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Photography as fuel for the ideological machine
The power of photographic images as means to persuasively and indisputably assert reality’s existence has been exploited since the very discovery of the medium. The belief that photography is a reflection of reality (by testifying to and documenting a fact) is an integral part of the nature of this art form that can be employed to reinforce any ideology. Though the photography of inter-war Lithuania and its artistic expression was independent, it was nevertheless actively utilized to craft the reality of President Antanas Smetona’s authoritarian regime. The official newspaper Mūsų Vilnius (Our Vilnius), for example, was full of photographic images of Polish-occupied Vilnius in an attempt to ignite hopes of one day restoring Lithuania’s control over its historic capital. Photography was employed on an entirely different scale, however, in the effort to introduce the policies and programs of the Soviet regime.
Photography associations established in pre-war Lithuania were disbanded early on in the first years of the Soviet occupation. Those photographers who could fled to the West (Vytautas Augustinas, Kazys Daugėla, Petras Babickas, Steponas Kolupaila). Those for whose work no “justification” could be found were forced to withdraw from the scene. Many withdrew voluntarily, taking up other professions. The fate of those photographers who were deemed to be involved in anti-Soviet activities took a more tragic turn. Jonas Žitkus (Žitkevičius), for example, was first imprisoned and then deported to Siberia because of the photographs he took in 1941 of the victims of the so-called Red Terror. Those photographers who were able to survive were forced to embrace “ideological reorientation” and master the style of Socialist Realism. The talents of the first Soviet Lithuanian photographers—Chanonas Levinas, Judelis Kacenbergas, Ilja Fišeris, Eugenijus Šiško, Michailas Rebis, Michailas Ogajus and others—were mustered for one sole purpose: to construct the illusion (or alternate reality Alternative realityThis term was first introduced to the discourse on Lithuanian photography by historian and researcher Margarita Matulytė.) of an ideal, progressive Soviet reality.
The first editions of a newly Sovietized press shone with images of Lenin, Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov, Lithuanian Communist Party First Secretary Antanas Sniečkus, and other Soviet leaders, accompanied by grandiose captions such as “We await your word, Moscow!”, “The Daily Duties of the Lithuanian Communist Party”, etc. Particularly common were photographs of so-called leading stars of Soviet labor, since propagandistic effect demanded heroes with whom the common proletariate or collective farming community could identify. The ability to reproduce, easily censor, retouch, and craft montages made photography an incomparably effective servant of ideology. Photographs circulated in huge numbers crafted scenes in the heads of millions of people of Soviet man’s happiness and aspirations, friendship among fraternal Soviet republics, prosperous agriculture and industry, the decay of the West, and the superiority of the USSR.
Systematically designed visual agit-prop was extremely effective. The circle of intellectuals and those still capable of critical reflection had been considerably reduced and those with some room for maneuver tried to adapt to the new system. After all, one had to live—keeping both one’s job and one’s family and loved ones. What’s more, for barely literate collective farmers or urban workers pictures in the newspaper were very often the only (and most reliable) means of information about what was happening in the outside world. This is why, according to photography historian Margarita Matulytė, those photographers who grasped the technique of constructing the new reality essentially not only fabricated the present, but also changed the historical perspective. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 44.
Forced to serve the Stalinist regime’s propaganda megamachine, photography lost any semblance of autonomy and ceased to exist as a separate creative field of art. Its value depended on its ability to persuasively and effectively reflect the new Socialist order and the achievements of the system’s founders and its everyday heroes. Though the genre’s contribution to the creation of a Soviet alternate reality was huge, the work of photographers went completely unmentioned in an assessment by the Sixth Conference of the Lithuanian Communist Party of the role of writers and artists in the Sovietization process. Stalin Prizes for “cultural engagement in the general welfare of the Lithuanian working people” went instead to sculptor Juozas Mikėnas (for his composition Pergalė [Victory] in Kaliningrad), composer Juozas Tallat-Kelpša (for Kantata apie Staliną [Cantata on Stalin]), and others. It became clear that photography had been relegated to the lowest rung in the arts hierarchy and was merely “a fuel for the megamachine, and not a noble source of energy. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 47.
The strict requirements on and vigilant supervision of photography did great damage to its development. Forced to lie in a Procrustean bed, photography languished, much like every field of culture. Even after the Twentieth Soviet Communist Party Congress in 1955 condemned the cult of Stalin, nothing essentially changed. Press photography continued to be used solely for ideological purposes. It would require considerable effort to recover and to earn back the status of an independent field of art.
