PHOTOGRAPHERS INTERNATIONAL 1996 February
text by Juan I-Jong
How long have you been photographing? And how did you start it?
I first came into the contact to the photography when I was fifteen. And I became really serious about it in 1959 when I was studying at Vilnius State University. But I lost almost all the negatives of pictures taken before 1959. Only one picture was left.
Do you mean the photographs that we have seen today were all taken after 1959?
Yes. Except the one that was left. It was taken in 1958.
Your work conveys great suffering. In your photographs the strongest part is usually the expression in people’s eyes. In almost every picture, you can tell by looking into the subjects’ eyes that they live with great dignity and courage in spite that they live in poor living conditions.
Yes, life is difficult but people maintain their dignity.
Are your subjects usually people who you are acquainted with and who live near your neighborhood? Or do you make special trips to some far off places or countryside to photograph the local conditions?
These pictures were all taken in small countryside villages where people still maintain the Lithuanian traditions and spirit.
Could we say that your trips to the countryside were in pursuit of things you felt yourself were lacking as an urban intellect?
I have always felt very close to the countryside. I think it’s probably because I was born and raised in a small village. In fact, most of the best contemporary Lithuanian photographers took their first shots in the countryside. Macijauskas is one of them. A very important mission for photographer is to capture and preserve things that will inevitably vanish and are already vanishing. We are now advancing into a capitalist society. Many things have changed considerably and we can only look in the photographs for the old Lithuanian spirit of the country folk. When a time has come to an end, the traits of its people are gone too.
Your photographs show many unhappy people than happy ones. And under the Soviet reign, this might have been considered suggestive by the authorities. Did the pictures ever cause you troubles?
At that time almost all the photographers had been picked on by the Soviet authorities for something. And we had to use strategies. Some of our exhibitions were allowed to be held anywhere and some only in Kaunas and Vilnius. Once we send our pictures to Prague for an international photography exhibition and the pictures ended up in the K. G. B. office because the authorities thought they exposed the dark side of the society. Interestingly, the Soviet critics helped us out by commenting in their articles that we belonged to the school of photography and our work was-so called “Lithuanian style”. Sometimes we would give our exhibition a seemingly grand and positive title in order to pass the censorship. But what we actually exhibited could be totally different things. One of our group exhibitions was titled “The Land of Amber” (note: Lithuania is so-called “the Land of Amber” because of her rich amber resources) because we wanted to be able to be seen in more places. The critics of the Soviet Union complained to us after the exhibition. They said, “How do you expect us to introduce the exhibition? None of these photographs will be allowed to be published in our media!” Eventually every newspaper and magazine used the same photographer’s work in their news release because he had photographed some smiling girls.
The people in your photographs have the same looks of accepting whatever they are destined to no matter how much suffering they have to endure. The kind of spirit they show is exclusively Lithuanian. Now the Soviet Union has collapsed and your society is moving to the new direction. Do you think the Lithuanian spirit still exist in those villages?
The offspring of capitalism is much worse than that of communism or socialism. Capitalism is not so good as we had expected it to be and materialism is introducing a lot of bad things that we never knew before. Lithuania has her own culture. We don’t need the pop culture from America or Western Europe. But every small country has the same problem of being invaded by American pop culture. Even big countries, such as France, have to face up to the situation. Material life is what our young people have been after since childhood. The spiritual things are nowhere to be found. During the Soviet administration, we were oppressed but we were the owners of our souls. And the Lithuanian spirit only became more vigorous. The harder the oppression was, the stronger we became. But since the iron curtain was opened, we have been confronted with all the devils of materialism.
Does the vanish of Lithuanian spirit imply also the extinction of what you care to photograph? What’s going to be your next step as far as creation is concerned?
Now I just want to take pictures of old houses. I don’t photograph people anymore. I also find it very difficult nowadays to find someone who is spiritually compatible with me.
You must keep your faith in people. In every corner of the world, there are still people who believe in something. The fact that we voluntarily came a long way to visit your country is an example. Your photographs have convinced people of many things. So don’t give up your hope in humanity yet.
