JINDRA FROM SOVINEC
An anthology of works by a Moravian photographer, Jindřich Štreit, asks for a recapitulation going back as far as the end of the ’60s, which was shocking, not only politically but also artistically. The artistic change, though, had different, inner reasons. The photography of that time brought names such as Josef Koudelka, Jan Saudek or Jan Svoboda into the light at more or less the same time, even though each of them became known in a different řeld of photography and for different reasons. Koudelka’s “Gypsies” and, immediately afterwards, Markéta Luskačová’s “Pilgrims” were both equally fascinating. Documentary photography as such was practically non-existent in those days. (Therefore one cannot but mention the exceptions – Dagmar Hochová, Martin Martinček, and the then still not very well-known Viktor Kolář). Till the very end of the ’60s, instant photography used to be connected with photo-journalism, as well as with its artistic value, which was ascribed to photography as both a possibility and a must. The vast majority of snapshots were taken as individual works, bringing, like literature, communicable messages and, at the same time, complying with the demands placed on the so-called art photography. The model of humanistic photography, represented above all in Czechoslovakia by the exhibition “Human Family” and by the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson (the monograph written on him by Anna Fárová launched the imprint called Artistic Photography in 1958), became barren. The vast majority of published instant photographs reminded one of coffee-table conversations, following a stereotypical pattern. Documentary photography was totally different. Instead of photos which would gradually lose the charm of the ordinary, naked reality suddenly emerged. After the communist coup of 1948 it was far from easy to show life as it was, though. The artistic status compliantly accorded to photography, establishing a higher level of state-funded prosperity than was usual in Western Europe, served an unquestionable function: to depict only “positive elements”, even if this had to be achieved by creating a total řction, a stage set. Regardless of the theory of social realism, abstract and shallow forms were tolerated but a coherent depiction of what was then the real world of those who were then real people was not. The Roma, the wayfarers, even Martinček’s highlanders; all of them were outsiders ousted from the social conscience by the communist regime. Štreit’s villagers from the Bruntál region had an even bigger capacity to shock – they did not deřne themselves on the grounds of either ethnicity or religion, they simply came from a poor, harsh country. After the expulsion of the Germans from those parts, people from all corners of the country met there, united by poverty and a longing for a better life. They did not have many opportunities but an abundance of limitations. An opportunity to see themselves was offered to them by a local teacher and chronicler, Jindřich Štreit, when he started taking their photographs. On the other hand, every single village in the Bruntál region was but a miniature of the state totalitarianism and what fascinated people most about Štreit’s photographs was that in other ways, in different settings and in other people, they were discovering bits of themselves, their own lives and the way they were living them, only in a different setting. The moment of “reality surfacing” is crucial in Štreit’s photographs and it is important to remind ourselves of it. There are not many works of art which would let us forget that we are looking at a picture, at a piece of řction only, and which would bring about a feeling of touching the real thing. It is a seeming paradox that achieving this is the real aim of art. In the case of photography, this happens when the photograph exceeds the conventions, as it is the convention which gives the viewer the prism through which they perceive art as art. Štreit’s photographs went beyond the conventions of that time. They were neither beautiful nor graciously neutral; they were rough. They showed an unappealing reality in an unappealing way. The blow-ups of that period, 50 by 60 centimetres on 35-mm řlm, were grainy and full of contrast, with a minimum of soothing moments. It does not automatically mean the author was against art, simply that his aesthetics were different: “I have always based what I do on surrealism, on an absurd attitude to life and on placing two heterogeneous things together. I am fascinated when on the grounds of animalism, naturalism and carnality a relationship emerges which is kind, full of tenderness and beauty.” (Jindřich Štreit, in the řlm by Jan Špáta ‘Between Light and Darkness’, 1991.) It is not true only of Štreit that the surfacing or revelation of reality in photography has serious consequences. It is more or less a psychological process, something like acknowledging or admitting, a penetration of the unconscious, of the suppressed into the conscious. It is also a process of seeing which has a purifying function and it can influence one’s behaviour. Yes, this is as far as photography can go. Many photographers are aware of it and they strive to change the world, but merely knowing is not a guarantee of success. Under the communist regime Štreit’s works were interpreted by the police as defamation of the Republic and both its representatives and his admirers often saw them in a similar light. Today it is apparent that their creator allowed reality to show, to “reveal” itself, and, by allowing it, he partly unmasked the regime. Unlike other photographers, Štreit did not have to travel far to meet the people he was photographing. We can imagine (but the author did not have to feel it in the same way) that Štreit could see Sovinec in a way which was close to revelation. Through his photographs he formulated the world of a village and through his