Antanas Sutkus is justly considered to be one of the greatest masters of the world photography and is rightly called Homer of Lithuanian photography – the continuous oeuvre of his whole life is an epic assembled from fragments of everyday life. It would be hard to find another photographer who has gathered such an enormous archive and is using the arsenal in such a creative way, opening new themes, dissecting them deeper and deeper. His memorable works transcend the boundaries of local culture. The author has published many theme albums, a review of his oeuvre, and the aim of this book is to present his creative evolution as clearly and thoroughly as possible, to reconsider earlier interpretations and to get to know the author anew. Of course, cognition and thoroughness are rather conditional concepts therefore the discoveries and insights presented in the book are to be viewed as references for the future.
One of the advantages of this monograph is the fact that the photographer himself took part in the selection of his works and approved the compilation. All new photographs have been discovered and authorized by Sutkus. And the number of prints that create a more comprehensible context for the classic adapted by the history of photography and at the same time are complete and suggestive works of art, is quite numerous. Whereas well-known photographs, brought back into their time and medium by the chronological structure of the monograph, have gained greater historical value, and revealed the circumstances of their creation as well as the transformation of reality into an image. At last, the myth of the figurative nature of Sutkus’ oeuvre has been destroyed or diminished, as the artist could not care less about symbolic images and key meanings. For him photography was a means to read reality, not to recreate it.
The structure of the book signifies the individual creative rhythm of the artist. Presented periods do not concur with any gradation of cultural or photographic development. Every period is distinctive, determined by various twists and turns of his life and activities, by turning points and decisive moments, therefore uneven and justified by one rule only – this is the time of Antanas Sutkus. The monograph presents – for the first time – a purified evolution of his oeuvre. To a certain extent, this book is an inventory, compiled after the revision that has been performed by the author himself. The monograph does not contain a single accidental print that could have helped to solve the rebus of its design or to fill in the blanks. There is not a single page, where photographs are organized on a formal visual principle: the longer we worked with the material, the more clearly emerged its binding criteria: form, idea, aesthetics, and mode. Maybe closeness to the artist’s attitudes and a strive towards adequacy are not the best tools in a search for the relationship with an autonomous work of art, but that decision was taken after much deliberation. By the way, there was no dictate or pressure from Sutkus. On the contrary, for the first time the author took a closer look at his oeuvre. A very important role in the compilation of the monograph fell to the designer of the book Rima Kiubaraitė-Sutkienė, who took care of the documentation of the photographs, too. She recorded the works that emerged in the process, identified them, dated, and included into a digital catalogue that was used as the main basis for the analysis and selection of photographs.
The subject matter of the photographer’s oeuvre could be defined by one word – being. This concept comes closest to the meanings revealed by the photographic matter as well as the aesthetics of existentialism manifested in his works. As has been noticed by the philosopher Arvydas Šliogeris, when he contemplated on the great artist in the Daily Life Archives: ‘Wrinkles of existence are the concern of Antanas Sutkus; they do not escape his steady gaze and he knows how to show them to us.’
Photographer of Passers-by: Every Man Met in a Street Is Important
Kluoniškiai village on the hill and Zapyškis church in the valley of Nemunas, Ežerėlis peat bogs, where he earned the money for his first camera; his father, who shot himself in 1940 and mother, hiding away during the post war years; his grandparents, who fostered and raised him in the Christian spirit; his first love and lessons of truth at school; draining tuberculosis and the long months spent in the bed of a provincial hospital; novels by masters of literature in Lithuanian and Russian languages – these are the foundations upon which the being of Antanas Sutkus emerged, the being that has helped him to become one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century and the whole epoch. His distinctive and continuous oeuvre conveys an archetypal attitude that has deep-seated relations with his community; however, the power of his artistic language and the scope of his oeuvre put the name of the photographer into the ranks of the creators of the world’s culture. He belongs among those, who have caused storms and ruptures in the general massif of photography, who have decomposed that nameless and unruly flow into familiar trends. The phenomenon of Sutkus is also manifested in the fact that that inversion of Lithuanian photography happened at the times of informational blockade, and his spontaneous individuality conforms to the values of modern civilization and expectations of the new times.
Sutkus got acquainted with the works of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Arnold Newman, Annie Leibowitz, Diane Arbus and other Western artists, as well as with the changes in expression that they inspired and the ideas that they professed much later, when he had already clearly defined his artistic form and subject matter. Hence, the Lithuanian photographer was free of any professional influences and his only method of orientation was an exceptionally sensitive listening to the general cultural vibes and his intuitive need to react to the demands of the milieu in an open and peculiar way. Sutkus has entered the territory of professional Soviet photography with its own traditions and attitudes to create history, not to continue. Therefore it would be more meaningful to look for an ideologically close context not in the formal and ideologized milieu that surrounded him, but in the phenomena of one historical period of the world photography.
The basic strategy of the Magnum Photos photographic agency – the power of the synthesis of reportage and artistic photography discovered by Cartier-Bresson1 – could be considered as one of the most important links with the aesthetics of Sutkus that is grounded on documentation. The author of the tactics of the ‘decisive moment’ followed a hunter’s instinct and almost always succeeded in getting into a bull’s eye, producing a perfect scene of reality that, after the negative had been developed, acquired both informative and aesthetic value. By unbelievable coinsidence, fragments of an historical event or just the everyday flow of life condensed in his photographs. Cartier-Bresson’s formula that ‘photography is a simultaneous recognition that takes place in a fraction of a second’ could be applied to Sutkus’ oeuvre, too, only their relationship with the subject matter differs – the Frenchman is indifferent to content, whereas the Lithuanian photographer lives it out. Therefore, Sutkus undertakes a far more complicated task: he tries to create an exceptional compositional scheme that is appreciated by an expert eye and to capture the lingering emotion. He is indifferent to the intrigue that surfaces in the rhythmic form of the composition: that is a spontaneous thing of secondary importance. The most important task is to disclose that existential vibe. And Sutkus succeeds in doing that without any tension or anticipation of a hunter. According to the photographer, he always took his pictures without thinking and on his way, and that conforms to the main condition of the ‘automatic writing’ or the subconscious process of creation, defined by the French artist André Masson – you have to surrender to your inner uncontrolled impulses.