How was the Stalinist alternate reality constructed?
The Soviet regime “employed” both Soviet writers and photographers to act as “engineers of the human soul.” The ideological system of Soviet cultural policy used photography in its development of a visually and emotionally compelling “Soviet legend” dominated by a framework of ideologized justice. Soviet ideologues had already outlined the functions that photography must fulfill before the start of World War II, when the editorial board of the influential magazine Sovetskoye foto Sovetskoye foto A trade journal published in Moscow meant to serve as an ideological tool for the education and “orientation” of photographers. Because there was no educational institution specifically tasked with the training of photographers, the ideological management and distribution of photographic images depended on the editorial boards of journals and magazines implementing various Communist Party and government programs. (Soviet Photo), reacting to Josef Stalin’s speech at the Seventeenth Communist Party (Victors’) Congress on the party’s leading role in the struggle for complete and final liberation from the so-called old world and the victory of the new Socialist society, created a new programmatic strategy in 1934: “We use photographic means to demonstrate how this victorious march to Socialism is progressing. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 122.  Photojournalists were required to adhere to certain principles: specificity, timeliness, a portrayal of facts with “artistic correctness”, and purposeful presentation to millions of people. But what constituted “artistic correctness”? Photographers had to “develop” the ability to grasp and properly convey this concept, because it was judged to be Socialist Realist photography’s core value.
This new defining characteristic of “good” photography had to be obtained not by directly capturing a subject, guided by a moment’s fascination or the impulsive inspiration of the photographer, but through the deliberate arrangement of details and emphases based on the needs of political circumstances and context, i.e. by portraying a concentrated version of the essence of reality. This creative approach differed considerably from previous realist or ethnographic photography movements mainly in the photographer’s relationship with reality. In Socialist Realism, the photographer’s interaction with reality was so complicated (neither critical, nor social, nor representative) that the Soviet requirement to reflect an “ideal” Soviet world forced photographers to discover a completely new “stylistic language.” The style’s main point of reference became the “man of the future.”
According to Matulytė, one of the first to “discover” this style was Russian photographer Moisei Nappelbaum, who experienced the demand for a radically different artistic style as he composed portraits of Lenin and Stalin. One experience in particular helped complete the shaping of his approach. While on a visit to a factory, Nappelbaum asked a worker to pose for him, instructing him to hold a manufactured item in his hand while bending over, his legs firmly planted on the floor, every muscle tensed in labor. Nappelbaum was pleased with the photograph of his directed scene, but the factory’s director criticized the image, saying that the fact it portrayed did not correspond with reality: workers in Soviet factories didn’t carry what they produced—cranes did. This experience helped Nappelbaum to understand that, in order to depict life persuasively, one had to understand its essential elements so “one could differentiate between the random and the regular, and [thus] arrive at a summation. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 148.
Ideas on how to “capture and record the characteristics of Soviet man, his development, and moral virtues Albinas Žukauskas, „Keletas tarybinio žmogaus bruožų mūsų literatūroje“, Literatūra ir menas, 1948 07 19. could be drawn from “noble” examples of “engineers of the soul” present in post-war literature, such as Petras Cvirka’s collection of short stories Brolybės sėkla (Seeds of Brotherhood, 1947), Jonas Marcinkevičius’ play Kavoliūnai (1947), and a collection of poetry by Antanas Venclova titled Šalies jaunystė (The Youth of the Country, 1947). Archetypes of “strong characters” could be found in art: in the sculptural composition Keturi komunarai (The Four Communards, 1950) by Napoleonas Petrulis and Bronius Vyšniauskas, Jonas Mackonis’ canvas Kolūkio brigadininkas Jonas Mikalevičius (Collective Farm Brigade Leader Jonas Mikalevičius, 1952), and elsewhere. The total indoctrination of “artistic correctness” in all cultural sectors in the Stalinist years was evidenced by a photograph captured by Vytautas Vanagaitis, showing sculptors Petrulis and Vyšniauskas completing another composition, Pramonė ir statyba (Industry and Construction), on the Green Bridge in Vilnius. The image gives a sense of the effort to stage a scene in the pursuit of emotional persuasion and “artistic correctness”, whose Socialist Realist style was imposed on both the composition being created by the sculptors as well as the photograph captured by the photographer.
