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Where did “real photography” disappear to?
Something happened to photography in the early 1980s. Images lost their clear and emotional narrative, their lyrical and metaphorical notes, the presence of the “eternal man”, and were soon replaced by inexpressive, boring contrivances, ordinary passersby with empty expressions, and other banalities. The works of newly emerging photographers were small in format and appeared insubstantial and amateurish, reeking of passivity and boredom.
Algirdas Šeškus was the first young artist to disturb the peace enjoyed by the Lithuanian Photography Association by submitting photographs to the Arts Council that looked very much like the failed experiments of an amateur. The Arts Council deliberated for two days, not knowing what to make of the dark, unconstrasted photographs with no perceptible content. More and more “amateurish” photographs began to apper.
The 1980s generation seemed to fracture the stable monolith of Lithuanian photography, developed over twenty years, into a core and its fringes. The core remained the domain of the older generation of Lithuanian School of Photography (LSP) artists and their younger followers who continued to create reportage works in a humanistic spirit. On the periphery, however, new creative personalities began to emerge, shaking the foundations laid by the LSP photographers and finding the courage to experiment and test the limits of photographic imagery. 
The LSP followers included Romualdas Požerskis, Virgilijus Šonta, Sigitas Šimkus, Algimantas Bareišis, Romas Juškelis, Vytautas V. Stanionis, among others. The ranks of the rebels, meanwhile, included such names as Algirdas Šeškus, Vytautas Balčytis, Alfonsas Budvytis, Remigijus Pačėsa, Remigijus Treigys, Gintautas Trimakas, Arūnas Kulikauskas, Gediminas Urbonas, Saulius Paukštys, Algimantas Maldutis, Alvydas Lukys, Gintaras Zinkevičius, and even two women—Violeta Bubelytė and Snieguolė Michelkevičiūtė. Officially, the same postulates of Soviet ideology remained in force, but beneath the Association’s influential umbrella one could also relatively safely create photography that failed to adhere to those principles.
The dilemma of photography’s regression emerged in the 1980s. The young generation of rebellious photographers was accused of dilettantism, flippancy, ignorance, and blindly following styles and fashions. In truth, however, these young artists appeared at a time when humanistic ideals, long the driving force behind the Lithuanian School of Photography, and creative principles themselves were beginning to show signs of decline. Tensions were increasing between the Association and government agencies. Cultural policy administrators had no idea what to make of the works of the younger photographers. As they looked a images of empty, dismal streets, fences, advertising pillars, everyday urban scenes obscured in a thick fog, old and dilapidated furniture, decrepit vestiges of domestic life, telephone booths, carbonated water machines, and expressionless faces of gray and dreary people, they feared that such photography “could provoke a terrible phenomenon—signs of a social spiritual crisis that completely contradicted plans for the representation of Soviet reality. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 62.
As a result, the Association had to “reeducate” its younger artists, guiding them back onto the track of correct photography:
In the implementation of our exhibition policies and guiding our methodical work in a certain direction, our Association must be that direct force that is capable of combating certain tendencies. This does not mean resorting to any repression. It means that the Association should devote greater attention to training and education, involving the best photographers of the older generation in our work with younger members. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 92.
There was considerable debate within the Association. Požerskis attempted to pacify the traditionalists. “Photography has seen the birth of a new movement, new outlooks, plastic solutions,” he said, encouraging those in positions of influence “not to be afraid of letting in new energy. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 90. The more plastic photography becomes, the stronger it will be.” Initially, the influential journal Sovetskoye foto tried to ignore the changes taking place in Lithuanian photography. But over time it too had to recognize the necessity of including younger artists, since the Lithuanian School of Photography had been stirring in its own creative juices for some time. With the founding of the Sąjūdis Lithuanian reform movement in 1988, tensions between traditionalists and dissenters began to subside. Gradually, previously “dubious” artists were included in exhibitions and were even given stipends and intership opportunties abroad. On the other hand, their photography was never fully understood or appreciated. Not a single Lithuanian conceptualist was sent to the important Fotomost (Photo Bridge) exhibition in Moscow, which showcased the works of all of the most important neo-avantgarde photographers from the Eastern Bloc (including Boris Mikhailov, Igor Mukhin, and Vladislav Yefimov). This demonstrates that the Lithuanian Photography Association made every effort to associate the image of Lithuanian photography abroad with the traditions of the LSP. This was a clear sign that the Association was indeed living through a period of conceptual stagnation.
