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1954–1969: The Opportunities of the “Thaw”
A boom in amateur photography
With Stalin’s death and the condemnation of his cult of personality by the Twentieth Communist Party Congress, changes promising some degree of liberalization began to be felt in every aspect of life. Some of Stalin’s victims were officially rehabilitated, the privileges enjoyed by the Party and government elite were reigned in, and a certain amount of economic and cultural engagement with the West began. To be sure, however, the image of a more liberally minded, progressive Soviet Union ambitiously facing the future was created for no other reason than to strengthen the post-totalitarian system. The Soviet Union continued to inculcate its ideology in the occupied countries, only now it began an all-out competition with the West, particularly with the United States. Essentially this was done in the same manner in which the Stalinist regime had been established and maintained: through the use of mass propaganda, especially with the help of photography. But even this small level of political “opening” was enough of an impetus for photography to become increasingly prevalent as an independent artistic genre.
Amateur photographers’ clubs and enthusiast circles were already being established on a large scale during the Stalinist period. The regime’s support for such clubs was deliberate, as the shortage of professional photographers was becoming increasingly evident. There was, after all, no school for the training of professional photographers. The first amateur photography classes were started in 1947 at the Republican Teachers’ Hall in Kaunas. Students in the course were given the same task demanded of every other person working in the cultural and journalistic professions: to record the great events and changes occurring in the country. A Photographic Art Studio was opened that same year at the Kaunas Physical Education Club, and its members created albums of their photography. The press, particularly active in encouraging amateurs to send their images to editorial offices, also became enlisted in the mentoring of novice photographers. The magazine Jaunimo gretos (Ranks of the Young) started a column called “Fotomegėjas” (Amateur Photographer) featuring the best “eligible” images taken by amateurs.
The real excitement brewing in the world of photography during the “thaw” period soon spread to every corner of Lithuania. Active photography clubs were founded in most cities and towns. Within this novice environment, lacking in any real photographic tradition and still largely bound by the standards and views about the work of a photographer established during the Stalinist regime (“A Soviet journalist is a truthful chronicler of [our] great era, a sentry of the future”), the first artistic photographers able to lift photographic art to universal recognition began to emerge. These included Antanas Sutkus, Romualdas Rakauskas, Aleksandras Macijauskas, Vitalijus Butyrinas, Algimantas Kunčius, Marius Baranauskas, Vaclovas Straukas, and others. Their works of humanistic images are today considered iconic examples of Lithuanian photography without which the development of the genre could hardly be conceivable.
In 1958, a Photography Division was established as part of the Lithuanian SSR Journalists’ Union to coordinate the work of amateur photographers and organize all photojournalists throughout Lithuania. It was a fairly influential organization that was finally able to revive the debate about photography as an artistic genre. Photographers were visited by representatives of Moscow’s Sovetskoye foto, the ideological leader of Soviet photography, and organized debates with their guests about the purposes, artistic criteria, and other aspects of their craft. The newly emerging Lithuanian photographers looked to the Russian field of artistic photography and began to follow their leaders: Max Alpert, Nikolai Andreyev, Sergei Ivanov-Alyuyev, Moisei Nappelbaum, Nikolai Svishchev-Paola, Dmitri Baltermants, and others. New opportunities arose in the post-Stalinist period to acquire photography books published in the West, which were then shared among colleagues. Lithuanian photographer Kunčius remembers expanding his horizons with colleagues by reading the Czech magazine Foto Reviu and Polish journals, and, somewhat later, articles by Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin. The photographers also “shared” an amateurish, handwritten translation into Lithuanian of Sontag’s book On Photography. Their efforts to understand photography’s context were also bolstered by the first international exhibitions, such as Interpress-Foto, during which the young photographers could see the prevailing stylistic styles and fashions firsthand. To be sure, artistic pursuits were still hampered by ideological demands, but these limitations continued to ease gradually.