Sutkus’ method of taking pictures is surreal, but in the process of selection, when the most significant shots from the negative stock are singled out and given the status of a work of art, the photographer becomes an ethnographer: he tries to ‘comprehend culture and its norms – beauty, truth, and reality – as some artificial compositions that could be analyzed by an impartial analytic mind’2. During this period the photographer, free from a subconscious ‘tumble’ among a multitude of negatives, looks for and singles out the things that are important to him – signposts of human soul that is opened with the magic of a look, with nearly intangible signs of intent. Whereas Cartier-Bresson remains faithful to the primary impulse – he singles it out and authorizes as an individual touch irrespective of the purpose, subject matter, and territory. In his photographs all Europeans (even in Moscow) are Bressonic3. Robert Doisneau, another French photographer, was more close to Sutkus’ spirit – he fished for passers-by in a humane and cheerful manner and did not attempt to give his shots some artistic importance.
Of course, in the censored Soviet milieu Sutkus often chose to present separate ‘phrases’ that preached a humanistic attitude, therefore he was considered a creator of metaphoric photography. However, during the years of independence he returned to his archives4, revealed his unprinted works, and once again proved his surrealistic nature. That is manifested by several series of his photographs, which do not have a coherent narrative, which do not tell a story. These flashes have been caught by a simple irrational act of creation and ‘stitched together’ regardless of logical gaps; they witness the presence of the immediate ‘me’, but neither create any myth nor narrate a moralizing or representational legend. The meanings of Sutkus’ photographs lie in their spontaneity and temporality.
This creational onus could be compared to the undertaiking of an American photographer Robert Frank. Sutkus became a part of the promising culture of the ‘thaw’, and Frank – of the beatnics’ subculture. The early memorable works of the two artists were created in the fifties and are linked by their oposition to standards – one ignored the totalitarian pseudoidealism, the other made ironic comments on the American optimism devalued by racism. The Lithuanian photographer defined the theme of his life during the first years of his artistic activity: his series Lietuvos žmonės (People of Lithuania) raised the vitality of a man above the greyness of the Soviet life, thereas the Swiss photographer called his famous project The Americans5 and destroyed the image of the country’s illusory positivism with his gloomy roadsides.
Being constantly on the way, in the direct and indirect meaning of the word, both artists consciously and at the same time unconsciously found themselves at places where one stops rarely or just for a very short time, and, governed by erratic impulses, looked for their unrefined photographic angles in the margins of life. They were interested in everyday life devoid of the pathos of Lewis Hine or the ideological truth of Chanon Levin. Frank kept a critical eye on the alien but open and attentive society, whereas Sutkus on the other side of the „iron curtain“ took advantage of the changes in the system and, having detached himself from the social realism preached by other photojournalists, implanted humanistic virtues in the reviving art photography.
One of the events that encouraged to reconsider the purpose and potential of photography in the Soviet Union was the exhibition of American photogrpher Edward Steichen The Family of Man6. It took place in 1955 in New York and was exhibited in Moscow in the summer of 1959. The exhibition brought forward universal values of humanism and delineated the uniting factors. The Family of Man was a phenomenon that had a great effect on the Soviet photography and encouraged new turns. Sutkus was at the very start of his professional career and did not have an opportunity to see the exhibition, but the resonance it produced presented favourable creative conditions. ‘I had to prove that I could be a journalist. I had a camera, so I took my pictures to all the newspapers. It was the beginnng of the Khrushchiov era and there was a need for art photography. I remember meeting Vacys Reimeris, the editor of Literatūra ir menas. He shook his mane and asked for a photograph for a spring cover that had to be ‘gee!’’7. The first works of the artist, published in the press and therefore officially approved, marked cardinal changes in the visual language. There was neither theoretical nor practical basis at that time, only a few photographers and their tentative attempts to break the ice of the Stalinist school of photojournalism.
The postwar press could boast of such professional photographers as Levinas, Judelis Kacenbergas, Ilja Fišeris, Eugenijus Šiško, Michailas Rebi, Michailas Ogajus but their oeuvre contained the maximum dose of the Soviet ideology. The cultural politics of the ‘thaw’ had loosened the control of photography a bit and expanded the possibilities of visual approach, creating an opening for subjective and uncensored ideas. A joined exhibition, organized in 1958 by photojournalists, discovered Vytautas Stanionis and Adauktas Marcinkevičius, whose works could be attributed to the photographic expression of the new era8. Though formally going by the rulebook of communism builders, they tried to tackle much deeper social matters and problems of the aesthetics of photography. The first institutional step towards changes was a section of photography, established at the Union of Journalists right after the exhibition. That section was the main and rather influential organization, which took care of and propagated photographic art both in Lithuania and abroad untill the foundation of the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography9. Therefore the fifties saw a slight recuperation of Lithuanian photography after the Stalinist restraints but it was not strong enough to compete with the works of Russian photographers already well known in the West.