acts he started pulling down the imaginary barriers surrounding its inhabitants. First of all, in Sovinec, he started exhibiting unofřcial art. By doing this, he made a no-name village into a place which was frequented by cultured people from all over the country. Štreit has not changed the world but he has deřnitely changed Sovinec. He has become a living example of the role of an individual in the course of history and of the ecological slogan: “Think globally, act locally”. He still lives in Sovinec, even though he does not have to. He stays in a place he belongs to. At the same time, Sovinec became a known name in the history of photography. It’s beyond comprehension that while street photography is a řeld with its own one-hundred-year-long history, the village was discovered as suitable for photography by Jindřich Štreit – anybody else? Maybe it was because he took photos where he was living, “among his own people”; moreover, he was a teacher. For other people, taking such photographs and publishing them would hardly be feasible. On the other hand, Štreit claims he cannot take photographs in the street without getting to know the people he has become interested in. This may be the main key to his photographs. Among other things, this means he can justify his work in front of the people he is often looking straight in the eye. What a contrast to all those paparazzi, striving to catch their prey in any way, at times hidden behind their telephoto lens or behind the blinding flash of their camera, in situations they may hate photos being taken of. This brings us to another distinct feature of Štreit’s pictures, namely to their “warmth”, their communicativeness, and their stress on moods, states of mind and interpersonal relations. He has retained this feature throughout his work; it is in sharp contrast to the cold registering approach many a documentary photographer in our country or elsewhere adopts these days when looking for objectivity. “It is absolutely crucial to have a liking for people and then the rest is a piece of cake,” Štreit says. He does not have much in common with the so-called subjective documentary either, even if quite a broad and variegated school of photography can today be found under this umbrella. True personalities always manifest themselves in everything they do but what really counts is their grasp of the world. In his educational activities, Štreit places the emphasis on communication. It proves very important for the type of photographer he is himself. What he has in mind, however, mustn’t be confused with superřcial small talk. One of the roles of photography is to take notice of social conventions but at the moment it can objectify them as clichés it řnds itself on a different level of social consciousness. There are a number of photographers who foster conventions, usually without being aware of this, while others subject them to ridicule. In his best pictures the photographer from Sovinec links the social and the private, the conscious and the unconscious. When the řrst book by Štreit, comprising the conřscated photos, was published under the new regime, a lot of people were asking themselves what would come next. Would Štreit remain the author of one series of photographs of a handful of villages around Bruntál? Could he beat the photos whose importance had been proven by a pronounced judgement? Could he be seen anywhere else at all? The author, renowned for working at full stretch, answered in no time. He started exhibiting and publishing one book after another. Bruntál was soon followed by other places in the Czech Republic, France, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Japan, England, Chechnya and Ingushetia etc. The pace has not slackened since. On the contrary, it keeps increasing. Even in this respect, Štreit stands alongside other extremely proliřc contemporary artists. His closeness to the people of Sovinec allowed him to understand people and their relations elsewhere. When Štreit was given a choice, he would photograph villages and it was these photos which made up the core of his ‘life’ book. Along with the typical documentary sort of relationship to the endangered phenomenon of a post-cooperative village, he showed a genuine sense for new possibilities and new phenomena: he set out to prisons and after monks, handicapped people, and drug addicts. His series on drug addiction and the way back to freedom rose to fame. His photographs of the Olomouc region were exhibited again and again, but the effect of the old photos from the Bruntál region was impossible to reproduce. What comes anew may be even better but the effect of “emerging reality” cannot be repeated. All of Štreit’s photographs are based on a recognition of relations and feelings which are so vital and therefore repeated. Values cannot be changed either. Humanity, love, loneliness, dependence… Throughout his series, topics such as watching television, relationships to animals, work, food or social rituals can be recognised. It is the social dimension that radiates through most of the photographs of this Pieter Breughel of our days. Štreit plumbed the greatest depths when he was working in a small area. He captured life on a family farm in Austria. The social dimension here is represented by a family which consists of strong individualities which we can approach. The Farm is a very intimate piece of work, offering a high level of close fellowship and sharing. The photographer also picks out the way life is berthed in cycles – of the seasons, of the nature, of the existence into which people are plunged unknowingly. What a difřcult position to be in for a photographer whose work belongs to the past as well as the present, whose old photos have become icons people have become used to. The pilgrimage has commenced but is far from its end, and a busy programme brings along new qualities. Every new photograph can become a gesture opening the world.
