Jan Reich - Czech photographer, author of "Disappearing Prague"

In 2006, photographer Jan Reich's publication Bohemia - an extensive series of artistic landscapes throughout the Czech Republic - won the main prize in the country's prestigious literature competition Magnesia Litera. But some critics still consider his best series to be "Disappearing Prague" - a project the photographer began in the 1970s capturing the genius loci of some of Prague's oldest and most run-down districts. Scenes from the periphery in the years following the Soviet-led invasion in 1968: the docks of old Holesovice, ruined facades and crumbling buildings of Liben and Smichov, railway stations and factories.

Today, most if not all of those areas have long disappeared, replaced by new glass-and-concrete buildings, shopping centres, and parking lots. But the photographs remain.

I caught up with Jan Reich recently at his home in Prague and he told me how it all began: in the '60s he studied at Prague's film academy, FAMU, kicking off his career by working for various publications. That's how things might have continued were it not for the arrival of Soviet tanks in Prague in August 1968.

"In 1969, after the Russian invasion, I emigrated to France because the situation here had gotten very difficult and I wanted to see something of the world. I lived in France for almost a year, photographing people in the street and I was very happy there. Photographing on the street is an adventure and I was wide-eyed from what I saw: every district had its own different atmosphere, and you had the parks with the nannies and children, the men playing petanque, and all the pubs."

All the same, after some time Jan Reich began to miss home and eventually decided to return within a year, even if the Czechoslovakia he came back to was no longer the same:

"Everything had changed. 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. Certainly there was no joie de vivre. People still went to the pubs but no longer trusted each other. So, I began revisiting areas of Prague I had known in my youth: the waterfront in Holesovice, gorgeous with its boats, some of them moving on to Hamburg, to the rest of Europe, to Canada. Reliving my childhood, I began to photograph such areas, extending my reach to Smichov, where my father had had a houseboat when I was a boy. I stopped photographing people and that was how the series began."

Jan Jungmann is a historian at the Prague City Museum who oversaw a recent exhibition of photographs from the "Disappearing Prague" series.

"They are kind of corners on the periphery, shot in the 1970s: harbours, gaslights, buildings. Today those areas no longer exist. The photographs have an unusual atmosphere: somewhat sad, without people, shades of grey. But if you look closely you see the photographer masterfully captured the essence of these places."

Jan Reich says he was initially shocked to find industrial areas still standing back in the 1970s: many dated back to before the war and were forgotten and forlorn on the periphery:

"I was born after the Second World War and even after all those years I found areas that hadn't changed a bit. There weren't funds and so the city had stayed the same, not evolved for example like Paris which was becoming a modern city. 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."

The photographer admits there is "nothing accidental" about his approach, but careful method and extensive groundwork:

"I visit areas I want to shoot beforehand: I spend a long time visiting and revisiting sites in order to get a sense of place and spirit, and then I come back at the time of day when the light is perfect. For it to be misty or a little fogged over, so that there is a touch of melancholy. That is one reason why I stuck with black & white: black & white is more mysterious.

"This shot is of an old train station. When you photograph you consider the entire composition but then you begin to notice other elements that are all inter-connected, in this case the station is its own world."

Some have drawn parallels between Jan Reich and one of his sources of inspiration, the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek. Jan Jungmann, of the Prague City Museum, says that to a degree it is an apt comparison.

"There are some similarities between Josef Sudek and Jan Reich in terms of poetry and a certain melancholy. Sudek I think used brighter tones although he too could capture more sombre moods. One thing that they do have in common is that Jan Reich uses an ancient camera from the 19th century. You may have heard a story he tells about meeting some cameramen with modern equipment. He takes the cover off his camera, showing the ground-glass and laughs and says 'I haven't got anything inside, what have you got in yours?!"

I jokingly asked the photographer himself how - given his purist's devotion - felt about the advent of digital:

"Digital?! That's a good question for me! I've got nothing to do with digital: I stick to film and old cameras and that's what suits me! Original photography was always concerned with 'truth' - that's something we don't consider enough today. Now the media have split from each other. Taking a photograph is the experience of having 'been there', having experienced it. If I fix it up at home, it's fake."

Later the photographer did return to photographing people - who are most conspicuously absent from "Disappearing Prague", but even there his view had changed:

"I did return to photographing people as subjects but I began photographing people over the long-term, such as my family, where you could see the effect of 'time', which gnaws away at everything. We all grow, we all age, and I think the photograph there is important. Very important. We all change... but the photographs remain."