The artistic and political context
The transformation of photography into something as yet unknown was part of a more broadly felt phenomenon, one that impacted every cultural sphere (art, cinema, theatre, philosophy, etc.). This phenomenon was postmodernism, which appeared fairly late in the Soviet Union due to cultural isolation and a general lack of information. In Lithuania, however, as in the other Soviet bloc countries, postmodernism took on tones that differed from its manifestation in the West, influenced by both the local political and social context.
The demagogic demands still officially imposed on photographers in the 1980s seemed to sail by unnoticed, sinking into the fog of mundane, daily life. A Soviet reality built on the foundations of a lie spurred apathy: the desire to fight or rebel against that reality had dissipated, as had any real urge to escape or distance oneself from it. In other words, society had grown accustomed to living in a culture of lies:
The constant deterioration of economic and social conditions undermined any optimism for the future; time had become “frozen” in an immutable present in which human life passed by meaninglessly. Agnė Narušytė, Nuobodulio estetika Lietuvos fotografijoje, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2008, p. 114.
This is why the principal alternative theme in art became boredom and the routine. The aesthetics of boredom can be seen in Dadaism, Fluxus art, and pop art. In the West, it was associated with consumerism, a sense of surplus from unbridled propagation and reproduction and the resulting boredom. Examples included Nuobodulys (Boredom), a book project by Jurgis Mačiūnas, never published, that consisted of pages copied from dictionaries, telephone books, foreign newspapers, technical catalogues, cigarette and candy wrappers, all bound into a book meant to apper thick and boring, bound with covers made from the soles of shoes; or Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe (1960), Campbell’s soup cans (1960), or the six-hour film Sleep (1963), a long take of a person sleeping. In other words, constantly changing surroundings resulted in feelings of boredom and emptiness. In the Eastern Bloc, including Lithuania, however, boredom expressed itself through stagnation and the lack of diversity: standardized furniture in standardized apartments inhabited by people wearing uniform clothing, working at boring, similar jobs.
Another important element here was the complete exclusion of transcendence from human life after the long years of Sovietization. With the denial of religion many lost the foundation of a belief in the meaning of life, though people continued to visit churches unofficially. As a result, according to photography researcher Narušytė, “boredom existed as a form of passive resistance or secret protest which then turned against oneself and became rooted in one’s own body. Agnė Narušytė, Nuobodulio estetika Lietuvos fotografijoje, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2008, p. 116.
Examples of such art in Russia are the albums of Ilya Kabakov, consisting of images and texts telling the story of the dreary lives of imagined everyday people, and the paintings of Oskar Rabin, in which he depicted “unsuitable realities” from Russian life, such as drunkenness, a disgraced police force, the KGB, abandoned streets, public toilets. Lithuanians were particularly influenced by Ukrainian artist Boris Mikhailov, a frequent participant in photography seminars in Nida, on the Baltic coast, and a friend to the local photography community. Mikhailov had already been photographing the abandoned and dreary urban imagery of the Ukrainian city of Kharkov from the early 1960s.