The demands placed on photographers necessitated directorial talent. Because post-war reality often failed to correspond to the standards of Socialist perfection, that reality often had to be fabricated, something rather easily achieved through photographic means.  Staging of scenes, the use of montages and retouching, and photographs assembled from several frames—all of these became tools routinely used by Soviet photographers. Archives are full of examples of inconsistencies between the reality captured on a negative and the images eventually published in the press. One example is Kacenbergas’ photograph Tostas už Staliną (A Toast to Stalin), in which workers ceremoniously stand around a New Year’s Eve celebration table, raising their glasses in Stalin’s honor. Unfortunately, the original photograph exposed the poverty of everyday life at the time. Threadbare walls, meager banquet offerings, and an unsuitable full-length portrait of Stalin were, like all betraying evidence of poverty, retouched before the photo ever reached print.
A particularly common practice was the “pasting” of Stalin’s portrait into an image in an attempt to cement the leader’s cult and stage an ideologically correct scene. For example, Šiška’s photograph “Kauno audinių“ partinis biuras svarsto darbo kokybės klausimą (The “Kauno audiniai” Party Office Considers the Matter of Labor Quality, 1952), features a portrait of Stalin pasted into the image above the heads of council members. An analogous situation occurs in Fišeris’ photograph Tarybinės armijos kariai – taikiosios šalies sūnūs (Soviet Army Soldiers—Sons of a Peaceful Country, 1952) which, when being developed by the photographer, was judged to be missing only one essential element: Stalin’s portrait. In order to avoid any unnecessary questions or associations, portraits of leaders hanging on walls were retouched. For example, the original image of Fišeris’ photograph titled Petro Cvirkos kolektyvinio ūkio pirmininkas ir valdybos narė pasirašo sutartį su kolektyvinio ūkio „Gedimino pilis“ pirmininku (The Chairman and a Councilwoman of the Petras Cvirka Collective Farm Sign an Agreement with the Chairman of the “Gedimino pilis” Collective Farm, 1949), shows a rather faded family portait of a man and a woman. Fišeris was required to remove it as a relic of a bourgeois way of life. In truth, Fišeris’ efforts to meet the demands of Socialist Realism have resulted in interesting imagery. For example, in a photograph from a reportage piece about life in the small town of Saločiai (1950), Fišeris’ directorial talents produced more than just an ideologically corrected result. Today, we could call this photograph a metaphor for the creation of alternate reality. In the image, we see three generations of a family, dressed appropriately for a photograph, sitting around a table. All of them have turned their heads to a single source of light—not to the nearby window, but to a radio receiver hanging above it, undoubtedly listening to news being broadcast about idyllic Soviet life. The grandmother holds a newspaper in her hands, but not just any rag. A mirror reflects the front page of the paper back to the viewer, ensuring that we will see the banner head Tiesa (Pravda, or Truth). The staged image illustrates an entire system of “brainwashing”, though readers of the day were meant to understand the photo as the only correct model for their daily lives.
Another example is Fišeris’ photograph from the same series about the residents of Saločiai, in which a father and son are captured fixing a bicycle. It is not just any bicycle, however—it is a Latvian (from a “fraternal” republic) “Red Star”, used in the image as both a compositional and conceptual centerpiece. Today, walls covered with newsprint from Tiesa, as in this photo, would attest to the poverty of daily life, but Stalinist era readers were meant to grasp that such wallpaper reflected the dedication and loyalty of the residents of the home to the truths of Communism. The seemingly inadvertent presence of a small painting of the Mother Mary on the wall betrays the fact that such political views were obligatory. To be sure, this small detail was easily handled with some retouching.
Photographers were not always able to capture staged scenes with such skill and effectiveness. Sometimes, the artifice of an image is visible to the naked eye, but even this approach was more acceptable than any improvization that could provoke unnecessary questions or insinuations. Take, for example, Kacenbergas’ image, in which the family of the main character, K. Vanagas, senior accountant for the “Žibutė” company, poses to welcome him home. The father is shown returning with New Year’s gifts, an event that is meant to inspire great joy in the hearts of his family (particularly the children). But here the children are restrained, frozen in staged poses, much like their parents with artificial smiles on their faces.
There were images that no amount of retouching could “improve”, so they were stuffed away into desk drawers. A photograph by Fišeris, for example, capturing a train trip from Vilnius to Kaunas by one of the top workers at the “Liteksas” factory showed wind blowing snow through a broken train car window and thus could never be published and possibly muddle the carefully crafted image of a perfect alternate reality. And yet, the photo depicted the same kind of train pictured in Josifas Šapiras’ image Keleiviai dyzeliniame traukinyje (Passengers on a Diesel Train, 1949). Everything in the alternate reality was to be beautiful, optimistic, progressive, and abundant: from the piles of canned fish in a factory, to the number of radiators on a production line, to the size of the crowds demonstrating at a May Day rally. But photographers’ negatives and the images never used in the press reveal the true reality, one in which store shelves were dismally bare and where Soviet Lithuanian citizens walked the streets with tired faces, clad in threadbare, quilted “vatynki” coats.
