Fotograf Magazine

Interpret Štreit!

In the book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, dating from 1951 (1996 – Czech version) philosopher-politician, Hannah Arendt, describes the dangerously similar features of German Nazism and Stalinist Socialism. She found common traits in their attempts to change the human essence, to take over peopleʼs private lives and to cultivate a “new man.“ Totalitarian social systems use omnipresent deceitfulness to manipulate the masses. George Orwell wrote clairvoyantly about this in his novel, 1984, just as Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn wrote about vicious repression in his tale, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962). In addition to these and other numerous works that make up the literary – and thus in their essence a somewhat abstract – image of totalitarian society, there exist testimonies fully dependent on a specific reality, such as only the photographic (or film) medium can show.

Immediately after the topic of totalitarianism is it of course necessary to mention the spreading tradition of Czech rural prose; Jindřich Štreit (*1946) with his fate prior to 1989 fell in line as a teacher, a town chronicler and organiser of cultural life in Sovinec and the surrounding area among the inheritors of “fallen patriots.” When he told me in a bus travelling between Olomouc and Brno sometime during spring 1983 about the shocking experience of the Ruzyně jail (holding cell), it was clear how the machinery of totalitarian power could crush anyone. In the past twenty years an opposite evolution in Štreitʼs life in the form of numerous exhibits, picture books and his now long past naming to the post of university professor or his election as king of the studentʼs ball at the Palacký University in Olomouc all followed.

The artistʼs new monograph, (AB)NORMALIZACE / (FAKE)NORMALIZATION, begs the viewer to contemplate its content and the form of his work (made accessible in an extensive retrospect at Pragueʼs Dům U kammeného zvonu at the end of 2007/early 2008) as well as its broader context. Roughly ninety, until then unpublished (and at the time of their creation non-enlarged), photos from the period 1976–1989 pleasantly expand the possibilities for interpreting Štreit.

Jindřich Štreit appears among Czech documentarists to be perhaps the most “literary” in the sense of the hidden story that extends beyond the framework of individually immediate, momentary photographs. Their “literariness” stands out when one compares his personal photographic style with the work of several important Czech artists. We have critiqued the monograph of 15 years senior Gustav Aulehla in another place (see page XY). Aulehla influenced Štreit more on a personal level, with the conviction of his work, rather than stylistically.

Viktor Kolář (*1941) is in contrast still more of a dreamer and he changes the reality in front of the lens into something magical, he wanders far from the first narrative plan. Bohdan Holomíček (*1943) can be (considered) another photographer looming in the background of interpreting Štreitʼs style. Mercurial and temperamental, he mixes private with public, the serious with the superficial, he often sparkles with a joke and elsewhere he becomes deeply emotional even melancholic. He is fascinated more by the experience than the portrayed reality. He speaks of himself, his life and his daily programme.

Some photographic correlations and differences do not of course begin to describe (capture) the extent of Štreitʼs content panorama and cultural contexts. Similarly, both Flemish and Dutch painters from the 17th century had delighted in portraying rural life, building on the tradition of satirical miniatures that characterised human weaknesses such as gluttony, vanity and debauchery, full of incisiveness and juicy realism. If Štreit shows a rural party, feast or dance, he makes it almost virtuous. Any sort of humiliation of the persons shown is foreign to him. He builds on the strong current of humanist photography from the middle of the last century.

Although the first full-page reproduction is a photo of hunters in a snow- covered field (Sovinec, 1976) – to me it ranks among his most beautiful – bringing to mind Pieter Bruegel, the compositional “rumpus” in certain photographs is not an expression of decomposition processes foreshadowing a post-modern abandonment of traditional photographic rules, rather it can be chalked up to the loose reality in front of the lens. On a background of collapsing buildings and poorly-managed farm life, Jindřich Štreit shows an indestructible human desire for love and children, for companionship, creativity and rituals and finally – but not in last place – for spirituality.

A disoriented society had until then maintained Catholic traditions; it tripped over new icons with the same obliviousness it used in destroying old symbols. Jindřich Štreitʼs photographic style is eclectic and synthetic in the good sense of the words. Look at how he captured Antonín Dufek in the opening text of his monograph, (Ab)normalizace. He also hit the mark in noticing that in hindsight we would notice more the ideological abuse of children, the work exploitation of women and the omnipresent smoking of cigarettes. Some people might be surprised by Štreitʼs frontal-view portraits influenced by the theory of the indecisive moment (Vladimír Birgus, 1978). The critiqued monograph also includes photographs of urban environments that are less typical for the artist. A book put together with professional care also serves as the exhibit catalogue. The exhibit shown in the compartmentalised space of the Kroměříž Area Museum in Kroměříž displayed digital prints and not the artistʼs blown-up shots. Such a set up has many advantages including the fact that you donʼt have to deal with protecting original works – the glued down prints were hung freely with the help of the galleryʼs modest equipment. In addition to this it was possible to include photos that could hardly have been processed without a “digital treatment.”  This new selection of Štreitʼs work understandably lacks the inimitable traces of handiwork in a dark chamber, through which one slowly submerges in the disappeared world, into which the now-forgotten abnormal conditions of political “normalisation” in the Czech Republic have vanished.

Petr Klimpl