To be sure, the subcultures that began to emerge in the 1980s also had their impact. Their philosophy and the Western music they favored (and distributed illegally) shaped certain ideological principles. For example, photography historian Matulytė sees certain similarities with American grunge Grunge Grunge (Eglish for heavy, dirty, simple, apathetic) - an alternative rock music movement that emerged in Seattle, Washington, in the early 1980s. The heavy, dirty, apathetic, melancholy, and depressing sound, coupled with appropriate clothing and a nihilist philosophy, became part of the subculture. in the work of members of the so-called “Plėšriųjų sekcija” (Carnivores’ Unit), which included Visvaldas Dragūnas, Gintautas Stulgaitis, Gintaras Jaronis, Giedrius Liagas, Saulius Paukštys, Robertas Kanys, Arūnas Kulikauskas, among others. This view is confirmed by the recollections of the group’s ideological leader, Arūnas Kulikauskas:
I was photographing a dead cat. An old man walked up to me and asked: ‘What are you doing here, my child?’ I replied: ‘I’m taking a photo of a cat.’ To which he said: ‘I feel sorry for the little creature…’, and then walked away, a gray little man against a row of garages. We grew up with streets choked with deceitful posters and slogans. We took photographs of garbage and dead cats. Margarita Matulytė, Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu, Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011, p. 219.
Meanwhile, Gintaras Zinkevičius, one of Lithuania’s first conceptualist photographers, belonged to the punk movement. In 1988, he organized an exhibit in the Alumnatas Courtyard called Kareivio dienoraštis (A Soldier’s Diary), dedicated to Artūras Sakalauskas, who shot eight of his fellow soldiers after being constantly bullied while serving in the Soviet army. The photographs shown at the exhibit were kicked over by punks who were friends of the photographer. By resorting to such aggressive “anti-art” measures, Zinkevičius posed the painful question about truth in art:
How should art deal with life, and life with art? Let’s say that art previously tried to lie to life, while life tried to pressure and regulate art. Mutual dishonesty gave birth to such a monster (by no means does this concern the entirety of art, only its overall direction) the true horror of which will only be perhaps understood by our grandchildren. Gražina Kliaugienė, Mažieji vernisažai. „Kareivio albumėlis“: Parodos anotacijos mašinraštis, 1988, l. 1,  Gintaro Zinkevičiaus archyvas.
In Lithuania, boredom photography had a direct connection to painting. Already in the 1970s, painters such as Kostas Dereškevičius, Algimantas Švėgžda, Arvydas Šaltenis and Algimantas Jonas Kuras focused attention on the signs of a decaying culture (broken and decrepit metal wheels, farm buildings, gasoline stations, telephone booths, women bending over and vomiting by a toilet, etc.) and painted them with an aesthetic enthusiasm. The paintings of the 1980s demonstrated an increasing tendency toward intimate spaces, the problems of man’s inner world, and existential questions, leading to a gradual public emergence of the abstract art forbidden under the Soviets. Joint exhibitions of paintings and photography began to be organized: Algirdas Šeškus with Raimundas Sližys in 1983, Vytautas Balčytis with Eugenijus Antanas Cukermanas, and Jūratė Stauskaitė with Andrius Surgailis in 1984. Art critics more commonly associated with the world of painting, including Alfonsas Andriuškevičius, Gražina Kliaugienė, and Eglė Kunčiuvienė, came to “rescue” the younger photographers who remained misunderstood by the LSP traditionalists. These critics were able to evaluate the changes taking place in photography within the larger artistic context and at a safe distance from the criteria of “good and correct” photography formulated by the Lithuanian School of Photography.
What interested the “boredom photographers”?
