Sutkus’ legacy has been acknowledged with the Lithuanian National Culture and Art Prize. Nevertheless, his recent 75th anniversary has been largely omitted by Lithuanian culture establishments. The Lithuania Tribune sat down with Sutkus for interview in his photo albums-packed cozy home in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Many of your contemporaries enjoy deserved rest in home seclusion. Not you. When are you going to stop participating in exhibitions? What keeps you running?
To answer is definitely this: the viewers are the driving force. Until I have them left out there, I just cannot stop. Notably, I’ve got a whole lot more viewers abroad than here in Lithuania.
Despite waning health I still put out five or six exhibitions every year. Some of them lately have been devoted for Sartre (Jean-Paule Sartre, a renowned French philosopher, novelist and playwright). Next year it will be 50 years since his visit to Lithuania, which I covered back then, so, definitely, that is where the interest in me stems from.
He usually would not allow photographers to be around him, but since we had been on good terms he made an exception for me. By the way, he had thought for a long time that I was merely a young aspiring writer. Perhaps the fact that I would take pictures back then with a Russian photo-camera, Zenit, which was widely used by amateurs then.
But, nevertheless, with it and having constantly to cope with being portrayed as a homo sovieticus, a sarcastic and critical reference to a person from the Soviet Union, you managed to make inroads into the largest and most hard-to-open exhibition halls in Paris, New York and London? What was the secret of your success?
Lithuania, notably, was the first among the former Soviet republics to open its unit of photo artists. This happened in 1969, and all the foreigners who had any interest in Soviet photo art would be directed through Moscow to us. And believe me, we did our best to showcase the best in Lithuania. I remember that the guests’ hotels would be paid and they would be assigned drivers to get them around the country. On the flip side of the coin, all the Lithuanian photo artists would benefit from the visits, in terms of invitations to photo exhibitions and photo workshops abroad. Today, it is often much harder to get into many of the galleries than it was then.
Because we were more different and interesting back then.
What were the intrinsic features of the then Lithuanian photo artists and Lithuanian photography on the whole?
Late sixties’ Lithuanian photography was very realistic and portraying real people in the real surroundings. Sure, all the photographers had to be wary of the system, so any gloomy face in a photo could trigger accusations against the artist over smearing the Soviet system and lifestyle.
Have you ever been chastised for that?
In fact, I have. Back in the early 1970s, I was summoned to the central committee of the Communist Party in Moscow to give explanations over an unhappy, gloomy face of a pioneer in a picture that had been published in Sovetskoye Foto (Soviet Photo) magazine. A commission of sullen high-ranking central committee members was blunt: “How did Soviet photography’s Solzhenitsyn (a famous Russian novelist and dissident who lambasted the Soviet system) end up being in the pages of the magazine?”
Perhaps unbelievably, the picture is still haunting me. At a recent photo exhibition in Russia’s Saint Petersburg, some Russian journalist asked me why the pioneer in the photo looked like a child from a Nazi camp. I shot back to him: “No, the child looks like from a Soviet camp.”
All started laughing, and the critic shut up.
Thanks for sharing the album with the photo of the pioneer boy with me. It is very sad, indeed. Did you ever get to talk to the boy before taking the snapshot?
Well, to remind you, back then children would not enroll the organization on their own. It was a mandatory thing. You reach certain age and you had to join it.
No, I did not get to speak to the child. I can just assume perhaps that he wasn’t too happy at school. Who knows now why? But the picture is real, (taken) in natural settings, fixing natural emotions. That what is high-quality photography is all about.
The stakes of the central committee hearing were really high then, for upon an adverse outcome, the editor risked losing her job and the Lithuanian photographer unit could be closed down also. But I was perhaps lucky then. It appeared that one of the Soviet culture watchdogs in the commission had taken photos together with the magazine’s editor in the past, so I got away only with a rebuke.
By the way, until the meeting, the party’s central committee had gotten over 200 letters, mostly from pensioners, complaining about the “indecency” of the picture.
I have hundreds of pictures from the period; many of them are still in negatives and need to be developed. In fact, I’ve been working with my archive for the last 25 years and no end is seen for the work.
Some of the shots, frankly speaking, I just didn’t dare to showcase during the Soviet era. Now, increasingly more galleries would like to expose my never yet exhibited works. For example, the art gallery Vartai exhibited a series of yet unseen my photographs for my 75th birthday.
Though I feel that my strength is dwindling away- to tell the truth, I’ve been disabled for the last 20 years already; I cannot stop taking care of the legacy as long as there is anyone interested in it.
Perhaps a naïve question, but I want to ask it…Why have you always been focusing your lenses on people?
The interest for a human being in my works comes perhaps yet from my childhood years, when often being ill, I’d be just observing others around me. As a schoolchild in the Zapyskis School in Kaunas district, I’d be an avid reader, a real bookworm. Frankly, I read all kinds of books and happened to get hold of books that were not accessible to the general public. So you see, the humanistic understanding of the surrounding world was shaping me as a photographer.