A rare exception were images captured by Alytus photographer Vytautas Stanionis and later published in Tarybinė Dzūkija (Soviet Dzūkija), a newspaper circulating in southern Lithuania. The images portrayed the same scenes from Soviet life, the average citizens’ accomplishments and commemorations, but something was a bit different—they lacked the staged pathos of other photographs. Stanionis observed events with an impartial, even “incidental” eye, thereby turning the entire event into something meaningless. According to researcher Agnė Narušytė, “the image seemed to bow to the regime, but it was also almost accidental, disrupting Soviet man’s optimistic serenity. Not overtly, since that was not permissible—but in the mind of the viewer. Agnė Narušytė, „Tas ir ne tas pokaris: Vytauto Stanionio fotografijų albumas“, 7 meno dienos, 2003 06 06.
Unembellished photography
The only type of photography for which the demands of Socialist Realism did not apply was documentary imagery intended for specific institutions and not for public display. Photographic documentation was particularly important in the campaign against the anti-Soviet partisan movement. Special KGB and NKVD services assembled photography libraries and compiled a methodical operational collection of images: Medžiagos apie likviduotą ginkluotą nacionalistinį pogrindį Lietuvos LTSR teritorijoje albumą (An Album of Material on the Liquidated Armed Nationalist Underground on the Territory of the Lithuanian SSR). Photography was employed to control the population and demonstrate the power of the regime. Finding oneself on a list of suspicious persons required only the slightest of allegations, and a single photograph could become the only piece of evidence of criminal activity.
Why did members of the anti-Soviet partisan movement immortalize themselves in photographs? This seems strange, given their concerns about safety and the protection of their identities. Partisans used special encoded messages, code names, and concealed any ties with other members of the resistance. The question why they risked revealing themselves in front of a camera lens can be explained by historic circumstances. As long as partisan leaders still had hopes of liberating their country from occupation they avoided appearing in photographs (1944–1946). But once they grasped the unfavorable odds of their war and realized that resistance fighters were doomed to die, they came to appreciate the importance of recording that stage of Lithuania’s struggle for freedom. When it found its way into enemy hands, such photographic material was fatal. The same photographs, however, later became extremely important evidence of the resistance campaign for today’s historians.
Another field of photography in which no one concerned themselves with the embellishment of reality was the documentation of the consequences of war for Lithuania’s cities. The Soviet government commissioned Jan Bułhak, a renowned Vilnius photographer and pictorialist PictorialismAn international artistic movement or style that dominated photography in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The principle artistic concept in pictorialism was the use of photographic means to “create” images rather than capture them, thus associating it closely with painting (with light as the chosen painting medium)., to document the Vilnius Old Town following the German assault of July 6–13, 1944. Together with his son, Bułhak made a topographically accurate photographic record of the war-ravaged Lithuanian capital, later assembling the images into albums. The imagery later exposed one controversial fact: the greater part of Vilnius’ Old Town was demolished after the war to make way for Soviet designs calling for the transformation of the Lithuanian capital into a Socialist city. A similar project was undertaken in Kaunas by Mikas Pranckūnas (who grew to prominence in the inter-war period as a scandalous photographer and distributor of pornographic images). Over the span of six months, Pranckūnas developed nearly one thousand photographs, and his albums were subsequently sent to Moscow. His work was shown in exhibitions in Kaunas with such evocative titles as Hitleriniai žvėriškumai (Hitlerite Brutalities) and Teisybė sugrįžo (Justice Has Returned). Another segment of documentary photography that was left untouched by any embellishment consisted of passport photos of Soviet citizens. A large-scale photography program was initiated in various sites across Lithuania as part of an effort to issue passports to all residents. Every Lithuanian photographer was mobilized for the project and, when there was a shortage of talent, colleagues were brought in from other “fraternal” occupied countries. Over several years, thousands of passport photographs recorded the real drama of Soviet Lithuania’s citizenry.