The realm explored by the new generation of photographers appeared to have remained the same: reality. And yet, each of them understood reality differently and found their own unique style. What was initially considered to be amateurish was, in fact, a deliberate challenge to the rules of photography in search of a means to express conceptual ideas. The first to question these “rules of photography” was Vitas Luckus, one of the founding member of the LSP and a controversial personality who was relegated to obscurity for a time after his dramatic death. In recent years, as a result of a large solo exhibition of his work and the publication of a corresponding catalogue (both curated and organized by Margarita Matulytė), and the release of a documentary film titled Meistras ir Tatjana (The Master and Tatyana, directed by Giedrė Žickytė), Luckus has been recognized as one of Lithuania’s most interesting and brilliant photographers whose ideas were several decades ahead of their own time. Luckus began to create photomontages and photocollages using reality as but one of his materials. In crafting human portraits, Luckus prioritized the conceptual origins of an image over the revelation of the “eternal man” favored by his generation. For example, in his series Portretas stambiu planu (Close-up Portrait, 1969), we see “cropped” faces forced into square frames. Clearly, Luckus was not so much concerned with portraying his subjects’ individuality, but rather the material and texture of their faces themselves, furrowed by time. Luckus’ conceptual approach to human subjects is also evidenced in the series Baltame fone (Against a White Background, 1986–1987), capturing village residents and merchants with their trademark accessories, dressed in everyday clothing. The white background seemed to “extract” his subjects from their surroundings, revealing and highlighting their characters. This artistic tactic was used several decades later by Ramunė Pigagaitė, Darius Žiūra, Eglė Rakauskaitė, Tadas Šarūnas, and others. It can be said, then, that Luckus was the ideational father of the rebel generation of the 1980s.
Kunčius also pondered the actual target of his photography: was he capturing objects or his own thoughts about those objects? This is particularly evident in his series Reminiscencijos (Reminiscences, (1976–1985), in which he explored details linked by subjective ties known only to the artist himself. His creative strategy adhered to the canons of visual expressivity and professionalism that characterized artistic photography of the time, but the questions he raised suggest that photographers were already concerning themselves with the origins of photography and reality’s relativism. Luckus and Kunčius, both members of photography’s senior generation, grasped (in part) the guiding principle of conceptual photography, namely that there was no reality in a photograph. Rather, the imprint was the final reality of the photograph.
What, then, are the characteristic traits of conceptual photography? According to researcher Narušytė, everything is defined by opposites: contrast is replaced by abstract toning; views from a distance are used instead of close-up perspectives; static versus dramatic imagery; a sense of diffusion and boredom over visual opulence; minimalism over technical quality; imperfection over well-conceived composition; and randomness, with “truncated” objects exceeding the limits of a frame. Values change radically: from the expression of an artist’s subjective state of being to a conceptual perspective of an object. Denaturalization, devisualization, depsychologization, deidealization. The prevailing genre was the social landscape, a term borrowed from the American photographer Lee Friedlander and expanded upon in Narušytė’s book Nuobodulio estetika Lietuvos fotografijoje (The Aesthetics of Boredom in Lithuanian Photography), denoting the impartial and anonymous role of the photographer.
Šeškus had a critical view of the traditional representation of reality, which is why he deliberately undermined the established order by overexposing his photographs, purposely avoiding any composition of content, relying instead on randomness. Šeškus made no effort to reflect reality in any artistic way—on the contrary, he photographed as if he had no concern for it, without giving it any significance whatsoever. Šeškus adhered to the principle that, in general, images were irrelevant to photography. This rather indifferent, perfunctory approach is able to uncover more than could be envisaged. It extracts the essence of an image’s meaning and conveys it to the viewer through feeling and sensation.
Balčytis photographed the traces of a decaying culture: transformer stations, kiosks, residential neighborhoods, commemorative plaques, empty advertising posts, small warehouses, etc. According to Andriuškevičius, the artist dispassionately transforms the lowest form of chaos (a decaying culture) into the universe (artistic structure) through a photograph. Through the artefacts of decaying Soviet culture, Balčytis conveys an indifference that, in some instances, develops into irony. In the photograph Vilnius, from the series Fotografijos (Photographs, 1986), we see a Soviet cinema house with the Russian name “Happiness” (Счастье), an ironic commentary on the relationship between Soviet life as it was and the absurdity of the proclaimed perfection of Soviet reality. Another similar work shows a “Žiburėlis” television set, a symbol of Soviet prosperity. The screen broadcasting images of an ideologically saturated world becomes a new “source of spiritual light.” The defining characteristic of Balčytis’ work was the aging of his images with a brownish tone. By doing so, the photographer created a sense of tediousness and nostalgia. Balčytis experimented with various means to achieve his desired level of imperfection: by exposing images with tea leaves and vinegar, for example. Boredom also resonated through the uninteresting, monotonous, and standardized names given to his photographs and photographic series.
