8 Lithuanian Photographers: The Phenomenon of Lithuanian School of Photography
The flourishing of photography in the 1970s is closely linked to the phenomenon of the so-called “Lithuanian School of Photography.” The term was coined by two Moscow art critics, Anri Vartanov and Konstantin Vishnevsky, in their Sovetskoye Foto review of the 9 Lithuanian Photographers exhibit. Since we already know that no institution for the training of photographers existed at that time in Lithuania, why did these critics choose to use the word “school” at all?
The humanistic photography movement that developed in the West following World War II had an impact on Lithuanian artists. Like Western humanists such as France’s Henri Cartier-Bresson, Austria’s Ernst Haas, Hungary’s Robert Capa, and America’s Russell Lee, they were drawn to themes and motifs which revealed metaphoric images about human life: childhood, youth, old age, love, beauty, transience. Sutkus’ photograph Motinos ranka (Mother’s Hand, 1966), for example, in which a girl is pictured hugging her mother’s hand, became a metaphor for a mother’s love. Rakauskas’ image of an old woman among tree blossoms, from his series Žydėjimas (Flowering), captures the beauty and fragility of human life. The very titles given to Rakauskas’ series of photographs (Flowering, Gentleness, etc.) serve as metaphors in themselves.
The introductory text to the album published for the Moscow exhibition 9 Lithuanian Photographers testifies to the affiliation of Lithuanian photographers with the humanistic photography movement. The author of the introduction was artist and art critic Vincas Kisarauskas, one of the few critics of the time who had any expertise in photography and who maintained close ties with the community of Lithuanian photographers. Interestingly, Kisarauskas paraphrased texts contained in the catalog published for Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man. In the latter, the authors wrote about how people “get married, labor, fish, argue, sing, fight, and pray similarly across the width and breadth of the world”, while the Lithuanian catalogue mentioned how “a person from the opposite side of the world also cries and laughs; terror, like joy, has no boundaries; and the most subtle of spiritual shifts is reflected in the faces and movements of strangers.” Steichen asserted that photography, seeing similarities between people, “explains one person to another”, while Kisarauskas noted that someone looking at the images taken by Lithuanian photographers can see himself in other people.
Nevertheless, Lithuanian photographers were separated from their Western humanist colleagues by the circumstances dictated by the political context. Against the background of Soviet ideology of the 1960s, both literature and art were forced to master an Aesopian language: the ability to express an idea without attracting the attention of a censor’s eye so that a work of art could actually reach the public. Thus, various visual metaphors became extremely useful. According to Kunčius, “there was no strict control—one could create whatever one wanted and place it away in a drawer. But if you wanted to show something publicly, you had to adjust. We were careful. As we photographed, we had to think and be cautious.”
Another difference was that Lithuanian photographers were more concerned than their Western colleagues with village life. The reason for the interest in provincial life in the 1960s can be explained by the overall political and cultural context: the government sought to reduce the disparity between cities and villages, so it supported the exploration of this subject in literature, art, and photography. Many photographers also felt a close kinship with the villages in which they had been raised, so they had an increased sense of the cyclical nature of the seasons, a knowledge of the psychology of the average villager, and they knew how to approach villagers and convince them to pose for the camera. Kunčius wrote:
We were raised in the village, and I would go back there every summer to work. That worldview, that relationship with and sense of nature, was a part of our lives.
Seeing the consequences of Soviet-era collectivization and industrialization and the rise of urban culture, photographers felt that capturing the traditional Lithuanian way of life was very important, since it might soon disappear entirely. 5 But the main motivation (and one which was impossible to utter aloud) was patriotism. By recording the vestiges of their vanishing culture, the photographers tried to discern the roots of the Lithuanian national character and quietly rebel against the consequences of Sovietization. The multifaceted content of their images allowed the photographers to balance between the “permissible” and the “prohibited.” The national component contained in the photographs, meanwhile, could be justified by invoking the “humanistic perspective” still permitted by the regime. According to photography researcher Tomas Pabedinskas, “nationality reveals itself in their work as a natural, innate human characteristic—one that is independent of any specific period or set of circumstances. Here it is associated with man’s inner, spiritual world, and not with the socio-cultural realm or historical conditions. This is precisely why A. Šliogeris was able to assert that the central focus of the Lithuanian School of Photography’s representatives was the non-historical, timeless […] Eternal Man.”
Jolanta Marcišauskytė-Jurašienė / first published by Mo Museum
The 8 Lithuanian photographers represent different aspects of human life is a replica of the 1969 exhibition. With their worldwide recognition, Lithuanian photographers have successfully represented their country in influential art institutions around the world. Important presentations are no longer held in Moscow, but in London, Paris, Glasgow, Manheim, Kiev, Tbilisi and other museums and galleries of the free world. Award-winning photography albums are published, and prestigious western publishing houses such as Steidl, Kehrer and others are interested in their work. The exhibition is accompanied by recent photographic albums.
Artists in projections: Antanas Sutkus, Vitas Luckus, Aleksandras Macijauskas, Romualdas Rakauskas, Algimantas Kunčius, Romualdas Požerskis, Virgilijus Šonta, Rimaldas Vikšraitis.
The exhibition is curated by Gintaras Cesonis.
Cover image: Vitas Luckus. From the series Relatives. 1958-1986.