It’s not that I have lost my faith in humanity. The problem is, we used to live an abnormal life of communism and now we are forced to live an abnormal capitalist life.
We understand you established the Photography Art Society of Lithuania and helped bring about the unity of Lithuanian photographers. You also contributed greatly to the internationalization of Lithuanian photography. Being chairman of the Society for nearly two decades, how did you manage to do your own creation and the administration work at the same time?
I hardly had the time to take pictures. One has only one brain. When I photograph I think about photographing during the day and I photograph in my dreams. And when I was in charge of Society I dreamed mostly about the Society’s business.
If you publish all these photographs in one book what will the title be?
I have the dream but I don’t have the money. But if I publish the book the title will be “The Nostalgia for Bare Feet”. We have taken too much from civilization and can only give our hearts in return.
Is there anything else that you would like to say?
A creator’s work not his mouth speaks for him. I have nothing else to add.
Antanas Sutkus. Catalogue Nostalgia for Bare Feet . Vilnius, 1995
Everything that is good and bad goes back to our childhood. I believe that one’s formative period is childhood. No doubt, the parents are of utmost importance. I am also proud of my grandparents. I was raised by them until I was sixteen, and in my eyes they were model grandparents. I saw how they obeyed the Ten Commandments, although their living conditions were unenviable. I remember how Mother used to make pancakes with the oil intended for the lubrication of locomotives. Nevertheless even in those conditions great was the striving of the children to read, to get to read the world and to acquire the knowledge.
This exhibition is a sad sight because such village children are becoming scarce. I am affraid some irreparable damele has been done here. In the past when the situation in Lithuania was at its worst, the countryside was at the forefront of the forefront to struggle for freedom. At present , whenth ebasic values are at stake, we can only rely on our children and grandchildren who have stillpreserved healthy genes and a thirst for knowledge.
I believe that in every human heart there is a Cathedral. I do not know how many cathedrals have been destroyed in the hearts of the characters of my pistures. Mine has been torn down. What would it cost know to rektore at least one of its chapels so that you could find shelter for your soul? Blessed are the years of the barefoot childhood...
Such are my personal remarks. In no way should they be associated with politics. But how to distinguish the nostalgia, contained inthe phtographs, from that for one’s childhood and the cathedral that was still standing... Anyway, whatever the times, one cannot be different to one’s chilhood and youth.
Let thia first retrospective exhibition of mine be my homage to the surroundings and the time of my chilhood.
During the “thaw period” – in the late 60’s – the artistic photographs by Antanas Sutkus and his colleagues Aleksandras Macijauskas and Algimantas Kunčius made the decisive influence on all the photo art of the former Soviet Union. Everyday life with its routine trouble returned to their pictures. The very openly expressed doubt about the questionable progress and the revealed lack of elementary welfare testified to great courage. The political content was reflected indirectly but suggestively and the society of the period clearly perceived the idea. The bitter truth served for it as a socially critical allegory.
At present artistic photographs of that period present interest to us because of other reasons as well. The creation of Antanas Sutkus, the initiator of all that movement, distinguishes itself by its many-layer character in respect to the richness of interpretations.
Motherland to Sutkus – not Poussin’s “nobody land” – but specific localities with concrete people. He is attentive to: who? Where? When? He forms more general values out of concreteness, and they are inseparable for artist from the searching for identity.
“Bare Feet Nostalgia” – not only series of photographs but also the artist’s biography, in which his attention is concentrated not on himself, but on the meetings with other people. The photo artist tells his life story through the life stories of a great number of other people.