I always recall the words of some professor, who, asked what essence of art is, replied: “It is about humanization of human beings.” With the shift of the regime, we have lost much of it, in fact.
Now the human relations are often twisted, I have to admit. Art just cannot accept the widely spread perception of the system that only the strongest make it through. This is the gist of the free market system and human relations. This obviously cannot be applied to art.
With nearly 25 years as an independent nation, there’re still many weird, Soviet-era intrinsic misconceptions about the artist. Many still believe that a real artist can do with a slice of bread and kephir. It’s crap. Regrettably, we still do not have traditions of arts patronage formed in Lithuania. When it comes to it, we have to draw a clear line between it and making charitable donations for the sake of art. The Lithuanian Great Duchy’s dukes had been great examples of real art patronage, by the way. Frankly, the artists’ situation is still pretty miserable today. Look, how many of them are scrimmaging for the national awards and grants. Not for recognition, sure, but to have a source for living guaranteed that way. For long, the grant was a mere 400 litas. How on earth can one make living with it? I can buy only 20 films for the sum, that’s it.
Speaking of the misconceptions about artists, how accurate would be affirming that a shot of spirits helps to befriend the Muse? What’s your take on this?
Frankly, I’ve not had a shot (of alcohol) for the last 30 years. Honestly, I’d not repudiated booze before that, but, believe me, I had not taken any shot worth attention when tipsy.
How do you describe contemporary photography? Do you see the humanism you’ve always preached left in it?
I believe there’re still photographers out there with a keen eye on an individual. For example, Artūras Morozovas has caught my eyes with his distinguished style. But taking photos have been a whole lot more difficult endeavor lately. Just because of the requirement to get authorization for use of the photos from those involved in it. I remain being devoted to the humanistic approach in photography and it could be reinvigorated, it would for the sake of the today’s photography, I believe.
What do you consider a good photo?
That one which affects me, which serves as a source for spiritual growth entails features of a good photo.
Then can you advise everyone how to shoot a good picture?
The basic recipe of good photography is this: one must love the land and the people one takes photographs of.
How has digital photography impacted the art? By the way, have you switched to the digital camera?
No, I haven’t, to tell the truth. But I have that kind of gadget, although I don’t use it. I prefer the old equipment, as well as the old-fashioned techniques. Before the 2012 London Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) representatives called me and asked to shoot a series of photos that would well represent all the nations that were to arrive at London for the sports event.
I was pretty much surprised by the offer, as I had not taken my old good camera off the hook for the last seven years, I believe. But the people insisted on giving a try and also taking the series in the old way – through having the films developed.
I agreed finally.
As I had sold my old camera that had led me for ages, I bought for the shoot another one. Sure, from the age of black-and-white photography, a second-hand item. By the way, I paid for it twice the amount I sold mine’s for. So I hopped onto a plane and flew to London, where I received indeed a royal treatment.
It was rewarding to see that the work I did drew the attention of the Olympiad participants and drew praise from the IOC members and other photographers alike.
I’m telling this not in order to brag about myself, but it shows the attitude towards art and artists in the West. When I receive phone calls inquiring whether I could give my works for an exhibition for free, I feel pretty vexed. Not about the take on my legacy, for God’s sake, but the approach to art here on the whole. Needless to say, the best photo artists make a fortune abroad.
But I guess I’m luckier than some of my contemporaries out there. Recently, for example, a picture of Jean-Paul Sartre, taken by me and now belonging to an American’s private collection, has been sold in a Sorby auction and I received my small share from the deal.
Frankly, our business doesn’t afford paying more than 500 litas for a work of a renowned author in Lithuania. But the price mark has not changed for many years now. From giving a Western gallery right to expose my single picture can earn me way more, but it’s not always only about money.
I cannot shake off the impression that your recognition has blossomed abroad, but not in Lithuania. Am I right?
Indeed, that is the case. But, frankly, I hardly know the answer why it is so. Maybe Lithuania is more interested in contemporary art? Maybe something else is wrong. For my 75th birthday, I had not gotten any suggestion to have my works showcased. Only Vartai and a tiny hall at the Lithuanian Photo artists’ union hold exhibitions for the anniversary. Not a big deal, I guess, but, honestly, sometimes I’m perhaps a little bit saddened that I was lucky to have made my name in the East and West, but not to the extent in my own country. But the best reward to me comes from the photo gallery goers who, disregarding of the location, recognize my works, the era I’m portraying and when they say that they make them think.
Do you still cherish any creative dreams at your 75th?
I don’t, frankly. The only thing I could plan could be my last days, which will, hopefully, will come later rather than sooner. I’m lucky to have my wife and daughter taking care of my legacy through a public company, established for the purpose. They are both running it, by the way.
Edited by Paul Moriarty