“A love letter to the city”: Amos Chapple on his stunning rooftop photos of Prague

Dach des Nationalmuseums mit dem Wenzelsplatz (Foto: Amos Chapple)

High above street level, scores of magnificent statues gaze down over the historical centre of Prague. These rooftop figures – which normally go virtually unnoticed – are now the focus of a project by Amos Chapple, a New Zealand-born photographer resident in the Czech capital. In recent weeks Chapple’s stunning images have been shared hundreds of times on social media and earned international media attention.

Amos Chapple, photo: Archive of Amoc Chapple

“I’m stuck inside the country. And that gave me an opportunity to explore the city and photograph it in a new way.”

You’ve done this amazing series of photos of sculptures and statues high above the city here in Prague. What inspired you do to this?

“It’s like a love letter to the city.

“I’ve lived here for four years now and my wife has lived here for three and we just love being out and about in the city.

“But I guess it’s hard to photograph the city in a new way.

“Also, the other factor is that I work as a travel photographer, so about half the time I’m out of the country.

A winged figure on Prague's National Museum by sculptor Bohuslav Schnirch, photo: Amos Chapple
“And when I’m in the country I don’t usually have much energy to go around photographing.

“Now I’m stuck inside the country, so to speak – the borders are shut.

“And that gave me an opportunity to explore the city and photograph it in a new way.

“So yeah, it’s just a love for the city – and hopefully something that Czechs will enjoy.

“It’s a way to appreciate the city, I guess, really.”

There’s really quite a variety of subjects in your photos, from David Černý’s black babies on the Žižkov TV tower to a winged figure by Bohuslav Schnirch above the National Museum. Have any of those images got a particularly big response online?

“I think the most interesting interaction was when I posted one photograph of a winged figure on the [Svatopluk] Čech Bridge.

“I think the most interesting interaction was when I posted one photograph of a winged figure on the Čech Bridge.”

“And someone commented on Facebook that the Hotel Intercontinental in the background is on the site of where Kafka was living when he wrote Metamorphosis and some other stories.

“He was watching from his window, in a building which is where the Intercontinental is now – I guess the building must have been destroyed and the Intercontinental built there.

“But Kafka was watching that bridge being built.

“So that was probably the coolest feedback I got to any of the images.

“And that’s what I hoped would happen – that I would learn these little tidbits about Prague.”

A winged figure on the Svatopluk Čech Bridge. The sculptor was Antonín Popp, photo: Amos Chapple

Did people also give you other information about some of the statues that you wouldn’t have found otherwise?

“That’s right. I found all the statues myself, but I wasn’t able to access all the information about them.

“So there are a couple of images that I was very open about online – I just said, I don’t know anything about them and I can’t find any information.

Statute of a firefighter rescuing a woman on the roof of the old Prague Insurance Company building, photo: Amos Chapple
“And I had one guy give me information about the monuments on the National Museum and also some monuments at the end of Wenceslas Square.

“He gave me the back story and his sources and I was able to check it.

“So it was just cool – it was just this great sense of a community of learning that sprang up around the images, which was really satisfying.”

The sculptures are by many different sculptors. Are any of them particularly impressive when you see them up close? I guess I’m really asking, which is your favourite?

“I would say the firefighters on the insurance building on Old Town Square [no. 6, the building now houses the Ministry of Regional Development].

“Now I’ve said online that you can’t see the details of the flames and the smoke at the back of the firefighters from the ground; actually, you can, I just noticed that yesterday.

“But what you can’t see from the ground is the level of detail.

“I mean, here’s something that is going to be at least 20 metres above people and yet the detail is such that if you’re studying it from just a foot away every detail is fascinating: the level of care that went into the flames, the smoke, the fireman’s expressions and the badges and everything – it’s just beautiful, you know.

The crown of the Koruna Palace at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, photo: Amos Chapple
“I was reading a biography about Steve Jobs and he remembered a moment from his childhood when he was painting a fence.

“His father taught him to paint even in the places where people would never see, where a passer-by would never notice.

“And it’s the same level of care and love that goes into so many of these monuments.

“It’s just cool to see them up close.”

I was reading that you have a particular fondness for the Koruna [Crown] Palace at the bottom of Wenceslas Square and its statues and the actual crown at the top.

“Yes. I think one reason that I love being in the Czech Republic is that it has a very inspiring national story.

“One reason that I love being in the Czech Republic is that it has a very inspiring national story.”

“I come from New Zealand. We don’t have an inspiring national story.