Sutkus – an indefatigable observer who makes an attempt to preserve the “passing world”. The people who have gone are such as we see them in photographs. Their way of life has gone together with them. There are no long such small towns, villages, farm-steaks and kitchen gardens. Today everything is different. Sutkus has been documenting for several decades the changes in the generations of the people residing in the same country. He has preserved the traces of the vanishing past by way of employing the photograph as an art of memory. It should be mentioned that in the same way his photographs are in no way pedantic chronicles or an ethnographic registration. Sutkus tells the story of his own experiences without blaming and defending as well as unmasking or worshipping anybody. However, he is not a passive observer but rather a participant. The scenes in Sutkus’ photographs preserve the juice of the “passing world”. They seem to be full of talks and fragrance. His artistic photographs present neither staged nor a reportage photo art. While fixing a decisive moment, Sutkus studies and analyses a character of a phenomenon. He manages to cheer one up as well as to move to tears. In everyday life of ordinary people he looks for sense of life. One fails to find here any sense of the absurdity of existence. Hard but sensible life forms expressive characters attracting the artist. The photo artist has been endowed with an exceptional talent of a portraitist. He does not abandon concentration on an individual even in mass scenes. The act of taking a photograph – the process of the cognition of man. A model always looks directly at the objective. However, his frankness somehow preserves mysteriousness. Sutkus reveals man’s character or the past without any grotesque or fawning, he is even able to guess those abilities of his heroes that had no favourable circumstances to be realized. The characters are far from being single-fold.
One fails to find in Sutkus’ photographs a penchant for effective foreshortening, the dramatic effect of chiaroscuro, abstraction or collage. He is a master of a pure, non-manipulated photograph. He imparts some depth and symbolism to the stopped instant, rejecting any theatrical or abstract media. His main media – the experience of life, curiosity and masterly concentration of the professional artist.
Sutkus seems to believe himself and manages to convince us that man’s essence coincides with his picture that can be rendered in a photograph.
Hasselblad Center, Goteborg Museum of Art Intendent/Curator
The works of Antanas Sutkus is indeed a great input into the photography of the world. Even more this input is vivid in his homeland Lithuania. He was born in 1939. At his 30ies he put the basics for photography in Soviet Union.
In 2001 Antanas Sutkus received the grant of the Hasselblad Foundation. The grant was given for the research and conservation of his archive stored in Lithuania. The archive contains more than 700 000 of negatives dated back to 1959-1989.
We can compare Sutkus with Swedish photographer Christer Stromholm. He is the “mine of gold” when he start to speak about the photography of Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. His pictures reflect the daily life of people. The main theme is people, children. Few collections contain specific themes: people that survived the concentration camps and visit of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in Lithuanian in 1965.
Photographs of Antanas Sutkus embody the humanistic ideas and show them to the people all over the world. Certainly he will remain in the history of photography as one of the greatest artists of the XXth century.
2004, Vilnius, Daily Life Archives
12 Insights into the Works of Antanas Sutkus
By Jonas Valatkevičius
Daily life is one of the most fashionable phrases of the XXth century. Cultural historians and critics of modern phenomena took such a firm hold of this phrase that even at the beginning of the XXIst century it sounds attractive.
I would not dwell on how this concept got into the actual cultural vocabulary or the way it had to go till it reached our days. But a few things are worthy to be mentioned. Even lacking precise data I could guarantee that the father of daily life was the harbinger of leftist social ideas Karl Marx, and its mother – the Industrial Revolution that has led us to the abyss of self–destruction.
Mr. Marx most probably was the most prominent figure among those who turned towards nameless crowds of urban workers and foresaw the end of the Emperors’ Era. If up till then only noblemen were mentioned in history annals, in the XIXth century ordinary citizens of the world started to poke their heads above the surface of history. The science of history was turned upside down when daily life of millions of subjects caught interest of its researchers.
To an Emperor every day is festive, every minute special, and every second sacred. Common people do not have anything besides their daily life. Their lives pass unnoticed, nobody draws their portraits or writes their biographies. Millions of people were born, grew up, got old and died, and we would never know anything about them. Billions of lives flashed and instantly went out. That is daily life. Multitudes of meaningless moments those neither beginning nor end could be made out even through best binoculars.