Jindrich Streit. (Selection of photographs by Tomas Pospech, text by Antonin Dufek). KANT, Prague 2006.
THE MUDDY PASTORALES
(Interview for Imago)
At present the world-renowned photographer Jindřich Štreit (born 1946) left a deep mark in the history of Czech photography in the 1980s of the 20th century. As early as the 80s he created a unique series about villages in the Bruntál region where he was living. In doing so he became probably the only Czech photographer who was sentenced to imprisonment for his work, not only for the pictures he put on show, but also for negatives, which were confiscated from him during house research.
In a small space of several villages he managed not only to capture the village of the real socialism period but, moreover, bring also a unique author’s testimony on the human lot. In contrast with the previous idyllic pictures of the countryside he shows the socialist village of the 1970s and 1980s. He depicts former Sudetenland, where after the Second World War the forcibly transferred German population was replaced by people who moved from various parts of the republic, who had severed ties to traditions and sometimes had no deeper relationship to their new home. The very theme of Štreit’s pictures is human relationships and situations of everyday life, which are, naturally, sometimes absurd or picturesque. Emphasis put on distinctive human types and original figures evokes an enthralling Hrabal-like world, with which “Jindřich from Sovinec” shares common poetics, influence of surrealism, admiration for a simple existence and the need to search for the beauty of man through his rough surface and dirty quilted coat.
It is no exaggeration to say that Jindřich Štreit has revealed the Czech village for the world’s photography. No one has photographed local countryside for such a long time and in such a systematic manner as he did. The Czech fine arts tradition offers us also some other famous conceptions of the village: it is especially in the pictures by the painters Josef Mánes, Mikoláš Aleš, Josef Lada, Václav Rabas and in the photographs originated in the nearby Slovakia, taken by Karel Plicka, Martin Martinček or Markéta Luskačová. However, in comparison with these, in different extents idyllic images of the countryside, Štreit shows the collectivised socialist village. In his pictures he parts with ethnographic and folklorist photography of Karel Plicka or the oeuvre of Martin Martinček, who had portrayed mountain people as the isles of traditional communities, living until then in accordance with traditional lifestyle, in non-estranged harmony with nature. With Štreit we miss nostalgic, romantic or ethnical view, he lacks the slightest ambition to record customs and specific rural rituals. His works are not pastoral. He does not create the picture of an idealized rural haven, a place of escape from reality and complicated urban life. Maybe it is due to the fact that he does not come from the city. He had lived where he took photographs and that was why he approached the subject matter in much more stratified way than only that of primary faith in the patriarchal ethic purity of rural folk and their life.
It seemed that the November revolution in 1989 would be for Jindřich Štreit a great satisfaction, but would not change much the subject matter of his interest. It might even seem that he would have nothing to photograph. Nevertheless, the opposite is true. Behind hectic activities of his recent years the villages of the Bruntál and Olomouc regions have remained an important, though only a partial component of his broadly developing oeuvre. In the following years he discovers his village in Slovakia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Russia, Japan, yet returns to the villages of the Bruntál and Olomouc regions regularly. At the same time he reads lectures at the Silesian University in Opava and at the Prague FAMU.
In the 1990s, he added to the village subject matter two additional, distinctive motivic circles: the theme of hard manual labour and social topics of specific communities’ societies. He captured people working in the pits, iron mills, heavy industry in the pictures published in publications Lidé ledkových dolů / People of Saltpetre Mines (1998), Lidé třineckých železáren / People of Třinec Ironworks (2000) and in the latest completed project Horníci z Petrosanu / Miners from Petrosan (2005). The world of manual labour is also acutely endangered by current social changes. It is not by chance that this topic, seen at an allegoric level, an additional large island that bears a message of Štreit’s life values. A unique world of gigantic factories, original figures and Sisyphean toil is – how else – another richly structured and at the same time bared part of human existence, which forms and tests man essentially.
