Lithuanian photography: yesterday and today 2004
Compiled by Skirmantas Valiulis
Designer Rima Kiubaraitė-Sutkienė
Editor Genovaitė Savickienė
© Union of Lithuanian Art Photographers,
Lithuanian Photography: Yesterday and Today '04
Modern photography poises more questions than it gives answers. It has expanded considerably the sphere of its influence and any classification or accommodation into even the widest framework of reflection and image is getting more and more problematic. Foundations of photographic history have also been rocked: the book Photography. The Crisis of History, published last year in Spain, criticized any attempts to liken it to painting and to narrow it down to the history of art photography. It also emphasizes the geographic insularity of fundamental histories of world photography and their orientation towards the photography of Western Europe and the USA. Of course, it has not been contrived by historians themselves. The recently deceased Polish writer and descendent from Lithuania, the laureate of the Nobel Prize Č. Milošas claims that the openness or insularity of Europe has been determined not only by political issues. The standpoint that both economy and culture of the Western Europe are much more advanced than the economy and culture of the Eastern Europe developed much earlier than the Iron Curtain was dropped.
Could photographic history help change the long established attitudes? Most probably. After extensive retrospective exhibitions of A. Sutkus in Warsaw and Poznan (Poland), the Polish art critics wrote that Lithuania should be proud to have a photographer of such dimensions. The Lithuanian photography had also received a just evaluation at home: A. Sutkus was presented with the National Prize, A. Aleksandravičius with the State Award, and S. Žvirgždas was awarded the Department of Culture Prize for his essay on photographic history Mūsų miestelių fotografai (Photographers of Our Towns). Very interesting layers of photographic history have been disclosed at A. Kunčius' retrospective exhibition at the Lithuanian National Museum. The photographic retro by A. Sutkus and A. Kunčius raised doubts if only open dissident opposition during the Soviet years enabled to show what was happening behind the political and cultural facades.
Personal exhibitions of A. Valiauga and R. Krupauskas, representatives of the new Lithuanian photography, were also marked by success. Their subject matter and technologies differ but both reflect a swift formation of "spectacle (imagery)" (G.Debord) and "simulacrums (society)" (J. Baudrilard) in Lithuania. The critical, rebellious spirit that has been so characteristic of most talented Lithuanian photographers of various generations remains. However, there are plenty creative attempts that could be attributed to those described by the Lithuanian philosopher living in the States A. Mickūnas: "people do not talk about the world, they talk about the texts that talk about other texts, and so on and so forth".
We should not think that the yearbook Lithuanian Photography: Yesterday and Today has to be based on the ostrich policy and dodge the agonistic issues. It presents a diversity of photographic works, views and interpretations. The yearbook is neither an almanac that contains only the select works of the few, nor a compilation that reflects this or that trend. Its concept is to review and select photographs that deserve attention as the year's discoveries or quests.
We are also happy to see the third book on photo journalism Tai Lietuva, the young photographers have published a selection of their works Pop Reality. The yearbook Lithuanian Photography: Yesterday and Today strives to inform about the new achievements or the newly discovered works of our photographers, their attempts to retain their self and to nourish the original character of Lithuanian photography. There is a saying that if you want to remain in one place you should run faster and faster. Maybe that's the function of this yearbook.
To Squeeze a Shot/Art
The press and the art of photography. The phrase reminds of the weekly Literatūra ir menas (Literature and Art), two contradictory phenomena. At the very start of the weekly in 1946 the word "art" was used to signify both the pictorial arts and the art that was different, more refined and therefore grasped only by the select few; the art that was separated from the distinguishable and much easier deciphered (if there was anything to decipher) literature of social realism. That indecipherability was daunting and therefore could be only bulldozed away. But the weekly (as well as the Lithuanian manifestations of eroticism in the Nemunas journal) had much more to do with the photographic art (as with the pictorial arts on the whole) than the press of today. Art remains marginal in semiofficial parties, despite of advancements in printing.