Photography wasn’t the first technology to capture daily life. And neither was the cinema, though both means of recreating reality were best suited for the purpose. As many similar techniques, they were used for entertainment. Photography was a pleasure for the rich, and they were not interested in daily life. Sometimes they liked to take pictures of their servants, but these were always staged, with an air of exotica or old days. Cinema started with an oncoming train, and it was meant to scare the viewers. First observers of daily life most probably were painters – the XIXth century French realists and Van Gogh, who painted potato eaters, shoes, and chairs.
But the art of painting interpreted daily life, it was not able to show it the way it was seen. Photography and cinema, the two technologies that recreated reality directly, as means of observation were used only in the second half of the XXth century. Since then every honest look into daily life caused a revolution. Cinema shows it most clearly – one just has to remember what happened when Neorealism was born in Italy and the new wave in France.
“All photographs are memento mori. To photograph means to feel the immortality, vulnerability, and changeability of another person (or thing). Cutting off one moment and freezing it, all photographs witness the merciless imprint of time. Camera started to duplicate the world when changes in human environment picked up intoxicating speed: multitudes of biological and social life forms were destroyed in an incredibly short time, and this instrument could capture all what was lost.” Susan Sontag. On Photography.
Totalitarian states abhorred daily life. The great totalitarian regimes based their existence on some future vision and used all their might to forbid observing how it was sought. Future gleamed ahead like a mirage and its completion was constantly postponed. And daily life was tragic – when society was harnessed to build some fantastic vision, it saw defeat after defeat. Totalitarianism returned back to the times when only imperial reality existed, and everything that took place outside the palace walls was ignored both by historians and artists.
Totalitarian regimes went even further. The world had long ago discovered daily life and people longed for it even in totalitarian states. So there remained only to ban daily life and punish severely those who observed it and made it public.
Whenever Antanas Sutkus and I talked about the presented collection, he used to say, “I have to thank the Soviets that they banned publication of such photographs”. Heaps of photographs that have never been included into any exhibition or catalogue, photographs that were quietly laying in carton boxes, as there was no sense in making them public. Artists of that time intuitively felt that demonstration of abstract daily life contradicted the essence of totalitarian views.
Daily life in such a state was always of a double nature – that of a state and a man. Daily life meant everything that was banal, boring and very common. The flow of human daily life had to vanish, as it conveyed not a single grain of visionary pathos. And if a statement uttered in a totalitarian state did not echo with future vision, it destroyed the very foundations of such society.
A citizen of a totalitarian state was forbidden to have a neutral position. That’s why Soviet bureaucrats persecuted abstract art – it captured a radically apolitical attitude. And in such society an apolitical attitude instantly become a political challenge. Every citizen had to participate in the majestic parade, as those who stood aloof could have raised doubts in the heads of other people. Hence the saying: “Who is not with us is against us.”
State daily life was simply created. It was simulated by choosing the most appropriate form but eliminating any dangerous content. Official daily life of a Soviet citizen was shown in films, news reports, and photography journals. From the first sight these images were right – by form they did imitate human daily life.
But only by form. The content was filtered at least twice. The first filtration was carried out by artists – they knew that images had to conform to the official concept of daily life. The second operation was performed when images were presented to viewers, as images were independent neither in cinema nor in the mass media of that time. They were brought to earth by ideological comments. Shots were meant to illustrate a film’s plot, and photographs – an article. And we are perfectly aware how the perception of an image is altered by a nearby placed comment!
Let’s recall the legendary Soviet film “Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears”. A nice and right movie. A heart–breaking story of a woman. But only from the first sight. The eagerness to show the apolitical nature of the Soviet society sets off the alarm. As does the wish to proclaim that one has not necessarily to become a party member to put his personal life in order. It is this aspect that turns the film into one of the most cynical works of the Soviet propaganda.