However, during this period Sutkus was not involved in the life of the local photographic community: the first generation of postwar photojournalists took a rather active part in it at that time. While studying at Vilnius University he trained his journalistic skills and cooperated in the newspaper Tarybinis studentas: he wrote articles and illustrated them with his first photographs that he took in Vilnius. His early works already had displayed rather pronounced stylistic tendencies: from radical angles and compositions akin to artistic ideas of the progressive Russian constructivist Alexandr Rodchenko Maratonas Universiteto gatvėje (Marathon on University Street) (1959) and other photographs where rhythm and form prevailed) to observation of human existence, entertained by the French humanists, that has been revealed itself in his first cycles Aklųjų mokykla (School for Blind Children) (1962) and such memorable works as Užupio gimnazistai (Užupis’ Students) (1959), Rankos (Hands) (1963).
His early and striking debut took place in 1962, at the exhibition of young photographers from all over the Soviet Union Our Youth that noted the work of starting photojournalist Žiemos geometrija (Winter Geometry)10. This photograph was also his first publication in the foreign press – the French Communist party newspaper L’Humanité-Dimanche. Ideological contents or party symbols were not among the factors that drew appreciative attention to the young Lithuanian photographer’s talent. On the contrary, it was the modern resolution of his prints, a clean and laconic graphics of composition. His participation in one of the largest exhibitions of art photography in the Soviet Union The Implementation of the Seven Year Plan11, which took place in 1960–1964, was also very important in his career. The best photographers from all republics of the Union participated in it. Sutkus found himself in the milieu where the new attitudes already prevailed – ideological content had to be expressed by suggestive artistic language. His photograph Motinos sielvartas (Mother’s Woe)12 received the diploma at the 1962 exhibition, was sent to the contest organized by the editorial staff of four photomagazines (the USSR, Hungary, Czheck, Poland) For Socialist Photo-Art, and was rewarded the third premium among the 12000 presented works. It was also published in the journal Sovetskoe foto13 as one of the best exampes of socialist art, with an emphasis on a very precise compositional and emotional parallel – the similarities between the figures of the Pirčiupis Mother monument and an old woman holding a child highlighted the pathos of historical correlations. This photo was published as a postcard (50 000 copies14 ).
Work at the editorial offices of such periodicals as Literatūra ir menas and Tarybinė moteris expanded Sutkus’ search of themes – he was able to observe cultural events, to get acquainted with the elite artists and writers. The photographer had also managed to use his constant business trips for creative purposes. For instance, when in 1964 he was sent to Ignalina to take pictures of local fishermen, he created his famous photographs that earned him a place among the classics of the world’s photography – Tėvo ranka (Father’s Hand) and Pionierius (Pioneer). These works also revealed another very important trait of Sutkus’ aesthetics: his deep psychological insight that gave birth to multimeaningful and adverse to the Soviet ideology interpretations. In 1970, his photograph Pionierius (Pioneer) received the Michelangelo d’Oro Prize at the international exhibition in Marina di Pietrasanta, Italy. Alas, its publication in the Sovetskoe foto magazine received rather hostile criticism – indignant readers of the magazine compared Sutkus with Alexandr Solzhenicyn and accused him of creating a dissident and inappropriate image of a pioneer. After such accusations and constant attempts to preserve the status of Lithuanian photography, the photographer did not dare to present to the public his photograph Aklas pionierius (Blind Pioneer) from the cycle Aklųjų mokykla (School for Blind Children), a very bright and controversial work. The photograph was first published after the restoration of Lithuanian independence.
No particular school influenced the formation of Sutkus as an artist. However, taking part in the active discourse of modern culture he followed the paradigms of the reviving literature very closely. The lyrical tradition of Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas, the creative program of Justinas Marcinkevičius that revealed a very profound understanding of a man and nation, and the poetry of Paulius Širvys that brimmed with human warmth, helped him to mature as an artist. The works of Lithuanian and Western writers that could be obtained at that time disclosed the relationship between modernism and realism, the whole spectrum of artistic thinking, issues concerning the complexity of spiritual world and human memory, and shaped his attitudes. When Sutkus started his great theme Lietuvos žmonės (People of Lithuania), he subconsciously but at the same time single-mindedly followed the insights of the existentialist Martin Heidegger, who conceived the world as a unique entity. The photographer sees the world not as some abstract substance or an unfathomable matter, but as trivial everyday existence among cognizable meanings. However, a man always remains a central piece of his world. The artist employs a no less existential tactics: he opens up to his world and seeks for a feedback. Thus, any attempt at a homologous definition of the subject of Sutkus’ photographs would lead to an erroneous interpretation of his works, as he creates contextual situations based on mutual honesty and expresses the fragility of existential time not by some photographic form, but by his superb understanding of temporariness. To him, all human time is like breathing: it is of vital importance, hence is devoid of accidental, meaningless, unimportant moments. Every moment is important, every man that we meet in the streets is important.
Provoking his characters into honesty, the photographer does not bother about the completeness of his composition or phrase. Very often he cuts his shot at the most unexpected place and severs any expansion of the context. Such moderate message does not understate his image; on the contrary, it highlights the moment when reality becomes a meaning. Thus he creates a perfect aesthetics of imperfection that is based on the theory of esthésis (revelation) developed by Algirdas Julius Greimas. Discussing the aesthetic event of the Michel Tournier’s novel – the fall of two raindrops, – the semiotic enumerates the elements that constitute the aesthetic impact of a work of art and those elements make an ideal description of Sutkus’ artistic expression. ‘Inhibition by everyday life, waiting, a break in the isotopy of life that is similar to a turning point, shattering of the subject, a peculiar status of the object, their mutual sensual relationship, the uniqueness of their experience, the hope of a future absolute conjunction.’15
That absolute of logical discontinuity is, paradoxically enough, found in Sutkus’ cycle Aklųjų mokykla (School for Blind Children). That peculiar sensual experience of the artist in a completely unfamiliar environment – in the world of blind people – did not made him to distance himself, to deny that strange and enclosed existence, but helped him to enter into a new phase of communicational cognizance. The stares of the blind children are very expressive and stunning. Children are gathering chestnuts, reading books, singing, and smiling. Though nothing extraordinary happens, the pioneers’ eyes are trying to say something. An obvious encounter of the photographer with an unfamiliar everyday life and the feelings that he experienced (not some compassion but esthesis) through numerous revelations created a meaning that was complete. However, the magic of their eyes is not the only mystery the artist’s oeuvre.
