I have spent fifty years of my creative life in town, but my roots are in the countryside. If I have not grown up there, if I have not felt the trembling of the wind in maple leaves, seen the rippling wheat, listened to the rapping of raindrops on the roof of our barn, I would have hardly become a photographer. There was my beginning.
In 1958, I entered Vilnius University. I came from the Ežerėlis peat enterprise workers’ settlement on the bank of Nemunas River and got a room in the Old town of Vilnius. My dormitory window looked at University Street. Since then, two places have remained forever in my heart – Cathedral Square and St Ann’s Church. When in 1965 I met Sartre, I told him about Napoleon, who wanted to take the church on the palm of his hand to France. The ever–ironic philosopher asked me: „Did he want to do this on his way to Moscow or on his way back?“ I have climbed many roofs of churches and buildings while taking pictures therefore I know them by heart. One late evening, leaving Literatai cafe with several art students, we made a bet that we would return to the dormitory by roofs. We surmounted several roofs, even managed to jump from one house onto another. Alas, the bet was not carried through – the street was too wide to jump over... Thanks God.
Strange as it seems, I have made many good photographs during my numerous business trips to various parts of Lithuania. Sometimes I even managed to take several good pictures during one session. In 1964, when I was sent to Ignalina to take pictures of local fishermen, I got up early on September 1st and followed the pupils to school. On that day I made my Father’s Hand, September 1st, and Pioneer – one of the most famous and noted works in the world. I have never been a member of Lenin Pioneer Organization myself. In 1953, when the news about Stalin’s death reached the Zapyškis school, all the class stood up and sang the prayer ‘Eternal rest, grant unto Joseph, o Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him’. The school was in the rectory and people thought that we were singing in church. Shortly we were told to join the Communist Youth Organization (Komsomol), to ‘pay tribute to the dead leader’ – the director of our school tried to save himself and us. And we became members of the Komsomol without being pioneers first. There was no other choice. That is how the first Komsomol organization was established in our school.
The act of taking a photo is like sand digging when you are searching for gold. You take a spade and shovel until you are completely exhausted. And you start to wash the golden sand when you develop films. Sometimes you find a grain of gold in the first shovel, sometimes – in the last. Sometimes all your efforts are in vain.
One day Sartre suddenly stopped and looked around: “I feel like standing at the Heavens door,” though wind was blowing sand into his eyes. We were standing on a dune. Below, above the lagoon, clouds were rolling like wads of cotton. Sartre smiled and said: “For the first time clouds are under my feet.”
I have been asked several times in different countries, if I remember where I took it, if I know the girl, could it be that the picture was not taken in Lithuania? Those questions were asked by women of Indrė’s age, whose relatives recognized them. All kids hold on to their mothers alike. I have made this photograph during one family party. The main subject here is Mother. The girl that is timidly holding her mother’s hand is Indrė, the daughter of our family friends.
In 1969, I was travelling through the villages of Dzūkija and I made the cycle Village Street in one street. In one hour. I think that a photographic way of seeing things is God’s blessing, as my best works were created when I did not have any experience at all. Just my intuition.
I found myself in Rome, in St. Peter’s Basilica, and the magic of the place where the Eternity dwells mesmerized me. I do not remember what I saw, what I heard. I only remember that I came out of the Basilica and lay down on its steps. The sun was shining above, tourists flocked around, some of them were sitting, some lying down like me. I closed my eyes... My pockets were full of my daily allowance money; I still had to go somewhere, to set something up, to meet somebody... Suddenly, in that holly place, a thought crossed my mind: when did I last time see my Grandma? Uršulė Kudirkaitė-Urbonavičienė raised me, helped me a lot and I had not seen for so long time. I spent all my liras for presents, bought a ticket for the next day’s flight to Moscow. From there I took a train and hurried home... She recognized me unless was completely blind. And I thought to myself: there was a woman, maybe the only person in the whole world, who would never forget me, and whom I could not find time to visit. I had wasted so much time on those who betrayed, blackmailed, and spoke slander against me, who told tales about me at the Central Committee of the Lithuanian Communist Party, the KGB, the Glavlit or some other establishment.