One of the first schools dedicated to the improvement of photojournalistic skills was established in Moscow in 1960, and Fišeris graduated from the school with honors. The Photography Division of the USSR Journalists’ Union began to organize creative seminars. A seminar was held in Vilnius in 1961, for example, to share theoretical knowledge and to analyze that year’s most important photography event: an exhibition titled Septynmetis gyvenime (A Seven-Year-Old in Life). The most influential photographer’s club in Lithuania was founded in 1963, including such members as photographic technology ace Povilas Karpavičius, Vilius Jasinevičius, Aleksandras Macijauskas, Vitalijus Butyrinas, Vincas Dineika, Irena Giedraitienė, Algirdas Pilvelis, and others. The first exhibition of artistic photography, organized by the Photography Division in 1962, was finally welcomed by the Vilnius Museum of Art. The exhibition received accolades from artists Stasys Krasauskas and Augustinas Savickas. Photography began to gradually access ever more interesting domains.
An exhibition was held in 1965 at the castle in Trakai to commemorate 25 years of Soviet rule in Lithuania. At the time, there were no bridges to the castle, isolated on an island, so all of the photographs for the show had to be carried over on a small boat. The entire future exhibition was nearly lost in the middle of the lake when a strong wind began to toss the boat carrying the photographs. Another memorable event was the so-called “four photographers’” exhibit (by Algimantas Kunčius, Vilius Naujikas, Romualdas Rakauskas, and Antanas Sutkus) held in 1968 at the Vilnius Art Museum. The show sparked a discussion about the need to establish an organization for art photographers and to train specialists in the field. In the press, all art critics were unanimous in their assertion that “true art begins when individuality emerges.” A new outlook on the publication of albums also took hold. 1965 saw the release of Vilniaus šokiadieniai (Everyday Vilnius), a collection of works by the young duo Sutkus and Rakauskas, showcasing a portrayal of life in the capital steeped in the poetic and psychological approach characteristic of both artists. The first photography studios opened, hosting exhibitions in Klaipėda and Plungė. It was becoming ever more clear that photography was not just the “taking of pictures” to illustrate ideologically relevant themes. Thanks to the efforts of talented individuals and, to be sure, the emerging “favorable political wind”, art photography gradually began to awaken from a lethargic slumber.
The Fateful Nine
What was the decisive event that inspired talk about a national “Lithuanian style of photography” that helped to lay the foundation for the further development of this branch of art in Lithuania? It came in 1969, with the opening at the Central Journalists’ Hall in Moscow of an exhibition titled 9 Lietuvos fotografai (9 Lithuanian Photographers), featuring the works of the Lithuania’s future photographic elite: Marius Baranauskas, Vitalijus Butyrinas, Algimantas Kunčius, Vitas Luckus, Aleksandras Macijauskas, Antanas Miežanskas, Romualdas Rakauskas, Liudvikas Ruikas and the group’s conceptual leader Antanas Sutkus. The works shown in Moscow were very different from the “staged” and propaganda-driven photography previously cultivated in Lithuania. The nine photographers demonstrated a humanistic view of man and his existence, of nature, beauty, and the flow of life, imbued with existential symbols and an assertion of faith in human nature. Their principle motifs were the life, people, and environment of the Lithuanian village—the entirety of the Lithuanian rural landscape.
Given the context of Soviet ideological censorship, what was the source of these new ideas and images? According to photography historian Matulytė, both internal and external factors played a role. Within Lithuania, modernization processes underway in literature and art helped spur a liberalization in the choice of themes and forms. A return to rural themes, among other trends, was also evident in the literature of the 1960s, with the emergence of a new generation of talented writers who were drawn not only to a positive depiction of social life, but also to a search for their own roots and the discovery of the origins of the Lithuanian national character. External factors included the signing in 1958 of a cultural and economic cooperation agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union and the visit by US President Richard Nixon to the USSR in 1972. A direct result of the new treaty was the opening in Moscow in 1958 of Edward Steichen’s photography exhibit The Family of Man, showcasing the works of numerous world-renowned photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson of France, Ernst Haas of Austria, the Hungarian Robert Capa, and American artist Russell Lee, and their prevailing post-war humanist worldview. These works posed the idea that all people, regardless of race, nationality, or age, are similar, and that humanness was a universal category. Once it reached the hands of Lithuanian photographers, the exhibition catalogue had a huge impact. This photographic approach and its sensitivity to the subject being photographed was well-received.