Passport photos taken by Stanionis were particularly powerful. In an effort to conserve photographic materials, people were photographed in pairs, two to one frame. Estonian photography historian Peeter Linnap has observed: 
Looking at the subjects being photographed, we see the gray reflection of an indescribable, overwhelming exhaustion in their faces, emerging from the spiritual destruction of their most recent past, from their experience of the horrors of war. […] Even the taking of a passport photo entails a certain amount of ceremony: dressing in one’s best clothing for the occasion, combing one’s hair, going to a barber, practicing putting on a self-confident expression. The faces of Stanionis’ subjects seem to reveal that death and war had not ended, like in Europe, but that it continued. Or, more precisely, their hopes for the future in their gaze appear even more unsure than in wartime—theirs is a frightening uncertainty. The very act of being photographed has a tragic significance: to have one’s ‘picture taken’ for a Soviet passport meant becoming a slave, saying goodbye to freedom and the ability to make one’s own choices for some unknown period of time. Peeter Linnap, „Dviese nuotraukoje“,
Linnap also noted that, even though the subjects were photographed in pairs, their shoulders almost touching, these people were pervaded by absolute solitude, each with the drama of his own world.
How did the Soviets disseminate falsified reality?
The press was the greatest distributor of the alternate reality—given its circulation, the ability to respond quickly to current events, and because of easy access. But there were also other means associated with photography—chiefly through albums and exhibitions. An illustrated propaganda book about Lithuania was being readied for publication in the first year of Soviet rule, but the Nazi occupation ended the project. The first Soviet photography album, Tarybų Lietuva (Soviet Lithuania), was eventually published only in 1950. The publication was much anticipated and was dedicated to the tenth anniversary of Soviet rule in Lithuania. The album included images taken by the country’s first Soviet photographers—Ilja Fišeris, Povilas Karpavičius, Judelis Kacenbergas, Chanonas Levinas, Michailas Rebis and others—that “demonstrated” Soviet victory and achievements in all aspects of life. Pompously “staged” photographs were combined with Lithuanian ethnographic symbols and Soviet heraldry.
Another important tool for the dissemination of Soviet ideology operated through the country’s museums. Museums in Vilnius established by the independent, pre-war Lithuania or the Polish occupational government were reorganized in 1940 and 1941, but the Soviets established new museums in an effort to reach new audiences, including in Šakiai, Vilkaviškis, Utena, Kaišiadorys, Švenčionys, Kupiškis, Kaunas, and Vilnius. Thirty museums were already in existence by 1953. To be sure, their purpose was not so much to function as museums, but rather as tools of propaganda. Previous exhibits were reviewed and those deemed unnecessary were removed. The greater portion of newly assembled exhibit pieces focused on illustrating Soviet reality through newspaper clippings, citations, slogans, and photographs. Large display stands with arrangements of texts and photographs dictated by Communist Party and government programs became the popular norm. Tours were organized to view the new exhibits, particularly for students, for whom materials on display in a museum became an important source of knowledge, since textbooks about the “new history” had yet to be issued.
Operational control over museums was extremely strict and exhibition standards were uniform across the Soviet Union. Ideological content had to be reflected unambiguously to prevent any questions arising in the minds of museum goers. “Violations” resulted in public reprimand. In 1950, for example, the Tiesa newspaper issued a harsh critique of an exhibition at the Regional Folklore Museum in Biržai:
The museum contains photographs of sagging, ramshackle huts with dilapidated thatched roofs. Yet museum staff carelessly forgot to tell visitors that these shacks were once the homes of slave laborers exploited by landowners and kulaks. The photographs lack even the briefest of captions. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 260.
Occasional photography exhibitions were organized immediately after the war, but their purpose was ideological and political: to expose the crimes committed under the fascist occupation and to indoctrinate society with the proper understanding of the assistance provided by Stalin and the “return of justice.” Exhibitions aiming to present the photographic process as its own artistic genre did not exist, since neither “art for art’s sake” nor “experimentation for experiment’s sake” was tolerated. The first exhibition to break the ice in this regard was a showing of color photographs by Karpavičius in 1953 (with the appearance that same year of an album of the photographer’s work—the first to be published in color).


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Sources and links

Margarita Matulytė
Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011
Albinas Žukauskas
„Keletas tarybinio žmogaus bruožų mūsų literatūroje“
Literatūra ir menas, 1948 07 19
Agnė Narušytė
„Tas ir ne tas pokaris: Vytauto Stanionio fotografijų albumas“
7 meno dienos, 2003 06 06
Peeter Linnap
„Dviese nuotraukoje“
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