The chime of bells has been special to me from my childhood. Even the sexton of our village was an extraordinary person who bestowed divinity upon the church itself. During the Soviet times bells did not chime often in our country. That is why their sound was music to my ears later, when I was finally allowed to travel abroad. In 1967, I took pictures of churches in the Vilnius region for the book that has never been published. The bell tower was as old as the nearby village. The view had something of an allegorical quality: at that time a truck full of bricks passed by like a prediction of the end of wooden slums. I made the picture but I do not like it. The one with the bell tower guarding the houses like a clucking hen is much dearer.
Children are genuine and true. They do not live according to our laws. Boundaries between life and death are nonexistent to them. My family used to go for a holiday to Zarasai, and there was an old Jewish cemetery that fascinated us. We would wade across the shallow waters of the lake to its peninsula and totally forget about the rest of the world among its derelict graves, wrecked and split gravestones. Once I saw my son on a gravestone and took a photograph completely unaware that I touched fate.
An artist looks upon the years of the Soviet regime through the prism of his life and oeuvre. The most cherished time is youth, love, and the first years of married life. Whether we were under the Soviet regime or under the Nazis, a human life has its own flow. You can have a more or less satisfying meal, but you cannot say that your life is more or less complete, that you are more or less happy.
I never took pictures abroad. I always thought that every country has its own good photographers. Bulgaria was the first country where I took my camera and started to photograph. Probably because of its people – so open, sincere and hospitable. Bulgarians did not live any better than we, the Soviets, but they always looked happy. Their monasteries were not closed. On the contrary, they nurtured their culture and preserved the Cyrillic script during the long years of occupation. I have visited the Bachkov monastery several times. I got acquainted with its archimandrite. His grandparents lived in Varna and knew doctor Basanavičius. We talked hour after hour about the histories of our countries. He invited me to visit the monastery any time and promised me shelter, food and wine. Of course, I got into trouble, too, as I used to photograph the common man – a villager in his plain everyday attire, unshaved, not presentable. The Bulgarian secret services had sent the following description of my behavior there: ‘...he drank himself unconscious, behaved in an immoral way, and photographed things that should not be photographed.’ The list of my sins was so long, that our authorities did not believe a single man to be capable of committing so many.
Auksė’s aunt Elena presented us with a half her house in Salakas. Our family spent all summers there. I used to sit in my yard facing the street, and local people would pass by; sometimes they stopped, sometimes not. I was an insider; I was not shunned by the people. I liked to watch old ladies going to church on Sundays. I have never seen such beautiful clothes, such kerchiefs and dresses, and the patterns, flowers and stripes have never been so nicely matched. That was the haute couture! Those summers cannot be brought back. Even my photographs were different. There we were together, all my family.
When professor Gimbutienė came to Lithuania for the last time, I knew that she was seriously ill, that it was her farewell trip. I called her, introduced myself, and the professor exclaimed, ‘We know each other! Do you remember how you took pictures of me in Trakai in 1969?’ I rummaged through my archives, found the old films. What a miracle, what unique shots! In 1971, I also took photographs of Jonas Mekas, when he came to see his old mother for the last time. He had long hair then. I told Mekas that some men from the Party wanted to shave my beard away, and they would not spare his hair if he lived here. ‘You know,’ he told me, ‘I live in a free country, but even there I have problems with my hair. Customs officers often consider me a hippie and search me for drugs!’ We were driving along the Vilnius – Kaunas highway and managed to shake off our ‘chaperons’. Mekas took his camera, hid in the thick grass and started to ‘make hay’. He got up exhausted, perspiring all over as if he had just put down his scythe. He was so excited that he could not speak for a long time. And he was filming the grass, those plain Lithuanian marguerites...
From the very start I took fancy in shooting from high viewpoints. I had climbed the roof of the Cathedral chapel and Elektrėnai power-station chimney. But that was not enough. I wanted a hoist, later on – a helicopter. It was not so easy. To get a permit for flights I had to fill in heaps and heaps of quaintest questionnaires, to answer questions that had absolutely nothing to do with flights, for instance, about the color of my eyes. I just want to forget all those men at sport clubs whose job was to see that we would not fly over the places we were not supposed to fly.