Sutkus’ photographs reveal a complex, implicit encryption of his relationships with other people – he does not seek to create some special, premeditated image, does not bother about the outward looks of his characters, but presents the quintessence of the situation that presupposes its prompt and sometimes even predictable resolution. However, the unclosed perspectives extend much farer. It is impossible to see with the naked eye the concerns that weight upon the shoulders of his characters, the hopes that they cherish or their raw nerve hit by the everyday routine, as it is impossible to stenograph such things with a camera. However, that concentrate of information that the photographer has noticed and in torn out a single gesture of the flow of time is not only preserved on photopaper but can be ‘read’, too. His language is universal; it advocates human values that are not encrusted in symbols. His universality manifests itself in documentary and very familiar milieu of everyday life. Everyone is a passerby on a rural dirt road, urban street, and, most importantly, in life. Sutkus is a photographer of passersby. He is neither a hunter (à la Henri Cartier-Bresson), nor a fisherman (à la Robert Doisneau), nor a chronicler (à la Balys Buračas), he is a surrealist ethnographer, a sentimental psychologist, whose penetrating, piercing and at the same time unlocking gaze establishes confidence at both sides of his photographs.
1 Photographic Agency Magnum Photos was an international cooperative picture agency founded in 1947 in Paris by four photographers: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, David ‘Chim’ Seymour and George Rodger. Magnum Photos aimed to use photography in the service of humanity, and provided arresting, widely viewed images of the XX century world.
2 Clifford J. Apie etnografinį siurrealizmą // Metai. 2006, no. 1.
3 Cartier-Bresson H. Europeans. London, 1997.
4 Sutkus A. Kasdienybės archyvai, 1959–1993 = Daily Life Archives, 1959–1993: nepublikuotos fotografijos: [photoalbum]. Vilnius, 2003.
5 In 1955–1957, Robert Frank traveled across the States and accumulated the largest post war photoarchive of images that made the basis for one of the most famous books in the history of world’s photography – The Americans. The first edition Les Américains was published by the Robert Delpire publishing house in Paris, in 1958 (introductory texts by Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, William Faulkner, Henry Miller, and John Steinbeck), the second – The Americans – was published by the Grove Press in the USA, in 1959 (introduction by Jack Kerouac).
6 The Family of Man: The greatest photographic exhibition of all time. New York, 1955.
7 Fotografija – žmogaus sugalvotas būdas sustabdyti laiką // Lietuvos rytas. July 13, 1999, supplement Mūzų malūnas, pp. 1, 2.
8 Mikoliūnas B. Ieškojimai ir atradimai (Meninės fotografijos parodoje) // Literatūra ir menas. October 25, 1958, p. 4.
9 Session protocol LTSR Žurnalistų sąjungos organizacinio biuro posėdžio 1958 m. rugsėjo 26 d. protokolas nr. 20. Lithuanian Archives of Literature and Art, stock 501, list 1, file 2, sheet 43.
10 Пригожин Ю. Тропою смелых // Советское фото. 1962, no. 9, p. 6.
11 A huge propaganda project organized by the USSR Ministry of Culture, the Journalists Union and the editorial office of the Sovetskoe foto magazine.
12 Семилетка в действии // Советское фото. 1962, no. 8, pp. 12–19.
13 Конкурс «За социалистическое фотоискусство» // Советское фото. 1962, no. 5, pp. 18–24.
14 Paminklas fašizmo aukoms Pirčiupyje: [postcard]. Vilnius, 1964.
15 Greimas A. J. Apie netobulumą. Vilnius, 2004, p. 23.
Hopeless Humanist: Honesty Based on Mutual Trust
Sutkus accumulated his ‘golden stock’ in a very short span of his creative life. Ten years of intense work revealed a very vivid personality whose individual worldview stormed the Lithuanian culture leaving substantial testimony: publications in the press, exhibitions, and books. The greatest part of his photographs collected during the first years of his work as a photographer was shortly published as a series of small photoalbums1. These were free impressions of the artist, who, heedless of the problems that were so familiar to him, observed his surroundings in a relaxed mood and created convivial and, looking back from the modern days, nostalgic images.
Vilnius. Gedimino aikštė (Vilnius. Gediminas Square) was one of the albums, published in 1965. This book of photographs is endearing to every citizen of Vilnius. It would be hard to find a family album, whose plot lines do not converge at Gediminas square (now Cathedral Square): people marched by the square on May 1st demonstrations (nowadays they flock to the square on various cultural events), or posed near its Christmas tree at the New Year’s Eve (nowadays – on Christmas). There reigns peaceful and bright everyday life, where a man blissfully melts away turning into a faceless silhouette. Instead of the usual presentation of the historical downtown, we have its atmosphere in which moving, standing, and sitting figures have crystallized. Or vice versa, to be more exact, – the photographer needs the figures to fill in the plate, which he uses to print fragments of our existence, at the same time consciously obscuring personal and social modus vivendi.
We see a very subtle and accurate display of everyday impressions in the album Vilniaus šiokiadieniai (Daily Life in Vilnius)2, that Sutkus published together with his colleague Romualdas Rakauskas the same year. There, the intertwining moments of urban life are devoid of any hierarchial, chronological or thematic structure, of any social pathos or ideological declarations. Nameless characters met in the streets of Vilnius are not builders of some ideal future, they surface and instantly melt away in the gray mass of everyday life, leaving no footprints that could be of importance to the historical time. Such demonstration of apolitical attitude has turned into a phenomenon in photography, whose aims were cearly determined during the twenty years of sovietization: it did not have to reflect or to show important things, it had to point them out. Thereas the first album of the two photographers denied the ‘cold-blooded’ nature of photography and prooved that a photocamera is not only a journalist’s sights but a means to create literary works. This book could be viewed as a silent protest against total abuse of a human soul, based on agressive and dumb didactic references on how one should live, think, and feel in the Soviet zone.
