Melancholia in Black and White: The photography of Jan Reich

Imagine working abroad for a few months, feeling homesick for your country, and traveling back for a visit only to find it drastically changed and changing still. That’s the place Jan Reich found himself in when he returned to Prague in 1969, after spending just less than a year in Paris. The changes were due largely to the Soviet occupation following the 1968 invasion. In a 2007 interview with Radio Prague he described the situation: 
“The borders were now closed and all the magazines I had worked for were no more. I was without work and the whole situation was bleak: a police state.”
This is where his famed series “Prague” was born. Reich set out to capture his changing homeland; Bohemian landscapes, crumbling buildings, decaying monuments - and all the torturous melancholia that comes with saying a long sorrowful goodbye...
"I was worried that areas would disappear before I had a chance to photograph them. The factories and apartment blocks weren't posh but they had a poetry which was wonderful. At least the photographs captured what once existed. Still, for me it's not enough that they document, they must also capture layers of emotion.”
In the well curated "Bohemian Reflections" exhibition at Telfair Academy, the sadness of a fading Bohemia is a smoky fog. The photographs tell the story of loss, and in so many images we see only the ruins of a structure or a statue. You can't help but wonder what it was like before, as a whole. And you can't resist the temptation to think about the image by what it is not, instead of what it is. We view it now in its broken down and disrespected state, and we realize how fragile the threads of people and place are. Or maybe just how much we instinctively ahbore degradation.

The photographs trend towards a dark gray, with the bright areas at times being so whispy and dissipated that you really experience the feeling of a disappearing homeland. Through these photographs we come to understand that people and places define each other, and it begs the question, when a place begins to disappear, who are we? where are we?

I love his photographs of un-peopled landscapes with solitary statues (sometimes angels with wings) and they speak to how we can feel when things begin to shift – like we are the only ones standing guard, and yet we are frozen still, helpless against the inevitable changes of life. You could say that change is the very definition of life, but to loose the beauty of a place you once called home is a bite that stings.
When we know the back story behind these photographs, - An artist returns home to find his country under a foreign power, the buildings in disrepair, the monuments crumbling or toppled over, and the lonely countryside seemingly forgotten in a reckless lack of love - the images become even more poignant. It is a story we all know well: You go home, and nothing is the same.
Some Jan Reich "esque" items we have in the shop: vintage cameras; bellowed and boxed respectively, prints from the stash downstairs, and plaster of Paris architectural elements.

Jan Reich was one of the Czech Republic’s most celebrated 20th-century photographers. Using an older large-format camera, Reich spent decades photographing Prague. His 2005 volume Bohemia won the 2006 Book of the Year prize in the Magnesia Litera Book Awards. He died in 2009.

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