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The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art Photography: Photographic Organizations in the Soviet Periphery

Updated: Jun 29, 2018

Jessica Werneke


After the Second Word War, photography became a favorite pastime of the Soviet populace, and a popular amateur leisure activity for many Soviet citizens who became members of amateur photography clubs that sprang up all over the Soviet Union, first in the capital cities in each of the republics, but later in smaller cities as well. The popularity of photography was spurred by the confluence of a relaxation in censorship, the production of relatively easy to use cameras within the USSR (reverse engineered from German cameras brought back after the war), and government support for productive leisure which actively encouraged citizens to become involved in cultural activities. First, this kept them occupied and engaged after work and on weekends, rather than resorting to passing the time drinking and making mischief, but second, ideally, it would also involve them in the promotion of Soviet ideology and propaganda.


Amateur club photography was especially effective at the latter. Clubs held periodic meetings, usually once weekly or twice monthly, in which members discussed images and participated in practical exercises. These meetings culminated in an annual or bi-annual exhibitions. Many clubs defined their exhibitions as a sort of “propaganda photography,” which provided an “aesthetic education” for an uneducated audience, especially in more isolated areas, where the press often included amateur images in local periodicals.[1] Critics and photojournalists alike championed amateur photography as a way to further expose remote audiences to the best practices in photography through amateurs whose images acted as conduits of ideology. Through incorporating aestheticized photographs, familiar locations and topics, local amateurs provided visual documentation of how socialism positively benefitted the community. Despite these lofty goals, however, government institutions, particularly the Ministry of Culture, failed to satisfy the demands of many amateurs, photojournalists and photography critics by refusing to create a photography union specifically devoted to photographers of all levels of expertise.[2] Beginning in 1956, the reestablishment of the All-Union photography journal Sovetskoe foto, demands for unionization can be found in nearly every issue of the journal throughout the 1950s through the 1960s and into the 1970s, from amateurs, to photojournalists, to the most well-respected critics in the field.[3]



Romualdas Rakauskas, from the series Tenderness, 1962 – 1971

In the late Soviet period, the Lithuanian SSR was on the forefront of innovative photographic institutions. Despite calls for unionization in other republics, which fell on deaf ears for decades, in October 1969 photojournalists and amateur photographers formed the LSSR Society of Art Photography, or FMD. This regulatory organization developed as a response to the unique political situation in Soviet Lithuania, in part due to Antanas Sniečkus’ cautious promotion of national culture and the idea grew out of a roundtable meeting of cultural authorities including artists, photography critic Sigitas Krivickas, photographers Liudvikas Ruikas and Antanas Sutkus, and the Minister of Culture of the LSSR, Lionginas Epetys, among others.[4] The FMD was remarkably professional in its approach to the formation of its union. Its charter laid out clear cut paths to membership, the goals of the organization, and membership requirements.


The charter of the FMD is not what is unique about the organization. Many non-unionized amateur photography clubs across the Soviet Union wrote their own charters in an attempt to be taken seriously by cultural authorities. Yet, by the summer of 1971, the editors of Sovetskoe foto had received so many questions, inquiries, and comments from readers about the FMD, that they published the Union charter in its entirety, translated into Russian, in the October issue of the journal. The editorial committee of Sovetskoe foto introduced the article, indicating the level of interest they had received from readers across the Soviet Union: “At various seminars, rallies, and meetings, representatives of the photographic community and members of photography clubs repeatedly expressed their desire to familiarize themselves with the Charter of the [new] Society.”[5] As an officially recognized institution in Lithuania, the charter was of particular interest to amateur photography clubs interested in modeling their own charters off of the FMD, simply because the organization successfully achieved what photographers in other republics had not: the establishment of a union that was open to both amateurs and professionals.



Antanas Sutkus, Young Doctor, 1970

The charter of the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography is remarkably comprehensive, and reveals the extent of professionalism and bureaucratic detail its photographer founders, Liudvikas Ruikas and Antanas Sutkus, addressed in order to legitimize the status of their union. Similarly, it directly addressed the major topics and problems that had been discussed in the journal Sovetskoe foto for over a decade, as to why unionization was an absolute necessity for professional and amateur photographers, and major points in the charter address the purpose of the union itself:


“The tasks of the Soviet of Photography of the Lithuanian SSR: a) to unite in a single organization of photographers all genres [of photography], both professionals and amateurs; educate their members…on the basis of Marxist aesthetics [and] to develop their artistic taste and abilities.”[6]


The Society “directs the entirety of photo art in the Republic, renders creative, methodological and material assistance to its members.”[7]


The Society “creates its own production sector…organizes a photographic library, creative and production studios and photo laboratories provided with all necessary equipment.”[8]

“Members of the Society can be both professionals and amateurs who have reached creative maturity and recognition, as well as persons who do not create photo works, but actively support and promote photo art – theorists, critics, historians, and persons who actively promote photo art. Candidate members of the Society can be both professionals and amateurs who have not yet reached the artistic level of actual members. The society promotes their creative growth, and sends their work to All-Union and international exhibitions.”[9]


Charter of the Lithuanian Society of Art Photography, published in Sovetskoe foto, October, 1971

