) portrays respectable and proud persons in the tradition of indecisive moments twisting from the first photo portraits to Paul Strand and then perhaps on to Čes člověk Czech Man by Ivan Lutterer, Jan Malý and Jiří Poláček or to Rineke Dijkstra. One should also not forget his early portraits close to the so-called wave of staged photography. Paris‘ Pasteur metro station (1969) not only evokes later Prague, but in the black-and-white miniature also perhaps Andreas Gursky.

From the second half of the 1970s his more mature works concentrate on the architecture of old Prague and later even on the countryside. His respect for the past, for memory, for that which endures, is the vanishing point of Reich’s works. We can view them as a documentary on a disappearing world, which is meant to be saved for the future. In this sense Jan Reich was a documentarian through and through: one for whom the first task was to eternalise that which is not meant to be forgotten. What a responsibility! The choice was his, he was not just a photographer, but similar to Josef Sudek, Paul Strand or Robert Adams, he was an intuitive cultural historian and landscape environmentalist. His searches were probably guided by “old-fashioned“ considerations on typicalness, individuality, a  place’s  character,  etc.

For his imaging he also chose techniques from the past, and if he could use them in a positive process, we would have difficulty distinguishing his photos from those of the pre-modern era. But their magic comes often from the fact that on one hand they appear close to the beginnings of photography and on the other they relate to  the classics of modern photography also with post-modern trends such as new topographics or the non-present, registering “dead pan“ aesthetic. The relationships – not similarities – do not come about because Reich’s photos are complicated. Rather it’s the exact opposite: it’s because they are simple, or at least they attempt to be. They try to show “how it (all) is“ and they essentially find themselves in the focus of correlations.

His main books, Prague Prague (1993) and Bohemia (2005) are a counterweight to all publications that overwhelm the viewer and monumentalise reality. (His are) on the contrary intimate, as was Reich’s last book, m v krajině House in the Countryside (2007): his “postscript.“ From page to page one falls into the space of the image and is drawn on a walk, it evokes respect for the past, yet does not force it. It offers itself for contemplation, for adoption. So it could happen, or rather it already happened, that Reich’s photographs emblazon themselves on our memory like an image of home similar to those in the works of Josef Lada.

Reich was not alone. He communicated always with supporters of black-and-white photography in medium- to large-format. He was – together with Jaroslav Beneš, Petr Helbich, Karl Kuklík, Bohumil Prokůpek, and Tomáš Rasl – a member of the recently disbanded group, Český dřevák. Bohumil Prokůpek died last year, while Sudek’s assistant, Petr Helbich, celebrated his 80th birthday in November. Reich had a natural authority among these and other photographers, perhaps primarily due to his consistent values, but also because his did not talk excessively, he did not make compromises and he kept the demeanour of a person, who – prior to his studies at FAMU – knew “real life“ as a concrete mixer, as a props master, as a lighting assistant, as a circus member, and as a co-op photographer. He looked like a farmer, came across as confident, but at the same time had a questioning, curious look about him, which was apparently the motivation for his creations. It led him not perhaps to eternal truths, but rather to sensitive perception, open to – among other things – a discourse with the past and present of photography and art and actually to random debates that, contrary to man, can continue on forever.

Jan Reich died from a serious illness on Saturday, 14 November 2009. He was 67.

Antonín Dufek