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Antanas Sutkus
About the Author
  • Born 1939 in Kluoniškiai, Kaunas distr.
  • Studied journalism at Vilnius University, 1958–1964.
  • Initiated the Lithuanian Society of Photographic Art.
  • Chairman of the Organizational Group of the Lithuanian Union of Photographic Art, 1968–1969; Chairman of the Organizational Committee, 1969–1974, Vice-Chairman, 1974–1980, Chairman, 1980–1989, Lithuanian Society of Photographic Art. Chairman, 1989–1990 and since 1996, Lithuanian Union of Art Photographers.
  • Member of the Lithuanian Union of Art Photographers.
  • Works owned by private collectors in Lithuania and abroad.
About the Artworks
Antanas Sutkus' life has been intertwined with photography since his very youth. Sutkus was born in 1939 in Kluoniškiai, Kaunas district, Lithuania and in 1959, while still studying journalism at Vilnius University, began working as a photojournalist in journal Literatūra ir menas and later in magazine Tarybinė moteris. However, journalism and press photography do not hold a major place in Sutkus' creative biography. For the development of Lithuanian photography Sutkus is important from other perspectives: as a long-term leader of activities of an organized and institutional community of photographers and as an author whose works shaped and embodied the essence of the Lithuanian School of Photography.
In 1969, together with an initiative group that he himself assembled (consisting of representatives of photo clubs from various Lithuanian cities, press photographers and other cultural figures of the time), Sutkus founded the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography. At the time, it was the only organization of artistic creators in the Soviet Union. Sutkus was not only the founder of the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography, but also its long-term head. He led the society intermittently between 1969 and 1989 and after it changed its status and name to Lithuanian Photographers Association in 1989, Sutkus was its chairman until 2009. The organization, headed by him, was the administrative hub of Lithuanian photography and as such, of course, also influenced creative trends.
And what formed Sutkus' creative style? According to historian of photography Margarita Matulytė, the elements that influenced Sutkus' early works should be sought not in photography but rather in other areas of culture and in the photographer's own experiences. This is how Matulytė describes life experiences that shaped the photographer's worldview:
No particular school influenced the formation of Sutkus as an artist. However, taking part in the active discourse of modern culture he followed the paradigms of the reviving literature very closely [...] Kluoniškiai village on the hill and Zapyškis church in the valley of Nemunas, Ežerėlis peat bogs, where he earned the money for his first camera; his father, who shot himself in 1940 and mother, hiding away during the post war years; his grandparents, who fostered and raised him in the Christian spirit; his first love and lessons of truth at school; draining tuberculosis and the long months spent in the bed of a provincial hospital.
In a broader perspective, Sutkus' work, as well as the entire Lithuanian School of Photography, can be associated with Western humanistic photography and the prominent exhibition of American photographer Edward Steichen The Family of Man representing this trend. It took place in 1955 in New York and was brought to Moscow in 1959. According to Matulytė,
This exhibition was a phenomenon that had a great effect on the Soviet photography and […] facilitated creative work. [Sutkus] took advantage of the changes in the system and, having detached himself from the social realism preached by other photojournalists, implanted humanistic virtues in the reviving art photography.
These were the circumstances under which Sutkus' creative features took shape; they are also characteristic of the most part of Western and Lithuanian humanistic photography. For instance, in the album Daily Life in Vilnius that Sutkus published in 1965 together with his colleague Romualdas Rakauskas, one can already see Sutkus' inclination to generalizations that correspond to the humanistic worldview. In his photographs, the everyday life of ordinary people also becomes a generalized metaphor for human existence, an individual embodiment of universal human nature. The exaltation of humanness as an unquestionable value remained the essence of Sutkus' work throughout his later works as well.
On the other hand, Sutkus' works also posses a distinctly “Lithuanian” feature of humanistic photography. It was important for the author to commemorate the people of Lithuania in their authentic environment that was also very well known to the photographer. The goal of preserving the Lithuanian identity was determined not only by political circumstances, but also naturally sprang from the photographer's life experiences.
[...] Sutkus keeps saying that there was no other place where he could take such pictures like home. In his opinion, if he hadn't grown up in the countryside, hadn't felt “the shivering of the wind in maple leaves, the waving of ryes, the rain's drumming on the roof of the barn”, hardly would he have become a photographer, notes Margarita Matulytė.
Being one of the most prominent representatives of the Lithuanian School of Photography, even in the context of this school, Sutkus is distinguished by his individual creative manner. The latter is characterized by an intuitive creative method, a capturing of life moments based on feeling, a capacity to easily find emotional links with people being photographed and an ability to feel and convey in photographs subtle impressions of authenticity of everyday life. This special relationship with the commemorated people and its expression in photography is what unites Sutkus' works across many decades. He had defined the central theme of his works, and at the same time the title of his perhaps most famous cycle, People of Lithuania, at the very beginning of his artistic activity.
It is also during his early creative period that the author created the series Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Lithuania that has contributed probably the most to his fame abroad. In 1965, together with Eduardas Mieželaitis and Mykolas Sluckis, he accompanied the famous French couple during their five day visit to Lithuania and created an expressive image of the philosopher, known and recognized not only in Lithuania, but in other countries as well. Sutkus' most famous photograph of Sartre even inspired a sculpture that stands at the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris. The photographer himself admits that the prominence of the series is partly due to the fact that its subject matter is Sartre. On the other hand, the photographs also have an artistic value independent of the personalities they capture. At a relatively young age, Sutkus, who had an interest in literature, not only found common ground with the famous founder of existentialist philosophy, but also expressed ideas of existentialism in a general, evocative visual language of photography.
Today, Sutkus focuses on reviewing and re-assessing his archive containing over a million negatives. This rich archive of the author's creative work is being “discovered” anew by Lithuanian and foreign curators and publishers. The works are acquiring even more documentary value due to the time span separating us from the life immortalized in the photographs. In addition, actualization of Sutkus' oeuvre today also bears a different political meaning. Previously, the focus of the Lithuanian School of Photography on traditional Lithuanian lifestyle and the countryside could be understood as silent resistance to the Soviet regime. According to William A. Ewing, recognition of Sutkus and dissemination of his works in different countries across the globe today means disagreement with the dominance of US and Western European countries in art history and contemporary art scene. The curator and photography researcher is convinced that:
Sutkus should, and undoubtedly will, be better known world-wide; he only needs to be given the world stage.
Tomas Pabedinskas (more texts by this author can be found in the Cultural History section)
All works by this artist
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