In the photos of old people, the mentally and physically handicapped, the drug addicts, emigrants, prisoners or people from various religious communities, Jindřich Štreit cannot deny in him an essentially humanistic photographer of a big heart. In his probably most frequently exhibited series of the 1990s, Cesta ke svobodě /Way to Freedom (1996-1999), he presented a complex expression about pleasures and hell of addiction. Drug as a tempting delight and enrichment, a ticket to the journey from the everydayness to “druid heights” and an alternative for pleasantly spent moments, for some is changing to addiction, bringing along exclusion from society. The last third of the photos follows the coping with the consequences: therapy, court of justice, prison, anti-drug centres, re-socialisation and drug addiction treatment facilities, and faith.
On the occasion of publishing his life’s monograph in the KANT publishing house, Jindřich Štreit was talking to Tomáš Pospěch, an art historian, photographer and author of the book. The photographs published herein come from the selection for the book and most of them have not been published yet.
T. P.: What was your first photograph from the Bruntál region like? I am interested in the moment when you started to know exactly what you wanted – create photographs of the villages of your region.
J. Š.: To explain this, I’ll begin with what I was doing a bit earlier. I had captured theatre, than I made a cycle Romany without Romantics. I think that in the year 1977, in photographing the pilgrimage which I walked from Warsaw to Czenstochowa, I had loosened composition and found my approach to photography. At that time, as a director of school I took over writing the local chronicle in Sovinec. I started to bring together older photographs and also took photographs of my own, step-by-step, but still it was not systematic work. I guess that it was in the late 1978, when professor Ján Šmok had a meeting with photographers in Olomouc and there he expressed an idea that we should photograph the very place we live at. I stopped sending my pictures to exhibitions and at last started to work conceptually. I was driving around the villages every day. Not only in Sovinec, where I live, but also in other places in the Rýmařov region. As soon as my teaching lessons were over, I went and photograph with great enthusiasm.
Is there a photograph from that time in your monograph?
Yes, there are several ones. First photographs were those with television motifs or the one with the beer.
The one in which a mother is drinking and the child is reaching for the beer?
Yes, it was one of the first that I created with a clear intention- the subject matter being the village. The series started to grow rapidly- themes of work, family, television, political situation, alcohol, relationships, animals…
Was it spontaneous, more or less, or you did you know from the very beginning that you wanted to have just those motifs there?
It was quite conscious. The decisive thing is when you realize what you want, than you are only seeking it. It was a certainty, fierceness of a kind by which I was driven.
And did you perceive the relation to other authors, who devoted themselves to the countryside before you?
Not particularly. I was fascinated by reality.
Were you not looking them?
There was little material at that time. In the first period the photographs of Dáša Hochová, Markéta Luskačová or Josef Koudelka made a great impression on me. I liked very much a picture by Ivo Gill, a family photograph with a horse in the stable. I was fascinated by the idea: I am living in the village and that is what I want to render.
Many of your predecessors depicted customs, rituals, they had a distinctly ethnographic point of view, but with you just those motifs are missing.
I followed all those events attentively, but only in order to get through them closer to the people.
The region you photographed was former Sudetenland. Most people, who arrived there after the war, did not have any close relation to local traditions and customs. Had you photographed, let’s say, the south Moravian village, folklore would have permeated the pictures much more. That is what I like with you, that in comparison with Luskačová or Martinček you captured the village of the real socialism era.
I watched the samizdat literature, the situation concerning Charta, which was culminating at that time, I listened to the Free Europe radio. Of course, I knew about those things, and it did matter to me to express in my photographs the feeling of the times we lived in. It really was not accidental. I was on the lookout for those events conceptually. Naturally, as a village photographer I could not attend congresses. The more I was interested in the small world – in the way politics penetrates the last country farm-house.
I have never perceived that I was photographing Sudetenland. I do not like that word. Because I grew up there, I did not feel the uprooting of the people, what I felt rather was their struggle. I have accepted that I live here and have never regarded this region as a transitory one for me. And still I do not perceive this as something of a limiting kind. Also my parents wanted to do maximum for the region. They devoted themselves to cultural events and social activities, so this was a matter of course for me as well.
When you were photographing these villages for years, did you not have a feeling that something is running away from you? That you should drive to the countryside somewhere else, let’s say to the eastern Slovakia?
I have never had such a feeling. But I had neither a possibility to compare my places with other ones. Actually, I was put in prison quite early, as early as 1982, when I had everything unfinished…and since then I did not have a passport.
