Jindřich Štreit is a Czech photographer that I was not much aware of before recently receiving his book Village People 1965-1990 published late last year by Buchkunst Berlin. I was curious about the artist as Buchkunst Berlin has been publishing quite interesting, if at times haunting and punishing books such as the Dieter Keller Eye of War book that I covered extensively last year. The publishers are concerned with history, alternative narratives and the re-examination of former Eastern Bloc photography. This is due to the publisher having roots in both East Germany and ancestry in Czechoslovakia.
Jindřich Štreit’s story is pretty fascinating. He is another artist whose work, much like Harald Hauswald, is being re-appraised after decades of being sequestered by state archive mandates and what I can only assume is the distance needed to re-appraise the work’s position. Both artists suffered at the hands of the former communist state apparatus in their respective countries of Czechoslovakia and East Germany. Both were considered dissidents and served time in prison and both had their negatives seized. In the case of Štreit, his images of life in small villages in Czechoslovakia in the late 70’s and early 80’s present a “warts and all” approach to photography in which daily village life under communism presents a picture of what could be considered a documentary social realism, the caveat here is that the worker, proletariat etc. does not perform in synch with communist party guidelines, hence the state interference.
The images focus instead on normal village people going about their toil in their natural environment. If it is an unflattering portrait as it reflects a socio-economic reality and life devoted to agrarian labor under a totalitarian system, thus a mirror to the political body of the times stuck in a moment between the two words of modernism and non-progressive ideology. There are no heroic farmers. There are only farmers who are caked in soil, who amble in torn cloth and who smoke habitually in a flagrant disregard of healthy body politicking. Here, there are no flags held aloft by muscular arms, nor are there strong mothers standing just in the shadow of their angular-jawed Slavic men balancing their hands lithely on the shoulders of their children staring into the blinding aura of the sun/government’s unholy light.
Štreit’s images of villagers defies the perfection of the calculated modes of the production of social realist propaganda by showing a worn and tired community. To be fair things are not competitively terrible in his images. They exhibit something closer to what I think about when I think about the British documentary tradition from the same time. The images remind one of Markéta Luskačová and perhaps Chris Killip. That being said, there is a decay in these images that I cannot quite place. The atmosphere feels grey and loaded. There are the economics of it all-the peeling paint, the spartan abodes and potatoes, smoking children and so forth that regard life under communism as just about bearable, but impossible to rise above. Its a blank picture more than a bleak one. Here, you are never far from the state, the church nor death despite being remote from the action in the larger cities.
Štreit was arrested and served ten months of a two-year jail term for photographing the insides’ of villagers homes, pubs and halls. In these pictures, his crime of subversion was to photograph state leaders such as President Gustáv Husák hangin crooked on the wall of the local hall. He photographed the president and state flags unceremoniously and in situ against decaying communal walls, such was his crime. The State, when apprehending Štreit felt that he could only be too aware that he was casting doubt and a decidedly dismal portrait of the communist system through his images and should therefore be reprimanded. He was a teacher as well as a photographer. The state demanded that he give up this position and he was never allowed to teach again. The State took his work. The State took him. The State took. Štreit was eventually released and eventually continued to make photographs in the villages. This did not change. Caution was a mantra I suspect.
These type of books are great in many ways. They offer a competing narrative to the very shallow historiography of photography that we assume. Though I appreciate the many books on Atget and the many books on Cindy Sherman, I feel that there is so much to explore in photography that we have to widen the historical net with as much interest as we do the current net’s insular grip. We have consistently challenged the presiding moment in art with claiming a larger space for diversity. Why have we also not simultaneously worked backwards? There are some question in that. The process has been slow and I lament that in our hurry to look forward that we are doing a massive disservice to the historical re-examination that should also be taking place in tandem. In any event, Štreit’s book as well as Libuše Jarcovjáková’s books are a start in the right direction and well-executed. Recommended!
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Zak Dimitrov. Images @ Jindřich Štreit)