Jindřich Štreit‘s Village People: 1965-1990 presents Štreit’s work in various Czechoslovakian villages during the waning years of Communism. It was Charcoal Book Club’s photobook of the month for November, 2021.
If I’m being honest, I wasn’t too impressed with Village People on my first flip through (during the unboxing). Insofar as I’m trying to review the Charcoal books soon after they arrive, when it came time to really sit with it, I remembered the text at the end and read it first to get some context. Vladimír Birgus’ essay, “Jindřich Štreit” provides a nice biography, and allowed me to appreciate the photographs in ways I might not have on my own.
Štreit worked near-tirelessly to promote photography and self expression in the rural regions of Czechoslovakia, teaching, organizing exhibitions, putting on programs, and the like. His photography, while not clearly against the state, showed what really went on in, as Zizek might call it, in really-existing Communism. There are Eastern Christian processions and celebrations and funerals, despite the avowed Atheism of the state; there are also dogs relieving themselves near monuments to the revolution and pictures of provincial leaders pasted on decaying walls and old men drinking liquor next to pictures of the dear leader among his photographs of more straight-ahead daily farm and village life.
In 1982, Štreit’s photographs (like those mentioned above) came to the attention of some Communist officials. His negatives and equipment were seized, he spent some months in prison, and upon release went right back to organizing exhibitions and making slyly subversive photographs, though he was barred from teaching and forced to work on a (potato?) farm for the rest of the decade. Then, in 1990, the Communist state fell, and sometime later, his negatives were returned, his record was expunged, and he began exhibiting widely, traveling, taking on photographic projects abroad, and pretty much being a solid professional photographer.
Štreit lived and worked in and around what is now the Moravian-Silesian Region of Czechia, starting as a schoolteacher and headmaster in the late 1960s, and long worked to put on exhibitions and programs in smaller villages. And he continues to visit and put on small shows in remote little villages all over the Chech Republic even now. These days, Štreit is something of a rockstar in the Czech Republic, second in national renown only to Kudelka, and Birgus talks of walking through a city square with Štreit and being constantly stopped by admirers and friends. This familiarity with the people and places comes out in the photographs, which show wide swaths of what I would call “country” life in Moravia, in the 1980s (mostly).
As mentioned above, some of the photographs contain a sly dig against the state, but most show day to day existence: hanging around, working in the potato fields, drinking, marriage, etc. There’s happiness and joy and blank expressions and all, and there’s probably some sort of ordering or narrative, though I’m also too dense to see it without prompting.
As with other Charcoal books of the month, I probably wouldn’t buy this one on my own, and now that I know something about Štreit, I’m glad to have the book. Without the subtext of struggle-against-the-state relayed via the text, though, I’m not sure I would’ve come around to the photographs or the subtext on my own. Again: too dense. And now that I know about it, I find the photographs wonderful and inspiring… I live in a community that’s sort of outside, sort of, and I have the opportunity, maybe, to show our general normality. (Andrew Molitor mentioned this in his review of my Eid al Adha zine.) This is what Štreit did to, albeit with perhaps some nose-thumbing at the Communist/Czechoslovakian state thrown in for good measure. (I cock my snook at some America and Texas with some of my photography too, perhaps. Štreit just does it with clear technique and obvious training.)
The images in Village People were selected from Štreit’s archive by Thomas Gust, Ana Drugs, and Vladimír Birgus, and given that there’s no mention of the book on Štreit’s website, I’m not sure what involvement he had with it. Surely he had some, if only allowing access to his archive, though I have no real idea. My copy has translations in German, English, and French, and there’s another edition in Czech, Polish, and English out there according to a comment on the Impressum, so I suspect the book is fairly widely available.
These days, Štreit is all color and digital, and the work remains largely concerned with the people and what they get up to. He shares a bunch of it, and his older black & white film work, on his website, and it’s all worth a look. Village People is available through Charcoal and at other fine retailers, and Štreit