I started my flights with the Vilnius sport club. In this photograph you see the pilot Polinauskas, a real master of his work and a very warm man. When he got word that my wife and son are vacationing at the lakes that we intended to fly over, he told me to prepare a package for my son Simas. I bought various yummy things and a huge teddy bear. Polinauskas got a parachute. We flew over and I saw Simas running across the field where the teddy bear landed with the parachute.
The purpose of taking a photograph is not to reflect the objective reality. My heart and mind have always been closely related with a man standing in front of my camera. People are the way they are but if I take their pictures, they are my people, the people I see. I use my camera to fathom the world that surrounds me.
Photography to me is like dope! Once, during some agricultural festival, I was searching for an interesting character in Vingis Park. I even hired a car with a driver for the occasion. I was dead tired but could not find anything worthy. I told the driver to go home because I was completely exhausted and the day was ruined. Suddenly a group of bikers swept by on their roaring ‘mustangs’. Heedless of road signs or traffic lights, they speeded past like madmen, like aliens. ‘Where are you going? I would like to take pictures of you,’ I leaned through the window. They just motioned towards the Three Crosses Hill. I caught up with them, gave them some cigarettes and started to shoot. What a relief it was! That warmth, that daredevil youth, that sincerity... How did I envy them! Then I had acquired some new friends that were so unlike my former ones.
We used to come to Pažiegė and we were happy there. We would sit, talk, and communicate. On that day we celebrated the last birthday of Rima’s mother. It is a mystery what has kept together two so different people for 36 years. It was not some ideal love or a sense of duty; maybe they just were together. I took pictures of people that were so close to me and that circle is diminishing all the time. It is very hard to photograph the emanating warmth. Maybe I was lucky because I have never aimed at it, I just had an intuition for those moments of truth. Now I cherish them as the dearest tokens of the past.
On My Childhood
I was born in Lithuania, in the village of Kluoniškiai, on the bank of the river Nemunas. My father Motiejus was a worker at the Ežerėlis peat bog. He was a free-thinker, a leftist, therefore during the first years of the Soviet occupation the new regime tried to involve him in the political reorganization of the country. However, my father had never been a supporter of communists. When he was delegated to make a speech at the anniversary of the October revolution, he told his father on the eve that he was going to deliver a speech that would stupefy the occupants. And he kept his promise – he shot himself so that he would not have to sign deportation orders. I was left fatherless when I was one year old and in 1941, when the Nazis occupied Lithuania, my mother Stasė had to go into hiding (as nobody would have considered that my father was not a Communist). When the Soviets returned, she had to go into hiding again, because of my stepfather who was an officer of the Independent Lithuania. Therefore, I grew up without my parents: my grandparents Uršulė and Vincas Urbonavičiai raised me in the Kluoniškiai village. The grandparents did not talk with me about my father, and they did not explain why my mother could not live with me, either. I used to see her from time to time, and I missed my father very much. I was sore that he did not love me because he had shot himself. At that time I have already understood politics a bit. I remember how men of our village used to rest on the benches, smoke their pipes and go into long deliberations whether Americans would come to save Lithuanians. We were very poor, and I had caught tuberculosis. I think that I caught it from my teacher who used to lend me books. I started to read very early, maybe when I was six. I do not remember how I learned to read but I used to read a lot, both in Lithuanian and Russian languages. I had read all the books at the Zapyškis library. I come from a Lithuanian village; maybe that is the reason why I know simple people so well, why they are so close to me.