Having visited the exhibition of Lithuanian press photographers' club or thumbed through its catalogue, one could exclaim that separate manifestations of photo art could be found in the press, too. And he would be right: such a phenomenon really exists. But does it exist on a daily basis? How many photographs published in the albums of press photography have we seen in the press? It seems that only a few.
In an attempt to fathom the peculiarities of the present day press photography I try to recall photographs from our dailies. My memory recalls prints that are far from being amusing: a shocking photo of a penis bereft of its owner; a paraphrase of Gogol's nose. And I cannot for the life of me recall a single interesting shot on the first pages of Respublika, Lietuvos Rytas or some other daily. I just know that there were lots of photographs of politicians, criminals, shots from such hot places as wars, beaches, and fires. A more sophisticated photo could be hiding, or more likely, could be hidden on the sixth or God-knows-which page by paste-up artists who usually boast of a much better aesthetic taste than all editors taken together. Even in art supplements photography more often reproduces art than makes it. Regrettably, exceptions only confirm the general rule: the blame for this sad situation should be put on editors who do not grasp the power of an image, do not feel the weight of the image empire and continue to live imprisoned by drained-off written texts. A good photograph is as rare as a vernacularism or an international word for the fear that an individual with a junior high school education will not understand it. Sadly, antivisualism is not an established conservative attitude as it is with the publishers of the International Herald Tribune.
The paradox is even greater: an image is conceived neither as a power nor even as a source of information. And a shot that radiates mood is damned to be thrown overboard.
Trying to remain objective we should draw a distinction between the dailies - fast food burgers - and monthly publications meant to last a few days or a weekend - bastions of teenage pop, music and fashion, and various manifestations of feminine or macho thinking. Gender publications show an obvious advance in taste and content. I don't recall (or maybe I don't know) that a well-known photographer would be commissioned to go to London to make a reportage. Algimantas Aleksandravičius was commissioned, took a shot of a red omnibus and got back. Super! I reffer to commissioner's thinking, not the photograph. Another commissioner Jurijus Borisovas also showed class - he called Algimantas to capture his son's wedding party. Algimantas took some pictures of real quality and dubious artistic value (containing as much art as it could be found in the genre of bride's coronet, veil and wedding cakes) that were published in the Lifestyle. Again, it was the commissioner - not the photograph - who showed class. And the photo artist should return to his senile outcasts, prisoners, surgeons, or the forgotten Leonov or Kalašnikov, and make his art. Maybe someone will publish.
The digital perspective presented by Algis Kriščiūnas to Panelė magazine is most probably best adapted to the readers' age, be it a group portrait of the Rebelheart with a pit-bull, or a portrait of Julija Brazauskienė smoking a cigar - both shots could perfectly suit for a decent CD cover, and the foreigners could get the idea of the Lithuanian Cesaria Evora.
It is a paradox that among all photo reports from various parties, routs, anniversary parties, gala events of the state or some business firm presented in women's periodicals I recall the only picture that made an attempt to probe deeper into the moods of this "demo-mondo". Jonas Staselis captured men in suits "weighing up" a model that demonstrated underwear (obviously, the model not her underwear). The picture contained not a single trace of parody or irony. It simply stated the fact that obscured the mundane opposition of naked and dressed or the intersections of uniforms. A shot, maybe even accidental, found among thirty other photos of that party. Selection is also a form of art. Another image that comes to my mind is the advertisement of Juozas Statkevičius' perfume picturing the face of Svetlana Griaznova. I suppose we could infer that advertising claims the greatest part of art in press photography. Again, not without corrections made by commissioners and advertising agencies. A prizewinning photo by Zita Stankevičienė, used for the presidential election, made an exception. But, devoid of comments (people covering from the wind raised by Rolandas Paksas' helicopter) it lost half of its weight.