Budvytis’ relationship with reality was a unique one. He was not satisfied with the imagery that reality presented to him, and instead was constantly searching for ways to change what he saw in his photographs, perfecting the images with subtle compositions of framing, toning, and the highlighting of certain details. His photographs reveal a subjective version of reality. Budvytis broke with many canons governing the depiction of landscapes, still lifes, and portraits. In one photograph, Žuvys. Babtai (Fish. Babtai, 1983), we see a “centaur” that merges landscape with still life: dead herring fish seem to echo the lines and mood of the background landscape. Budvytis liked to depict fragments of an object, capturing only a forehead, for example, or a shoulder, neck, or feet, seeking to change the established ways of seeing. In this way, body parts sometimes become expressive visual metaphors. In Galva (Head, 1984), for example, we see the crown of a man’s shaved head, without any identifying facial features, at the juncture of two walls. The image of the expressive, round outline of the skull is somewhat discomforting and disconcerting, stuck as it is in the corner—literally and figuratively. The lack of individuality makes the image universal.
Budvytis’ 1980 diptych Vyras (Man) and Moteris (Woman), dedicated to American photographer Ralph Gibson, whose works intrigued Budvytis, was a conceptual exploration of Soviet-era masculine and feminine imagery. One photograph shows the waist of a man dressed in a suit and the other depicts a woman’s breasts concealed under a slip. One way to look at this work is from a feminist perspective—as a stereotypical depiction of a man, representing a position of power, and an obedient, frail woman. But if we examine the woman’s mass-produced, synthetic slip—an article of clothing worn by every Soviet woman—we get the sense that this diptych actually speaks to the depersonalization of men and women in the standardized world of the Soviet era and a coldness which left no room for eroticism. Interestingly, this diptych is also a family self-portrait: Budvytis photographed himself with his first wife.
Budvytis was even able to use a conceptual approach with commissioned work. In 1984, for example, he photographed the portraits of road workers completing a highway near Molėtai, but added his own parody on the subject of “heroic laborers”:
I made a curtain out of material and two workers usually held it up. I’d position someone and ‘click’. I still have one photo, with the curtain held up by two men who mixed the asphalt—you know how they used to look? Meanwhile, a third man, just like the other two, sat there with a tie. Alfonsas Budvytis, sudarytoja Raminta Jurėnaitė, Vilnius: Lietuvos fotomenininkų sąjungos Fotografijos fondas, 2006, p. 8.
In many of his photographs, Budvytis explored the items used by his subjects—things that sometimes were even more vividly descriptive of their owner’s habits, social status and psychological state, as in Kojakelnės. Šiauliai (Pantleg. Šiauliai, 1979). Some of his photographs have elements of surrealism and symbolism (as in Atsiminimai. Vilnius [Memoirs. Vilnius], 1980).
Minimalist photographer Alvydas Lukys radically shifted his focus away from human subjects to the objects they used. Lukys explored these objects from the perspective of the still life genre in art, namely by considering composition and lighting and ensuring that the photographed image had a “painterly” appearance. Lukys was intrigued by the objects of a decaying culture, by discarded things or remnants tossed up on the seashore. In other words, he was drawn to objects that spoke of a past time, containing within themselves a memory of a particular moment. For this reason, art historian Milda Žvirblytė gave the name culture morte to Lukys’ photographs. Lukys was influenced by the work of Czech photographer Josef Sudek, who took exceptional still lifes, and by American artist Irving Penn. He also had a great affinity for the work of painter and graphic artist Algimantas Švėgžda.