Sutkus shunned the role of a Soviet troubadour, though his activities forced him to conform to the party interests and ideological demands. Like the greater part of intelligentsia that believed in the humanity of socialism, he repressed his disappointment in the stagnant future that promised nothing positive. The Prague spring had a very strong effect on the artist. The events of 1968 rekindled his hopes that the communist regime could be made more liberal and democratic by expanding human rights. Alas, they were shortly stamped out listening to the Voice of America and Radio Liberty stations that broadcasted reports on the intervention of the Warsaw Pact states into Czechoslovakia. When he heard that the tanks had entered the Prague and Alexander Dubchek, the man who tried to implement ‘socialism with a human face’ had been arrested, Sutkus decided to grow a beard and pledged that he would shave it off only after the withdrawal of tanks. Alas, when the Soviet army remained in Czechoslovakia and all countries of the socialist block tightened control, any hopes of democratic reforms were lost, and the photographer’s image à la Hemingway was just a hint at his resistance. It was possible to retain your inner self and not to become a propaganda puppet of the system only if you had some backing or carried some authority. Sutkus grasped those political rules very well and adapted to the conditions of triple censorship using his creative potential and organizing a group of people who shared his values.
These were the times when old truths were hammered in from the official tribune. The party strived to recruit all progressive creative forces, encouraged artists not to waste their talents for formal searchings and preached materialistic philosophy. Aesthetics of Lithuanian photographers was based on documentation and reflected sympathetic humanistic attitudes, but its most important task was dictated by the main problem of socialist humanism, i.e., it had to define historical conditions and social milieu, where a man could reveal himself to the full. At that time photoartists shunned any ideological tasks, consolidated their positions and their only concern was the spread of the photographic art. In his review of the 1965 Republican exhibition in Vilnius, Augustinas Savickas, who had formerly denied artistic power of photography, noted that ‘in comparison to the previous exhibitions, one could feel a much more crystallized momentuous glance, a more profound reaction of an art photographer towards the environment and life in general, there are no insidental events, all ephemeral raptures are more easily cast away, and one can feel a greater interest towards form that gives a more precise definition to a work of art’3.
Those photographers that have matured and made their debut in the press during the years of the ‘thaw’ were consolidated by exhibitions as well as by the yearbook Lietuvos fotografija (Lithuanian Photography), launched in 1967. The yearbook has become a strategic platform for their artistic ideas and a public medium for communication. In 1968, an exhibition of four photojournalists: Antanas Sutkus (Tarybinė moteris), Algimantas Kunčius (Kultūros barai), Vilius Naujikas (Mūsų gamta) and Romualdas Rakauskas (Nemunas) held at the Lithuanian Art Museum, drew a clear dividing line between photojournalism and photoart. The exhibition could be regarded as the first recognition of photographic art by an authoritative institution of art during the Soviet era4. The exhibited works – Lietuviška šeimyna (Lithuanian Family), Jean-Paul Sartre, Biliardas (A Game of Biliard) by Sutkus, Lietuvis (Lithuanian), Vidudienis (Midday), Rudens motyvas (Autumnal Motif) by Kunčius, Šienpjovys (Hay Mower), Duktė ant šieno (Daughter on the Hay), Aktai (Nudes) by Naujikas, and Rakauskas’s series Medžiai ir žmonės (Trees and People) – testified their potential to create original and suggestive photography.
Those ten years saw the emergence of individual artists as well as the maturity of Lithuanian photography as a creative movement with a clear vision, and that movement was rated, analized, and its perspectives – predicted. At the beginning of 1969, thanks to the initiative and efforts of Sutkus, there were official talks about the need to establish a society that would unite all photographers. Lionginas Šepetys, the then Minister of Culture, acknowledged that ‘art photography has become a very important phenomenon of cultural life and is worthy of serious state support’5. In 1969 the LSSR Council of Ministers issued a decree6 to establish the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography. It was the first organization in the Soviet Union that united all photoartists and was lead by Sutkus from its very start. ‘Every day I felt like at war. I was like an architect who dreamt of building beautiful palaces, but had to lay pontoon bridges. An architect, whose only concern was the safety of marching troops. After the men marched over, I had to deconstruct the bridges and to build new ones’7. The establishment of an institution that had no analogue in Moscow was a very big achievement of Sutkus and, of course, all Lithuanian photographers.
On the Soviet Union level, Lithuanian photographers actualized their oeuvre in 1969, during the exhibition Nine Lithuanian Photographers8 that took place in Moscow. Describing this unusual event in the Soviet photography, the Russian critic Anri Vartanov defined the phenomenon as the school of Lithuanian photography9. He ennumerated the most striking and uniting features of Lithuanian photographers: a very close and sensitive relationship with their land and people, their moral philosophy and a sense of responsibility, unusual strictness towards themselves and their works, as well as the poetry of cognition when they try to penetrate the deeper stratums of life. Lev Anninsky, who performed a rather exhaustive comparative analysis of Lithuanian photography, saw the idiosyncrasy of the national school in its manifestation of harmonious relationship with the world. ‘The unity of spiritual and plastical structure. The unity of a man and his environment, an individual and its nation, a personality and nature – at all levels, both up and down. Meaning and beauty, penetrating everything that is alive.’10 Sutkus, Luckus, Macijauskas, Kunčius, and Rakauskas stood at the core of the school and in a very short span of time actualized themseves as individual creators of art and representatives of national culture.
Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in Lithuania is one of the most famous series of Sutkus of that time. In 1965, together with Eduardas Mieželaitis and Mykolas Sluckis, he accompanied the famous French couple during their five days visit and created an expressive image of the philosopher, known and recognized not only in Lithuania, but in other countries as well. Roseline Granet has created a sculpture that stands at the Biblioteque Nationale in Paris, and an exhibition dedicated to the one hundredth anniversary of Sartre was exhibited in France, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Byelorussia, Ukraine, Canada, and Japan.
Sartre, who kept all photographers at bay, did not heed the constant surveillance of Sutkus’ camera. The philosopher accepted the condition of being with another man that, most probably, did not contradict his principles of coexistence. The photographer did not strive to present an easily recognizable image of the philosopher; he neither looked for a hero’s face nor turned him into an object of analysis. He spontaneously documented his existence (not physical), and that most probably pleased the man who denounced human body and even detested it in his novel Nausea11. The portrait of the philosopher, created in all photographs of the series, had nothing in common with his corporeal representation and was not necessarily expressed by looking directly into the subject’s eyes or capturing him en face, especially when you had the author of the Being and Nothingness12 before your camera.
Sutkus’ photographs manifested the aesthetics of existence that Sartre declared and elaborated in his works. Those photographs revealed his relationship with the surrounding world, which he perceived as a responsibility both for himself and for those who happened to be in front of his camera. His belief in the power of good and his ability to find it in every character necessitated that peculiar moment of the revelation of truth, which Sartre defined at his lecture Existentialism Is a Humanism delineating the first principle of existentialism. ‘A man is not that he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing – as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.’13 Sutkus’ photographs abound in references towards this subjective principle of a man as a self-projection straining towards the future. In 1968, in Zarasai, the artist created a staggering cycle Simas. Senose žydų kapinėse (Simas. At the Old Jewish Cemetery).14 Those prints reveal his reflections upon reality as well as his grasp of the transcendental reality. A boy that is lying on a memorial stone like a human embryo in the womb of death is the photographer’s son who met with a tragic fate. The artist’s photographic eidos15 are directed towards the mysterious depths of existence that emerge after many years through signs preserved in a photograph.
Sutkus’ metaphysical relationship with space and time is especially vivid in the faces of children and old people that he loved to photograph most of all. The first have not learned yet, and the second do not see any point in hiding their entity under a mask, therefore their anxiety, sadness, longing, joy and inquisitiveness are real. Hence, all captured moments of fragile existence are real, too. Such acts of honesty need neither some special mood nor place – you can encounter them on a bus stop, in a bus, in a canteen, on your way to a potato field or to a feast. Of course, Sutkus is entitled to a lot more: he can stroll the streets of some village and he will not be met like a stranger; he can come to an audition in a local art school and shy provincial children will not pay any attention to a guest from the capital, as if he were not a photographer with a closely watching camera, but some local cleaning lady mopping the aisles. This unconditional relationship with a man is, I think, the main cause why his photographs are so suggestive.
Sutkus’ Vilnius and Fellini’s Rome are two very close phenomena. Stories that they observe and register in their ‘free fight’ do not have coherent plot lines. The scenes just rush in gusts and change each other chaotically but their vivid characters that seem to be taken from the tragicomic mash of life mesmerize and enthrall. Sutkus finds his characters everywhere and in all possible manner: making a two kopeck call in a telephone booth, squeezed in the sidecar of the Ural motorcycle, buying steaming doughnuts in street, studying a poster on a post, or falling in love on the frayed stairs of some downtown yard. Of course, the Lithuanian photographer is sentimental, whereas the Italian director – ironic, but both artists are hopeless humanists. Incidentally, Fellini said that his audience has died out, and Sutkus claims, that his character is dead, too. And both are right, as one of the fundamental needs of a human being is to change, another – to, inevitably, die.
To grasp the artistic phenomenon of the photographer to the full, one needs to base his exploration on the flow of personal experiences, i.e. to accept him as a phenomenon that already exists in the cultural milieu, to distance oneself from empirical and definite evaluation, to make use of general experience and inner needs, to explicate the ‘beyond time’ denominator, and to acknowledge that the phenomenon ‘exists by itself as it is, it exists by itself and to itself’16. It is very difficult and very easy at the same time to reach the real harmony of Sutkus’ ‘kingdom of ideas that exists beyond time’ as new and new layers of interpretation cover and uncover his photographs that are open to time and exist autonomously.
1 Sutkus A. Nidoje: [photoalbum]. [Vilnius], ; Sutkus A. Vilnius. Antakalnis: [photoalbum]. [Vilnius], ; Sutkus A. Vilnius. Gedimino aikštė: [photoalbum]. [Vilnius], ; Sutkus A. Ežerai, ežerai: [photoalbum]. Vilnius, 1966.
2 Rakauskas R., Sutkus A. Vilniaus šiokiadieniai: [photoalbum]. Vilnius, 1965.
3 Savickas A. Meninės fotografijos paroda // Kultūros barai. 1965, no. 6, p. 32.
4 V. Naujiko, A. Kunčiaus, A. Sutkaus, R. Rakausko fotoparoda: [catalogue]. Vilnius, 1968.
5 Fotografijos menas // Kultūros barai. 1969, no. 1, p. 7.
6 Decree LTSR Ministrų Tarybos 1969 m. spalio 8 d. nutarimas Nr. 403. Lithuanian Archives of Literature and Art, stock 503, list 1, file 1, sheet 1.