You may have looked at Koudelka’s photographs and say to yourself that the east of Slovakia is so enthralling, that there is something so strong, motifs which you have not had worked on in the framework of the village theme. Or you may have been seized with a desire to take a rest from the village, to photograph something else.
No, never. It suited me absolutely. On the contrary, when the Revolution came I realized that this series would be finished. And I regretted this a bit. I felt that just in those years, -1988, 1989 – I was in my heyday, and that everything was opening to me. I had the people’s confidence.
At the same time the change of political situation brought another important dimension to your work. Suddenly, the viewer can compare two different regimes in your photographs.
In the year 1991 I still worked at a state farm. Gradually I started to feel that I was moving in a circle and that what I needed was a change, because I had for all thirteen years photographed the same people, the same environment. And at that time I received a first offer to go to France. It was very interesting for me. It goes without saying that the continuity was lost.
Which project from the 1990s brings the best feeling to you?
For me was very important Saint Quentin in France, because I was there for a long time, more than four months. This project caused that representatives of the Olomouc region spoke to me and asked me to do something similar there. The People of the Olomouc Region project took three years. I wanted new era to be recognized in the photographs. That people felt freer, for example. External environment was changing still slowly at that time, actually, villages started to change only in the second half of the 1990s. But I felt a psychological shift.
And which series you grappled most with in the 1990s?
Very challenging for me were the projects abroad. The shorter the time for photographing is, the more complicated things are. For example, the Bretagne project.
When at that time I was following responses to your photographs from an Austrian farm or a Japanese village, I noticed that you were often criticized for not having captured a generally known image of a country: that from Austria you would pick out harsh environment of a mudded farm, where a couple are toiling manually, and not an automated large-farm with houses painted in white, with geraniums behind the windows, and although most farms look like this, you are taking photographs in the way you did in the Bruntal region. You capture the same subject matters that you were seeking for at the Moravian village earlier…In opposition to the above- mentioned reactions I have a great liking for this attitude of yours.
I was looking for a specific environment. For the environment which did not have any chance to survive. That was why I was interested in it.
But why a photographer should travel all over the world, perceive there the genius loci and transpose this to his photographs? This is what photographers were required to do traditionally. Why photographs could not be in the first place your story about the world?
When in 1992 the catalogue from Saint Quentin came out, the themes were the same, but, anyway, there was, a different view, different environment and different expressions, the French, not Czech. Local viewers, used to see in my photographs the people from Bruntál region, hard-handed and wrinkled, claimed that the photographs from France do not have the previous strength despite my view being present in them. Times and society have changed and when I select photographs for an exhibition, I like very much to include photos from my French projects. Suddenly they have become much closer to contemporary perception than raw, realistic photographs from the villages around Sovinec, which to young generation seem to be two hundred years old.
When I was reading texts about you from the 1980s, there was universal appreciation concerning the fact that you did not photograph exotic attractive themes, extraordinary or even dramatic events, which are the moments looked for by most snap photographers, but on the contrary, that you followed the most ordinary life, actually, the biggest banality which surrounded in your immediate vicinity. Yet the times heeled over in such a strangely comic way, the external environments has changed so that in the 1990s many people look at your photographs and think that you have chosen the markedly extreme, rare environments.
This was always what made me angry, but I was not able to respond to that and, actually I am not able still. I was not looking for something exceptional, on the contrary. But that’s how things are, because it is this commonness that remains, and in the course of years it becomes to be the most relevant. And what is only fashionable perishes in its turn. It is exceptional only for that moment, but not for eternity.
I would also like to know what you have not photographed so far. For instance, whether you still carry along an image that you have photographed many times, but you feel that there is still not precisely what you want…
When I take photographs, I am thinking about it a lot. I admit that the village excites me still. Being in France or some other country, when I am driving a car in some landscape and looking at the people in the field, I sometimes think I will go mad. This gets me going somehow. But because one is driving there for some other reason, one says to oneself. No, you must not. I am finding myself in such difficult moments quite often…Village is for me eternal subject matter. I thought over in which other villages I still could be tempted to take photographs, in Greece, Portugal… Many other themes could be named. What is important, however, is to get oneself more under the surface.
The Muddy Pastorales. Jindřich Štreit Interviewed by Tomáš Pospěch. Imago, num. 23, Winter 2007.