Remigijus Treigys took a similar path in his work, focusing his eye on objects and the surroundings, traces, and symbols of human life and activity. In his photography, any object (an old table, a crumbling wall, a lumpy sofa) became an instrument for perceiving and reflecting upon existence. Treigys’ landscapes are nearly empty, with faint houses and yards and streets appearing like fragments of another world or the shards of memories. In pursuit of this effect, Treigys deliberately scratched his negatives, leaving behind various “scraps” accumulated during the technical process. Treigys himself admits:
I’m interested in the unknown from which light emanates to skim the surface of a photographed object, sometimes wiping out the shape itself. Scratches, dots, lines, toning—these are like sounds recorded in a photograph, infusing additional information into an image. I never identify a specific location in any photograph „Remigijus Treigys: ‘Man įdomi nežinia, iš kur sklinda šviesa’“,
Alongside an attention to everyday details, Remigijus Pačėsa’s photographs also reveal an acerbic humor and irony. In Parėjau (I’m Home, 1982), for example, a jacket tossed onto a sofa extends a narrow sleeve and flapping lapels like some withered “macho” man, still trying to salvage his splendor. Agnė Narušytė, „Žiogo šešėliai“, 7 meno dienos, 2015-05-08. Or a rubbish container, solemnly standing against a postcard landscape in the Lithuanian seaside resort of Nida, appears like some significant monument (Nida, 1984). One of Pačėsa’s most interesting photographs is Be pavadinimo (Untitled, 1992), capturing a carbonated water machine—a symbol of daily Soviet life. A real razor blade is attached to the photograph, explained in a caption: “This razor is attached to this photo because the chain is attached to the [drinking] glass.” This absurd explanation makes us smile. With the caption, Pačėsa reveals the absurdity and artificiality of the relationship between objects and different realities. The name of the manufacturer of the razor, “Baltika”, suggests a subtext of political criticism, enabling the viewer to consider whether it’s not just the drinking glass that is attached to a chain. Perhaps man under the Soviet regime is equally shackled and captive.
Violeta Bubelytė aimed her lens at herself rather than any particular object. Though her nude self-portraits were the object of severe criticism and comparisons with pornography when they were first made public, they contain no eroticism at all. Instead, Bubelytė was studying her own changing body as photographic material and a component in the portrayal of light, planes, and depth. Her works nevertheless give us a sense of the body’s frailty, and a coldness lingering in the images conveys a feeling of alienation. Snieguolė Michelkevičiūtė was the first to challenge stereotypical images of men by experimenting with photography of nude male subjects. Her series Moteris apie vyrus (A Woman On Men, 1977–1995) reveals the drama of masculinity by showing its hidden side, steeped in existential reflection, loneliness, and suffering, and by searching for aesthetic beauty in the body’s imperfections. Why did men agree to undress for this particular photographer? Photo studios in the Soviet era did not shoot nude images, so men who wanted to immortalize their masculinity were often referred by studio employees to Michelkevičiūtė.


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Sources and links

Alfonsas Budvytis
Sudarytoja Raminta Jurėnaitė, Vilnius: Lietuvos fotomenininkų sąjungos Fotografijos fondas, 2006
„Remigijus Treigys: ‘Man įdomi nežinia, iš kur sklinda šviesa’“
Margarita Matulytė
Nihil obstat: Lietuvos fotografija sovietmečiu
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2011
Agnė Narušytė
Nuobodulio estetika Lietuvos fotografijoje
Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2008
Gražina Kliaugienė
Mažieji vernisažai. „Kareivio albumėlis“
Parodos anotacijos mašinraštis, 1988, l. 1, Gintaro Zinkevičiaus archyvas
Agnė Narušytė
„Žiogo šešėliai“
7 meno dienos, 2015-05-08
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