7 Fotografijai reikėjo savo namų // Diena. December 7, 1994.
8 9 фотографов Литвы: [exhibition catalogue] / М. Баранаускас, В. Бутырин, А. Кунчюс, В. Луцкус, А. Мацияускас, А. Межанскас, Р. Ракаускас, Л. Руйкaс, А. Суткус, сост. А. Суткус, предисловие В. Кисараускаса. Каунас, 1969.
9 Встречи с литовскими мастерами в Москве // Советское фото. 1969, no. 9.
10 Аннинский Л. Очерки о литовской фотографии: методическое пособие. Вильнюс, 1984. pp. 40–43.
11 The first novel by Jean Paul Sartre Nausea (La Nausée, 1938) analizes the meaninglessness of material and corporeal world.
12 L’Être et le Neant, 1943.
13 Sartre’s lecture delivered on October 29, 1945, in Paris. Sartre J.-P., L’existentialisme est un Humanisme. Paris, 1996; Sartre J.P. Egzistencializmas yra humanizmas // Metai. 2005, no. 2.
14 Photograph Simas. At the Old Jewish Cemetery is published in this monograph for the first time.
15 Gr. gr. eidos – image, form, essence
16 Husserl E. Karteziškosios meditacijos. Vilnius, 2005, pp. 87, 126.
Idealist of Everyday Life: Every Moment Is Important
The proof that the photographer did make use of the time and the medium under the most adverse social and political conditions lies in his creative career – he had been acknowledged as one of the leaders of photographic art not only in Lithuania but in the Soviet Union, too. He held numerous personal and group exhibitions, participated in many salons in the Soviet Union and abroad, published representational photoalbums, famous museums and galleries acquired his prints, and his name has been included into prestigious encyclopedias. Durng this period Sutkus realized one of his most ambitious creative projects – the series Lietuva iš paukščio skrydžio (Lithuania from a Bird’s-Eye View), – creating a generalizing image of the land where his identity took roots1.
His first personal exhibition in Moscow marked the highest level of artistic achievement. The editorial staff of the Sovetskoe foto magazine together with the SU Institute of Art Criticism organized a cycle of the most famous photoartists’ exhibitions designed for the sixtieth anniversary of the Soviet photography and it was opened by Antanas Sutkus’ exposition2. Nobody spoke of his input into the sovietization of culture; his works were appreciated for their particular aesthetics based on paradoxical incompatibility that was compared to the modern Latin American literature. ‘Despite of the lack of any logical clearness and a need to make logic connections there suddenly emerge relationships that seem random at first sight but this randomness conveys a specific artistic attitude towards the world, it constitutes the basis for that specific model of his.’3
Russian art critics have analyzed and interpreted Sutkus’ oeuvre by various aspects. Some saw the tradition of Lithuanian expressionist art manifested not in some form, but in an extraordinary tension of visual drama. Others compared the impact of the photographer’s portraits to the punch of the thousand-faced Buddha claiming that despite their considerable diversity his characters convey a very strong and unanimous manifestation of spiritual life. The third group noticed a Bergman-like expressiveness and mysteriousness of his characters’ faces and their indefinable pull. However, no one had ventured to wedge the artist’s ideas into some official and formal ideological conception. On the contrary, they strived to substantiate his artistic phenomenon and such a bright upsurge4.
Sutkus has retained an obviously unanimous philosophy on the world and that is manifest in all his oeuvre. The photographer imparts his ethical positions and idealistic approach to every human being as a unique personality, no matter where he is or what he does. Balancing between the photographic character of the reality and that dimension of spiritual life that cannot be groped by a camera, the artist makes a dramatic but non-destructive and non-aggressive exploration of the surrounding world and himself. Whether he traveled across Lithuania with the rector of Vilnius University Jonas Kubilius, accompanied Jonas Mekas on his visit to his homeland in 1971, had a vacation at Bebrusai lake in 1974, or spent his 1978 summer in Salakas, the photographer never parted with his camera that helped him to feel the existence and to express its very essence, which St Thomas Aquinas discovered in the transcendental concept of ‘the good’. ‘Claiming that ‘the good is that which all desire’, we have to bear in mind that not every good is desirable by everyone, but that everything that is desirable, has a nature of the good’5.
This simple aspiration – an aspiration for goodness – is the basic driving force of Sutkus’ aesthetics. Thomas Aquinas illustrated his thoughts on the realization of the good in art by an example of a copper sculpture that can also be applied to photography, only the philosophical field will expand considerably as the matter of sculpture is copper and that of photography – the reality itself. Alas, it is just some substance that gives birth to a photograph (as copper gives form to a sculpture), which is created by a photographer (or a sculptor), using that new artistic substance to express his imagination. The purposefulness of Sutkus’ oeuvre is defined by his strive for perfection that has an adequate value expressed in goodness and forms the ethical basis of his existence. It is very rewarding to look at Sutkus’ oeuvre through philosophia perennis6 of the philosopher and theologian of the Middle Ages. In his photographs we find the aesthetics of beauty propagated by Thomas Aquinas – perfection, clarity, the harmony of form and meaning are present in almost every single work of the artist.
Sutkus’ mastery is manifested in his momentous reaction to a situation that in reality is obscured by the time flow and in photography is given a concentrated meaning. Perhaps you would notice a man with an accordion walking along a street but his ‘melody of loneliness’ is more shocking when you ‘listen’ to a photograph. Would you stop, passing by some empty oranges boxes, to find out where they are from, would you take notice of grimacing boys? Whereas looking at a photograph you can indulge in an leisurely exploration of the origin of the fruits (it turns out that they have been brought from Algeria), to abandon yourself to childhood memories of the Soviet times, to those rare occasions when you got to taste those exotic fruits, and to communicate with the boys glued to the plywood boxes, which retained the sweet odor of the citrus fruits. These explorations can lead even further as the historical context emerges. During the Cold War period the Soviet Union expanded its power zones and supported financially the African states, therefore Sutkus’ photograph speaks not only about the Lithuanian people, it speaks about the people of Africa, about the Kremlin policy, friendly relationships of the countries, and, of course, about the socialist future.