Ten years ago, sitting in the drawing room of a former Soviet Lithuania’s leader’s wife, I held Antanas Sutkus’ photograph for the first time. Leafing through a family album I found the signature of A.Sutkus on the back of one photo. I knew that he was the most outstanding Lithuanian photographer. The photo depicted a neatly lined up family. But the name of A.Sutkus made me look at it more closely. And now the author himself completed the story. A.Sutkus took the initiative to establish the Society of Lithuanian Photographic Art. It took many years till photography established its place in the system of the Soviet art. Best photographers used to take photos of highest state officials to smooth the way. Heaps of photos that captured daily life of party bosses were sent to their houses.
Today, almost 15 years after the fall of the Soviet regime, even these photographs become more and more interesting. Photography, as A.Sutkus likes to point out, first of all is a memory. Memento mori, as Susan Sontag would agree. But the images of state daily life have to ripen yet. I am thirty, but I remember it too well. The Soviet Union, dozing under Brezhnev’s regime, had already lost political sharpness of bygone days, and state daily life was in fashion. Of course, one could argue the contrary. The totalitarian ideology of that time had reached such perfection that it was well understood – the film “Moscow Does Not Believe In Tears” was a far more effective ideological propaganda than the Buddhist studies of Lenin’s works.
But human daily life is far more difficult to fathom. Memories tend to wear out too quickly – who remembers now that milk was sold in glass bottles with silver foil lids and kefir – in bottles with green foil lids? The essential feature of human daily life is that it seems despicably meaningless and memories instantly vanish.
My memories were slowly rekindled while leafing through hundreds of A.Sutkus’ photographs. A mysterious feeling when you perceive that you are among the few ones who actually witnessed those things. They were hiding so long in scratched negatives that have been forgotten by the author himself. Each time, when the number of photographs was reduced to the format of an exhibition or a catalogue, it became clear that Antanas Sutkus would find new, still unseen images for our next meeting. Every time we had to compare memories of three generations – Antanas Sutkus’, his wife’s, and mine – as that was the only way to decide which photograph represented the attributed role best. The process went in silence and only an occasional gleam in someone’s eyes gave away that one or another image rekindled some distant memory.
That was the best way to compile an exhibition and a catalogue – no preliminary, science-based method could have done better. Of course, we could have focused on cityscapes, or could have stuck to rural images. We could have looked for reflections of Soviet aesthetics, or could have analyzed facial features of a Lithuanian at that time. We could have limited ourselves to childish reality or could have searched for truth in the eyes of an old man. All this could still be done, but today the most interesting thing to do is to find a place for A.Sutkus archive in the labyrinths of our memories.
A journey through the presented photographs by Antanas Sutkus starts somewhere in the fifties and softly dissipates at the crossroads of Perestroika and Sąjūdis. There are several ways of traveling. You can observe the photographer’s angle (p.10), or take a closer look at Lithuania of that time (p.11). You can also dissect every shot adding to it your own story.
Those who know well the oeuvre of Antanas Sutkus could find these photos rather unexpected. The photographer’s angle seems to be poorly balanced – most photos lack the usual symmetry and harmony, some shots seem to be taken at random, they even remind of the high-speed automatic camera, when, heedless of composition, one hastens to capture the ever–changing reality.
But there is nothing accidental in A.Sutkus’ photographs. From the first sight hasty angles tell much about the once enjoyed habits of looking. The perspective breaks when his camera’s gaze is turned from the face of some dear person towards a road that disappears at the horizon. Sometimes a plot line is deliberately cut off, and emptiness comfortably settles in the larger part of a shot. Energetic movements of his camera and finger that has as if accidentally pushed the shutter make the photos vibrate with life. The captured fragment of daily life is cracking with vitality!
There is another strange feature in Antanas Sutkus’ angle history. We have to acknowledge that the aesthetics of the fifties and sixties has like never before penetrated the modern photography. Leafing through any fashionable magazine we can find images cut into similar angles almost on every page – be it an advert, a photo of a person depicted in an article, or a photo session of some new fashion collection. That’s why A.Sutkus’ photographs, that up till now lay hidden, do not present any problems of looking – the angle is familiar and the images hellishly modern. Only their setting and casting differs – faces of modern people rarely are so pure.