What is so extraordinary about the FMD is that it controlled all levels of photographic production in the LSSR. Full membership included a number of perks, including funding to attend exhibitions, lectures and meetings organized by the FMD both in the Soviet Union and abroad. The union controlled the publication of its own books, albums, pamphlets and exhibitions. It completely coordinated the circulation and censorship of its own images. In other republics, this was ostensibly the responsibility of a variety of state agencies, Glavlit (The General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press), for example, was responsible for approving images circulated in the press and their publication.[10] In unionizing, Lithuanian photographers were technically a part of the republican government, but, as opposed to other republics, it was the only organization in which photographers themselves completely controlled exhibitions and published images and content about photography, rather than outside bureaucratic organs. In this respect, the FMD wielded enormous and almost autonomous power over the circulation of the images of its members. This was of course tempered by outside institutions, and if images were to be selected for publication or exhibition outside of Lithuania, they needed to conform to the standards of the organizers; and the Ministry of Culture of the Lithuanian SSR or the Republican Council of Trade Unions could liquidate the Society at any time. Nevertheless, that the FMD was able to independently evaluate the social utility and aesthetic value of its members’ images is remarkable and a development that was largely supported by photographers and amateurs across the Soviet Union.


Despite interest in the FMD, this organization was in and of itself quite different from what many critics and amateurs outside the republic had initially campaigned for, because it ostensibly was open only to art photographers. Similarly, outside of Lithuania, it was initially thought that instead of an independent institution, the Union was under the control of bureaucratic institutions that “viewed art photography as merely a genre of photojournalism,” though this misconception quickly dissipated.[11] The FMD model proved remarkably effective at resolving the complications voiced by critics and amateurs elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The FMD “was the only institution in Soviet Lithuania that specialized in the production and distribution of photography, as well as photographic education” and its “activity encompassed the creative work of professional and amateur photographers.”[12] Professional members of the Society received benefits, including a stipend that allowed them to independently fund their work without commissions or contracts. Each photograph that “was to be made public” was first reviewed by the Art Council of the FMD before any further evaluation was considered by censors, journal editors, and so forth.[13]



Aleksandras Macijauskas, In the Market, 1972

The establishment of the FMD attracted the attention of photographers, photojournalists, theorists and critics from across the Soviet Union. In the Russian Federation, where discussions about unionization began over a decade earlier, amateur clubs turned to the FMD model for their own clubs that were not officially recognized or unionized. Though clubs outside Lithuania lacked the distribution networks and perks of unionization, interest in the club, its organization and its structure made Lithuania a major point of interest for amateur and professional photographic communities and clubs, and used the example of the FMD in their own, ultimately unsuccessful, bids at unionization. Despite its geographic location on the periphery of the Soviet Union, for photographers at the very least, Vilnius became a center of photographic activity rivaled only by Moscow and Leningrad.



Jessica Werneke received her PhD from the University of Texas at Austin in 2015. Her dissertation and forthcoming book manuscript investigate modernist influences in Khrushchev era photojournalism. From 2016 to 2018, she held a post as a Research Fellow at the International Center for the History and Sociology of World War II and its Consequences at the NRU Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and she is currently a British Academy Newton International Fellow at Loughborough University. Her recent projects and research include a comparative study of amateur photography and photography clubs in Russia and the Baltic Republics after World War II, a history of post-World War II Soviet photography theory, and a case study about Latvian photographers who were arrested for producing nude and pornographic photographs in the late Soviet period. You can read more of Jessica's work on her own blog, Sovetskoe Foto: https://sovetskoefotoblog.wordpress.com/


Notes

[1] V. Stigneev, Fototvorchestvo Rossii: Istoriia, razviti i sovremennoe sostoianie fotoliubitel’stva, Moskva: “Planeta,” 40.


[2] The only members of the photographic community involved in union activity were professional photojournalists employed by journals and newspapers full-time. They were members of the Union of Journalists, organized in the Photography Section of the union.


[3] The first issue of Sovetskoe foto was published by the Ogonek publishing house in April 1926, and publication ended in June 1941. In the 1920s and 1930s, the journal catered to photojournalists and modernist photographic artists, who used the journal as a space to debate the artistic and documentary merits of the medium. Many members of the so called Soviet “avant-garde” circles published their images and theoretical musings on the purpose of photography in the Soviet context. It was reestablished in 1956 and the first publication was released in January 1957.


[4] Vytautas Michelkevicius, “The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art Photography (1969-1989): An Image Production Network,” Vilnius: Vilnius Academy of Arts Press, 2011, 129.


[5] “The Charter of the Lithuanian Society for Art Photography,” Sovetskoe foto, no. 10 (1971): 30-31.


[6] Ibid, 30.


[7] Ibid, 30-31.


[8] Ibid, 30-31.


[9] Ibid, 30-31.


[10] Yet, my research has revealed that state censors generally left photographers to their own devices, and many club and professional photographers practiced self-censorship. See https://sovetskoefotoblog.wordpress.com/ for shorter discussions on this topic. For a more detailed explanation, see Jessica Werneke, “The Boundaries of Art: Soviet Photography from 1956 to 1970.” (PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2015).


[11] Vytautas Michelkevicius, “The Lithuanian SSR Society of Art Photography,” 117.


[12] Ibid, 97.


[13] Ibid, 101.

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© 2018 by Peripheral Histories.

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