Such interpretation narrows down the definition of the photographer’s oeuvre: Sutkus is a representative of social photography. In reality, the artist does not ‘remove’ his character from his social environment, he ‘exhibits’ him in a natural milieu. He does not attempt to hide his constrained possibilities and poor living conditions, and reveals a rather broad spectrum of the murky everyday reality, however he does not highlight any urgent social problems, does not oppose the official point of view, does not denounce the political system, and does not aim to improve living conditions. Maybe the arduous censors that kept a watchful eye on all works of art were to blame, though Sutkus was interested in completely different things. Every time, looking at his character through the lens of his camera, the photographer poises a rhetorical question: How are you, man?7 However, his prints do not present any straightforward answers. On the contrary, he directs the viewer’s attention from outward aims and worries towards the psychological state of his characters. The accustomed social photography does not contain such observations of a man. Jacob Riis, observer and critic of immoral ways of American life, was interested in ‘how the other half lives’, but he fixed his gaze on social conditions that produced criminals and social trash8. On the other hand, Lewis Hine, sociologist and reformer of society, sought after the reasons of the decline during the Great Depression and created heroic characters of American people in a firm belief that optimism can master all hardships.
The 1971–1976 series Lazdynai does contribute to a positive socialist image. At least it seems so when you leaf through his collection of photographs published during the Soviet years9. Capturing construction sites of the new exemplary district of Vilnius, Sutkus expands social confines of his image, highlighting the scope of possibilities and bringing in a perspective of hope. The expediency of this work is very close to Berenice Abbott’s sociological project Changing New York10, where the artist strived to reflect the city that amazed her in three aspects: the man who lives in that city, the place where that man lives, works and entertains himself, and everyday activities that fill up his life. The idea to show the city as a product of collective work was neither political nor polemical, but clearly witnessed the photographer’s leftist views. The prints that captured construction sites of the Lazdynai district are a kaleidoscope of episodes taken from the Lithuanian photographer’s life: settling in a new flat, his son’s first year at school, and so on. However, the series, replenished with the works that have not been published yet, evolves into a story about another human being who always was beside him and whom the artist loved so dearly.
This need to manifest human values in photography obscures pathetic representation of the district and brings it close to other works by Sutkus. In many of his prints a construction site is pushed into the background and the first plane is ‘occupied’ by anxious eyes of his son Simas, a coquettish smile of Dalia, stylish postures of The Beatles fans, an intriguing conversation of two local elderly women. Even the ‘Globe’ that the children of the new dwellers clamber over, serves as a symbolical reminder that ‘the Earth is the planet of human beings’. In the manner of Antoine de Saint Exupery, the author of that intellectual and lyrical novel, Sutkus fuses the documented reality, his personal experience and philosophical reflections with artistic images, which ignore the politics that sets the world off and professes his belief in collective Existence.
Sutkus is a creator of epics; however, his character is not some hero fighting with the dragon of vice but an ordinary nameless man threading his everyday path. To live the time that has been meant for you with dignity is a great deed. The photographer’s great serieses Lietuvos žmonės (People of Lithuania) and Susitikimai su Bulgarija (Meetings with Bulgaria) witness this maxim12. He visited the country in 1972–1979 and created a batch of memorable photographs that captured neither the exotic culture of the foreign country, nor distinctive signs of Bulgarian identity, but displayed the so-familiar thirst of the artist to feel the inner life of a man. According to the photographer, this is the largest series created abroad: ‘I have visited the country several times, but the whole series is so unanimous that makes an impression of being done in a single day. I do not know why, maybe there I have found open and sincere people. Bulgaria fascinated me. I could not work in other countries as there always remained some distance, I could not see my character, and I could not recognize him”12.
The collection of prints made in Bulgaria confirms the author’s ability to find the shortest way into a man’s heart and to base his relationships with his characters on mutual trust. Lev Anninski, Russian art critic, trying to solve the mystery of Sutkus’ psychological portraits, spoke about the meanings that an open face, present in all photographs of the artist, covey. ‘He expresses the limitless nature of the human ‘I’, that abyss, which, compared to the outward reality, is much deeper, mysterious, interesting and complex. And this independence of an individual’s personality that is maintained by a subtle counterpoint of the background and the main figure, is Sutkus’ theme, it is his philosophy, his art, his mystery’13.
The authenticity of an experienced moment in a photograph reveals the main value that Sutkus preaches in his oeuvre – the fullness of life. It is irrelevant that the mission of his man does not coincide with the great events of the civilization as the density and ornament of the everyday fabric is determined by petite joys and worries. A full existence is comprised of simple things – sometimes all you need is to have a shot of rakia with your old friends in some bar just round the corner, to contemplate a poppy in the shade of grapevines, to shell beans and thing about nothing, to pluck a ripe melon in your garden and make yourself some tasty porridge.
Meanings are scattered in photographs, books, and numerous exhibitions to be later incidentally re-discovered and re-interpreted heedless of the messages encoded by the photographer. Sutkus imprisoned the bygone time heavy with the accumulated events, time that had witnessed the beginning and end of constructions, festivals, and human lives, but the greatest power of his photographs is manifested in the eternity that could be reached through the exposures of the mysteries of human soul. One just has to look into the eyes of Uncle Peter.
1 In 1973–1980, the photographer had an exclusive right to photograph Lithuanian landscapes from a plane and he published a photoalbum of colour photographs Lietuva iš paukščio skrydžio (Lithuania from a Bird’s-Eye View), 1981.
2 Целостность мироощущения // Советское фото. 1979, no. 10, pp. 10–17.
© Antanas Sutkus