Documentation always was one of the most powerful arms of photography. There was a long struggle till cultural bureaucrats acknowledged photography as a form of art, but its power of documentation has never been questioned. It was the documentary layer of photography that made one speak about its power to rekindle memories. Discussing one photograph A.Sutkus remarked, „photos like this one will be studied by film directors when they would be making movies about bygone days”. In his collection the forms of the Soviet Lithuanian reality are captured amply and precisely.
There is one more interesting thing. Much as we are happy about the Soviet ethnography captured in these photos, it is clear that the photographer himself never felt to be an anthropologist trying to save fashions of his days for future generations. This would have been a task too easy. In those photographs he could have avoided the applied aspect so characteristic to the Soviet art. He knew that these images would remain in his personal archives and most probably would never become a part of the official archive.
That’s why ethnographic details do not annoy the eye. We notice them later, looking at a photograph for a second or even a third time. It is the character portrayed that rivets the eye. A.Sutkus is a photographer of characters – every person in his photos is much more than a part of composition. Careful staging enables us to see a character with distinct individual features, not some abstract being. And only later we notice the impressive dress of a Vilnius dweller, as it is just a part of the character’s personality.
I have noticed the cinematographic character of Antanas Sutkus’ works during our first meeting. At that time I still did not know by heart hundreds of his photographs, never seen in exhibitions or catalogues. I was still searching for a key to Sutkus’ daily life archives. But very soon I felt that many of his works were like fragments of a movie, shots illustrating a film annotation.
This unexpected cinematographic feeling was determined by two already mentioned features: the photographer’s glance (his angle) and his specific attitude towards a man (character). That’s why looking at a simple photo of a woman in a telephone booth you got a feeling that you could easily recreate her conversation. Was she phoning her husband? Arranging a date with her lover? Maybe just calling home to ask if her children had had their dinner? Reporting to an unknown KGB officer? Or telling her accomplice that the store she worked in, received deficit goods? Or just talking with her friend that had just returned from the hospital with a newly born baby…
The movie was long and intricate. Like an epos that had slowly measured off almost fifty years; or a serial depicting feelings, daily joys and misfortunes of several Lithuanian generations. The format of a serial would capture daily life better. Yes, this collection is more akin to a serial, even if it’s more monumental than a most serious film.
London, Friday 03.10.08
Antanas Sutkus: Lithuanian Portraits
Description: Documentary images by one of Lithuania's foremost photographers.
Top of Form
Soviets in soft focus for Sutkus
By Sue Steward, Evening Standard 16.09.08
Masterpiece: Sutkus's portraits are at the White Space Gallery
Since joining the EU in 2004, Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, has emerged as a new focus for art and photography, particularly for work by Antanas Sutkus. “The father of Baltic photography”, Sutkus built his reputation on a documentary archive of life under Soviet rule during the Sixties and Seventies. Most subjects are Lithuanians but this small yet wonderful exhibition also includes, surprisingly, shots of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir on a local beach in 1965.
Sutkus’s intense documentary portraits, taken always in black and white, freeze the small moments of life. Unlike his Ukrainian contemporary Boris Mikhailov, who highlighted the wretchedness of the era, Sutkus made “humanistic” and “psychological” portraits, and sought out the positive amid the harsh reality. He found joy in a beaming young soldier but never the sentimentality demanded of official Soviet photographers.
Sutkus’s popularity derives largely from the intense sensitivity he shows towards children. Sometimes he approaches sentimentality but always elegantly avoids it — even in the heart-rending Mother’s Hand, a perfectly composed masterpiece that leads the eye around the girl towards her face and downcast eyes, stopping on the hands clinging to her mother’s fingers.
Sutkus always printed his own work, and characteristically chose a soft, grainy effect to avoid the cooler, sharp-contrast style of many documentary photographers. This important historical record places White Space firmly on the map.
Until 10 October. Information: 020 7399 9571, www.whitespacegallery.
© Antanas Sutkus