“Our national story is one of business, effectively, where British and European people come to New Zealand, they bought the land off the Maori and split it up into smaller chunks and sold it on.

“That’s our founding story. So when you compare that to the Czech Legions, the struggle against the Nazis in World War II, the struggle against the Soviets – every aspect of Czech history I find so inspiring.

Scupltures Milan Havlíček on the roof of the theatre Divadlo na Vinohradech, photo: Amos Chapple
“So to see that image, which is of a woman flanked by two warriors – that to me really demonstrated the Czech story and the Czech culture, I guess.

“It’s a culture which is fragile and beautiful and delicate and has been protected from its warriors, right from the beginning.

“So I love what that statue represents.”

Could you also please tell us about the statue of Atlas holding a celestial sphere on the Clementinum, which I must say I had never noticed?

“Well, the first time I noticed that I was standing across the river and it is hard to spot.

“You can only see it from certain places, which is a shame I think, because it’s such a wonderful figure.

“I just spotted it from across the river one day. I had a camera with a telephoto lens and I zoomed in and I thought, Wow, I’ve never seen that before – I would love to see it up close.

“And sure enough when you get up close and the whole city opens up underneath it… and to learn that it’s been there since the 1700s.

“So every aspect of modern Czech history it has witnessed, it has watched unfold on the streets below it.

“It’s just so, so exciting.”

Atlas holding a celestial sphere at Prague's Clementinum, photo: Amos Chapple

We kind of touched on this already, but with many of these works the detail is just incredible but it can virtually be seen by nobody. What do you think was the motivation of the sculptors and perhaps those who commissioned these works?

“You can see that for so many of these guys it’s not a job – it’s a labour of love. It’s the same thing for me.”

“I guess it’s a love of their city, a love of their country, a love of their culture, and wanting to give something back.

“You can see that for so many of these guys it’s not a job – it’s a labour of love.

“And yeah, it’s the same thing for me.

“I’m not doing this to make money from the images, which I haven’t by the way – I’ve just given them away.

“I want to represent Prague in a way that does justice to its beauty and to its history.”

Saint George, or Jiří, slays the dragon. This statue is on Pařížská St., photo: Amos Chapple
Just yesterday I was on Pařížská and I noticed for the first time, or at least for the first time in a long time, the statue of Saint George, or Saint Jiří, slaying the dragon, which is in one of your pictures. Have you got much feedback from people who’ve been looking up more since they saw your photos?

“[Laughs] Yeah, they were a few comments along those lines: Wow, we need to look up more.

“And it was the same for me. I’m just a resident of the city, but once you start looking you seen more and more of this – not just figures and characters up on the rooftops but also the artworks on the buildings.

“Prague is so rich with it that I could literally keep on exploring this theme for the rest of my life.”

Do you plan to do more? I guess now you’ve got about 20 of them out.

“I would love to, yes.

“And it’s something that could be potentially be expanded into a wider theme, perhaps – a Czech-wide theme, or even a European-wide theme.

“Some of these figures in countries like Italy, for example, are 100, 120 metres above the ground and no-one can see the detail there.

“So it’s possibly something that could be expanded into a larger project. Definitely.”

Earlier you were telling me that you enjoy Radio Prague International’s historical features. Are there any particular aspects of Czech history that interest you?

Photo: Kosmas
“Yes. The moment I think I really fell in love with this country was learning about the story of the parachutists.

“That’s a story that I actually read in a fantastic book called Hhhh [by Laurent Binet].

“I read it when I was in New Zealand and I didn’t know anything about Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic – I didn’t really care.

“I read that book and that story really had an impact on me when I was young.

“Then when I moved to the Czech Republic in 2016 I learned that the church where the final shootout had taken place between the parachutists and the Nazis was just around the corner from my apartment.

“So when I went there and saw the pockmarks from the heavy machine guns that had been shot into the crypt of the church, that was the moment when it was like, Wow, this place is something very, very special.

“And as I say, especially for a New Zealander who comes from a young country without much to inspire its people from history.”

And I presume you’ve learned a lot more about Prague from doing this whole project?

“Absolutely, yes. Well, I’ve learned a lot generally.

The parachutists’ story got me started and since then – I’m a journalist myself – I’ve been able to pitch stories about aspects of Czech history, including the Czech Legions and stories like that.

“So yes, I just love learning about the history.”

To see all the photographs visit Amos Chapple’s collection on Facebook.

Figure on the roof of the Goethe Institute on the embankment Masarykovo nábřeží, photo: Amos Chapple