The exhibition by the nine Lithuanian photographers attracted considerable interest from the photographic community in Moscow. Anatoly Garinin, photo correspondant for the magazine Sovetsky Soyuz, commented that “this exhibition is a true display of current photography. […] Some today still have a one-sided view of either content or form, but the uniqueness of the photographs presented here is that an overarching significance is found for every recorded fact. This exhibition shows us the Lithuanian people—we see the multifaceted nature of human activity. It’s also important that [the photographers] do not limit themselves to a superficial overview of an event, but instead explore both idea and content. „9 Lietuvos fotografai Vilniaus „Prospekto galerijoje“, Because of the need to somehow legitimize the views of the Lithuanian photographers and avoid any contradictions with Soviet ideological demands, supportive Moscow critics used the term “school” to describe the work of the nine talented Lithuanian photographers.
The work of the “school’s” members developed as an alternative to the Socialist Realist aesthetic prevailing in the mass media. (To be sure, the latter style continued to dominate official publications). Yet, the seeds of modernism were already being sewn in the humanitarian field: Rakauskas worked at the editorial offices of the cultural journal Nemunas, Kunčius at the cultural magazine Kultūros barai, and Sutkus on the team of Tarybinė moteris (Soviet Woman). The alternate reality shaped in the post-war period began to fracture: new topics emerged in public discourse and a new image of man took hold. Photography, meanwhile, “dangled” between journalism and art.
Though the Soviet government had no objection to the positive depiction of human life and saw nothing flawed in the humanistic approach, Lithuanian photographers still had to sense the boundaries of what was permissible. Ideologues constantly emphasized that an ideological war was underway between the West and the USSR. Understandably, an individualistic point of view was officially impossible, but “the lightning-rod of Lithuanian photography was the humanistic origin of a worldview that adhered to party directives. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 56. Despite the prevailing ideological environment, the existence of a core of enthusiasts and their leader, the recognition of critics in Moscow, and the support of local cultural politicians all led to the founding, that same year, of the Lithuanian Photography Society, the only one of its kind at the time in the entire Soviet Union.
The Lithuanian Photography Society
The idea to establish one organization to unite Lithuanian photographers had been tossed about for some time. There were even opposing camps of photographers. Birutė Orentaitė (with artist and photographer Rimantas Dichavičius) sought government support to “affiliate” photographers with official labor unions. Sutkus was particularly opposed to this idea and, with the united support of the Kaunas photography club and Vilnius photographers, he began to search for ways to establish a selfstanding organization. An ideological clash ensued between the two camps and attempts were made to lure away members of the opposing side to strengthen either position. In exchange for joining her side, Orentaitė promised to provide photographers with rolls of photographic paper, for example. Sutkus, meanwhile, organized his members with a gift for writing to publish as much information in the press about photography as possible.
After the favorable recognition they received for the 9 Lithuanian Photographers exhibition, the artists felt sufficiently ready to implement their goals—namely, the founding of an association to unite photography lovers across Lithuania. Then Cultural Minister Lionginas Šepetys expressed faith in their creative talents: “Artistic photography has became an important cultural phenomenon, worthy of serious state support. „Fotografijos menas“, Kultūros barai, 1969, Nr. 1, p. 7. Sutkus and his supporters had already obtained both the favor of the Minister as well as his advice, since they were essentially “neighbors”: the editorial offices of Kultūros barai (which employed several actively engaged photographers) were located in the same building as the Ministry of Culture, which had been temporarily relocated to a three-story building in the Youth (now Bernardinai) Garden.
The Lithuanian Photography Society (the predecessor to the Lithuanian Union of Art Photographers) was finally established in 1969. The Society’s charter professed absolute loyalty to Soviet rule: the development of art photography on a foundation of Marxist-Leninist esthetics; the unity of its members in a spirit of loyalty to the Party and Motherland; the advancement of the ideals of Soviet patriotism, friendship among nations, and peace; the development of photography in the Lithuanian republic, throughout the country, and abroad; and the cultivation of the ideas as well as artistic and professional skills of the society’s members.