Festina versus lente. In the sixties and seventies, when our photographers analyzed and tried to prove the existence of photography as a form of art and the necessity to legitimize and institutionalize this art, you could find the signs of the aesthetics of a still shot and frozen time almost everywhere. Even a white bonnet torn by the wind from the head of a bicycling girl, captured by Romualdas Rakauskas' camera, must had been frozen in the air for a few minutes letting the photographer to set the focus, arrange the composition and slowly release the shutter. The present continuous time that came to a stop. The portrayed people patiently stood before the camera: they didn't seem embarrassed or in a hurry, they just stood and looked, intrigued, at the camera where they expected to see the photographer's eye - or maybe the eye of the viewer leafing through the album - conscious of the freshly shaven face and the shirt ironed just this morning. Numerous portraits of rural people were matched by numerous and similar landscapes: the earth's face furrowed with harrows or wrinkles. The earth's face is eternal: even hastily caught it shows the slow rotation of seasons or life cycles. Oppositions are well-defined: nature / culture, young / old, official / daily (real), even if one of the components remains behind the picture. The changing times bring forth changes in the landscape of photography, and the rural portrait is replaced by the general plan of the city: Algimantas Kunčius' elderly woman is passing by a building with a huge advertisement on it. Earlier the old woman would suffice. Reaction to the urban onset is an escape to the vastness of Neringa, the wastes between apartment houses, oddly called playgrounds, the deserts of textures (the TTL concern - Trimakas, Treigys, Lukys) in an attempt to erase boundaries, remove horizons, and present cross-sections of moods. Sometimes the same effect is attained using the opposite means of expression: multiplication of boundaries and faces, layering of spaces upon spaces that let to expand the discourses of uncertainty, transience, and obliteration (Vidmantas Ilčiukas).
All these techniques give us time. Time to think, meditate. The time we look at a photograph could be equal to the time spent to take it. The same happens in press photography: a snapped shot amounts to the turning of a page. A picture that basically has to convey at least surface information remains only a visual manifestation of a text, an image. A chance detail becomes a metaphor only with time (Rolandas Paksas presents the government and tangled microphone wires hanging from the table turn into a noose around his neck only after the impeachment) or it is too shallow, amounts to a funny slapstick (Algirdas Brazauskas trips while breaking the soil). And photographers should not be blamed: the press is a day-to-day work, art photography - free time of aristocrats.
Democracy. Such words as versus, contra, and anti are no longer vogue words and have lost their topicality. The institutional subdivision of photography is slowly diminishing. But art is always a looser in the process of democracy. Very often art photographers that employ sharpness, sensation, and contrast make social photography or reportage with an aftertaste of kitsch or a primitive, rash decision making. But attempts to turn kitsch into art make your hair stand on end.
The very combination "press photography" indicates the press as the owner. The one, who pays and commissions a shot. A shot that comments, conveys the attitude of a certain publication (a funny, gawking expression of a politician; a noble, beautiful face), or a commissioner's position in advertising. As my friend and artist Algis Griškevičius said, "nothing can make a woman more beautiful than a photo shop".
"Pure" artists avoid subjection. Still, sometimes they try to be concurrent with the demands of time or change their mode of vision, letting in more colors. Arturas Valiauga almost restores, i.e. brings back colors to the portraits by Antanas Sutkus or the Stanioniai, and presents an almost advert-beautiful image of a rural house, pasted with clippings from press and various labels that could suit both the Lifestyle periodical and the agitation for pension funds. Romualdas Rakauskas revived the retro style in 2000 and thrust guns into the arms of bald-headed children of the sixties. And I cannot be very wrong assuming that the photos of such two-way movement more often convey the surface or a discovered life made public at the very best.
The cycle I Dropped in on Stepas We Talked about Life by A. Valiauga could be regarded as the most precise reflection of our days: the inhabitants' faces and postures are from the golden times of Lithuanian portrait photography; and the walls, colors and, finally, the choice and arrangement (i.e., overabundance) of clippings pasted instead of wallpapers convey the assault of the present day image and an attempt to make it more aesthetic, i.e., to control. This process is further continued by the frames of A.Valiauga's shot. Everything is just an absolute concept of beauty: an artist who works in advertising makes press photographs.