On My First Photographs
I started to take pictures when I was a pupil. I do not know if it was by accident. They say
that photography is accidental. An accident that happens to a few thousands of non-accidental people in the whole world. In my family, no one took pictures and I did not know what that photography was. How did I take a camera into my hands? I cannot say that I was born
with a camera, but I had one since my eighth grade (or maybe even earlier): I had bought it myself for the money I earned. I used to work during my holidays: one summer I worked as a tractor-driver’s hand, and spent my other summers in the peat bog. I had bought a radio and
a camera with all the developing and printing equipment. I was so excited when an image started to come out on a white sheet for the first time! Photography was like a miracle for me: you put a sheet of white photopaper into the developer and watch a human face emerging. My first shots captured the bog and, of course, my relatives and friends. Alas, only a few shots remained. In 1958, I went to Vilnius to study at the university and my cousin used to make ‘rockets’ from my negatives and fire them off. I have learned my first lesson then – you have to preserve everything that you photograph. Maybe that is why I have about a million of negatives and photographs now. I know many photographers who ‘cleaned up’ their archives. I, on the contrary, have found so many new things during the recent years as my world views and the aesthetics of photography change. I have made those rediscovered shots that were not made public for many different reasons into an exhibition and a book Daily Life Archives. I have devoted several years for the compilation of this monograph and found many works that have not been published before.
On My First Steps in the Art of Photography
I did not think of becoming a photographer, I dreamt of journalism. The hero of my childhood was Tadas Blinda. At that time, I thought that only a journalist can attain truth. A journalist comes, writes an article, and the truth prevails. I was a correspondent of the regional newspaper from my childhood, and even was expelled from Ežerėlis high school for my truth searches but was shortly taken back. In Vilnius, I had to prove that I could be a journalist. I had a camera so I used to bring my photos to all the newspapers. Technological solutions, compositional or style matters – I had to discover those things on my own. Having entered the University (I studied the Russian language, and later on – journalism) I started to work at the newspaper Tarybinis studentas. My articles and photographs used to fill up most of the newspaper. Shortly, I had been noticed and started to work at the weekly Literatūra ir menas, and in 1962 I left it for the magazine Tarybinė moteris. Because of the work, I neglected my studies and was expelled from the University. Alas, journalists were not allowed to write about the things that were important to them, therefore I had lost any interest in journalism. Using an image, you could say a lot more.
Professional photojournalism of that time was highly ideologized, all photojournalists were drilled in Stalin’s school therefore I did not follow them and cannot call them my teachers. I was a self-taught photographer. I always had my camera with me and taking photographs had become my mode of life from the young years. Those were the years of the Khrushchev’s thaw, there were no great restrictions and I could venture a fresh approach towards photography. I did not aim to please; I wanted to express my relationship with the object photographed. Man has always been the centerpiece of my photographs and I knew from the very start what was important to me. I called my series People of Lithuania and continued it all my life. These photographs were not some portraits or character types but contextual situations where the eyes of my heroes did the talking. They are the key to my photographic language. My photographs are open to interpretation; they are immune to time as even at that time they were not related to some historical situation. Existential things were my greatest concern. Actually, they still are.
The art of photography had nothing to do with the formation of my world view and my personal photographic attitude. At the time when I started to follow the processes of the world photography, I had been discovered myself already. I have accumulated a huge personal library of the books published by the greatest photographers of the world. I am interested in their ideas, their artistic expression. I acquired art books in Germany and Poland, or purchased at the antique bookshops in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I have even got my own issue of Edward Steichen’s Family of Man, which I acquired quite early. It has been very important to me that photography can have the same effect as the written word. I was very impressed by the exhibition of Paul Strand that I saw during one of my first trips abroad. But my first teachers were such writers as Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Kōbō Abe, Ivan Bunin, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marques. I was influenced by the cinematograph, too: Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, Luis Buñuel, Piotr Todorovsky, Otar Ioseliani.
