The accidental image that captured an era

  • 2005-10-05
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - A man stoically walks against the wind, a breeze flapping his dark coat. His hands are tightly clasped behind his back while his eyes are fixed upon the horizon. His shadow stretches far ahead into the gray background.

This black and white photograph capturing Jean-Paul Sartre in the dunes of Nida 40 years ago is widely thought to be one of the best photos of the famous philosopher. This year the image is traveling around the world in exhibitions dedicated to the centenary of Sartre's birth.

Thanks to an accidental encounter between a young Lithuanian photographer, who used an ordinary Zenit camera, and the philosopher who was at the height of his fame at the time, the spontaneous photo became an iconic image of the 20th century.

I met Antanas Sutkus, the photographer who followed Sartre and his wife Simone de Beauvoir during their trip to Lithuania in 1965, at his apartment in central Vilnius. "There are many things I don't remember from our conversations. It's been 40 years!" Sutkus warned me.

Nevertheless, our conversation about Sartre and some 80 pictures that are now touring galleries around the world, lingered late into the autumn night.

Accidental encounter

Sutkus leads me into a room filled with stacks of cardboard boxes. "This is only part of my archive, the rest is in another studio," Sutkus tells me while I rest my Dictaphone on one of the boxes. Sutkus, who founded the Lithuanian Photography Union, spends most of his time these days putting his archives in order.

He lights a cigarette and starts telling me the story of that now-legendary summer in 1965.

"At that time, I was working as a photo reporter for the newspaper Literatura ir menas (Literature and Art). Through this job I had established friendships with writers. When Sartre came to Lithuania, the Writer's Union asked me: 'Would you like to come along?' 'OK', I said, 'Let's go.' And so I traveled with them for five days."

This casual invitation developed into an unforgettable five-day photo session. Sutkus, who was only 26 at the time, followed the Sartre delegation to Kaunas, Klaipeda, Palanga, and Neringa, where his most famous shot of Sartre was taken.

The long hours spent traveling together led to several conversations about literature. Sutkus had many questions to ask: what did Sartre think about American and French writers, what did he think about Camus, existentialism and Virginia Wolf? The endless stream of questions astonished Sartre, especially as none of the other writers in the delegation brought up such topics with him.

"I told him that my wife was a translator and this is how I got to read so many books. I couldn't tell him that the authors we read were on a banned list of literature. I couldn't say that for a price of 25 rubles one could get Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" for one night from a secret 'special fund'" Sutkus explains.

I ask if he had similar discussions with Simone de Beauvoir.

"No. I hadn't read anything of hers at that time. And when you don't know her writing, what can you speak about? But I knew Sartre's writing very well. I can't remember precisely, but I think I read his books in Polish 's "Words" and "The Wall." I liked both, but "The Wall" was simply a masterpiece."

Sutkus lights another cigarette. "I have to quit smoking. I tried twice but it didn't last long."

Aware of his recent health problems, I strongly agree.

"I'll try. By the way, Sartre was also a non-stop smoker. He smoked so much, so much! And his cigarettes were very strong. One day, he ran out of cigarettes. Oh Jesus, it was quite something to find an L&M, for instance, at that time. But they found him a pack 's they probably pocketed it from some foreign diplomat 's but he wasn't fond of them because the cigarettes were simply too weak," Sutkus laughs.

The conversation returns to literature. Because he was frequently sick as a child and was constantly in tuberculosis sanatoriums, Sutkus spent most of his time reading. First, he read the books from his grandfather's attic and when those ran out, he turned to the local library in Zapyskis.

Thanks to Sutkus' love of literature, Sartre, who was usually unapproachable to all photographers, allowed Sutkus unprecedented access for a virtual stranger.

"At our final dinner, just before saying good-bye to each other, he asked me: 'So what do you write, poetry or prose?' 'Nothing, I responded, I don't even write love letters. I'm a photographer. 'Oh my God,' he said, 'there is only one photographer who may come close to me and that's Henri Cartier Bresson. Well, but I can't show you the door on the last day.' He took me for a young writer and amateur photographer."

In the dunes

The president of the Sartre Club in Germany, Vincent von Wroblewsky, pointed out that Sutkus' pictures add an unusual angle to Sartre's iconography. Sartre usually carefully posed for the camera, but he appears natural and genuinely alone in Sutkus' pictures. The most impressive shots were taken in the dunes in Nida, where Sartre and de Beauvoir fought against the wind and the sand for nearly half a day.

The photos from the Nida dunes inspired other artists. The French sculptor Roseline Granet made a bronze sculpture based on the image of Sartre's leaning figure battling against the wind. It is an almost ideal expression of Sartre's existential philosophy: a solitary man, engaged in a struggle against nature and for meaning.

I ask Sutkus just how contrived the image was.

"I'm not a scientist. I always take pictures intuitively. You can't plan a good picture. It has to be inside you."

Sartre, as it turned out, was very pleased with the results.

"I sent several copies to him. And he sent me greetings from France, saying that he liked the pictures a lot."

But Sartre wasn't the only admirer of Sutkus' pictures. After Sartre's death, the photos were widely published in the foreign press, although they were accredited to other people. And during his trip to The Czech Republic in 1991, Sutkus was even accused of plagiarism. Most people just assumed that Cartier-Bresson was behind the pictures.

Sutkus was so fed up with being accused of lying that he delved deep into his archive on his return home and found the negatives of the original pictures to prove that he was, in fact, the photographer behind the iconic images.

Clandestine affair

I ask what brought Sartre and Beauvoir to Soviet Lithuania in July of 1965. The answer is the beautiful intellectual Lena Zonina, who was Sartre's none-too-secret lover. Zonina, who was from Moscow, spoke perfect French and was an expert in French literature. She had also translated some of Sartre's work.

Their love affair lasted for five years. Sartre visited Zonina in the Soviet Union 11 times, while she visited him in Paris several times. She was his official interpreter during the Lithuania trip and was told to report his activities to the Soviet Central Committee. But it is well known that Sartre helped Zonina draft her reports to Moscow.

Did Sutkus notice that Sartre and Zonina were lovers?

"We noticed immediately. I think my older colleagues told me about this affair. But I didn't care. I was only pleased that she interpreted our conversations," Sutkus explains.

When looking through the pictures of that trip, one notices a striking similarity between Beauvoir and Zonina 's they had the same style raincoats, even the same type of head scarves.

Zonina rarely appears in the photographs. Sutkus says that she intentionally avoided the camera, although she does figure in some group pictures.

Although she was aware of her husband's lover, Simone de Beauvoir treated Zonina cordially.

"The two women talked pleasantly to each other. When it rained, Zonina would hug Beauvoir's shoulders, and would cover her in a raincoat."

Sutkus adds with a smile: "Oh, French love! It would be simply impossible to find tolerance like that over here."