The Society sought to be a loyal and useful servant to two gods at once: the art of photography and the Soviet government. This required extraordinary effort and the ability to find agreement and favor with high-ranking government officials so that the Society could expand its activities and its members could successfully maneuver in their development of modern forms of expression. The Society was surprisingly successful in these efforts due to the many years of leadership of Antanas Sutkus and his managerial talents, strategic thinking, and artistic talent. Under this leadership, the Society actively supported exhibitions, seminars, and competitions, published books, took care of routine matters such as the provision of photographic supplies, and considerably expanded its own staff as it simultaneously established new chapters in Kaunas and Panevėžys. At the same time, the Society also provided visual propaganda work for the state, fulfilling commissions for the production of commemorative plaques and performing the role of censor. Because the organization adhered to strict internal rules of governance, a commission of photographers was permitted to designate which works were appropriate for public display and which were not. As a result, the official agency responsible for censorship, Glavlit, was left with very little to suppress.
Preventive pressure “from above” continued for some time after the Society’s founding. In 1980, for example, the head of the Cultural Division of the Lithuanian Communist Party’s Central Committee, Sigmundas Šimkus, in his remarks to the Lithuanian Photography Association's Second Congress, remarked:
The emergence of the Lithuanian school of photography was influenced by [Communist] Party policies, the Socialist order, and persistent work with artists, who were directed to create in the name of the ideals and interests of the proletariat. Your work represents the Soviet way of life, Soviet photographic art, and Soviet culture abroad, where we stand on the front lines of the struggle with imperialism and its propaganda.  And we win when we talk about our lives, telling our story in a convincing, artistic and expressive way. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 60.
Having taken upon itself the responsibility of mentoring the work of all art photographers in Lithuania and for ensuring the quality and ideological “correctness” of their work, the Society’s executive board was very demanding of itself and others. Vigorous self-censorship was practiced. In one example, sensing strong criticism from readers of Sovetskoye Foto over a photograph it published called Pionierius (Pioneer, the Soviet version of the Boy Scouts), and for which it received accolades in competitions and exhibitions, Sutkus refrained from publicly showing another powerful photograph depicting a blind young pioneer. According to Sutkus, the joke going around the Communist Party Central Committee was that only one anonymous complaint about a photograph had been received in the ten years since the Society was founded, while theatre professionals received plenty every month.
The core of the Society, aside from Sutkus himself, consisted of Rakauskas, Kunčius, and Macijauskas, who were later joined by Romualdas Požerskis and others. The photographers helped promote each other’s work as well as that of their colleagues. The “canon” of Lithuanian photography they developed together has remained influential to this day. To be sure, some talented art photographers seemed to disappear from history for a time for personal or other reasons and are only now returning to it. For example, Society member Vitas Luckus was censured for “unethical behavior unbecoming a member of the Lithuanian Photography Association, and for promoting and distributing his photographs while ignoring [the instructions] of the Society’s ruling bodies. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 77. Požerskis used to joke that “Antanas Sutkus ruled over Lithuanian photography like King Mindaugas: if you were a friend, you’d receive everything; if you were an enemy, he would destroy you. „Keturi fotografijos muškietininkai“, On the other hand, Sutkus’ own authority and skills helped keep the Society united and developing successfully, at one point embracing up to 700 art photographers. The activities of the Lithuanian Photography Society soon sparked a Soviet Union-wide debate on photography as art and the creative photographic process. The work of Lithuanian photographers was closely followed by colleagues from other Soviet republics and was often held up as the genre’s standard.


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Sources and links

„9 Lietuvos fotografai Vilniaus „Prospekto galerijoje“
„Fotografijos menas“
Kultūros barai, 1969, Nr. 1
„Keturi fotografijos muškietininkai“
Margarita Matulytė
Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011
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