On Ways and Means
I have stopped printing photographs myself long ago. When I was working at the editorial office of the Tarybinė moteris magazine, I set my laboratory in an unused toilet. The room was one meter long and one and a half meter wide. I used to put the enlarger on the toilet seat. I printed heaps of prints, used to make ten or fifteen prints of one shot till my nose started to bleed. I had developed an allergy and could not work in a lab for a long time. However, that fact did not have a great effect on my oeuvre as my shots contained all the essence; I just had to retain it on paper. I have a lab assistant, he is the only one in Vilnius, and I trust him. He understands my style completely and prints my photographs very professionally, and I devote all my time to my archives. I was not attached to one particular camera and had lots of them: Liubitel, Smena, Fed, Zenit, Kijev 6, Pentacon 6, Nikon, Canon, Hasselblad, and the last one is Mamya RZ Professional. I did not work with a tripool as my photography is spontaneous, searching for an exceptional moment. However, all my life I have worked only with film cameras, I do not like digital ones as they eliminate responsibility. The ability to make many shots diminishes your alertness and attention. Moreover, when I leaf through digital photographs, I get an impression that one lab assistant has made them all – there is no individuality left.
The first acknowledgement of my work in Lithuania came with my first publications in the press. I did not have to wait long to be noticed and understood. The most important event that affected my successful artistic career was the 1969 exhibition 9 Lithuanian Photographers in Moscow that had presented to my collegues and me a lot more chances to exhibit our works abroad where we were shortly noticed, too. However, I think that public acknowledgement or official appreciation has nothing to do with that unflagging interest in my work. My relationship with photography did the trick. I do not like flimflams, paparazzi sensations, maybe that is why all my best photographs have been made in rural or urban streets and my main heroes are just ordinary passers-by. Intimate contact has always been of the most importance to me in photography. A momentary encounter can tell very much. I trusted my intuition and worked spontaneously. For me the greatest merit of photography is its ability to penetrate into the human soul – I have always aspired to extract the best. The recipe for my success is very simple indeed – you have to love people.
On the Union of the Lithuanian Art Photographers
Lithuanian photographers had made a rather successful use of the Khrushchev’s thaw. That decade was the decade of artistic boom. Nothing grows out of a vacuum. The movement that was called the Lithuanian school of photography, and its acknowledgment emerged from a whole galaxy of talented photographs. I am talking about Vitas Luckus, Aleksandras Macijauskas, Romualdas Rakauskas, Algimantas Kunčius, Liudas Ruikas, Vitalijus Butyrinas, Rimantas Dichavičius, and Virgilijus Šonta. Photography needed a home and that was one of the reasons to establish the Lithuanian Society of Art Photographers. The society was the first organization of art photographers in the Soviet Union. The permission to establish an institution that had no analogue in Moscow, was an enormous achievement of Lithuanian photographers. I was its originator, its main organizer, and its chairman. How did we manage? There was a team of talented photographers and we received support from all artistic intelligentsia. They believed in me. Lionginas Šepetys, then the minister of culture, had helped, too. He held talks with Moscow. There was no permision granted to establish a union but we acquired that status step by step.
We used the photo exhibitions, organized in the Soviet Union, as our break through. Those exhibitions and publications were often organized in Vilnius. Photographers from all over the Soviet Union used to bring and send their photographs to Vilnius. A publisher would come from the West and we would select photographs for a publication in a few days. Usually one fourth of the works were by the Lithuanian photograhers. Nowadays we have a huge archive of Lithuanian photographs: we used to buy photographs from the authors from the very first days of our organization, held lots of exhibitions and published many albums. Our society has one of the richest libraries on photography that is constantly replenished by Jonas Dovydėnas, a Lithuanian photographer living in the States, who used to say that the establishment of the society and its activities were a typical example of capitalism: it did the things that no one did before, and discovered a completely new market. Now I devote a lot of my time and attention to the young generation of photographers. I have been serving the idea of photography during all my mature life, since thirty; therefore the union and its members are important to me, as well as the future of the Lithuanian photography.
On Life and Creative Work Now
I was born when photography was a hundred years old. I have been taking pictures for fifty years and now I ceased because the social milieu has changed, I cannot find my hero any more. Now I devote my time to my archives. The Faustian feeling of joy overwhelms me more and more often as I browse through the photographs of the times past and look at them with the eyes of a man who is going off the stage. Now my greatest desire is to find time for my everyday life. I would like to shed all irrelevant works, activities, and things; to regain myself and to live a little bit longer – to look at the snow falling behind the window or the blooming flowers in Rima’s garden.